Back to previous post: What if New York City gets socked by a category-3 hurricane?

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: Let’s Go

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

October 12, 2007

Shipping container architecture
Posted by Teresa at 10:49 PM *

This started in the NYC hurricane thread, which got to talking about emergency housing in New York. Midori said:

I recall a post-Katrina NPR interview with a fellow who studied them. It seems that after every major disaster, some architects (or arch school students) start designing “cheap, portable, easy to assemble” portable shelters. Apparently it makes for a good assignment.

The problem is, that though there are hundreds (!) of decent designs for such things, nobody makes them. Why? Basically there isn’t a manufacturing/distribution base for making them. Often because making them requires unusual (but eco friendly!) materials, or uncommon skill sets.

One proposed solution the sourcing problem was to abandon clever solutions in favor regular tradesmen and available materials. In the U.S., that means teams of ordinary builders use frame, drywall, paint, etc, the interiors of shipping containers. (Obviously a welder and a supply of cheap prefab windows would be a help.) Transportation of shipping containers is a solved problem if you can get a semi truck to your destination.

Shipping containers! I was impressed, and said so. We’re a port. We’ve got scads of shipping containers:
You could float them over on barges or container vessels. All you need then is a sturdy framework to hold them, and water, sewer, and electrical hookups. Windows would be a plus. At minimum they’d get you through the first weeks and months following the hurricane, though they’d be less congenial when the really cold weather set in.
Abi volunteered that
There are a couple of blocks of shipping containers turned into student housing not far from my office. I understand that they make quite cozy studio apartments. They are sought-after housing, in a funky area north of the Ij, a 15 minute (free) ferry ride from Centraal Station.
Looking at that led me to another student housing project. That was interesting. Were there any more? I absently typed shipping containers housing into Google.


Did you know that we have a problem with too many shipping containers? These days, the United States doesn’t export much, but it imports a lot, and it’s not economical to send the containers back empty, so the shipping containers just keep stacking up. One source said there are 700,000 abandoned containers in U.S. ports. That number has undoubtedly gone up. More and more people are looking at the things as housing components.

Bob Vila likes the idea. He did a series of videos about it.

The New York Times says it’s being done.

MSNBC says it’s being done in Florida.

Container City says it’s being done by them, they’ve got it down to a system, and they’ve got lots of good-looking examples. (More.)

Another student housing project made of containers.

A compendious site about shipping container housing, including numerous articles.

Designs and examples from a prefab building enthusiast.

An excellent collection of designs and examples from frugal leftist green architecture guy Zack Smith, who says:

This is a webpage devoted to listing as many examples of people using shipping containers as architectural elements as I can find, in an effort to embolden people to use containers in building projects, when and where doing so is feasible and appropriate. Be aware that containers are not a perfect building material, since they tend to corrode, but they have been used effectively in some cases, especially in areas near saltwater.
A brief but link-dense treatment of the subject by a treehugger.

Earth Science Australia has a detailed account (with photos) of how they put together a container shipping house in a remote spot in a Queensland rainforest, including what happened when it got hit by Cyclone Larry, Cat. 5, with local wind gusts to 283kmh.

Mother Earth News is (of course) hazily in favor of the idea, but thinks it would be better with (of course) some hay bale insulation.

Wikipedia was way ahead of me. They’re all over this one. For instance:


Empty shipping containers are commonly used as market stalls and warehouses in the countries of the former USSR.

The biggest shopping mall or organized market in Europe is made up of alleys formed by stacked containers, on 170 acres of land, between the central part of Odessa in the Ukraine and its airport. Informally named “Tolchok” and officially known as the Seventh-Kilometer Market, it has 16,000 vendors and employs 1,200 security guards and maintenance workers.

In Central Asia, the Dordoy Bazaar in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, almost entirely composed of double-stacked containers, is of comparable size. It is popular with travelers coming from Kazakhstan and Russia to take advantage of the cheap prices and plethora of knock-off designers.

It also explains that shipping containers have been used as, for, or in emergency shelters, school buildings, urban homes, rural homes, large houses, apartment and office buildings, artists’ studios, sleeping rooms, stores, shopping malls, transportable factories, mobile exhibition spaces, telco hubs, bank vaults, medical clinics, radar stations, abstract art, data centers, experimental labs, and relocatable marijuana gardens

Used container dealers: W&K Container :: Chassis King :: Furbished-up containers to spec: The Mobile Storage Group :: Onsite Storage :: Sea Box :: K&K Containers :: RCS Group InterModals :: Other: (Informative. Has a widget where you specify your needs and get free local price quotes.)

Mortgage News Daily says

Could America’s record balance of payments deficit with China be the solution to low cost housing? Might it even be an unprecedented opportunity to be Green? … If that sounds like two really stupid questions, well maybe not so much.
A mortgage broker (he probably picked up the story from Mortgage News Daily) reassures us that shipping-container housing isn’t this era’s equivalent of the geodesic dome, and cites NJ architect Gregory La Vardera’s richly informative site as proof.

So anyway, it’s nice to know that if we crash our economy via trading in real estate derivatives and our atrocious trade imbalance with China, we’ll have a source of emergency low-cost housing easily to hand.

Comments on Shipping container architecture:
#1 ::: A.J. ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 01:11 AM:

Also worth mentioning: Berkeley, CA has the Shipyard, an artist's collective metal workshop constructed mainly out of old shipping containers that seems to have occasionally functioned as housing.

More precisely, Berkeley had the Shipyard, and will probably have it again soon, if it isn't ruined by financial problems. The city shut it down last spring because, officially anyways, they were concerned that the steel containers might not meet fire codes. (Tangentially: I've never quite understood the logic behind fire code application. Why do we need fire drills in the solid concrete, the-only-wood-is-doors building which houses my math department?)

#2 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 01:12 AM:

There's a recent book on the shipping container that's quite interesting

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
by Marc Levinson

#3 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 01:17 AM:

Mass-manufactured housing was a Modernist goal, once; maybe it has finally arrived. Le Corbusier and Moshe Safdie would be pleased, I think. I wonder how many stories one can go, before one starts needing reinforcement? I'd think at least eight, if one was careful how one stacked them. For the long term, there'd be a need to think about drainage and ventilation, both from the roof and between the units. And fire would be an issue; steel loses strength when heated long before it melts, so you'd need to address that, either with finish materials or a sprinkler system.

#4 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 01:19 AM:

Eight's the highest unsupported stack I've seen.

#5 ::: Leva Cygnet ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 01:31 AM:

I've seriously thought about obtaining one to use for an office at my place.

One of my neighbors already has two set up, with a roof between them -- he parks his car under the roof, one container is a shop, and the other is storage. They're painted and very nice looking.

I've also seen two set up with a roof spanning between them, used as tack rooms and a grooming area at a stable.

They're weather resistant, burglar resistant (though only as good as the padlock employed, and I've yet to see a completely burglar-proof padlock), structurally very strong, easily transported all things considered -- easier than moving an old mobile home -- and a nice size.

One *concern* I have about shipping containers is contamination, however. You don't know where they've been or what's been stored in them before you got them. One of the tack rooms mentioned above had a rather strong chemical smell when it was delivered to the stable. They're easy enough to hose out and replace the floor (which is plywood) and you're probably good to go ... but what do you do with the wash water?

#6 ::: palau ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 02:08 AM:

I've been meaning to post about Amsterdam container housing for ages, but have been too idle - but here's a photo of the student container housing at the NDSM Werf, which is just down the river from us in Noord. (Sorry about the poor quality cameraphone pic)

NDSM is Amsterdam's newest 'cultural quarter' and is being built on reclaimed land to take advantage of the still-under-construction North/South metro line: it's well worth a visit if you're here and want to do something arty but off the tulips and Rembrandt and Anne Frank tourist track. The scenic ferry ride down the river Ij is a fantastic free bonus.

