Boxed In: Would you live in a shipping container?

By Linzy Novotny

Gaze out upon any commercial port, and your eyes will doubtless fall on thousands of multicolored shipping containers nestled against each other. Nearly all of your possessions arrived in one of these identical steel boxes. However, where many see simply another cog in the global-trade machine, some entrepreneurs are giving new life to the humble shipping container. Your next home or office (or, irony of ironies, cubicle) could be in a box.

There are several architectural firms around the world using recycled shipping containers in residential and commercial building construction. Distill Studio designed the “Box Office” using 32 recycled shipping containers. The Providence, R.I., building has space for 12 offices.

Christopher Murray of Oomph, Inc. is leasing space in the building. “We found the Box Office while searching for a new place since our old place was bursting at the seams,” he said. “The urban feel, energy efficiency and uniqueness were big parts of why we loved the space. Employees love being in such a unique building. Clients and prospects love to visit.”

The shipping container industry has taken notice. In 2005 an estimated 700,000 intermodal steel building units (ISBU), or shipping containers, were going unused in U.S. shipping ports, according to the ISBU Association’s website. “[The use of ISBU modules in construction] is an incredible growing trend, but not because of the U.S. and global economy,” according to the website. “It is because ISBU modules are so strong, easy to use and versatile-almost like stacking blocks.”

Facing slowing global trade, the industry group sings the praises of container-based construction. Shipping containers have “the strongest building construction on the planet,” asserts the website. They can withstand natural disasters: earthquakes, fire, tornadoes and hurricanes. They are easily adaptable and the containers can be “covered with traditional stucco, vinyl sidings, woods or brick,” suggests the ISBU Association site.

This Martha Stewart treatment must be working, because the success is breeding imitators. The use of recycled shipping is giving way to prefabricated shipping containers designed specifically for use in construction. With this type of shipping container builders and architects can customize shipping containers for individual projects.

Industrial designer Debbie Glassberg is taking the idea of using prefabricated shipping containers as a construction material to a new level with her business, Home Contained. A few years ago, Glassberg came up with the idea to construct a home for her family using prefabricated shipping containers. The home would not only act as a dwelling for her family but also as a prototype for Home Contained. With Home Contained, Glassburg provides a way for people to design and build a shipping container home of their own. “I saw a need for new kinds of space,” Glassberg said. “I knew I could design something that could be duplicated.”

In March 2009, Glassberg’s home was completed in Kansas City, Miss. with the use of five prefabricated containers. She worked alongside BNIM architects. “I did the interior stuff on my own and they did the structural parts,” Glassberg said. Recently, her home was featured on an episode of MTV’s show “Cribs.”

In partnership with BNIM, Glassberg is expanding the use of prefabricated containers to the entire country. Through her company Home Contained, people will have the opportunity to buy plans to construct their own shipping container homes. Glassberg’s business can construct prefabricated containers or if the homeowner would like to use recycled containers, Glassberg will help them alter the recycled containers for their project.

When the site launches in the spring, five or six designs will be available. The homes will cost between $149 and $250 a square foot. Prices fluctuate depending on the kind of materials the homeowner would like in the interior of the home and how far the shipping containers need to be transported.

“I really worked with my containers in a way that you don’t feel like you are in a container,” Glassberg said. “A lot of the structures you can tell you are in a container and it feels small. Our space is different than most places. You have to be super creative. We love living in our house.”

Glassberg prefers prefabricated shipping containers because they are more easily customizable in relation to recycled shipping containers. “When you make it yourself you can add in features,” she said. “You can design it a bit differently.”

Like recycled containers, prefabricated containers are air-tight, easy to maintain and more affordable than traditional construction materials, according to Glassberg. The containers are clean, assemble quickly, and lack the construction waste of traditional construction methods.

“That business is just beginning,” Glassberg said. “We are in a recession so it is slow to be taking off. I believe there will be more prefab containers in the future because it is more efficient.”

By next spring people across the country will have the opportunity to have their very own prefabricated shipping container home with the help of Glassberg and Home Contained.

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