Container house in Redondo Beach, California, designed by architect Peter DeMaria, with conventional roof framing. The Box Office in Providence, Rhode IslandEvolution of ‘container architecture’

Is the concept of using shipping containers as buildings something new? Not really, as institutions like  the military have been using these ubiquitous steel structures, a familiar sight at many seaports, as temporary offices or bunk houses for some time. There have also been examples of designers incorporating shipping containers into residential designs since 1982.

In the last few years, however, a field known as ‘container architecture’ has evolved, with some architectural forms around the world, from New York to New Zealand, designing prototypes or plans for shipping-container homes. One prefab factory, in fact, began making small container homes that were not meant for the military or for use in disaster relief camps. They were actually meant for the discerning homeowner who wanted something new.

In 2004, Adam Kalkin, an architect based in New Jersey, USA, created his own ‘Quik House’ design using five shipping containers as a base. A year later, a European contest, ‘Living Box’ was held on a similar theme.

The Adam Kalkin houses, first produced in 2006, were two-storey , 2,000 sq. ft. homes with skylights and large glass windows, equipped with three bedrooms and two baths.

The price, which ranged from $76,000 for the basic home to $ 160,000 (with a stainless-steel kitchen and mahogany doors), was under $100 per sq. foot, not including the cost of land or foundation. Kalkin’s more recent creation was the ‘Push Button House,’ a home built inside a shipping container with mechanised walls that open like a blossoming flower.

Icons of the global age

California architect Peter DeMaria (of DeMaria Design Associates) says shipping containers are icons of the global age. He is one of those who have been designing buildings crafted from recycled and modified cargo containers. DeMaria says the recycled containers, which cost between $2,000 and $3,000 each, are only “the tip of the iceberg” of the designs. The homes, which use anywhere from four to eight containers, can include add-ons such as solar panels, green roofs, radiant heating and other environmentally friendly or energy-efficient features.

DeMaria's initial model house, in Redondo Beach, California, was intended to serve as an example for residential construction across the United States. Besides the virtues of recycling, this approach demonstrated other advantages, such as controlling project time and cost without compromising design quality.

The Redondo Beach house consists of eight containers, of various sizes, stacked two high, some perpendicular to the others. The metal container walls define various service spaces, and in between the containers are larger spaces, framed in wood and steel, which house an artist's studio, master bedroom, and a double-height living room with a 20-foot ceiling. The four largest containers are divided into smaller utility spaces, such as laundry and bathrooms. The smaller containers house bedrooms and the kitchen.

Aerospace technology

The design/construction process has borrowed technologies from the aerospace industry. For instance, airplane hangar doors lift open to merge the family room and an adjacent courtyard. In the open position, they also serve as awnings. The ceramic-based insulation is similar to a product used on NASA’s Space Shuttle - a coating sprayed on the interiors and exteriors.

Also incorporated were prefabricated metal roof panels, multi-skinned acrylic sheets, formaldehyde-free plywood, and natural ventilation instead of air-conditioning. The result is a house that is environmentally sensitive as well as strong.

David Cross, founder of SG Blocks, a company that modifies containers at different U S locations, said last year that there were about 75 homes using shipping containers.

Cross' company, formed at the end of 2006, plans to modify more than 1,000 containers this year. Cross said it is the shipping container's strength that makes it valuable in building construction.

‘Box Office’ project

Finally, from Providence, capital of Rhode Island, comes news of a new project, called ‘Box Office’, which broke ground recently. An office space made from reused shipping containers, it is being built on a land parcel in the city's neighbourhood, and is quickly becoming an attraction for local start-ups. It will use 25 per cent less energy than a conventional new office building. The brightly coloured, three-storey Box Office is being constructed from 32 old containers which will house 12 units of office and studio spaces.

The Box Office, due for completion in March 2010, will be built  using environmentally friendly materials that have been specified by the developer, Peter Gill Case.

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