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Living in an Old Shipping Container, the New Housing Trend

When Anne Adriance’s architect pitched the idea of building a 3,000-sq.-ft. (280 sq m) coastal retreat in Maine out of cargo containers, she thought her architect was kidding. Her architect was talking about the same rectangular shipping containers that we can see piled high in ports worldwide that are being converted as homes, office buildings an even as traveling museum exhibits.

According to Barry Naef, founder of the Intermodal Steel Building Units Association, the adoption of the containers for architectural use increased in 2010 compared with the previous year. The newest wrinkle – nicknamed "cargotecture" by architect Joel Egan of Seattle – is being charged at best by sustainability but mainly by chic artistic sensitivity.

Adam Kalkin, Adriance’s New Jersey-based architect says, "It really cuts across all types of thinking and starts your imagination." His cargotecture projects include developing mobile museums for UNESCO to be utilized in Africa. The cargo containers can be seen everywhere from Miami’s classy Art Basel show to a Salt Lake City’s 50-container apartment complex, and also being considered as a likely source of disaster-relief housing.

An empty container is being sold ranging from $2,800 to $4,800, depending on its size and availability, uncomplicated designs can be done for as little as $95 per sq. ft. — not a bad price for custom architecture.

Recycling old containers will not only help decrease a project’s carbon footprint, it also decreases construction time as well. Furthermore, the containers’ weathering, or its so called Cor-Ten steel is tailored to endure the elements even without layers of paint, and it has the additional benefit of being strong enough to support green roofs effortlessly. According to Keith Dewey, the one who designs cargo homes and actually built one for his family in Victoria, B.C., solar panels also pair well with the flat-topped containers, which a lot of homeowners say they can have enough for since they have saved greatly on building materials.

Even though these structures can be a bear to heat and cold, high-quality insulation and passive cooling techniques like open-air ventilation can turn them into as energy efficient as traditional homes. For the time being, recycling an item that may have used up more than a decade of journeying over the seas can create a “visceral emotional response," says Egan. Egan’s project include a three-story, 24-container office complex that measures 7,200 sq. ft. (670 sq m) in Seattle and a 320-sq.-ft. (30 sq m) getaway he erected on Ronnie Alexander's property in rural Enumclaw, Wash.

Alexander says when you first gaze upon it; it appears like an ordinary container. "But you lift up the back flap and go inside, and there are windows all the way around to enjoy the view." But if lifting a flap is not the one you’re looking for, conventional windows and doors can be fitted in on the containers – of course, each addition will have an equivalent price to it.

Adriance enjoyed her home in Maine, which has 12 containers surrounding a glass-walled common room. "Living in it is wonderful," she said. "It feels private, intimate. It is so simple and yet accomplishes so much."

However, she adds, it was without a doubt an interesting task to figure out how to fit in bedroom furniture in an 8-by-20-ft. (2.5 by 6 m) space.

"In the kids' rooms, it didn't work to have two twin beds side by side," Adriance says. "We solved the challenge by running the beds lengthwise, head to head." Welcome to the life in a shipping container.

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