#7 ::: Paul Lalonde ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 02:14 AM:

This is a timely post. A couple of weeks ago I saw the result of the BARK project. They took a shell from Weatherhaven MECC shelters and tarted it up like a high end condo instead of a military post. It's even slicker in person than on the web.
So I've been thinking about outfitting one to drop on a piece of land I bought up a couple of years ago, and I've been pricing out the project this week. The saddest part is that the design students involved have no interest in commercializing their project, and no business student seems to have picked up on it. The students estimate that as-built it cost about $250k, which for island building (not served by a ferry) is reasonably competitive with construction.
I'm incredibly tempted to have the basic shell dropped onto my driveway this winter and to spend some time getting it set up. If I was *really* clever I'd get a shipper to move it around Vancouver's industrial districts while mechanical systems were installed, and just do the finishing over the winter. And I'm told a cargo helicopter could drop it in place in an afternoon's rental fee.
All I have to do is figure out how to convince my wife that it doesn't look like a steel trap.

#8 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 02:32 AM:

About twenty years ago, because of new laws and regulations, we had to construct storage for pesticides on the farm. This needed to be weatherproof, secure, and seperate from other buildings. As farmers, we couldn't store pesticides in the same building as food.

The solution was a box-body from a scrapped delivery truck. Had there been a fire, the roof would have failed first, unlike an all-steel shipping container.

It seems to be a vehicle design which has more or less vanished now, replaced by the curtain-siders which are compatible with fork-lift trucks for loading. Those companies which want something more secure look to use bodywork integrated with the vehicle cab. The last box-body I saw in use was designed to be transferred to another vehicle when the chassis wore out.

#9 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 02:36 AM:

ObSF: The last two episodes of The Prisoner. Actually, you get most of it in the last episode, Fall-Out with the opening story-so-far flashback.

Be seeing you.

#10 ::: Zack Weinberg ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 02:49 AM:

#1 AJ: There's probably lots of things *inside* that concrete building that will burn. Paper, carpet, furniture, computers, ... And while concrete doesn't burn, heat it enough and it does lose structural integrity.

#11 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 03:01 AM:

Buckminster Fuller did a lot of work on pre-fab houses. He said that industries have a resistance to new ideas, and it takes time to overcome that resistance. I think he said he expected the resistance to be about 75 years for the housing industry, but I forget when he said it. He did his early pre-fab housing work in the 1940s, though, so we're almost due.

Charles and Ray Eames designed their house so it could be built entirely out of off-the-shelf parts from a steel fabricator's catalog.

#12 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 03:21 AM:

palau @6:
The NDSM ones were the ones I was referring to in my comment to Teresa - aren't they cool? I work in NDSM, in the unfashionable west that is still halfway between a working harbour and warehouses and office space.

They also make a good place for me to park my somewhat expensive bike when I take the beautiful ferry ride into Amsterdam. I don't want it stolen, and where else to hide a leaf, but in a forest?

Note that the NDSM is also the home of the Pancake Boat, which cruises around the River Ij while feeding you pancakes. I have a colleague who is planning to have his leaving do on it.

#13 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 04:00 AM:

One thought crosses my mind: glass in a steel wall, and what flexing there might be in transit. There are portable buildings with windows, but do they use glass? Or is there some subtlety in the design of the framing?

#14 ::: JKRichard ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 04:02 AM:

I've been needing a workshop, and we do have an international port here in Oklahoma (I know, it sounds weird..but we do). Perhaps I'll make some phone calls Monday?

#15 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 04:13 AM:

I have been lusting after container based housing for the past two years. Unfortunately I am in denmark, finding ground to build on is impossible.

#16 ::: John Cowart ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 05:12 AM:


Thank you for your encouraging comment on my July 27th journal entry about the two Puritan Samuel Wards.

Glad somebody understands.

After what you said about your struggle with Thomas of Ercildoune and his father (or his son) and his three buddies, Petrus de Haga de Bemersyde, I see I had nothing to complain about.

#17 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 05:15 AM:

Dave Bell @13: I suspect it's easy enough to fit the windows that you'd do it on-site. Just cut out a hole, and bolt a prefab window in the appropriate location.

This is timely. We (i.e., my business partner and I) are currently looking at a house renovation project, and the financing for it demands that we sell our current house before the new one is ready to move into. There are outbuildings on the site suitable for storage, but none are habitable. This might be the easiest way...

#18 ::: mcz ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 06:13 AM:

I've seen shipping containers fitted out for use as portable offices, and I seem to remember someone buying a rural property and using several of them to build a home.

One thing I've always wondered though: what happens to the contents of such a home in the event of a lightning strike?

#19 ::: Martin Wisse ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 06:28 AM:

Abi @ 12: you work at NDSM? That's almost aa stonethrow or two away from where I live in Noord, though we're on the IJplein rather than the NDSM ferry.

Those container houses there, and elsewhere in the city, were not projects done out of some deep green concern, but because student housing is so scarce in Amsterdam. Using containers for housing was the cheapest and fastest way to get a lot more housing erected quickly. And people seem to like them as well, at least for temporary housing, as they are quite big and fitted with their own kitchens and bathrooms...

#20 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 06:43 AM:

Martin @19:
Yep, working here, on Modemstraat*. Living in Oostzaan, which means I have a 15-minute bike commute if I go on the streets, or 25 minutes if I go via Het Twiske.

* I love Dutch street names. Streets in neighbourhoods and districts are frequently theme-named, but the themes aren't just Yet More Varieties of Deciduous Trees. Painters, writers, doctors, types of nut...everything seems to get a look-in somewhere. My office is in a technology-themed area, with names like Modemstraat, Analoogstraat, Digitaalstraat, Softwareweg, and Back-Upstraat**.

** Where, sadly, you are not required to drive in reverse.

#21 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 07:10 AM:

mcz @18

Theoretically, the best route to earth is straight down the side of the container, so I'd guess the answer to your question is "nothing".

#22 ::: L Lindsey ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 07:23 AM:

We used shipping containers for offices in Iraq. The biggest problem was trying to heat or cool them. Unless you put an additional roof several inches above them, during the summer they will remain hot on the opposite end from the constantly running air conditioner. During the winter, there is no way to prevent the heat from leaching out the metal walls.

We did have container living there. But, the company was in Turkey. They were quite comfortable, especially if you hung camo netting over the top to shade it.

#23 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 07:59 AM:

And unlike FEMA trailers, they're fairly likely to be formaldehyde free. Mind you, if they fall on each other the results are not pretty.

#24 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 08:13 AM:

So anyway, it’s nice to know that if we crash our economy via trading in real estate derivatives and our atrocious trade imbalance with China

Think of it as Chinese steel being shipped to us for free.

#25 ::: mike ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 08:20 AM:

container city in london, UK

#26 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 09:03 AM:

I guess it's time for me to finish reading Snow Crash (even though Stephenson thought housing would be self storage units, not containers ...).

#27 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 09:12 AM:

#20 I love Dutch street names

Richmond, Virginia has a housing development with streets named by a Michael Moorcock fan ("Go to the intersection of Tanelorn and Corum" ...).

#28 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 09:25 AM:

mcz @ #18: wouldn't the steel shell act as a Faraday cage?

(oops, Jules @ #21 beat me to it)

#29 ::: jar ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 09:50 AM:

Here's an excellent article from a fellow in British Columbia that built his home from several containers.

#30 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 10:12 AM:

"relocatable marijuana gardens"!!

Obviously, we must ban surplus shipping containers immediately, or the drug dealers will win.

#31 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 10:14 AM:

As far as moving structures with windows: the window frame should provide enough space for that (the glass doesn't normally go all the way to the frame).

ISTR that the Last Whole Earth Catalog had a few pages on turning containers into office space or living space - Stewart Brand was using one for an office.

#32 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 10:22 AM:

Jon Meltzer @ 26... Didn't Stephenson have some people use self-storage units to get rid of pesky radio-active materials?

