Housing the Next Generation with Old Shipping Containers


If the predictions are accurate, America will have to house some 100 million more people by 2040 to mid-century than is now the case. Despite the current round of foreclosures and rising apartment vacancy, over the long term the demand for humane, affordable, sustainable housing is going to escalate dramatically in the coming years.

In this recessionary time, it may be tempting to ignore the coming boost in housing demand. Yet eventually growth will pick up and the housing market will become re-invigorated. Nonetheless, the problem of meeting the demand for affordable housing will remain. For now, the federal government is trying to help state and local governments acquire, renovate and sell foreclosed properties, and individual homeowners to reduce their mortgage payments to 31 percent of their income. Federal efforts are also being aimed at increasing funds to redevelop public housing and at giving first-time homebuyers an $8,000 tax credit.

But these are short-term measures. Others, with more lasting impact, may be more effective. One will be the size of houses. Although some may still choose to build large lot homes and McMansions, the longer-term trend will be for somewhat more compact houses. Contrary to the visions of some urban boosters, Americans will continue to favor single family homes over apartments. But these houses seem likely to trend back to the more traditional, modest scale. Between 2006 and 2007, after years of expanding, the size of a median single-family house actually decreased slightly.

Another critical element of a housing solution lies in building workforce housing close to the workplace. For years, many moderate income Americans have been forced to “drive ‘til they qualify.” Throughout the nation’s metropolitan areas, teachers, police officers, firefighters, salesclerks, municipal workers, and young people, among others, are being elbowed out of the local housing market. In a recent survey conducted by the Urban Land Institute in cooperation with Harris interactive, of the 110 larger firms (over 100 employees) surveyed, fifty-five percent reported a lack of affordable housing nearby, sixty-seven percent of the workers interviewed (who earned less than $50,000 per year) said they would move closer to work if more housing in their price range were available, and fifty-eight percent of the companies reported having lost employees due in part to long commute times.

For most Americans, particularly between ages 30 and 70, the demand for affordable homes near workplaces will be paramount. In some areas, there may also be greater demand for apartments, even though these too are suffering due to the recession.

Many zoning and building codes are obsolete and need to be updated, because as written they restrict the construction of low and moderate income housing and segregate residential, retail, and industrial/commercial land uses. Changing zoning to permit and provide incentives for mixed use development, more intense land uses, and higher density development would make workforce housing more affordable.

The steps above do not apply only to city living. Through good design, suburban living can be made slightly more compact without sacrificing quality of life. Accessory buildings can often be added on a lot, “granny flats” can be built, large old single family homes can be converted into duplexes, empty spaces could be filled in, and other steps can be taken to meet the need for more housing when that need materializes.

But perhaps the biggest gains can come by using innovative approaches to expanding housing. One novel idea that has begun to emerge is to use old shipping containers that have been transformed into building blocks for home-building materials. Actually, one can hardly call the idea novel, because shipping crates have been used in construction for thousands of years. But today, the old practice is being revived with entrepreneurial, innovative, outside-the-box thinking.

These reconfigured containers have the advantages of being more economical and durable than conventional materials, speedier to construct, highly customizable, fire-, termite-, water-, and earthquake/hurricane-resistant, strong, safe and green, with a lower carbon footprint. Hence the name of one of the companies working in this field, one with which I am associated, SG Blocks LLC (SG stands for “safe and green”). As the company puts it, “We are in the business of converting instruments of trade into instruments of construction.”

Shipping containers are big: each weighs 9,000 pounds and measures 8 feet wide by 40 feet long by 9 feet tall. Hundreds and thousands of them are sitting empty in ports around the country. What possible use could they be, one may wonder, in building a new residential or office complex?

Consider, therefore, that these steel-on-steel containers, when used as re-fabricated “blocks,” are stronger than conventional house framing. They can be cut, fabricated, re-modeled, and turned into a basic home structure for approximately $25-$27 a square foot. Stevan Armstrong, COO of SG Blocks, has pointed out that multi-family mid-rise units built with containers cost 10 to 15 percent less than typical “stick frame” houses. When appropriate coatings are installed, says Dan Rosenthal, a principal with the Lawrence Group, “we have an envelope that reflects about 95 percent of outside radiation, resists the loss of interior heat, provides an excellent air infiltration barrier and does not allow water to migrate in. Because of the superior roof structure, it is easier to incorporate ‘green’ roof systems.”

Using shipping containers also saves energy on the front end. It takes 6,481 kilowatt-hours to make a ton of steel from virgin materials, 9,000 kilowatt hours of energy to melt down a container, but only 400 kilowatt-hours of energy to convert shipping containers into SG Blocks.

The possibilities for utilizing this type of construction – infill housing in urban and suburban communities, new construction for residential, commercial, industrial and retail buildings, single- and multi-family homes – are practically limitless. From a design perspective, SG Blocks claims that their modified containers “can be used to build virtually any style of construction, from traditional to modern and all in between...from traditional Main Street to ultra-contemporary.” In short, they can provide people with an opportunity for ownership and economic mobility in a decent community environment.

