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Turning Shipping Containers Into Customizable, Affordable Housing
Julia Levitt, 26 Feb 09


We recently started following the development of a cool new project taking root at Clemson University in South Carolina. Architecture faculty Martha Skinner and Doug Hecker and Landscape Architecture faculty Pernille Christensen are working with their students to design livable, sustainable dwellings using the large shipping containers sent to Caribbean nations.

According to assistant professor Caitlyn Dyckman, the containers are generally considered waste because it's more expensive to bring them back to port than to leave them in the Caribbean. But the right redesign approach could turn these large vessels into viable housing.

"Our goal for the initial start up phase of the project is to come up with a design that, like the ISO container, can navigate the many different scenarios -- Haiti, Dominica, Jamaica etc. -- in the Caribbean, and at the same time be "open" enough to take root and adapt so that families can take ownership of the dwelling to meet their needs but within their means," says Hecker.

The group expects the first container to be delivered to campus at the end of this month, and they will begin working with a team of welders from a local community college on the first round of retrofits. They expect to have a completed design and a partial prototype constructed at full scale on the Clemson campus by May. We'll be following the Clemson group's work as it progresses. In the meantime, you can read about their research and design development on their blog.

This new project is similar to the type of work Hecker and Skinner did with another group of Clemson students, under the group name Digital Design-Build New Orleans (ddbNOLA). Their Dry-In House is a prototype small home that can be customized according to the owner's preferences, and built for a cost comparable to that of a FEMA trailer. While the price remains affordable, the Dry-In House is meant to offer a healthier and more personalized alternative to the notoriously toxic trailers.

They describe this process on their ddbNOLA website:

Dry-In House
Photo source: ddbNOLA
As originally proposed by fieldoffice, the Dry-In house starts with the future homeowner performing a few key design tasks on a worksheet, such as the house's silhouette and room layout, under the advisement of an architectural consultant. This worksheet is sent to manufacturers to produce the customized home. The Dry-In House is 1500 sq. feet, with one, two or three bedrooms and one bathroom. It is designed to fit on a 30'-wide lot, a standard lot size for New Orleans.

Providing affordable housing solutions for the world's growing populations – particularly those that can be quickly constructed to shelter environmental refugees – is something that we often cover here on Worldchanging. Small, well-designed and low-cost homes are a key tool for building cities and dense communities where many people and families can live safely and comfortably while sharing resources efficiently. And these types of resourceful construction models, which take people's individual needs and preferences into account, will also allow us to respond to disaster with lasting, livable shelter where refugees can recover with dignity.

Read more about affordable, modular, prefab and refugee housing solutions in the Worldchanging archive:

Refugee Shelter In A Bag

Fabulous Prefab

Seattle Visionaries: HyBrid

Casa De Botellas: Turning Waste into Modular Construction

Image source: Clemson SEED blog

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Here in Alaska we run into the same logistical problem, once the containers end up at a very rural community or a construction job way out in the bush its too expensive to bring them back empty. Most of these get used as storage units, rural offices or tool sheds. Im sure more than one ingenious alaskan native has turned one into a make shift home. As someone that has worked in the shipping industry I can attest to their durability and I think this idea will go far if they keep it simple. If you try to go buy one here they are pretty expensive while still circulating in use. The floors are generally made out of wood and are the first part to wear out, and its usually not until after this happens that the price drops low enough that they become affordable vs. the price of some other type of structure of equal size/etc. However the cost of shipping them back empty from thousands of miles away has a way of changing the equation.

Posted by: Daniel Christianson on 26 Feb 09

I have been working in Iraq since 2004 and now for 5 years I have been living in various conex or shipping containers. Add the AC and connect the plumbing below and it is ready to live in with a toilet, a shower, and 2 sinks. I have worked in water purification. The water ROWPU have been manufactered and shipped in a 40' conex. Attach the piping and electric on the outside and ready to go.

With the global market and the shipping container has come the ability to ship ANYTHING in a uniform container to ANYWHERE in the world.

We have turned shipping containers into offices, storage units, workshops. We have even set 2 of them 20' apart and then between them built another "building" spanning between the 2 conex.

