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Recently a new 20-unit condo building made from 93 containers was announced in Detroit. The plans are chalk full of great green technologies – ductless heating and air system, tankless water heaters, etc. This project highlights all that can be good about green container architecture. But is it is really all it is cracked up to be?
In this article about the new development, they highlight other high-profile container projects such as the student dorms in Amsterdam, the Muvbox café in a container, and The Sunset Cargotecture House, Seattle among others. These projects are fantastic examples of what container architecture is at its finest.
But the article also highlights a few other points about container architecture that go unmentioned in most glowing reports about this building material – that there is not an overabundance of these around, that they are not cheaper than standard architecture/building projects. While containers still remain relatively cheap, changes in the industry over the past few years have left prices higher than they were 5-10 years ago. And even after you purchase the container, you will still have all of the same other building costs for all of your other materials and labor.
In response to press about this new project, Nathaniel Hood, a Twin Cities urban planner and blogger (Thoughts on the Urban Environment.), wrote about his experiences with a container apartment building his family owned in the 1980’s and as an urban planner. He contends that:
“ It’s not that we shouldn’t build affordable housing – it’s that we shouldn’t build experimental affordable housing to fit the needs of a few green, trendy, idealistic populations who won’t be living there. The desire to recycle these unwanted containers is noble, but doesn’t lend itself to being as green as a building that can be built and stand its ground for hundreds of years.”
His experience with the container building of his youth that it was not energy efficient, nor did it age well. He goes on to point out:
“Shipping container housing may make some sense in impoverished areas, like the favelas of Rio de Jeneirio, or as shelters after disasters in Haiti. They should not, however, be assembled to meet the needs of the first-world poor. We should view these are nothing more than a passing novelty – especially in areas like the Midwest. Real estate in Detroit is already affordable, and it’s confusing that small, cramped shipping container units would be viewed as a better alternative than just building brick buildings (according to one source, shipping containers save only 5 to 10 percent on construction costs).”
This reoccurring theme that container architecture does not save money is a good point. I get calls frequently from potential customers that they are “going to turn 2 of these into our house really cheaply by doing it all myself”. At the end of the day, it is a still a home that you want to be safe and sound. One that you probably want to have electricity, plumbing, insulation, finished floors, walls, etc. Regardless if you go with traditional building or containers, you will have these expenses and you will want them done correctly.
But if saving money is not your purpose in making a container home, then there are some benefits to be had. There is a recycled component to building with containers. They do have an esthetic that many find appealing and they do encourage a certain amount of
minimalism to really make the most of the 7’8” interior width that containers provide. The result is some creative, beautiful buildings.
Is container architecture for everyone? No. Does it have its own place as a viable option for a home? Most definitely. But the key is to go into a project with your eyes open to both the challenges and the rewards of using containers.