#33 ::: ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 10:26 AM:

The Freitag store in Zurich is all containers, stacked nine high [though the top five are just for decoration and signage.]

There is an incredible 2x3 house in Atlanta, just finishing up, which looks to have double height space in it, too [my biggest complaint about shipping container living: the ceiling height]

And shipping containers are so awesome to build with, Halliburton even used them to make Camp Delta, the prison at Guantanamo. [2002]

sort of one of those good news/bad news deals.

#34 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 10:35 AM:

There is the Caboose Motel, south of Mt. Shasta. I'm not sure that the Container Motel would sound as romantic, but, for all I know, there is already such a place.

#35 ::: midori ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 10:36 AM:

Oh, my.

I have become text, destroyer of nerds.

seriously, I never expected to have prompted such a nifty clicktrance. And I slept through it too! Ai!

Thank you TNH!

#36 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 10:49 AM:

Um, folks, don't let the coolness factor blind you to some real design problems.

1. Unless some serious tying-down and welding is done, these things aren't remotely earthquake safe.

2. They conduct heat (and cold).

3. Water accumulates on flat roofs. Steel rusts. Water will also accumulate between the levels of stacked containers and on the floor kitchens and bathrooms. Ventilation and control of water is a big deal with unprotected metal structures, just as it it with wood.

4. Hmmmm, wonder what the neighbors are doing up there? Pounding on steel drums?

5. The wall is the structure; you have to be careful when making holes.

Which doesn't mean this is a Bad Idea. It means you've still got to do design, if you want a liveable result.

#37 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 11:12 AM:

re #34: Try googling "caboose motel". Or save a step ad go here. Or here to find out how to get your own. Western cabooses in particular tended towards being rolling motel rooms.

WW II troop sleepers were designed to go the other way. I've seen seen dozens converted into express cars (i.e. high-speed service box cars).

#38 ::: Ray Smuckles ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 11:46 AM:

All in all, a wonderful idea. But depending on where you live, better move fast.

In my backward county, the powers have already enacted building codes to prevent use of these structures. "Think of the impact on property values..." they say. Bastards, I say.

I know one fellow who moved his in and immediately camoflaged it and was successful. Another case, the opposite happened as a neighbor complained to the county building inspector and they made the guy remove it. Asswads!

#39 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 11:47 AM:

C Wingate @ 37... I am rather amused by the first link showing a train car about to fall down a ravine. Now that's reverse advertising for a train-made motel.

#40 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 11:53 AM:

abi #20: My favourite Dutch street names are some of those in Paramaribo: Krommeellebogestraat*, Rust en Vredestraat, Waterkant.

* Yes, it is a more or less l-shaped street.

#41 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 12:02 PM:

BTW, there's some Rilly Cool Pix of the steel-box Eames House here. But of course it's in Southern California, which obviates most of the climate concerns, it has conventional foundations, and I expect the roof slopes a bit, though only a bit.

#42 ::: Paul Lalonde ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 12:31 PM:

Jar @ 29: Thanks for that link! Seems that Zigloo is local to me; I'm going to drop him a line.

#43 ::: Christopher B. Wright ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 12:32 PM:

#36 Randolph: Those are legitimate concerns, but I suspect there are solutions to most of them:

1. construct a foundation for the unit instead of just setting it on the ground. I suspect you'd have to do that anyway if you're planning to have plumbing, electricity and other such modern conveniences.

2. Insulate the walls, floor and ceiling. Again, if you're planning to add electrical outlets, you're probably not going to be putting in some kind of paneling in front of the container walls anyway, to cover up all those wires, and you'll probably want some kind of flooring anyway.

3. This is something that could be a more pressing concern, but just as steel rusts, wood rots -- and wood has been a staple part of house-building for a long time, and wood houses, if properly cared for, can last. I suspect if you were going to protect these units properly you would need to:

- have a faux roof put up with some kind of slope (or drainage)

- seal containers that are stacked on top of each other

- paint the exterior of the container (which is essentially how you protect the exterior of a wood house from bad weather, and as long as you use good paint and keep the containers covered in it I don't see why this wouldn't also protect them)

4. This is something you have to deal with in any kind of housing complex, I don't know why it would be any more or less of a problem just because of the material it is made of.

5. This I can't really answer with any kind of authority because I'm not an architect, but I suspect that while this is a legitimate concern, it doesn't mean that you can't punch holes in it at all... it just means you need to hire someone who knows what he or she is doing to tell you how to do it safely.

#44 ::: Greg La Vardera ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 12:41 PM:

David Cross who was with Bob Villa explaining the container project in the videos linked above is now part of this company:

Who is focused completely on container based building systems.

#45 ::: Greg La Vardera ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 12:41 PM:

David Cross who was with Bob Villa explaining the container project in the videos linked above is now part of this company:

Who is focused completely on container based building systems.

#46 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 01:22 PM:

I'm busy sending this information to a friend who's been annoyed for many years that it's so difficult to find tidy compact studio housing that's not either exclusively for students or some expensive condo. I don't think shipping containers will take over the place Tiny Texas Houses hold in her heart, but I sure like the stackable blocky look of those things.

#47 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 01:26 PM:

Oh, Mother Earth News. Don't ever change.

(I really love Mother Earth News. It feeds the portion of my brain permanently devoted to daydreaming about running a superlatively green-built B&B and organic vegetable gardening. And it runs ads for backyard wind-power generators. It is keen on mud and hay bales, though, isn't it?)

#48 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 01:29 PM:

Hmmm.. In the Martian Chronicles mini-series, didn't the colonists build their homes from something like cargo containers? It'd make sense.

#49 ::: Michelle Barrett (aka Fade's friend) ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 01:33 PM:

Actually, a condo or apartment complex of container housing in the city proper would probably win out, just for removing the need to buy urban land. :/

#50 ::: chris bond ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 01:45 PM:

On the question of rusting, I'll note that the Villa article mentioned that shipping containers used Cor-Ten steel. I had run into that material before, years back in my curiosity at home windpower - it was mentioned as a possible material for turbine towers. Specifically, Cor-Ten is a steel alloy that has forms a persistent oxide coat that protects the surface from further rusting. (It does tend to stain any surfaces under it while forming that coat however.)

Wiki article on Weathering Steels (like Cor-Ten).

#51 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 02:19 PM:

I'm kind of surprised that no-one makes temporary disaster accommodation from containers already. After all, you see offices on building sites installed in them, it seems like an obvious thing to do.

A bit of a tangent, but did anyone read about Sun's Project Black Box, that basically puts 250 Sun servers and the electrical and cooling systems into a 20' container?

"Project Blackbox is a high-density, low-cost data center configured in an enhanced 20' x 8' shipping container for ease and speed of deployment," says Maurice Cloutier, senior product manager of Project Blackbox. "It is aimed at customers who are running out of space, need to minimize their investment, ease the pain of building new data centers, add a DR [disaster recovery] site quickly or lower power consumption."

#52 ::: Liz D. ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 02:53 PM:

I lived in a converted shipping container in 1982-1984, in California. It had some upsides (cheap) and some downsides. The biggest downside was the width -- a standard container's interior dimension is 7'8". My living quarters had interior drywall added, leaving an interior width of 88 inches.

Given the configuration of my space, I had to put the bed on the long wall, instead of across the short wall. I had a queen bed (75 inches wide) -- leaving only 15 inches of space between bed and wall.

The next episode of shipping-container architecture was at a friend's, who arrange 3 in a u-shape, with a covered patio between them. Much more satisfactory.

I first saw stacked containers as office space at a European sporting event in the early 90s.

I am a 4th generation Californian, and the sight of freaked me out for a moment --don't those people know about earthquakes?!? --then I realized space was the problem in Holland, not seismicity.