I remember reading in this forum about 14 months ago a project that was going on in London about someone who had designed & developed an "apertment building" of this sort.

It is not a new idea. However, it is an under-used solution to many of the problems that are world wide. What if we simply used what was around us in common situations in an uncommon application? The conex should only be used for a temporary solution. That is unless the "modular design" of it is improved and the ability to customize it is available.

Posted by: Mark Repovich on 26 Feb 09

These containers have lots of good uses, but I'm not sure a "home" should be one of them. I recognize that four solid walls and a roof are a step up for (far too) many people. I'd be interested to see how the retrofits go. Would the designers themselves live in one for the long haul?

Posted by: Dave on 27 Feb 09

Shipping containers have been in use for at least five years now in the Netherlands as low cost housing for students in both Amsterdam (three locations) and Utrecht. Generally these are newly made containers, but dimensions are just like the freight containers. Look at YouTube ( how these containers are made into comfortable student homes.

Posted by: Bas on 27 Feb 09

Tony Gwilliam while at Sci Arc in Venice CA experimented widely with
"Man-tainers" as he called the conversions about 20 years ago. He is not the only one. There are several apartment complexes of containers in LA. I can't recall where. incidentally.Rocky Mountain Institute is working on liihter weight containers that are more economical of materials and time to handle. At a different scale, If you Google Maersk container ships, you will find the Ellen Maersk, world's biggest freight ship. It carries 15,000 twenty foot containers!! Yes, fifteen thousand, though somewhat fewer if all are loaded to full weight capacity. And at 24 knots, no less, which makes food shipping a reasonable enterprise. The thing makes an aircraft carrier look like a rowboat. And yes, it has an enormous diesel engine plus some help from several smaller ones. Despite the size and weight, it ends up being much more economical in ton/miles per hour than many smaller vessels carrying the same amount of goods. Recall that if you double the dimensions of anything, the skin area rises as the square and the volume of the interior as the cube. Thus, a double size ship uses four times more metal to make, but carries eight times the volume of a ship half the size. Moreover, the longer the ship, the more efficient the hull. And it only needs one crew. And it can employ multiple dock cranes at once to load and unload it, greatly reducing "turn-around" time, and increasing tons per year. They say. JB

Posted by: Jay Baldwin on 27 Feb 09

They are already doing this in The Netherlands, as affordable housing for students. They actually stack them and add balconies, so they become apartment buildings three of four floors high. Apparently the first impressions are quite positive, certainly compared with the kind of housing many students may otherwise have to accept (subletting tiny rooms, or a room in a dorm).
I suppose they need to put in quite a bit of insulation to avoid overheating in summer, with all that steel. And good ventilation. Regulating moisture must be one of the most important technical hurdles.

Posted by: Fschwep on 1 Mar 09

We sell these containers nationwide and are experimenting with the same projects in our Houston, Los Angele, Dallas and New Orleans depots. They have worked out well for us too. This is a worthy cause and we have plenty of used containers in our inventory that work perfectly for this application. We also do our own modifications. Thanks for your informative article...

Posted by: David Powell on 11 Mar 09

Here is a link to a short article about another shipping container project:

Posted by: Jim Gunshinan on 13 Mar 09

I am an Architectural Technologist in Denmark, I am currently making a project for low cost and affordable homes for Africa currently I have come to realize that my best choice is abandoned shipping containers can help me achiving my aim. Am trying to take advantage of this recession that have hit building industry every where in the world. Now some few Engineers and Architect I know that are affected and out of job have joined me and agreed to the container idea which some of them have suggested some incredible ideas. We need fund for the project any suggestions?

Posted by: Joseph on 9 Apr 09

Joseph the Architectural Technologist in Denmark, I am interested in your project. I too am working on this. Lets talk.

Mac MacGregor

Posted by: MURDOCK MACGREGOR on 27 Apr 09

We've been looking into the feasibility of turning these containers into low income housing in our rural community. We have residents living in shacks, burned out RVs, and trailers that are held together with duct tape. These containers turned dwellings may be the answer to a lot of very impoverished people's prayers.

Posted by: Jessica on 21 Sep 10

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