When architect Mark Strauss sees a shipping container, he doesn't think of cargo holds. Instead, he thinks of housing. He imagines these hulking steel boxes - which weigh from 4,000 to 9,000 pounds - as stackable living units; as modular, low-cost homes or shelters that can help alleviate the mounting surplus of containers piling up in American ports.
And he's not the only one who sees the possibilities of solving two problems at once - getting rid of excess shipping containers and providing additional low-cost housing.
Recently, as part of a national design competition, Mr. Strauss and a team of associates came up with a plan to convert hundreds of shipping containers into 351 multilevel duplex units in Gloucester, Mass. This brainstorm had its roots in a paper written by Barry Hersh of Baruch College in New York.
In New York about a million empty containers overflow the seaport and jam storage yards along the New Jersey Turnpike. The cause is a trade deficit - more imports than exports - and not enough financial incentive for returning the containers. Many were built in China for $2,300 each, but it costs $900 to return one empty from America's East Coast.
Shipping containers are already a ubiquitous part of the third-world landscape, where they're used for storage, barricades, temporary housing, and prisons. (John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" was detained in one.)
Once building methods have been refined, containers could provide emergency shelter after natural disasters. With their rigid, steel-beam frame, covered with a corrugated steel skin, they're much more durable than tents. In fact, they're strong enough to withstand high winds, heavy snows, and wildfires, and portable enough for a sturdy pickup truck to haul up a mountain. A crane is not required to position them.
The container idea wasn't ready to be used after the recent earthquake in Iran, but Global Emergency Housing, a private firm in Toronto, would like to see container ports around the world be prepared for future emergencies.
That possibility is still a way off, however.
The first hurdle is figuring out how to transform the containers quickly and economically. Strauss doesn't believe that converting a small number of containers would be cost-effective in the United States, but he likes the potential economies of scale.
"With a large number of units you can develop an approach in which you figure out how to minimally modify these containers," he says.
The idea could possibly evolve into a modular building system in which the containers would be manufactured with their second lives in mind.
Converting containers presently requires using a blowtorch to cut windows, doors, and stairwell openings, says Tom Fisher, the dean of architecture at the University of Minnesota. But in the future, containers could be manufactured with removable panels to speed the transformation.
That still leaves the problem of the containers' size, Strauss says. Their length (20, 25, or 40 feet) and height (9-1/2 feet) work fine, but their standard 8-foot width is too narrow.
By removing their metal sides, however, individual containers can be conjoined to make much larger and livable spaces - 16, 24, or 32 feet wide or wider.
A number of graduate students are looking at the possibilities of transforming shipping containers into housing, as are a growing number of private and nonprofit developers, including one involved in military housing.
Another company is exploring the possibility of creating container-home villages in empty warehouses that would provide temporary shelter for the homeless. It also envisions vacation modules, which would be furnished by the owners.
Strauss, who talks enthusiastically of joining containers together to make modular homes, has heard from a number of interested parties. "It's amazing how this concept has struck a chord with the public," he observes.
Strauss's firm, Fox & Fowle Architects, has been in contact with a Colorado couple, the Pearsons, who want to use shipping containers to build a single-family home at a ski area. Initially they plan to use it as a weekend residence,
Andrea Pearson says she and her husband, who currently live in a historic Denver bungalow, envisioned building a cabin in the mountains. That changed when they read about Strauss's ideas and became intrigued.
"The more we thought about the realities of living at 9,800 feet with extreme weather conditions, the more this idea made sense," she says.
Given the wonderful views from their property, the Pearsons would like to do what Strauss proposed for the 18-acre Gloucester site, namely, remove the sheathing to create windows on both the front and back.
Another consideration is whether a shipping container would be an eyesore on a scenic landscape.
Tucked below the tree line on a 35-acre property, it really won't be that visible, Mrs. Pearson says. Plus, she trusts that a suitable exterior can be designed and that environmentally conscious neighbors would support their efforts.
In urban settings or as emergency housing, the containers' appearance may not matter as much. As with modern mobile or manufactured homes, shipping containers could be dressed up, but Strauss finds their industrial appearance pleasing. "It's a colorful, active, very playful aesthetic," he observes.
The interior of the containers can have conventional stud walls and be made to look virtually no different from any other home. And with insulation and a heating system added, these units would be no less comfortable than any well-built glass and steel structure.
The key to success, though, is to begin with boxes and then think outside the box.