Cheap, Spacious and Quickly Built Homes - An Illusion?

Although they have been used as humble homes in developing countries for decades, it wasn’t until recently that the full potential of shipping containers as building material was discovered. With the real estate prices on the rise, and disused containers piling up in dockyards, the time has come to take the full advantage of these steel boxes, upcycling them into comfortable homes.

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Value-cycling vs re-cycling

An average container weighs around 8,000 lbs. of solid steel, which takes 8,000 kWh of energy to melt. As David Cross from SG Blocks explains, they can modify the same container into a useful construction element for only 5% of that energy. When finished, a construction block derived from an 8x40’ container sells for $9,000-$11,000 per unit. These units which lack two walls and are fortified by cross beams are stronger than conventional house framing as they are more resistant to lateral loads, e.g. hurricanes and earthquakes. Here, steel elements are welded to steel, supporting even the weight of a green roof.

Energy efficiency

People at KPFF Consulting, a St. Louis-based construction engineering company which specialized in shipping containers, say that when special reflecting coating is applied to the container home façade, it reflects about 95% of sun-generated heat. In addition, it decreases the loss of interior heat and provides a watertight barrier. Additional insulation is provided with “Super Therm” – a ceramic paint that can be used as a paint, siding adhesive, as well as insulator, fireproofing material and acoustic barrier.

Ready-made building units

An additional advantage of shipping containers is that they are already self-supporting as they come, with beams holding the construction firmly together. What is more, each unit comes with its original marine-grade plywood floor, so no additional flooring works are needed. The trend is growing quickly, as a typical-sized home takes from four to seven container units to complete, with construction costs lower than those in conventional buildings.

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A house for everybody

According to architect Adam Kalkin, a service life of a shipping container is 20 years. However, when stationed “on dry” and properly maintained, they can last infinitely. This property made the whole concept attractive for environmentalists, as well as those who advocate affordable housing options. As Kalkin says, a square foot of a finished container house costs between $73 and $90. This is significantly cheaper than $200, the cost of conventional house square foot in the Northeast.

Quik House

A brainchild of Kalkin’s, a Quik House is a ready-made container home that comes in a prefabricated kit. It is perfect for people who need a simple, yet practical and stylish home that is made of 75% recycled materials and can be built quickly. Actually, a standard Quik House can be enclosed in one day, with interior works lasting no longer than three months. With a standard size of 2,000 square feet, this green home features three bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms.

Container home issues

Since they were first used in construction, there were questions about general safety of shipping containers for human residence. The biggest concern was the fact that one’s family needs to live in a metal box. On the other hand, container walls are perfect for all kinds of insulation, so the comfort is not an issue. Another concern is about the plywood floor, which is sometimes treated with pesticide to prevent dangerous insects from spreading over the world. If the tags on container doors show that the floor has been treated, it should be removed and replaced with a new one.

In the future we can expect that the trend of inexpensive and quickly built homes will continue. With governments giving grants for green building, we can hope that the cost of these spacious and comfortable homes will go down even more.  

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