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Shipping Container Homes (or ISBU Homes)

MEETING SOMEONE WHO'S ACTUALLY BUILDING THEM: I flew up to Washington, D.C. in December 2007 to attend the EcoBuild Conference.  My real reason for going was to meet with David Cross of SG Blocks, plus the rest of the SG Blocks team... and was impressed to see the 2-storey container house they assembled in two hours inside the exhibit hall of the conference! They used four 40-foot containers to do so, finished off the entire first floor as comfy exhibit space (complete with kitchen) and left the second floor open to show the actual metal structure.  Check here to go to a page of photos, plus an article in the Baltimore Sun all about their efforts.  AND TAKE A LOOK AT HOW 'GREEN' CONTAINER HOMES ARE.

Of all the alternatives to traditional housing, this one is the most 'out there'.  Yet it probably offers the greatest opportunity to replace your existing home in a creative, affordable and environmentally friendly way.

And we predict that ISBUs, or container houses, are the segment that will see the greatest impact from Boomers ... once people look beyond their boxiness and realize how great they can be.  Like adult Lego sets!  And the combinations are endless, limited only by your imagination.

For the moment, the industry is still in its infancy.  In fact, people are still arguing over what to call them.  "Container houses" isn't exactly a sexy name.  And ISBUs?  (Is that pronounced "izz-boos'?)  By the way, ISBU stands for Intermodal Steel Building Unit.

But a thriving community of believers is working feverishly to bring this housing alternative to market.  And not a moment too soon ... for the retiring Boomer!

Media and the Shipping Container Home

In recent years, ISBUs have taken on a touch of respectability.  For example: Bob Vila, the original home improvement guru, did an entire series on a groundbreaking project in St. Petersburg, FL, that used shipping containers.  Click to watch the Bob Vila video on Converting Shipping Containers for Housing.  And read Bob Vila's article on Container Conversions which is continued in this second part, Building a Container House

Then earlier this year, Brian Williams and Roger O'Neil of NBC Nightly News aired the following report:  (We apologize in advance for the short advertisement before the clip, but couldn't bring it to you without it ...) 

Creating affordable housing from giant crates
Creating affordable housing from giant crates

A CNN piece presents another angle on the opportunity:

New York Times piece talks about container housing, and a post (that has appeared in many mortgage-related blogs) seems to come from this article in Mortgage News Daily.

Where Are All the Containers Coming From?

Estimates of how many shipping containers are stacked, empty, near U.S. ports run as high as 700,000 units.  And where do they come from?  The fact that the U.S. no longer manufactures much, and brings many more containers IN from China than it ships back OUT.  They cost about $1900 each to build in China (up from $1300 three years ago, because of the increase in steel costs).  But they still cost over $1200 to ship back ... even empty.  So until their production cost far outstrips their transport cost, they'll continue to clog our ports.

And what a great thing!  (Unless you live next door to one of the stacking areas.)  A fully recyclable, hurricane-resistant, heavy gauge Corten steel building block to be used in lower cost, creative construction.

Specifications of Shipping Containers

Shipping containers come in two standardized sizes:  40 x 8 x 8 feet and 20 x 8 x 8 feet.  (They also come in specialized sizes, like 'high cubes' which are 9.5 feet high.)  Because they need to line up precisely when loaded on ships, their dimensions are precise.  Which helps in their reuse in construction.  And because of their structural strength, they can be stacked up to nine rows high without compromising structural integrity.

Thinking of Green Housing? 

For anyone interested in going 'green' on their next house, ISBUs are perfect:  the units themselves are recycled, and the amount of wood needed to build is reduced by as much as 99 percent, so trees are protected and termites frustrated.  Insulation is replaced with NASA-inspired Super Therm® insulative coating, spray painted inside and out: it is said to give an R value of R-19 if just sprayed externally, and 28.5 if sprayed inside and out.  An inclined roof could be used with a gutter system to capture and evacuate water for grey water uses.  And, especially if you were to choose to keep the modern industrial look of the original containers, what perfect top surfaces to receive solar panels.  With thoughtful, innovative design, not only can initial construction costs be lowered, but ongoing operating costs as well.  Both of which are critical issues to someone looking for intelligent retirement housing.

