Shipping Container Homes: Residences in Disguise?
By Shakari McGill
Shipping container homes have been a point of contention among architects, builders, and patrons alike since their popularity began to boom in 2008. Individuals on both sides have debated the economics, health, and sustainability of these homes. Both sides have valid points. But while shipping container homes are in theory a unique and resourceful approach to economic and sustainable housing, these containers actually pose more harm than good – here’s why:
Shipping containers have a fruitful history; they were birthed as a means to improve the crippling inconvenience of the slow and expensive cargo loading process and have gone on many adventures from there. Trucker Malcolm McLean originally introduced these modular boxes to the maritime shipping industry, simultaneously cutting out repeat handling costs, drastically reducing cargo theft risk, and improving supply chain by shortening transit times. Because of the increased shipping speed, they were also utilized by the US Army to ship materials; during the Gulf War, they were even used in combat as emergency shelters. More recently, they’ve made headlines as a sustainable take on the traditional home.
Economically speaking, many advocates believe that these homes are very cost effective. While this is not completely false, it isn’t entirely true either. A variety of “personal taste” aspects can affect the price tag of a shipping container home; these include the number of containers used, the type and number of windows, finishes, etc. This creates abnormal variance for each home – for example, estimates for a shipping container home run the gambit from $15,000 to $400,000 or more. Costs can be lower if you are able to do the bulk of your own plumbing and electrical work, but many professionals advise against this. Selecting the bare minimum for options can also keep prices toward the lower end of the spectrum. That being said, financial savings should not be the primary consideration when making your decision: health is the actual cost of these shipping container homes.
To endure the wrath of the salty seas, most shipping containers are coated with lead paint on all interior and exterior faces. This poses a great danger to families with children because flakes of lead paint often taste sweet and are extremely toxic. The option does exist to mitigate this problem, but it doesn’t come cheaply: Lead abatements can diminish the risk of lead poisoning, but they must be conducted by certified individuals and require a specialized skillset that most contractors do not possess. Additionally, the process itself costs between $8-$15 per square foot – further contributing to shipping container home price tag.
Most containers intended to be used for home construction need to be new. In addition to the aforementioned health concerns, this is necessary for two reasons: 1. the containers have to be structurally sound, meaning they cannot have any rust or dents, and 2. because of the nature of maritime shipping, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what has been shipped in which container (Rise). Dents and rust are fine for shipping, but bad for structural integrity. This is why professionals like Jamie van Tongeren, CEO of Australian manufacturer Container Build Group, do not rely on older containers — they are an “unknown.” This eliminates the possibility of using recycled containers at scale. Speaking of unknowns, items of both the consumer and hazardous industrial variety end up in these containers. Without the provision of company ledgers detailing a container’s various journeys and cargo loads, older containers pose unknown health risks.
What’s the Verdict?
Given the fascinating history of shipping containers, the prospect of co-opting them as sustainable housing is exciting. But rusted or dented containers are useless structurally, and we can’t be sure whether older containers have been in contact with hazardous materials. This means that most manufacturers build these homes with new shipping containers, rather than recycling older containers that have outlived their usefulness for shipping. But even new containers are not worry-free — they pose a poison risk to families, particularly families with children. Prices of this “sustainable take on the traditional home” vary widely, and in some cases can be just as expensive, if not more expensive, than a traditional home. As the trend grows, manufacturers may sort out these issues — but it’s important to transverse the current landscape with caution.