When most encounter a shipping container they see a large metal box. Others see a low-cost housing solution for the needy and trendy alike.
Technically known as an intermodal container, the reusable steel freight vessels are being refitted to serve as emergency housing units, building blocks for environmentally conscious communities, and even luxury homes.
With 17 million of them in circulation, according to the World Shipping Council, there is no shortage of supply, while demand for alternative uses is growing.
In New York, still recovering from the damage wrought by superstorm Sandy, city officials are exploring ways to employ shipping containers in disaster-relief efforts.
David Burney, commissioner of New York's Department of Design and Construction, describes how officials came to view the metal containers as a housing solution.
"They're very plentiful," Burney says. "You'll see them stacked up in New Jersey and all over the world. They're about the right size to make a small apartment for somebody. And if you look at where they are near the docks, they're stacked up. They put them eight, 10 high, so you can obviously make multistory housing with these. So we thought, well, that's not the only solution, but it's a pretty viable one."
Model Apartment Community
It all started five years ago when the city sponsored a competition to generate ideas for safe, urban housing solutions in the wake of disasters.
Called "What If?" the contest drew more than 100 entries from around the world. Proposals involving intermodal containers stood out.
Building on the idea, the city is now planning to construct a model apartment community in Brooklyn this summer on the property of the Office of Emergency Management.
SeaBox, a company that provides shipping containers for the U.S. military, is among those bidding to win a city contract for the project.
Sea Box has already built a prototype of its concept on the front lawn of its New Jersey office. Company director Bill Begley envisions a range of apartments offering from one to three bedrooms, stacked atop one another to form a multistory apartment complex.
"The one thing we have to try to add in this is the human factor," Begley says. "You can put a bed in a container but that doesn't make it a bedroom. If you really want to live in these environments you have to make them friendly to the occupants."
Begley said that for those who have lost everything, this means including all amenities, down to a toothbrush and toothpaste.
Expensive, But Economical
The comforts of a temporary home don't come cheap. Begley said the basic one-bedroom unit starts at $50,000, while a three-bedroom apartment would start at $100,000. But when longevity, transportability, and construction speed are factored in, containers come out as an economical option.
The city of New York is far from the only place to take notice of the benefits. Projects involving shipping containers are sprouting up across North America.
In Vancouver, Canada, workers recently broke ground on a social-housing project
built out of shipping containers. The city is partnering with a local nonprofit group to provide low-cost housing for women currently living in homeless shelters and low-rent hotels around the city.
In Detroit, plans are being laid for an artsy 36-room boutique hotel
In the Hamptons, one of the United States' swankiest areas, there is the Beach Box,
a 190-square-meter luxury home built from multiple shipping containers that sells for a cool $1.4 million.
Across the ocean, you will find multiple examples of container projects in London
; in Amsterdam
, where students use them as dormitories; and in Kyrgyzstan, where a massive market makes extensive use of stacked shipping boxes.
A group of specially fitted containers are even making their way to the Antarctic, where they will be used as living quarters
for an expedition led by renowned explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes.
Peter DeMaria, founder of Logical Homes, an architectural firm devoted to storage-container housing solutions, says there is definitely a "coolness factor" that works to the advantage of container homes.
Environmentalists appreciate the ample use of recycled material in his company's designs. Strips of old blue jeans, for example, are used as insulation. And building a home from shipping containers requires only about 5 percent of the energy and materials needed to build a comparable home from scratch, according to DeMaria.
Used containers are actively bought and sold on eBay
, where do-it-yourself types can find the shell of their next home project for about $2,000 to $3,000.
But while DeMaria admits that cost considerations often sparks initial interest in his designs -- he says they cost 30 percent less than comparably sized homes built from traditional materials -- it is the finished product that wins them over.
Many can't imagine living in a shipping container when they see them carrying freight on the back of a truck on the highway, but that quickly changes once they see the transformation in person, according to DeMaria.
"The minute folks step into the building or arrive at the building, it changes," he says. "And then the possibilities become endless for them at that point."