Green Home Building and Sustainable Architecture

Sustainable architecture is an exciting and important field, with many people reviving traditional methods of building and others creating innovations to established practices. Kelly Hart, webmaster of the popular website, posts text and photos featuring what he discovers from around the world.

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Location: Crestone, Colorado, United States

Kelly Hart has been involved with green building concepts for much of his life. He has also worked in various fields of communication media, including still photography, cinematography, animation, video production and now website development. Kelly has lived in an earthbag/papercrete home that he built and consults about sustainable building design.

September 23, 2007

Building with Shipping Containers

An idea whose time seems to have arrived is the use of stockpiled shipping containers as modular units for building homes. Because of the balance of trade in the United States, these hefty steel boxes are piling up in ports around the country and posing a storage problem. Several architects and builders are taking advantage of this surplus to recycle the containers.

According to David Cross of, "a container has 8000 lbs of steel which takes 8000 kwh of energy to melt down and make new beams etc... Our process of modifying that entire 8000 lbs of steel into a "higher and better use" only takes 400 kwh of electrical energy (or 5%). Granted it takes a bit more "muscle" but we call this Value-Cycling which we feel is that next step up from Re-cycling."

Each container measures 8 feet wide by 40 feet long by 9 feet tall. SG Blocks sells the finished structural systems (also called SG Blocks) for $9,000 to $11,000 per unit. The finished units have one or two walls removed and include the necessary support columns and beam enhancements.

According to KPFF Consulting, a structural engineering firm in St. Louis with extensive experience working with shipping containers, the units are stronger than conventional house framing because of their resistance to "lateral loads" -- those seen in hurricanes and earthquakes -- and because steel is basically welded to steel. The roof is strong enough to support the extra weight of a green roof — which has vegetation growing on it — if the owner should want it.

As for their energy efficiency, they claim that when the appropriate coatings are installed, the envelope reflects about 95 percent of outside radiation, resists the loss of interior heat, provides an excellent air infiltration barrier and does not allow water to migrate in.

One idea that has occurred to me is that this system might benefit from the use of SIP's (Structural Insulated Panels) for the roofs, rather that standard truss framing. SIP's are very well insulated, install quickly, and use much less wood than convention roofs.

Shipping containers are self-supporting with beams and stout, marine-grade plywood flooring already in place, thereby eliminating time and labor during the home-building process. Cross said construction costs are comparable to those in conventional building. Four to seven units are used in a typical home, he said.

Instead of nailing the siding they use "Super Therm", a ceramic paint made by Superior Products of Minnesota; it can be used as a paint, an adhesive, an insulator, a fireproofing material and an acoustic barrier. With this ceramic paint, they claim the insulation capacity is equal to a conventional house.

This finished house is virtually indistinguishable from conventional housing.

Adam Kalkin, of , has also become enamored with shipping containers as an architectural solution. The idea to do something with shipping containers came to Kalkin, a New Jersey resident, when driving to New York City, where he saw sky-high stacks of the unused cargo containers in the shipyards he passed.

"The cargo containers, with a life span of about 20 years when used for their original purpose, have an “infinite life span” when stationary and properly maintained," Kalkin says. “To me they are like a treasured antique: they may not be inherently valuable, but the history and the storytelling add value.”

Environmentalists have embraced the design, applauding the recycling inherent to Kalkin's designs. And advocates for affordable-housing like the design, since according to Kalkin, "the total cost of a house—between $150,000 and $175,000 after the buyer settles upon the various options—works out to be between $73 and $90 per square foot, about half the cost of the conventional $200 per square foot for reasonable quality, new construction in the Northeast.”

Kalkin has recently opened a factory—“a hangar at a little airport in New Jersey”—to manufacture Quik Houses. “There are a lot of elbows flying in this process, and this is the best way to protect the quality of the house, to keep the accounting transparent, and to make sure I am not unwittingly responsible for heinous crimes to the built environment.” Once the factory is fully functional, Kalkin plans to export many of his products, commenting that “the possibilities of working on a world scale are exciting.”