#53 ::: john ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 03:03 PM:

In Oakland, There's an artist collective called NIMBY, and most people who live at NIMBY Live in shipping containers. It's a messy place, but they've made the most of it.

#54 ::: Dave ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 04:19 PM:

"5. The wall is the structure; you have to be careful when making holes."

My understanding is that the corner pillars are what support the weight, the walls are just thin sheets. This is why proper loading of containers is important, shifting loads have been known to punch holes through the sides. However, on a container ship there is an external frame that keeps all containers aligned so that the loads are transmitted vertically through the stack which can be 8-10 containers tall.

#55 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 04:50 PM:

The containers I've seen are painted on the outside, and have some kind of clip which holds them together when they're stacked - the clips go through holes in the ends of the corner posts.

#56 ::: Greg La Vardera ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 04:53 PM:

Another good resource is the cover design news with shipping containers:

#57 ::: Susan Kitchens ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 05:52 PM:

I see an opportunity for an artist with a crane and a large mechanical digger to bury a number of shipping containers in the ground of some desolate spot in the west. Bury 'em halfway up, end-up, at an angle, slanted, similar to the Cadillac Stonehenge.

#58 ::: mcz ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 06:10 PM:

Jules #21 and Lila #28 on Faraday cages:

I think this would be generally true, unless there were conductive objects in the home that were in contact with the steel exterior, like copper piping.

Would the risks associated with lightning strike be similar for both conventional bricks-and-mortar and shipping container structures, or are there extra factors to be taken into account when designing the latter?

#59 ::: Paul W. ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 06:27 PM:

The USAF uses old shipping containers to build live-bombing targets on the Nellis Range in Nevada. Placed together in various ways and stacked on top of each other, to aircrew eyes they look like buildings and warehouses. Add a few derelict aircraft fuselages, bulldoze a straight "runway" in the desert, and you've got an enemy airfield. Place containers on end and they look like missile launchers. If you want them to last longer than one training exercise, just fill them with sand. The AF gobbles these things up.

#60 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 07:48 PM:

Chris, #43: um, er, reread my last two sentences in #36. Yes, I agree with you. That said, I wonder if, by the time you've dealt with all the problems, you've got a result cheaper or better in some other way than conventional construction.

Chris #50: Last I heard, Corten steel turns out to fail through corrosion, though more slowly than other alloys.

Dave, #54. Oh, that's interesting. So they'd make tall structures, if you took care of the sheer with external framing. Needs some serious engineering attention, though, before you built something tall.

#61 ::: Justin Anthony ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 09:32 PM:

Y'all forgot Peter DeMaria's firm - they did the Redondo Beach House (and Venice Beach House) and Logical Homes will be selling the prefab version soon (supposedly)

#62 ::: Heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 11:19 PM:

The idea of building large structures out of smaller, regularly-shaped blocks is deeply satisfying for my inner, Lego-loving child.

#63 ::: No One ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2007, 11:20 PM:

My understanding is that the corner pillars are what support the weight, the walls are just thin sheets.

Mostly true. The corner posts hold the weight, sure, but the rest of a standard steel container is hardly what I'd call thin. Next time you see one, go thump on it with your hand.

The containers I've seen are painted on the outside, and have some kind of clip which holds them together when they're stacked - the clips go through holes in the ends of the corner posts.

They're painted on the inside too. Cor-ten steel does form a oxide barrier that slows corrosion, but it's not as good as paint and primer.

Oh, and the clips? Intermodal Box Connectors. They weigh a good six pounds, are made from steel and fit into rectangular holes on the top and bottom of the container. Put a can down, drop four IBCs into the corners, drop another can on with a crane or side loader, then just move the handles a quarter turn clockwise to lock the cans together. (The rectangles are about twice as long as they are wide.)

You'd be surprised how structurally strong these things are as well. While you only see them two high on trains, container ship lines routinely stack 20 foot long containers six high, six deep and six wide with no bracing. Those containers weigh 30,000+lbs. Imagine if you only had the weight of the container to worry about. (Hit Google image search for something like 'hapag lloyd ship' or 'maersk line ship' to see it in action.)

#64 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 12:05 AM:

The idea of building large structures out of smaller, regularly-shaped blocks is deeply satisfying for my inner, Lego-loving child.

I want to see an 8x8 apartment block of these containers with big colored light panels on each one to do 64-pixel pictures. "I'm in apartment 7C--you know, Zelda's nose."

#65 ::: jason ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 12:10 AM:

ISO shipping containers (ones from ships VS rail containers) the 8 corners are reinforced and the side walls are NOT load barring (there are containers with out walls at all (large oil rigs come in them from china) they only have a floor and 4 corner posts plus 4 top rails.
I saw on small space big style tv show a home built out of 4 containers that looked like a normal cottage

#66 ::: No One ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 12:49 AM:

ISO shipping containers (ones from ships VS rail containers) the 8 corners are reinforced and the side walls are NOT load barring

The main difference between 'rail containers' (domestic containers) and ISO loads these days is the length. Domestics come in 24, 28, 45, 48, and 53 foot sizes as well as the standard ISO 20 and 40 to mimic the old trailer on flat car loads.

The construction isn't materially different. In fact, the steel ones are constructed identically, and by the same manufacturers. The all steel domestics are mostly used by companies like Pacer Stacktrain and CSX.

Most of the other railroads (BNSF, UP, CN) use aluminum sided containers instead of steel. Even on the aluminum ones the load bearing structure is still the same, the interlock points are on the same spacing, the load limits similar, etc.

Domestics never leave North America though, so there's no glut of good condition cans left over from the trade deficit. They're expensive as a result. You could get two near perfect forty-foot steel containers together for less money than one banged up domestic aluminum 48.

And of course, if you're making a house of them, you can't weld aluminum.

#67 ::: Heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 01:20 AM:

Fade Manley @ 64: "I want to see an 8x8 apartment block of these containers with big colored light panels on each one to do 64-pixel pictures. "I'm in apartment 7C--you know, Zelda's nose.""

That's amazing timing you have.

And those would make for the sweetest dorms EVER. (Imagine the yearly competition to design your dorm's mascot. Imagine the intense, 64-bit rivalry it would lend to intra-mural sports!)

#68 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 01:31 AM:

That's amazing timing you have.

...ha! I hadn't even noticed.

Imagine the yearly competition to design your dorm's mascot. Imagine the intense, 64-bit rivalry it would lend to intra-mural sports!

I would consider that sufficient reason to move back onto campus housing and get another undergraduate degree. The spouse would just have to take care of the cats for a few semesters.

#69 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 02:00 AM:

No One, #66: "And of course, if you're making a house of them, you can't weld aluminum." Sure you can; gas-tungsten arc welding. Now you've got me imagining aircraft made of these things...

Heresiarch, #62: such a deal I have for you.

#70 ::: Kerry ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 02:39 AM:

Tangentially to A.J.

> Why do we need fire drills in the solid concrete, the-only-wood-is-doors building which houses my math department?

Ah, yes. Evans Hall. It's because there could be a natural gas leak, bomb threat, or other such hazard, that requires evacuating the building. It's more of an "evacuation" drill than merely a "fire" drill.

Remember that the Unabomber hit Cory Hall. (I was in the building then. Sounded like some workers had dropped the elevator two or three feet.) The unexpected can happen.

#71 ::: Alan Braggins ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 03:31 AM:

#66, #69: with skill and care you can weld aluminium with gas too, turning up the acetylene a bit to keep a reducing atmosphere - or so I'm told. And I know I can buy aluminium wire for my MIG welder and it has settings for aluminium in its instructions. (I've never used it on aluminium though. I've used TIG once, for a small test piece.)
But steel is certainly easier.

#72 ::: Thomas ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 04:12 AM:

Shipping containers are definitely shipped back. For one, the ships have to go back anyway. Second, carrying a full container in the 'good' direction costs about 500 dollar or euro (forget which). In an otherwise empty ship, this should be much lower.

