Shipping Container Buildings Are Not Going to Be a Thing

It seemed like a natural for the Bay Area: Surplus containers from the Port of Oakland would be salvaged and reused as building materials. But there's a hitch in the plan.

The Container Store

Photo By Aether Apparel The first standalone store for Aether Apparel is the brainchild of Paris-based designer Thierry Gaugain, envelope a+d and AETHER’s founders, Jonah Smith and Palmer West. It's made of three 8x10x40-foot shipping containers. 

A few years ago Oakland-based design firm Building Lab made a splash with a gorgeous, contemporary office made out of shipping containers. The lopsided tendency of Americans to import manufactured goods from Asia without exporting nearly as much, with the added complication that the containers themselves are cheaper to buy than to ship back, means that the Port of Oakland, one of the major container destinations in the States, is left with oodles of shipping containers available to buy.

It seems natural that these containers would be used as a green alternative for architectural framework: they're sturdy, they look hip and there's (literally) tons of them. People who live and work in them declare them a success, but there's one thing they're not: less expensive than traditional building materials.

And that's what's kept them from becoming The Next Big Thing. "People thought this would be a cheap way to go," says Jeanne Revere of Building Lab. "Our company installed radiant heat in a concrete footing, installed windows and insulation, made it waterproof. Then there's the carpet, lighting and paneling. If you want it to look cool, you're going to end up spending the same amount." 

Cate Leger of Leger Wanaselja Architecture, which designed this container home for a couple in nearby Richmond, reluctantly agrees. "They were a fun project for a couple of firms a few years ago, but the increased expense has kept this from becoming a widespread trend." It's cool to salvage materials, but "the hoped-for decrease in price hasn't happened."

An added complication is that in their raw form, the containers are not necessarily safe: The paints and chemicals used to keep their cargo free from pests can be hazardous. Just the process of making them habitable can have a significant environmental impact.

There's no denying that a home made of shipping containers is eye-catching, extremely cool and often quite comfortable. They were used as evocative set dressing in the BBC series Top of the Lake. Sadly, unless there's some kind of major innovation, they're going to continue to be the pet project of a hardy few rather than a revolutionary new style.



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