Brodie Farquhar: Shipping containers as housing
January 16, 2018
I was pleased to see an article last month about how tiny homes might be useful in dealing with the affordable housing problem in the region.
I’d like to suggest an additional idea or resource: shipping containers.
Local government building permit offices and planning and zoning departments are looking at tiny homes – so too, should they look at the merits of shipping containers.
There’s approximately 17 million shipping containers in the world today – most made in China, the world’s manufacturing titan. Yet most shipping containers take one-time, one-way trips from China to ports around the world, due to the trade imbalance between China and everyone else.
As a result, there are approximately 11 million shipping containers piling up in the world’s ports, few to be used again on return voyages to China. No one wants to bear the cost of shipping empties back to China, and China has found it is more cost effective to manufacture new shipping containers than to pay for the return of once-used empties.
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So what to do with those 11 million, and growing, mountains of shipping containers in world and American ports? Port authorities everywhere are eager to get rid of them.
There is a growing movement to use shipping containers as giant building blocks for cost-effective, affordable housing – ranging from individual homes to multi-family complexes. Strong, sturdy and standard in design and manufacture, shipping containers provide four walls, a floor and roof for units that are 8-feet wide, 8.5-feet tall and 20- or 40-feet long. There are other dimensions for units known as high-top, refrigerated, open-topped, platform or tank, but those are fewer in number and availability.
Containers can be stacked nine high on ships or docks, corner to corner. They can be assembled side by side or end to end in a wide range of configurations. They’re pretty narrow, so side walls are often removed by welders, creating spaces that are multiples of 8 feet.
There are problems that must be dealt with.
• Cutting out windows, doors or entire sides decrease the structural integrity and needs compensating supports, especially if you want to stack units or even accommodate snow loads in our region.
• Insulation, inside and out, is essential to avoid freezing in winter or cooking in summer.
• Units are extremely air-tight, so good heat/air exchange systems are needed to avoid buildup of either indoor pollutants or condensation, which can lead to mold or rust.
• Because it is hard to know whether a unit once contained hazardous chemicals, it is good to have the insides scoured out with sand-blasters, down to the steel.
Aesthetically, shipping containers have an industrial vibe, which isn’t for everyone. The good news is that their appearance can be anything you can imagine, from rustic cabin to suburban ranch to gleaming glass and metal modernism.
Yes, tiny homes are a viable option. Heck, Amazon now offers tiny homes made from 20-foot shipping containers. But if customers want much more elbow room with significant savings over stick-built, shipping containers should be considered by government officials, contractors and developers.
Spend an hour on Youtube and you’ll see some amazing ideas.