#73 ::: Wesley Tanaka ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 05:28 AM:

A thorough review. A friend told me that shipping containers aren't the easiest thing to deal with once they're full, but if you already know where you want to drop one down...

#74 ::: Paul M ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 07:47 AM:

A discussion (and articles) on Shipping containers as nomadic housing amoung other things.

#75 ::: jayskew ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 10:38 AM:

We have a 40' shipping container that we use as an attic. Got it from Savannah (second largest port on the east coast). It was rather interesting getting it in through our woods-road driveway shortly after a rainstorm and before the dirt had backed; that involved a big truck and a dozer.

It's shaded by oak and pine trees and stays cool inside even when it's 95 degrees out in a south Georgia summer. It's a refrigerated model, but the air conditioning unit doesn't work (we knew that when we bought it) and we haven't bothered putting in a window air conditioner. It has a slotted steel floor. We power washed the inside before using it. We found no contaminants, presumably because refrigerated ones carry foodstuffs. If you don't have trees for shade, just stick a carport roof over it, as the folks in Australia did.

We were going to get more shipping containers and build a larger structure out of them, but we've discovered it's actually less expensive to get a custom-built steel building:

These things are designed to Dade County, Florida (Miami) hurricane standards, so they're almost as good as shipping containers for storm resistance.

#76 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 11:04 AM:

There are a couple of container developments in London.

And, guys, most of the problems mentioned here are presolved. Their design criteria, after all, are roughly as follows: "Must stack 8-high, laden; must lock together without external reinforcement; must stand up to rolling through 40 degrees whilst stacked; must tolerate seawater, hard knocks; must keep seawater out of goods."

You can get really big generators in containerised form, too; anything from 10' boxes to 40' boxes.

#77 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 11:36 AM:

Um...must allow occupants to breathe?

#78 ::: Neosapience ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 12:05 PM:

I was looking into super cheap housing a while back and came across this article -

For about $500 you can have a house made out of plastic with everything you need to live.
Combine that with something like this -;jsessionid=3R3S1NAZ1X2NVQFIQMFCFFWAVCBQYIV0?xml=/news/2007/09/12/nwater112.xml
and you have a very solid base for survival.

#79 ::: chris joseph ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 01:09 PM:

#66 & #69... you can also MIG weld aluminum using argon as a shield gas with aluminum wire.

#80 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 01:12 PM:

chris joseph @ 79... using argon as a shield gas with aluminum wire

Personally, I think that "The Eye of Argon" is better used to punch holes thru steel shielding.

#81 ::: philipp ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 01:25 PM:

platoon, berlin based somewhat urban agency have their office in containers, three stacked upon another. moved recently the whole thing...

platoon blog

#82 ::: Vinay Gupta - Hexayurt Project ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 01:26 PM:

The Hexayurt Project is a Free (as in speech) design for a refugee / emergency housing system made from insulation boards. It's a **very** common material in the USA - 4 billion board feet a year.

In the developing world, you can switch to hexacomb cardboard or other easy-to-ship materials.

#83 ::: Vinay Gupta - Hexayurt Project ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 01:27 PM:

Oh, and it helps if I remember the URL

#84 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 02:15 PM:

I would think that when LEDs become even cheaper, it will be an advantage for container housing. No need to cut holes for windows that could leak or break, just put in enough LEDs in the colors that combine to make "natural light". Who looks out windows these days anyway? (/snark)

You only need a roof for the top of the stack to shed water, just like any apartment building.

Living in Minnesota, I wonder if they an carry the snow load. We design buildings from the top down here. Architects ask, can it hold however many pounds of snow that it can get in a winter?

#85 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 02:40 PM:

I wish I could use one of these here in our concrete-covered back yard in West Seattle so I could have a shop, but I think the zoning folks would be incredibly upset...

#86 ::: ethan ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 02:50 PM:

Randolph, I know your intentions are pure, but every time you start a post with "Um" I think "Ack! A troll! Or someone being mean!" for a second, before I calm down and think, "Oh, it's just Randolph politely objecting." If only to spare my fragile feelings, do you think you could refrain from the ums? If not, I'm sure I can get over it.

#87 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 02:53 PM:

Anecdote from a Freeman Dyson lecture:

During the Carter administration, Dyson and a bunch of other big thinkers were asked to study ways to reduce the cost of housing. They studied the process by which homes were built and came up with a list of findings and a suggested strategy for creating cheaper homes. Just before the report was released, someone realized that they had just re-invented the mobile home . . .

#88 ::: Alan Braggins ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 02:57 PM:

#79 Though it might be worth noting that when we say "you can weld aluminium", what we really mean is you can weld some but not all of a wide range of aluminium alloys. And some of them only usefully if you can heat treat the entire piece afterwards.

(Though with sufficiently exotic techniques, you can weld just about any metal - I've seen copper welded to steel. But there are practical limitations on what you can fit inside a vacuum chamber for example (see also casting of lithium-aluminium alloys).)

#89 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 04:58 PM:

Ethan, #86: I'll see what I can do about it. ummmmm... :-)

#90 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 07:08 PM:

Thanks to Neosapience @ 78. Here's a link to the UK Telegraph story, Bottle makes dirty water drinkable, from last month, if anyone is having problems with the long URL.

And here's the TinyURL version:

My longer post about the usefulness of a second outer skin or roof for shelters, and the importance of building for easy repair & maintenance just got eaten by my newly recalcitrant machine. That is the brief summary, which I may expand some day with more spare time.

#91 ::: Bez Thomas ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 10:26 PM:

Notcot has more examples of shipping container architecture, including Melbourne's Section 8.

#92 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 10:30 PM:

I'm baffled by the statement that it's not economical to ship the containers back. The ships have to go back; are container ships convertible to bulk haulage? Is it not worthwhile to send the containers back as scrap metal, considering the insatiable Chinese demand for steel? (contra Wingate@24; I thought my electrical supplier was blowing smoke a few years ago when he blamed China for the tripling of prices for the main material for "tinkertoy" art show hangings (caution: large PDF), but I've read enough since to see that the demand is real.)

Converting containers to housing happened even before there were containers; at the northeast ~corner of Denali Park there is (abandoned?) housing built out of boxcars (IIRC) for the crews laying track from Anchorage to Fairbanks (cf Serge@34, although this was practical).

Randolph@3: Safdie's early attempts weren't that good; I've heard that Habitat in Montreal turned into a leaking horror. Steel is probably more expensive to form than concrete, but (as noted) more weatherproof.

mcz@multiple: The show at the Theater of Electricity at the Boston Museum of Science includes someone standing inside a cage being struck by lightning with no effect (not even hair-on-end as in another part of the show). Copper plumbing \might/ be a problem (although the question is still why the current would leave the plumbing to go through a much greater resistor such as you or me), but I don't know how common it is in new construction.

No One@63: only 6 high? The container ships I've seen looked like 3-5 layers of containers above the hull rim and 6 or more below.

Thomas@72: That low? The very lowest LTL cost I was quoted for shipping from NY to UK was $70/m^3, and most were 2-3x that for ~half the distance of a Pacific run. Even allowing for the wastage and the extra time-cost of packing, $250/container (minimum size ~100 m^3) for trans-Atlantic shipping seems low.

#93 ::: Charlene ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 11:41 PM:

They're generally only being used as housing in warm temperate or tropical areas. I wouldn't want to try that in Alberta in the winter.

It probably costs more to heat one of those than it costs to heat my entire house.

#94 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2007, 11:51 PM:

CHiP, #92: "I've heard that Habitat in Montreal turned into a leaking horror."

It's still an occupied building, so that doesn't seem very likely. Or perhaps they fixed it.

#95 ::: Heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2007, 12:42 AM:

Fade Manley @ 68: "I would consider that sufficient reason to move back onto campus housing and get another undergraduate degree."

Word. It's definitely going into my "If I found a college, I'll" file.