Twenty-one thousand containers hit American shores every day of the year. Containers can be shipped to the interior of the country via trains and trucks. Shipping containers are like Lego toys and the modules can be assembled in thousands of ways.

In general it is a good thing to recycle materials that otherwise have no further use for their intended purpose, and this is true here. As for whether one can make a comfortable house out of these metal boxes, the biggest question is: is essential, but there are many ways to insulate these containers, so this is not a big concern. Another concern that many people would have is whether a metal box would have adverse health effects because of EMF (electro-magnetic frequencies) generation or propagation. Some people are sensitive to these while others are not.

There is no doubt that these containers can be used to fabricate very strong shells that would withstand substantial abuse from the ravages of nature.


Blogger Marcel said...

A very interesting post!

I’ve been using containers for years as storage units, but in our climate they are only slightly better than leaving stuff outdoors because the sweet so badly inside. The containers featured in this post all look in much better shape than we ever see here in Alaska.

SIPS are not much good in our climate either. In fact most municipalities no longer allow them for use on roofs because they rot out so quickly. I saw a roof replaced this past summer that was only 5 years old!

I think I’m going to very much enjoy cruising through your full site.

9:47 PM  
Blogger milesjason03 said...

I'm just getting my head around this whole blogging concept, and I think I like it a lot. We are in the process of developing a company that combines solar with panelization. It is a simple solution to the cost issues of "green" building. Lot of other stuff good about it, but I don't want to toot my horn on your site. The problem is, there is so much information out there which is great, but impractical unless you are completely loaded with money or don't have a day job and are willing to devote the entirety of your existence to making your life greener.
I have a buddy who has a company which specializes in green reconstruction, and all he does is redo homes of the very rich with a conscience. Not saying that's a bad idea, but it isn't going to change the global warming crisis either. The whole mindset of this country and others needs to change. It is beginning. "An Inconvenient Truth" was a start. But the solutions need to be simple and cheap to gain traction. Looking through your blog, I see innovation, and that's outstanding, but how do we get Joe Blow to go green? That's the real hurdle, isn't it?


7:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

lies and deciet in "an inconvenient truth" notwithstanding, getting joe blow to go green is a phenomenal idea..... the low cost aspect is a bonus of course, as far as sweating, these things arent gonna be sealed up like they were as shipping containers.

11:03 AM  
Blogger ashsan said...

Incredible! I am sold and am trying to get my company to build using these containers...

7:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Three observations on shipping containers. According to the tags on the doors, the timber component (the floor) almost invariably is treated with serious pesticide. There are multiple purposes to the pesticide treatments - a) to prevent transplantation of harmful insects around the world, b) to protect the structure of the floor, and c) to protect the contents from infestation and damage. The treatments are serious both in quantity, being roughly in the range of 1 to 10 pounds of pesticide in the wood, and serious in quality. Even 5 lbs is enough to kill a staggering number of insects. As often as not, these pesticides have been banned in the US (and frequently Europe too). Some cause cancer (e.g.., DDT) while others cause testicular atrophy (e.g., Phoxim). Some take hours of diligent searching to track down on the internet either because of trade names or cryptic abbreviations. Pesticides are at least somewhat volatile and almost certainly will permeate the contents over time, especially if the can gets hot. Note that the contents can include occupants; caution with food storage in containers also advised, unless strong measures are taken (e.g., remove and replace the floor with untreated wood). Please note that lacquers, varnishes, paints and plastic sheets are highly permeable to organic vapors.

12:52 PM  
Anonymous Josh said...

The recent earthquake in China and the shoddy construction which ultimately resulted in the deaths of so many. I felt an unrelenting calling to promote a product that could have saved so many. I've decided to develop a new website that will focus on shipping container homes. After all, if and when a major earthquake strikes in the U.S. I would sure love to be protected in my container home. My new website will be a leading industry source for up to date information on the shipping container housing industry. We will offer consumers the chance to learn all about the advantages of choosing such an enviromentally freindly product. We will also be looking for builders, providers, manufactures, and anyone else with an invested interest in this industry to contact us @ I'm looking to offer consumers the chance to connect with reliable shipping container builders. Please contact me if you are interested in working with me on this venture. The website will be launching very soon. Also, if you get a chance check out my other website that will be very similar to but with a title insurance spin. The website is


Josh Cahill

3:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You may be interested in the Ace modular building units which can be used as a standalone unit or component of a larger structure. It is compact for transportation and storage, easily assembled/dissassembled with hand tools on site, and can be configured (both interior space and exterior windows/doors) for many applications. Go to

3:16 PM  
Blogger radu_addmall said...

