The New Wave of Shipping Container Homes

shipping container homes
DeMaria Design

When Sven and Anna Pirkl were building a house on their lot in Redondo Beach, Calif., they wanted something contemporary, eco-friendly and interesting. But "contemporary, eco-friendly and interesting" usually comes with a hefty price tag.

Then they met architect Peter DeMaria, who was able to design a cost-conscious house so remarkable that it's already caused two auto accidents due to motorists crowding the street in front of the home. DeMaria's secret? Shipping container homes made with those giant steel boxes — sometimes called ISBU units or inter-modal steel building units — often seen rusting on the industrial edges of cities throughout the world.

Shipping Container Homes: Thinking Inside the Box

"The whole idea is that we wanted a simple, modern house," said Sven, who dreamed of loft-style living with an element of green design. "We were trying to be environmentally friendly while keeping costs down."

But even Sven couldn't anticipate the interest generated by his home made of shipping containers. "We have a ton of people gawking at it," Sven said of his 3,500 square foot dwelling. "Everyone's curious about the home."

And though some people might balk at living inside a set of shipping containers, fearing they would be dark and cramped, the sides of the boxes were cut open for doors, windows, and interior spaces. "Once you're inside it feels very airy and open because we have a lot of windows and 10-foot-high ceilings," Sven said.

DeMaria believes that the home would have cost about twice as much to build using standard construction techniques. The Pirkls were ideal clients, he said, because they were more concerned with creating a comfortable, affordable home than a conventional one. "They were able to see past all the stereoptypes," DeMaria said, calling his clients "the first people to break on through to the other side."

Advantages of Shipping Container Buildings

Reusing shipping containers as buildings started decades ago with the military, which recognized their potential as makeshift dwellings, offices, and medical facilities. Worldwide they have been used as emergency shelters, art studios, playground structures, dormitories, and safe rooms. Travelodge has opened a 100-room, eight-story hotel near London made of shipping containers.

What makes the less-than-lovely shipping container such an attractive choice for forward-thinking builders? Their advantages, proponents say, are almost boundless, starting with the industrial strength of a steel box that can carry up to 30 tons.

"Cargo containers are designed for a dynamic life aboard a moving vessel, stacked nine high, in a hostile marine environment," said David Cross, business development officer with SG Blocks, one of the nation's largest suppliers of shipping containers repurposed for construction. "They're also certified to travel by rail and by truck. Imagine trying to build a wood structure that could perform to that standard."

And shipping containers are ideal for environments that aren't. "The units are capable of meeting or exceeding hurricane codes in Miami-Dade and seismic codes, like in California," Cross said. They are also resistant to many of the problems that plague traditional wood-frame homes: fire, mold, leaks, and wood-boring insects. "Certainly termites and other varmints aren't interested in steel," Cross added.

For fans of green buildings, the reuse of shipping containers as low-cost buildings is an environmental windfall. "We want to take recycling and put it on steroids," Cross said, adding that there are roughly 18 million shipping containers in the world. Many are left stacked up in their destination cities because it's cheaper to order new containers from Asia than to send empty ones back.

To Cross and others, these mountains of shipping containers in ports like Houston, Oakland, Seattle, and Miami are really "mountains of opportunity." He estimates that it takes about two acres of trees to construct the average American house. "These containers represent an opportunity to not deforest the land," he said. And the energy required to reuse containers as building systems, Cross claims, is just a fraction of what would be required to recycle the steel.

From Sea to Shining ISBU

Shipping containers and ISBU units have also come into play as office environments. Pallotta TeamWorks, a charity-event company, used stacked shipping containers in its 47,000 sq. ft. Los Angeles offices.

"This project came about because of the limited budget," said Jenny Huang, project coordinator with Clive Wilkinson Architects, the designers of the company's space. "They had to watch their operating costs," she said of the fundraising organization. "They didn't have enough money to air-condition the entire space."

The use of shipping containers as office work areas or "neighborhoods" helped to manage the costs of air-conditioning. "It was placed strategically where it was needed," Huang said.

The small but growing number of designers, contractors, and environmentalists who consider themselves fans of shipping containers see a bright future for these all-but-forgotten boxes. Their plentiful supply in urban centers and their standard sizes — most are eight-feet wide, eight-and-a-half feet tall and 20 or 40 feet long — seem to invite flexible creative reuse.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to wider acceptance of shipping containers is the negative stereotype associated with steel cargo boxes that are often relegated to weed-choked industrial backlots. "The real challenge is with the stigma of the containers," said DeMaria. "The stigma almost stops it dead in its tracks."

But the ultimate testament of success for any design movement has now been bestowed upon the once-lowly shipping container — they finally have their own full-color coffee table book: Container Architecture by Jure Kotnik.