#96 ::: ethan ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2007, 01:02 AM:

Randolph #89: Ah! Moving it to the end, that should work. Thanks for taking my comment in the spirit it was intended, um.

#97 ::: Quinten ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2007, 11:49 AM:

it's a pity you have overlooked the biggest container village in the world, made of real shipping containers: check or in Amsterdam. The units on the NDSM wharf in Amsterdam are not shipping container (just steel prefab units from East Europe), a frequently made mistakes

#98 ::: kose ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2007, 12:28 PM:

This blog has an interior view into one appartment in a 40' container: Amsterdam Student housing.

#99 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2007, 01:37 PM:

"It's dawn and there's fog in Rotterdam harbour
And the guard's on his break and the dogs are chained by the wire.
Three figures come out from behind the cranes,
Make across the train tracks.
Climb aboard a Panamanian freighter headed for the isle of grain,
Find a place to hide in a stack of containers
another payload of world trade."

#100 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2007, 01:46 PM:

Some odds 'n ends on an excellent idea.

This is an idea, not surprsingly, that the military had first, as the military was one of the early adopters of ISO containers. Like most large cargo operations, they weren't that big on it for domestic shipping at first, but the earlier adoption of the standard container in Europe (yeah, it was invented here, but it took longer to sort out all the different standards) mandated that we use them in NATO logistics. The continuing shortage of heavy break-bulk ships increased the pressure. (Tanks, planes and helicopters generally don't fit into containers, but damm near everything else does.) Most of the new generation of Army cargo trucks include versions that can self-load and offload containers in the field. From early on, there was a lot of improvised use of excess containers. My understanding is that the smaller (6' x 6' x 8') Conex boxes were adapted for evertything from latrines to guard shacks to prison cells in Vietnam.

Because of that, almost anything that a military organization wants to use and move comes built into an ISO standard shape and size. Command posts, communications shelters, temporary housing, shower and laundry facilities, kitchens, you name it. A particular favorite of mine is the UN modular mobile field hospital, built by none other than the Zepplin company.

Hence one possible approach for preparing to use excess containers is to build and stage the specialized systems in purpose build ISO containers, which can be stored out in the weather until needed. Combine with empty containers and some additional materials, and add people.

There's nothing like military contractors for coming up with neat but expensive solutions for extreme situations. Check out this list of mobile shelter and facility units for some ingenious ones.

#101 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2007, 02:38 PM:

Random notes and responses --

CHip @ 92: . . . are container ships convertible to bulk haulage? In a word, no. Or at least not in general. The engineering problems are very different, including where you expect the center of gravity to be. A combination ship might end up being financially infeasible.

Various people: How high can you stack containers? It depends on how they are built and what you have in them. As has already been discussed, there is a wide range of materials in use, from special steels to aluminum. However, most containers top out at 24 tons capacity with specially built ones running up to 30 tons net.

You load maybe three or four deep below the deck, (maybe more) and you make sure that all the heavy ones go there. On top of that are hatch covers -- as with any other ship, a hatch cover problem in foul weather can turn your vessel into an object lesson in the free-surface effect. These covers are built to be handled using the same cranes as handle the containers. On top of these covers you can have stacks up to 8 high (honors to Teresa on this one), but this would be amidships and would depend on the total weight and cg of the stack and the vessel. 20 ton TEU's do not go on the top, no matter how convenient that might be at your next port.

As to cutting holes in the side -- feel free. The load is borne at the corners of containers. The sides taken together must form a rigid unit that can handle the weight of the individual container and any torsion from sea movement. Round holes carefully cut, of limited size in intelligently chosen spots should have little if any effect.

CHip @ 92, again: My opinion is that Habitat probably had the same problems that every flat roof design can have with shedding water -- consider the legendary reputation of Frank Lloyd Wright for designing buildings that leak. BTW, containers can have the same problem, especially if strapped down in place in the weather. Some kind of additional roof at the top of the stack would be indicated for dwellings.

Steel is probably more expensive to form than concrete, but (as noted) more weatherproof.

It all depends. Steel can be pretty good if you use the right stuff (say Cor-ten or something similar -- don't even think about the price for stainless, especially if you add fabrication costs) and maintain it well. Many containers are not built that well, however, and depend almost entirely on their paint for weather resistance. That brings up an important point in reusing containers -- you have to carefully check the structural integrity of them, especially the "bargains". Beware new paint, especially toward the floor and corners.

Concrete can last damm near forever -- consider Roman structures. The Pantheon is a largely unreinforced concrete structure, but due to very skilled design and construction, has lasted nearly 2,000 years of continuous occupation, and is still the largest hemispherical dome in existence. (It was the largest true dome of any kind until well into the 19th century. We are still discovering the techniques of its construction.) Much of the exposed metal involved in 20th century military fortifications is in poor condition, if not rusted away. The concrete is still with us, and promises to stick around for quite a while.

#102 ::: Dennis ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2007, 05:39 PM:

Why not containers as a temporary and portable hotel? There are many large events in various places during the year that completely fill local hotels. For example, the Oshkosh fly-in, Superbowls, NASCAR races, spring break, and more. The "hotel rooms" need only be about a hundred square feet, just a place to sleep, shower and do your business. If they were right on the venue grounds, making commuting and parking at the event a non-issue, they would be very attractive. The proprietor could make a few extra bucks by providing meals from a container portable kitchen.

At the end of the event, transport the entire hotel to a rail yard, onto a train, and across the country to the next venue.

#103 ::: Paul A' Barge ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2007, 06:11 PM:

If these things are so ubiquitous, why are they so freakin' expensive?

By the way, some folks out in the country lay down 6" or so or road base (caliche) and put two containers separated by a space. They then attach rafters to the two containers, over the empty space and add a roof, creating storage space. The containers are storage as well as frame for more storage.

#104 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2007, 06:26 PM:

Bruce, #85: Maybe if you contracted to cover it with a green roof and vines, to reduce hardscape on your lot.

#105 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2007, 07:37 PM:

Dennis @ 102:

Sounds like the germ of a business plan to me.

#106 ::: wudndux ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2007, 08:53 PM:

In the early 1980s a friend of mine was one of a small group of people who had shipping container houses near the airport in Honolulu.

Damaged but still sturdy insulated shipping containers for shipping frozen goods were around $500 each then. Well insulated, white, and stackable, tho I never saw any stacked. They were great: plastic interiors were easy to clean, the end doors opened wide. If the owner wanted a window, a saber saw and few minutes were all that was needed.

People used them for living space, storage space, and small machine shops. Great idea, so it was highly illegal. The affordable housing activists considered them demeaning and kept them illegal. They wanted the taxpayers to build expensive housing, then sell it for less than cost. Thanks guys.

#107 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2007, 09:16 PM:

Claude@101: I thought not but was insufficiently rhetorical: the ships are returning and can't take bulk, so they might as well take containers. Is there an issue with raising the profile of an underloaded ship with those up-to-8 layers of above-deck containers? Otherwise, I don't see why the containers aren't sent back to be refilled, especially given the Chinese demand (and Indian, Malaysian, ... for all I know) for steel. (I understand the containers may not be convertible into I-beams, but if they're short on the basic feedstock I'd think they'd do better not to bleed it out in once-used containers.)

#108 ::: Daryl Herbert ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2007, 10:28 PM:

Obviously, we need to re-engineer shipping containers so they will be suitable for use in building houses.

#109 ::: Valuethinker ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2007, 06:32 AM:

I'm not sure why any of this is news?

What do you think people live in, in the shanty towns of Lagos, Nigeria?

You used to be able to buy individual containers (big tax writeoffs at the time). The danger was they would wind up as someone's home in Lagos, rather than out on the shipping lanes of the world.

