Out of the box housing

Living on Earth

The right side of this home is an addition made of shipping containers.(Courtesy of SG Blocks)

Shipping containers are those big steel boxes you find at ports, rail yards, and loaded on trucks. And usually they're used for just that – shipping. But as Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports, some entrepreneurs are transforming containers into home sweet home.

As forklifts move exhibits into place at the EcoBuild America show in Orange County, CA. David Cross of SG Blocks stands at his exhibit, a steel box with one half converted into a living space.

"What we're looking at here is a forty-foot cargo container: eight feet wide, it's nine and a half feet tall and it's forty feet long.  As you see it, a tremendous amount of material has been removed from it. It's been augmented, so now it's a structural steel building system that formerly was a cargo container," says Cross.

Cross says buildings made this way can withstand 175 mile per hour winds. And the containers or 'blocks' can be stacked, cut, and integrated by an architect into various styles. In fact in several buildings SG Blocks has helped build, it's hard to discern the containers within.

"We're the bones of it," says Cross, "but what the exterior and the interior looks like is up to the architect and their clients.

"What's funny these days – it seems to be a trend towards exposing the shipping container and utilizing that as an industrial look," says Bill Hinchliff of ConGlobal Industries. His company partners with SG Blocks.

Typically how a projects works is a homeowner or developer hears about the shipping containers, and then puts SG Blocks in contact with their architect for the design. ConGlobal does the welding and custom cutting. The contractor on site pours a foundation. Then the customized containers are delivered and welded via plates to the foundation wall. This way the bones of most buildings can be stacked in a day, making way for electricians, plumbers and drywall trades.

The finished product isn't always cheaper, but can be faster and stronger than a frame building. And cross says the treated steel would hold up being underwater for several weeks, as many homes were after Hurricane Katrina.

There's also the reuse aspect. The pieces removed from the box are melted down for new steel, so all aspects of the container get a new life. Cross says he's been getting a lot of calls.

SG Blocks isn't the only company to consider shipping containers for homes. There's a development called Container City in the UK. And designer Jennifer Siegal, who specializes in sustainable prefabricated buildings, created a container house in Los Angeles.

That also led to interest from around the country, but Siegal hit some resistance talking to local officials.  "Most building departments around the country are not ready to accept the shipping container as a form or as a building element as of yet."

Still she believes containers hold promise, as long as people use them creatively, cutting windows, stacking them, putting on different finishes.

Siegal says, "Then yes, I think there is an incredible demand for low to moderate income housing, office space – all kinds of ways in which the containers can be sewn into the fabric of the city."

Or wherever building speed, wind resistance, and the desire to reuse are priorities.

Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More "Living on Earth.

PRI's coverage of social entrepreneurship is supported by the Skoll Foundation.

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