Shipping containers provide home in a box (© Peter DeMaria)

© Peter DeMaria

Shipping containers, those big metal boxes used to transport the lamps, washing machines and furniture in our houses, are now becoming homes in their own right.

The 40-foot-long and 8-foot-wide containers left empty at ports around the country are being recycled into stylish, eco-friendly housing that's less costly than traditional construction.

The evolution
Initially developed as an experiment for art installations, emergency housing and vacation homes for wealthy modernists, cargo container housing is moving off the fringe and into the mainstream.

"People have begun to think of it as viable instead of weird," says New York architect and artist Adam Kalkin, who began building homes with containers in 2000.  

Kalkin and a handful of other architects and builders have begun using the corrugated steel boxes for everything from high-rise apartment homes and coffee shops to senior residences and even luxurious suburban homes.

Indeed, Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based architect Peter DeMaria has launched a home building firm, Logical Homes, that will offer nine different models of container homes on lots around Southern California, an area where he has several other projects built or underway.

What's your home worth?

From the outside, the Logical Homes models, which range from 640 to 3,520 square feet, appear to be mid-century tract homes, their large corrugated boxes covered with special finishes or "skins" and enhanced with custom paint and large windows.

On the inside, they have bamboo floors and energy-efficient appliances. Insulation is provided by recycled denim;  an optional ceramic paint helps form a greater sound barrier against the outside world.

Shipping-container homes make the leap from weird to viable

The price tag for all this eco-chic? DeMaria's homes average around $150 to $200 per square foot, compared with about $220 to $250 for much of the traditional building in the area.

Generally, architects say, container homes are about 20% cheaper to build than those made with traditional construction, ranging from $87 a square foot for the most basic container home to about $200, depending on location and finishes.

Thinking inside the box
DeMaria and other architects have embraced the idea of shipping containers largely because of their price. With a surplus of hundreds of thousands of containers sitting vacant on U.S. docks due to the imbalance in trade, used containers sell for $1,000 to $2,500, depending on their size and condition, DeMaria says.

With lumber and steel prices rising, these building blocks are a bargain, and with their 9 1/2-foot height, they have just enough of a clearance to serve as actual rooms, rather than glorified storage sheds.

They also have the advantage of being easier to assemble on site than traditional framed construction. That  can speed up the building process on an apartment building by as much as 40%, says David Cross, founder of SG Blocks, a St. Louis container retrofitting firm.

And they are exceptionally sturdy, a selling point in hurricane-riddled Florida and earthquake-prone California. "It's a heavy-gauge, steel-frame house," Cross says.

The tricky part, says St. Louis architect Dan Rosenthal of the Lawrence Group, which designed shipping-container housing for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, has been finding people to retrofit them. "There have been a lot of them drawn up, but very few have been built," he says.

SG Blocks, which Rosenthal now collaborates with, was founded less than two years ago and is one of the few filling this unusual building niche. It modifies containers into building units or "blocks" at 17 different port locations owned by cargo giant ConGlobal Industries, its container supplier.

Cross says he expects to work on as many as 1,000 containers next year. Some will be used in groups of three or four for single-family homes, or as many as 400 for multistory apartment buildings and condominiums.

Urban pioneers
Sven Pirkl and his wife, Anna, were in the first wave in this country to move into a container house designed by DeMaria.

For Pirkl, a 40-year-old market researcher, containers were a way to bring down the cost of building in expensive Redondo Beach, Calif., and get an eye-catching modern home in the process. "We've had people driving by run into parked cars looking at the house," Pirkl says of the striking glass and steel design.

Pirkl's 3,200-square-foot home still retains the marine-grade plywood floors originally found in the six containers, which serve as bedrooms and bathrooms.

These containers, which make up 70% of the house, are built onto a two-story warehouse space with large glass windows and polished concrete floors. That serves as the main living area. Some of the electrical and plumbing work is exposed and storage was added in modular systems, much like a loft.

The unusual project took some convincing of  city officials —  three months to get through the plan check — with Pirkl's neighbors having to sign off on their support of the house. 

Home affordability calculator

"Some cities are receptive and some are not," DeMaria says. "But there was nothing in the code that could stop us from building that home."

Green and clean
In fact, some cities are beginning to embrace the idea because of its affordability and its green sensibility.

It was this environmental stewardship that convinced real-estate investor Oona McLoghlin to take the plunge with a 14-container mixed-use project — two apartments and ground-floor commercial space — underway in Venice, Calif.. "I just loved the idea that you could put existing material that was completely going to waste ... and put that into excellent use. The concept is a wonderful one," she says.

There are about 11 million shipping containers in circulation worldwide, according to SG Blocks, and 300,000 of those are  sitting vacant in ports worldwide, enough to recycle into 90 million square feet of new living space.

Retrofitting these units into viable building units takes only 5% of the energy needed to convert this kind of container scrap into steel beams, Cross says.

The next tract home?
So, with this abundant supply of inexpensive recycled building material, will builders rush to build whole communities of container homes?

While that has been done in a few instances in Europe, even container building proponents think it's probably a long shot here, given most Americans' taste for more traditional architecture.

The more material you put on top of these containers to change their look, such as stucco, brick and glass, the less of a bargain they are, says Cross. "The more ginger breading it needs to blend in with America's traditional architecture, the more it will fall in line with traditional building costs."

But in many urban areas, where industrial buildings are being recycled into lofts and people like the spare aesthetic of steel, this might hold great appeal, architects say.

DeMaria says he has 10,000 people on the interest list for Logical Homes once it launches in coming weeks.

Right now, Kalkin says, there's still a wow factor about these unusual buildings that holds people's attention. That's why coffee giant Illy and other retailers are using his designs for so-called guerrilla stores or small temporary locations in hip urban areas.

And that's why you could see at least a few of them popping up in coastal areas soon.

"There are some very exciting things happening (with containers) in the next year," says Rosenthal.