#110 ::: Valuethinker ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2007, 06:34 AM:



You need to cut the containers up, if you are going to recycle them. It's not worth shipping them as empty space all the way back to China-- and even getting them to the scrapyard may be in the 'too difficult' category if you have to pay a road or rail haulage fee.

#111 ::: Alan Braggins ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2007, 07:09 AM:

#102: The "hotel rooms" need only be about a hundred square feet

Something like this -

(Or the even denser packing of

#112 ::: larry ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2007, 11:37 AM:

Ship them to the borders. Perfect use. Stacked two high it would be a cheap impenetrable wall and a great adaptive use of the 700,000 of them
No need to re-invent the wheel. Add some lights guards and barb wire, which you'd do anyway and the fence is done in 60 days.
at least the southern one.

#113 ::: FungiFromYuggoth ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2007, 07:55 PM:

Here's a page that recommends "BattleBoxes", containerized housing for troops in the field. Advantages are that a rigid structure can be buried and then covered in concrete for blast resistance, can contain more prefab comforts than tents, and is still cheap enough to leave behind.

Using dirt or concrete for a blast shield would also increase the thermal mass, and might help with a lot of the heating/cooling problems referenced earlier.

(Caveat Lector: the page is picture-heavy and the author rates about 0.1 or 0.2 TimeCubes.)

#114 ::: Sparky ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2007, 10:35 PM:

These are the best cargo conatiner projects that I've seen to date in the US. One is built and the others, I think, are under construction. Enjoy!

scroll down on this page:

cool images:

anyone know anything else about these container home architects, DeMaria Design Associates?

#115 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2007, 12:25 AM:

Valuethinker: that still does not compute. If a container ship is returning to Asia partially empty (because there's nothing to go in some of the containers and (per above) it can't be easily shifted to bulk cargo), the additional cost of shipping an empty container is the few minutes to put it on and off the ship. Are ILO hours \that/ expensive? Especially when you add in that \somehow/ steel has to get to Asia for more containers (or is bleeding out of Asia despite demand)? I see the abandoned containers, but I wonder whether this represents assumptions and failed connections rather than best business practice -- or, as I suggested, the limits of pelagic physics.

#116 ::: Valuethinker ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2007, 07:23 AM:


Anyone who has ever written anything sensible about the US immigration problem comes to the same conclusion.

You cannot close America's borders. At the very least, you'd actually have to man and defend the Canadian border as well, which is 10 times the southern border problem. And then they would come by ship, boat, light plane or simply skip out on tourist visas (which is the main point of entry of illegals now, I believe).

The US immigration problem is about employers. Employers employ illegal immigrants. As long as the directors of, say, WalMart, don't face prison for employing illegal immigrants, the US will continue to have an illegal immigration problem. Ditto for the 'independent contractors' on the housebuilding site. As long as Joe Blogs Homes' directors and officers aren't personally responsible for the employment of illegal contractors on their sites, nothing is going to change.

Conversely, the US economy would be in bad shape without those 9 million additional workers. Recent crackdowns have already caused fruit to rot in the fields. The meatpacking industry would collapse.

The US will need to legalise its existing pool of immigrants (the idea of storm troopers charging door to door, dragging screaming women and children out of homes and deporting them, like they do in France, is not a pleasant one for Americans to contemplate). Then it will need to have a quota for new immigrants large enough to take some of the pressure off (probably on the order of 1-2 million a year).

#117 ::: Valuethinker ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2007, 07:32 AM:

115 Chip

I think part of the problem is that world container charges are per container (full or not).

And yes ports are clogged enough that the extra time to load a ship full of empty containers would be a problem-- the shipowner is going to want his ship to be on the way somewhere else. And the ship may not be going back directly to China.

Going further, the container arrives in Port of Los Angeles, or Hampton Roads, but is then shipped to WalMart in Cincinnati, say. So no one is going to pay the rail freight to ship it back empty (in that form) to Los Angeles.

But an empty piece of volume is not a great thing to try to ship anywhere. You could probably put 10 containers worth of steel into the space an empty container takes.

Interestingly the US is a big user of electric minimills, which are fed scrap steel. So the steel in container boxes ought to be quite useful, if only to make rebar (concrete reinforcing bar, the lowest grade of steel).

On the steel balance with Asia, China was a big importer, it's now an exporter (and I think a small net exporter). The other big steel countries are Japan and Korea (big exporters to China).

I agree there is a slight puzzle in all of this-- is a steel box so cheap that it's not worth shipping it back? And if so, why not scrap it? The WTC steel, after all, found its way to China (having been made in Ohio, originally, I believe).

#118 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2007, 09:51 AM:

Valuethinker (116): (the idea of storm troopers charging door to door, dragging screaming women and children out of homes and deporting them, like they do in France, is not a pleasant one for Americans to contemplate).

Something along those lines in fact happened on Long Island recently. The Newsday articles are behind a paywall, but here's a few excerpts:

Sept. 28, 2007, p. A21: When immigration authorities arrived at the Westbury house where Wilfredo was renting a room, he didn't run. He didn't want to leave his 4-month-old baby alone.

But when he was arrested Monday by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in one of several sweeps on Long Island this week, Wilfredo, 32, was forced to leave her on his bed. He hoped that someone he shared the home with would notice and care for her until his wife got home.
Sept. 21, 2007, p. A56: The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, claims that agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Division's New York Regional Office earlier this year unlawfully forced their way into homes occupied by Latinos in East Hampton, Riverhead, Mount Kisco and elsewhere without search warrants.

The raids, conducted at night and in the early morning in February and March, violated the individuals' constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches by the government, the lawsuit said.
In a raid of a house in East Hampton on Feb. 20, armed federal agents pounded on the door at around 4:30 a.m, searched the home, detained the occupants and barred them from contacting police or a lawyer, according to the lawsuit.

The agents were looking for a man they wanted to deport, Patrizio Wilson, who had not lived in the house since 2003, when he divorced Adriana Aguilar, one of the occupants, according to a story in The New York Times.

All the occupants of the house were U.S. citizens, according to the story.

And from the New York Times, Oct. 3, 2007, p. B1:
Scores of federal immigration agents from around the country, some wearing cowboy hats and brandishing shotguns and automatic weapons, endangered residents and local police officers last week as they raided homes in Nassau County in a poorly planned antigang operation, county officials charged yesterday.

Lawrence W. Mulvey, the Nassau County police commissioner, said that in two instances the immigration agents mistakenly drew their guns on Nassau County police detectives during operations that resulted in the arrests of 186 immigrants on Long Island.

#119 ::: Valuethinker ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2007, 10:59 AM:

118 Mary Aileen

Interesting-- thank you. In France you are not, AFAIK, automatically a citizen by place of birth. So more children to deport.

There is now a French organisation, made up in part of French people whose parents survived the Milice and Gestapo deportations of the 1940s, who help immigrants against the French authorities.

What was it Julia Ward Howe said

'as he died to make us holy/
let us die to make men free'

It may be the depth of feeling against immigration in the US is now so strong, that the US looks the other way. I have been stunned at the vehemence re immigration that is expressed on the net: it's like I'm in eastern France, Flemish Belgium or the outlands of England. But you are Americans, the children of immigrants. (the faux-sophistication of the arguments ie 'only illegal immigrants' or 'only immigrants who won't integrate' doesn't fool me any more than our political parties talk of 'asylum seekers'-- it's a codeword for foreigners).

There was a piece in Harpers, once, about blacks who, armed, stood off lynchers and other segregationists at their doorstep, and have been written out of history by liberal historians (who tend not to like guns).

#120 ::: DILBERT DOGBERT ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2007, 02:37 PM:

Re Exporting Shipping Containers
A friend of mine makes good money exporting scrap steel to the far east in shipping containers. He gets a better price than he would moving it across the bay. The shippers like to have something heavy to ballast the boats.

#121 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2007, 03:42 PM:

Valuethinker @ 119

The most vehemently anti-immigrant candidate is Tom Tancredo, whose grandparents were immigrants from Italy. (Reason and logic do not enter into this; it's pretty much straight emotion.)

