One of the results of the upcoming election may be to put the brakes on globalization, and one of the unlikely casualties will be the shipping container home, beloved by architects and design enthusiasts. After all, the little-known reason that shipping container homes have become affordable as green housing is that there are literally millions of these unwanted steel boxes lying around the United States. Because of our trade deficit with China, we receive far more shipping containers than we send over; according to government sources, the deficit in 2015 alone was over 5 million. For Chinese companies, buying new shipping containers is more cost-efficient than shipping back boatloads of the now-empty steel boxes. Hence, we have created a surplus of empty stateside shipping containers, leading to the boom in container houses.
Who came up with the first container house is a matter of some debate. The first patent was filed in 1962 to use shipping containers as buildings actually preceded the invention of actual shipping containers. The shipping containers referenced in this patent was for a “combination shipping container and showcase” meant for convention exhibits that would be shipped in their actual booths. These were nothing like the standardized steel shipping containers we have today, and which weren’t invented until the late 1960’s, by a trucking magnate named Malcolm McLean. McLean hit on an idea to dramatically reduce labor and dock servicing time, single-handedly jump-starting trade globalization by inventing the interlocking, hyper-efficient shipping container. Within a decade of his 1957 maiden voyage, he’d lowered the cost of cargo shipping by over 90%.
The first widely-documented example of people living in shipping containers was in Armenia, after a devastating 1988 earthquake. The country was then part of the Soviet Union, which was ill-prepared to give the devastated area any real aid. Locals, after distributing the food and medicine that was shipped over from foreign countries, took to living in the empty shipping containers, which they call “domiks”. A few years later, during the Persian Gulf War, the US military used shipping containers as bomb shelters and mobile prisons, and the idea spread from there. By 1998, Simon’s Town School in South Africa had built its new school building from 40 shipping containers at a cost of only $227,000.
The first US shipping container home of architectural note was DeMaria Design’s Redondo Beach home, completed in 2007. Still one of the most elegant examples of container architecture, the home is made of eight containers. The owners of the house have embraced the corrugated steel container walls (even inside the home), and have even kept the waterproof wood floors that come standard in a transatlantic container. Outside, there’s a rectangular swimming pool made of a buried shipping container. The house was met with universal acclaim, and ignited interest in container architecture, as seen today in east London in “Container Cities ONE and TWO” made of hundreds of stacked boxes, or the off-the-grid single-container cabins that are essentially a modular offshoot of the “tiny house” movement. This DeMaria project has been published and exhibited internationally and has given birth to a pre-fab shipping container based residential product line called Logical Homes.