The image of living in a steel cargo container usually conjures up scenes of poor, third-world communities, but Los Angeles architect Peter DeMaria sees their conversion into modern urban homes as an environmentally sustainable idea that will fit into most any neighborhood. While designer Frank Lloyd Wright was famous for his “destroy the box” philosophy, DeMaria simply says “live in the box.”
DeMaria is among a small, but growing, number of architects, designers and homeowners who are generating interest in steel shipping containers as building blocks for homes, apartments and commercial buildings. He likes them because they are extremely durable, easily transported, stackable, relatively cheap, readily available, rust and pest resistant and, best of all, a fully repurposed construction material.
DeMaria explained how cargo containers are used in home and building construction and outlined his strategy to distribute a variety of pre-fabricated container homes during a presentation at the California Center for Sustainable Energy in San Diego.
Why cargo containers?
Estimates place 35-40 million cargo containers in the United States, most of them stacked up to eight high (about 75 feet) in storage areas near commercial ports nationwide. That’s because it is cheaper to let them sit rather than ship them back overseas empty to be refilled. The practice is to just make new ones, adding about four million units a year to the U.S. surplus.
Uniformly manufactured to international standards, the “high cube” shipping containers that DeMaria uses are 40 feet long, 8 feet wide and 9.5 feet high. In 2006, he built the nation’s first official two-story cargo container home out of nine modified boxes in Redondo Beach, Calif. Since then he has built nearly a dozen more custom container homes and several commercial buildings in Southern California and has plans for a small hotel. The biggest difficulty he has faced is dealing with meeting all guidelines of California’s building code and satisfying the demands of municipal building inspectors who are usually looking at such plans for the first time.
Cargo containers have been used worldwide as offices, shopping malls, public buildings, vacation getaways and more. The biggest marketplace in Europe is made up of alleys formed by stacked containers on 170 acres in Odessa, Ukraine; and in Stuttgart, Germany, they are constructing a skyscraper comprised of 55 containers. Still, the integration of cargo container homes into urban and suburban neighborhoods is rare.
How does it work?
Shipping containers are made of heavy-gauge Corten steel, one of the “weathering” alloys that form a stable rust-like appearance when exposed over time, but don’t actually rust unless they are continually moist. Weighing in at about 9,000 pounds, their frames are formed by heavy steel beams that bear the load of stacking in the four corners. Purchases of cargo containers are made through brokers, who inspect and usually guarantee their quality before shipping. Used containers cost about $2,500 to $3,000.
Prior to construction, the boxes are sand-blasted and coated with several layers of primer and rust-resistant and heat-reflective paint. Windows, doors, vents and other openings are cut out of the corrugated metal walls.
Construction begins by setting the containers in place, on a raised floor, slab or basement, and welding them together to create the desired form of the structure. Wood, or preferably, steel studs, beams and trusses can be used to create any imaginable exterior or interior spaces (between containers) and roof coverings. Then insulation and electrical, plumbing and mechanical systems are added as well as windows, doors and other finishing. Exterior and interior walls, floors and ceilings can be left as is or covered with any building material. Options are limitless for outfitting, decorating and adding sustainable attributes to the structure.
The cost of a custom-designed container home, according to DeMaria, averages around $135 per square foot, depending on finishings, which is about 35 percent less than conventional construction.
In addition to building custom container homes, DeMaria unveiled a line of prefabricated designs in 2009 that range from one to five bedrooms with interiors from 160 to 3,580 square feet. His company, Logical Homes, assembles the homes in Los Angeles and then serves as the general contractors on site. Almost everything is included, from foundation to countertops, (except appliances and permits) for prices ranging from $100 to $135 per square foot.
“Our homes are not high-tech – we like to think of them as appropriate-tech,” DeMaria said. “We believe that the options available to progressive homebuyers are limited; and we have chosen to do something about it with a respect for the scarcity of resources our planet faces.”