#122 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2007, 12:57 AM:

Has anyone seen the life story of 2007 Medical Nobel Prize winner Mario Capecchi used as an example of starting off as a very low-level immigrant (illiterate street-kid from a non-English-speaking war-torn country) and making great contribution to your new society?

It's mentioned in his institutional page bio (par 8), and short Nobel interview (text here)

#123 ::: Valuethinker ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2007, 08:10 AM:


I've heard of Tancredo. In some ways he frightens me less than 'rational' politicians who use codewords like 'skilled immigrants' and 'people willing to integrate into American culture'.

Remember the Know-nothings party? They are not dead in American history.

What is unusual perhaps is that this comes at a time of (relative) prosperity and low unemployment. The reason being, I think, that whilst average incomes are rising, median incomes are falling. Americans as a whole are doing better, but the people in the middle and lower middle brackets aren't seeing the economic benefits-- so they turn against visible immigrants.

Here we had a Tory party leader who was himself the son of Romanian Jew who had gotten out before the Holocaust, when the Iron Guard was making it tough for Jews in the 1930s. And his grandfather had then come out as effectively an illegal alien, living undocumented for 2 years in the UK.

But the Tories ran their campaign on a platform against 'asylum seekers'. So we have the son and grandson of an asylum seeker, himself campaigning against it-- and seriously, this was a major, I would say the major, plank of their platform (other than an Anti-European stance).

I think because he was Jewish, the press gave him a relatively soft day pass on that manoeuvre. It somehow being distasteful to equate a modern asylum seeker with a Jew in the 1930s-- no one wants to be seen to be an anti-semite. However since Blair was also sure to slaughter him (and did so) electorally I suppose it didn't matter.

But it led to a conversation reported in the press in Boston-on-Stump, a small former port town with a large Portugese community, and a recent anti-Portugese riot. The lady said 'of course we don't mind immigrants, just these asylum seekers'. To which the reporter replied 'but Portugal is in the EU, they have a legal right to work here' and the lady replied 'oh, I wouldn't know about that'.

Out there on the fringes 'asylum seeker' ==> any immigrant of foreign tongue.

David Neiwert at Orcinus is very good on all this. Centrist right wing politicians (PM Howard in Australia, locking several hundred Afghan refugees up on a desert island, in conditions so bad that some killed themselves) make 'acceptable' noises about 'bad' immigrants.

Out in the fringes, this plays as hatred against all immigrants.

#124 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2007, 07:45 PM:

Valuethinker @ 117 and CHip @ 115

Something occured to me looking at some sites offering containers for sale. It may be that the original cause of the surplus was shipping costs. I wonder though -- it might be that the initial surplus of very cheap boxes stimulated experimentation. At this point a used in good shape ISO 40' can go for up to a couple of thousand dollars. Some people buy then new. With those prices I would not be surprised if it now makes more sense to sell them here than ship them back.

#125 ::: Holly Unruh ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2007, 06:38 PM:

We have a number of container-based projects coming out of the University of California, Santa Barbara as well -- one project has recycled containers into a beautiful arts space, others have turned containers into mobile arts labs (traveling galleries). We are also hosting a competition for the production of affordable, sustainably produced habitable space from 2 standard shipping containers. We'll announce the competition at a major conference on the UC Santa Barbara campus Nov 8th, 9th & 10th (focused on shipping containers!). See for more information. Marc Levinson and Jennifer Siegal will be the keynotes.

#126 ::: Sierranighttide ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2007, 04:05 PM:

The SF, CA Shipyard closed because the city wanted it out and got them out.

#127 ::: Mike Jackson ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2007, 08:01 AM:

I am in Iraq where the government has rented these 40' containers that have been bought and converted(by a company in Kuwait) into 2 units with a toilet,a sink & shower between the "living quarters" the electric and plumbing are on the exterior(underneath) a set of steps, a door, and a window and you have a relatively nice "safe" place to sleep and shower

#128 ::: James Lazar ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2008, 04:22 PM:

To all who believe! I have been toying with a container building for the past 10 years now. The ease of build and overall quality, and strength, of steel leads me to believe that ANYONE could build a home for less than $20,000 USD. The one product which stopped me in the past was insulation. After careful research into insulating paints, I have found that a base of either weather resistant epoxy or a latex based all-weather undercoat with added vacuum ceramic bead additive will give me a 50 to 60+ insulating factor if only the OUTSIDE is painted! As far as structural rigidity of stacking containers goes... I will not be adding any reinforcing posts at any location. Can anyone imagine an empty steel container failing due to 3 high stacking? These things are LOADED to the hilt on ships and stacked 8-10 high.

#129 ::: Andrew Van Cleve ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2008, 10:29 PM:

I'm trying to design emergency housing using shipping containers as a base.
The requirements include sewage treatment, water purification, heating, cooling and power supply completely internal so you dont have to hook up to anything.
Some of the companies that might have products for this project include Greencore (solar powered airconditioning), Purio (Sewage treatment and water purification), more...
Such housing could be used in a disaster area or even in a wilderness area.

#130 ::: Spam deleted ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2008, 04:21 AM:

Spam from

#131 ::: Do not want spam ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2008, 04:37 AM:

[put funny comment about the spam in 130 here]

#132 ::: Spam cleanup in aisle 130 ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2008, 09:58 PM:

I'll have to give them a C- on the content and D- for technique.

#133 ::: Spam deleted ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2008, 04:31 AM:

Spam from

#134 ::: Mike ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2008, 12:32 PM:

You may be interested in the Ace modular building units which can be used as a standalone unit or component of a larger structure. It is compact for transportation and storage, easily assembled/dissassembled with hand tools on site, and can be configured (both interior space and exterior windows/doors) for many applications. Go to

#135 ::: Carlos Navarro ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 09:28 PM:

The organization who promotes Shipping Container homes and construction is the ISBU Association.

This is an excellent resourse for building contractor, designers and anyone interested in this new trend.

#136 ::: charles danley ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2008, 12:41 PM:

so many talk about how to do this and this site is full of sales pitches from container freaks but the work of only one architect seems to understand that the containers are a means to an ends; the LA architect DeMaria. He did a home in redondo beach and it won a huge design award from the AIA, that means that professional architects have found his work to be of the highest level and worthy of recognition. can we get the latest info on what he is working on?

#137 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2008, 04:10 PM:

I work for the company Sea Box Inc, located in New Jersey, and we have a product for that purpose. It’s called ShelterPAK, it’s a kit that untrained labor can use to turn a standard 20ft container into a shelter in 30 mins. It’s a great idea to use containers as shelters, we’ve been doing it for over 20 years.

#138 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2008, 03:45 PM:

A recent addition to the list: PFNC (Por fin nuestra casa) is working on supplying shipping container houses to the maquiladoras in Juarez, Mexico, according to a recent CNN story.

Interesting prototype walkthrough on this page.

#139 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 05:27 PM:

According to the article Shipping container prefab at West Coast Green: "[Harbinger, built by SG Blocks,] this year's showstopper, is made from five 40-foot-long shipping containers", but "a layman can't tell that, underneath its sleek lines". There's more at the exhibition's official site at

#140 ::: mike ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2008, 05:39 PM:

[Personal for Mike-- if you're real rather than a spammer, please post again. -- JDM]

#141 ::: Terry wonders about the motives of "mike" ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2008, 06:06 PM:

It's possible it's legit, but it's obvious he's not read the thread.

#142 ::: Graydon figures post 144 is unambiguous spam ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2008, 11:33 PM:

Since the betting link is more than slightly off topic.

#143 ::: Spam Deleted ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 07:41 AM:

[Spam from]

#144 ::: Tim Hall sees spem ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 08:11 AM:

"Drug Intervention Tennessee" looks a lot like spam to me....

Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.