Container_House1_Trueblue Arts & Culture

Container Homes: Live Free, Live Proud

When it comes to green construction, there are no limits to finding new and creative ways to defy the norm

In an impressive effort to abide by the trusty three R’s, someone somewhere came up with the idea to use recycled intermodal shipping containers to build homes. When I think of green construction, I imagine whimsical cob houses, converted school buses and modular micro-homes. The notion of taking up shelter in a steel crate doesn’t exactly sound enticing, but turns out it isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds or perhaps had been.

The appeal with recycled shipping containers is that they’re sold fairly inexpensively depending on their condition, are readily available and easy to transport. The standard sizes of shipping containers makes planning for construction easy – like stacking Lego, I imagine – while the containers themselves are hyper-durable and built to withstand extreme conditions.


Container Homes: Getting the most out of your Big Metal Box

As with any non-conventional method of construction, however, one of the main factors to consider is the ability to secure building permits. Any time a building deviates from the customary specifications, inspectors are challenged to apply their knowledge and expertise to evaluate the structure – this explains why so many municipalities rule out such seemingly unusual methods altogether. It’s critical, therefore, to thoroughly investigate the codes for wherever one plans to build.

Likewise, by the time shipping containers are eligible for recycling, it is not unusual for them to be damaged and rusted, so it’s essential to do ample research in shopping for units, and to ensure the structure is thoroughly inspected for potential issues.

Sadly, the obstacles don’t end there. Because the odds are high you’ll never know what a container was originally used to transport, there’s always the possibility that it may have been contaminated by cargo spillage and toxic materials. As well, containers are generally treated with insecticides and toxic paint to allow them to endure long trips across ocean and rail, which means that containers require considerable refurbishing to ensure they’re safe for habitation.

While repurposing shipping containers certainly prevents the unnecessary energy expenditure of melting and remanufacturing the material, as outlined here, the eco-friendly factor certainly begins to falter in terms of what is required to adapt the containers to safe and suitable living standards. Many sources, for example, indicate the necessity of sandblasting the container and replacing the floors altogether to eliminate dangerous chemicals.

As I started to review the logistics of building with shipping containers, it became increasingly clear that the concept isn’t as simplistic as it initially appears. One of the most fascinating accounts I came across, Tin Can Cabin, illustrates this precisely: “One of the more common misconceptions prospective builders have is that building with shipping containers will be less expensive. I’m here to tell you it’s not, especially if you want something that lives like a real house or cabin.” The writer provides some thoughtful comparisons between his 480’ container cabin and a conventionally-built structure, outlining how his structure exceeded estimates for a comparable conventional structure by an astounding $15,000. This was due largely to the many modifications needed to make his tin can cabin liveable, including “the biggest hassle of the entire project”, the insulation (which is sprayed onto the structure’s exterior, if you’re curious, to prevent reducing the already-minimal interior space).

Making a Unique Architectural Statement

That said, as with seemingly all alternative modes, container houses certainly make for a unique architectural statement. While designers are limited to the dimensions dictated by the containers’ sizes, the fact that they are stackable makes building upright relatively straightforward. Though containers can be transported to a building site relatively easily, given that they’re designed to move by truck, their enormous weight requires a crane for their actual placement (a costly expense, indeed!).

In terms of aesthetic, shipping containers homes can be as conventional or eclectic as one can imagine. Search out “container home” on Pinterest, and you’ll be presented with designs as rudimentary as a one-room studio, or as grandiose as multilevel luxury home. Yet the ultimate question remains: are shipping container homes truly worth the effort, or should we be focusing instead on more efficient methods of green building?

I suppose it all boils down to the purpose of the structure. As the writer of Tin Can Cabin has shown, the expense of building a container home isn’t necessarily as cost-effective as it appears to be. But container homes do translate well to the concept of micro-living, as the cost to purchase and refurbish one or two containers to convert into a micro-home will likely, in many locations, continue to be more affordable than the going rate of your traditional rancher; not to mention the reduced cost of heating a smaller space, and the fact that anyone in favour of micro-living has inherently chosen a simpler, more minimalistic mode of being.

As shipping containers are stackable and require smaller parcels of land for building, they serve as a promising solution for housing crises in cities with ever-growing populations (take, for example, this Vancouver Downtown Eastside housing project).

Regardless of just how well container homes rate in terms of the eco-friendly and micro-home movements, there’s something to be said for looking beyond the boundaries of conventional thought to discover new and inventive ways of adapting to the increasingly evident global paradigm shift.

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