I made container house. I use new office container. I have a team, and i want to try to build a house whith shiping container.

3:05 AM  
Anonymous luis said...

Very interesting and exhaustive article on container building. I work at Habitainer developing container basis projects by demand.

The characteristics of container construction regarding earthquake and heavy weather conditions are remarkable, -always depending on correct design- maintaining a "cluster" structure capability that is way higher than any conventional building.

But one of the characteristics I enjoy more on container is their amazing capability of moving around as your life does. Fitting all your stuff in these moving houses is something really useful. Of course you need to be sharp on the design as it will require more specifications to maintain the standard capability of intermodal transportation, but once this requirement established it is not to hard to accomplish such.

This aspect, along with how you use these dwells regarding balance with environment in everyday activities are major exponents on container building for the future.

Best Regards

1:23 PM  
Blogger Passports: the Art DIversity Project said... do I find an architecht who will design and oversee the building of my shipping container home in PA?

9:53 PM  
Blogger Kelly Hart said...

I suggest that you go to the websites of the designer/fabricators listed in the article and contact them regarding this.

9:05 AM  
Blogger jake said...

This is timely, I've been thinking of building a new shop. To use this vs a conventional steel building would be great, do you have any suggestions or standard details available for the attachment of the roof beams to units and closing gaps between containers to the weather? I'm guessing it involves a lot of welding.

Thanks, Jake

7:11 PM  
Blogger Kelly Hart said...

There are many ways to approach roofing a container home. As pictured in the article, it is common to use standard truss roof systems to create a monolithic roof over the entire project. Also pictured in the article is a way to weld the container together to assure that they don't separate over time.

1:26 PM  
Anonymous Ric Johnson said...

Thanks for a very useful article. I am intending using shipping containers in my new warehouse in the UK (near Liverpool) not only as storage units but also to create the mezzanine floorways that will allow access to the higher floors (I will be going 3 high). I will be reusing some old heavy duty racking spars as extra support posts. A tight budget pushed me in this direction but my recent research is making this part of the project quite exciting. Think I could end up with something looking pretty cool and modern rather than a stack of old shipping containers looking dull brown and rusty!!

Obviously there are some serious issues about the quality of the building (especially if for homes), especially where overhanging balconies etc are used. There seems to be a bit of an assumption that you cannot go wrong but I am sure that there are certain areas of the some designs that could cause difficulty. Some sort of inspection regime seems necessary for domestic units that our out in the weather.

The excellent point about pesticide levels in the floor and previous contaminents from whatever the units carried also needs to be properly addressed. When the containers are only accessed occassionally I would expect a good preclean and seal would keep levels right down but if I lived in such a unit I would need to know levels were nominal. Obviously addressing this issue probably won't be done by those who profit from selling the homes unless they are really pressed!!
Thanks is the best article I have found so far.

2:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this information, very helpful. We are just about to buy shipping containers and create a home. I am interested in anyone's ideas about insulation. We are in NSW Au so it gets very hot in the summer. We were thinking about having outside insulation. We are also having a composting loo, and will be off the grid so no air con! Cheers, Sarah

3:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Building with containers is worth taking a look at if you are contemplating a new home.


Lots of example buildings, details, facts, and links to other articles. They have something new that you can setup your own project wiki to get help with your project if you are the design build sort...

10:52 AM  
Blogger raghu said...

Good blog post...Containers are in many ways an ideal building material because they are strong, durable, stackable, cuttable, movable, modular, plentiful and relatively cheap.

camping air beds

10:02 PM  

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