To cite a few examples:

  • A continuing care community for seniors on the historic Mission San Luis Rey grounds in Oceanside, CA, 340,000 square feet with 450 SG Blocks, is going up.
  • In Salt Lake City, the first mid-rise container building is being planned for downtown; it will be called City Center Lofts, with eight units and a ground level art gallery.
  • In Ft. Collins, CO, discussions are being held about creating “block” homes for 500 families as part of the city’s Homeless Shelter Program.
  • John Knott, the guiding light in the Noisette Community in North Charleston, SC, wants to build a six- to eight-story “container” building, retail on the first floor with residential units above, topped with a green roof. He proposes using ninety prison re-entry men to do the construction.
  • Work is in process on a three- to four-story student housing and recreational mixed use facility at Lubbock Christian University in Texas.
  • In Panama, “blocks” are being used to build four buildings that will house community and education centers for the U.S. Southern Command.
  • Attached to the top of this article is a photo of a house built with SGBlocks in St. Petersburg, FL.

Demography is destiny, as has been said so many times. With 100 million more people in the pipeline, we have to find humane, innovative, affordable ways to house them and provide them with opportunity for advancement. Salvaging empty shipping containers to address this problem is only one step, but a most interesting one that is well worth the trying.

William H. Hudnut III, former Member of Congress and sixteen-year Mayor of Indianapolis, is the principal in his firm, Bill Hudnut Consultants LLC, and an associate of SG Blocks LLC. His email address is: bhudnut3@gmail.com.

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Hudnut's inside-the-box thinking

William Hudnut reduces housing to a human storage problem with his crass advocacy of living in shipping containers.

His is architectural response to population growth is neither humane, innovative, nor affordable.

Now don't get me wrong. Technically there are interesting architectural and structural things that can be done with shipping containers. Will McClean at the University of Westminster School of Architecturec has produced "Quik-Build - Adam Kalkin's ABC of Container Architecture", available on www.bibliothequemclean.com. Adam Kalkin has appreciated that containers as rooms are limited because they measure 8foot, or 2.4m in width. This is a monastic cell of a space for living accommodation. Kalkin's solution is to use containers to span over and enclose open plan spaces, limiting the activities in the containers to service areas and small bedrooms.

The mean widths of containers are unfortunately encouraged by Britain's green architects and engineers. Many have wanted to find a stackable secondary use for the many containers that deliver manufactured goods from China to Britain, but have little to take on the return trip. Their "environmental solution" is to try to fill them with poor people wanting a home.

This is 1foot or 300mm meaner than the advocates of architecture made from portakabin type structures. 9 foot or 2.7m wide road deliverable units are just about enough for a bed length, with space to get round the bottom of the bed. But they are still mean. They are also invariably more expensive than building a structure on site laboriously. Brick and block can cost £800/m2, while Britain's experience of architect and engineer designed volumetric accommodation is that is costs a deal more. The momentum for such prefabs in Britain, promoted by the likes of the Building Research Establishment as "modern methods of construction" was soon lost when it became obvious that the cost of construction was secondary to British land prices, and that new housing production in Britain was actively frustrated by the government owned planning system. There was no way to gain economies of scale from the mass manufacture of larger units industrially "modularised" and "podularised" to provide wider and taller living space for less cost per square metre on plan.

The result is that HM government and the BRE have now abandoned MMC as an agenda and are pushing for highly insulated housing. This is the "sustainable" housing that is now promoted. A few will be built new, but most will be achieved as renovations of the stock that already exists. Britain will store more people in the existing housing stock. The British people may put up with the overcrowding in smaller spaces, because we are depoliticised. Most people don't stand up for their own humanity in the face of the anti-human green movement. Many will even see industry as a problem.

The surplus of shipping containers unable to make the return trip is a failing of capitalism. It is not an industrial strength. It may in the hands of politically motivated individuals like Hudnut become a commercially lucrative but inhumane opportunity.

Now don't get me wrong. I like manufacturing and prefabrication. But the turn to shipping containers and portakabins is an evasion of the need to produce more and better housing on an industrial scale, to reduce costs, and provide more people with more living space.

Hudnut should be ashamed of himself, but won't be. He and his family should be made to live in a container and see how he likes it... I bet he never will.

Ian Abley

Hudnut's thinking

Ashamed of himself, hu? You seem to pose many problems but very little solutions. At least Mr. Hudnut is thinking creatively, which I would think you, as an architect could appreciate. Complaining about where Mr. Hudnut lives, doesn’t seem to solve the problem of “failing capitalism” or does it solve the unfortunate issue the U.S. is faced with by trying to do something positive with the unfortunate circumstances.

Hats off to Mr. Hudnut! We need more people like him thinking outside the box, literally and improving the sustainability of our housing needs as well as minimizing the natural resources required. I’m not quite sure where inhumane comes from but the container based homes I have seen are quite appealing from a functional and aesthetic perspective.