It would be interesting to see an ISBU house designed with a LEED rating in mind.  "The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System™ encourages and accelerates global adoption of sustainable green building and development practices through the creation and implementation of universally understood and accepted tools and performance criteria," says the U.S. Green Building Council's website.  For more sustainable building ideas, check out the LEED for Homes section of the USGBC's site.

Cost of Building with Shipping Containers

Depending on your vision, the per-square-foot cost of construction using repurposed shipping containers is reported to run from 50 to 65 percent of traditional construction.  However, costs should come down for larger projects or for individual projects done with large amounts of owner labor and ingenuity. 

Web-based Portals on Shipping Container Housing

As this topic gets more mature, there will be more and more portal-type websites such as, and specifically its Container Bay section, which we highly recommend.  Be prepared to peruse this site, and join its forum if your interest level is as high as ours!

Other Link-Intense Websites on the Use of Shipping Containers

A really link-loaded site by Zack Smith offers an excellent collection of designs and examples, even if his politics are way further left than anyone's we know.  About his site, he states:  "This is a webpage devoted to listing as many examples of people using shipping containers as architectural elements as I can find, in an effort to embolden people to use containers in building projects, when and where doing so is feasible and appropriate." 

A brief but link-dense treatment of the subject by a TreeHugger, which says it is "the leading media outlet dedicated to driving sustainability mainstream. Partial to a modern aesthetic, we strive to be a one-stop shop for green news, solutions, and product information."  And a blog called JetsonGreen will keep you up-to-date on developments in this form of architecture.

Shipping Container Housing Guide is another link-based site, apparently built by some young Romanians.

Some Well-Known Shipping Container House Projects

Designed by DeMaria Design Associates, a Redondo Beach, CA, house created quite a stir in its neighborhood. 

Urban Space Management is behind Container City, a British site that proves this group has this construction idea down to a system, and they’ve got lots of good-looking examples. Here's their gallery.

Several other student housing projects made of containers exist in Europe.  Here are some cozy studio apartments made available to students in Amsterdam, in the form of blocks of shipping containers turned into student housing.  And here's a second student housing project in Amsterdam, called Qubic.

Earth Science Australia gives a great photo-by-photo account on how a house was built out of shipping containers in a dense rainforest deep in Queensland, including what happened when it got hit in 2006 by a category 5 cyclone named Larry, with local wind gusts to 175 mph.

In a Seattle, WA, project, containers are converted into a weekend studio.

Names in the Container Housing Industry

One of the architects whose work needs to be seen to understand how beautiful container houses can be ... is Adam Kalkin.

New Jersey-based Gregory La Vardera is another architect who has a richly informative site.

Jennifer Siegal's Office of Mobile Design has won kudos for its pre-fabs, but strays occasionally into using shipping containers, such as the Seatrain project. This 3,000 square foot residence can be found in a 300 loft live-work artist community by the Brewery. It combines industrial and traditional materials, including storage containers and steel found on-site in downtown Los Angeles.

On the actual container conversion side, a major driving force is David Cross, who is Chief Business Development Officer for a company called SG Blocks LLC and works with Tampa Armature Works.  Here's access to a recent interview with David CrossThis St. Louis article talks some more about SG Blocks' structure and visions.

Some Sources of Shipping Containers

Used and new containers are available from many sources, including:

How Containers Have Been Used To Date

Up until now, shipping containers have been used as emergency shelters, school buildings, urban homes, rural homes, large houses, apartment and office buildings, artists’ studios, sleeping rooms, stores, shopping malls, transportable factories, mobile exhibition spaces, bank vaults, medical clinics, radar stations, abstract art, data centers and experimental labs.


Want more information on this 'green' means of building sturdy, contemporary housing?  We'll share whatever we find through our free email newsletter. 




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