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PRECIOUS CARGO: the latest in shipping container homes

Visionary architects continue to mystify, repurposing steel boxes and forming them into spectacular residences. Clearly, the shipping container home trend is full steam ahead. And just wait 'til you see these!

Words by: Spoorthi Satheesh

photos courtesy of Pre Fab Container Homes

From the plains of Montana to the hills of Indonesia, and even down under in Australia, shipping containers persist in popping up as unusual and impressive dwellings. When architects began taking the freight containers regularly seen on cargo ships, and started utilizing them as building blocks for breathtaking homes, they blew the stigma - the one that equates reuse with unsightliness - right out of the water.

Architect Ty Kelly used reclaimed materials to create this shipping container home in Montana, designed to help its owners find a true escape from their hyper-connected life in Seattle, Washington.

The Clay House atop the Seven Havens, a tropical island edifice in Lombok, Indonesia, is set within a verdant hill near the beach. Architect Budi Pradono designed it with expansive windows and wide glass doors to provide panoramic vistas that welcome in the sunlight.

The wooded reserves on the northern and eastern sides of this cozy single-container home in Byron Bay, NSW, Australia enhances its charm and appeal. Positioned in the midst of lush trees and gardens, it is fashioned for privacy, excepting the abundance of local birds.

I encountered my first shipping container building when a bar-owner/friend of mine gave me a treat normally reserved for architects, designers, developers, and owners; he allowed me to preview his soon-to-be thriving establishment before it opened for business. I was stunned that it had been both imagined and executed within the walls of a steel box. I had to know more! And so, as is my repertoire, I researched.

Not surprisingly, these rugged boxes, which attain such a unique aesthetic when used in design, were invented for an entirely different purpose. Generally fabricated with corrugated steel, shipping containers not only helped ensure the safety of their cargo, but also augmented the overall cargo-carrying capacity. Containerization served to revolutionize the way cargo is transported on ships across oceans. However, returning an empty container to be reloaded proved to be both a time-waster and financial drain; it was more economical for companies to just purchase a new one.

Quirky and full of character, this three-bedroom sustainable home, located in São Paulo, Brazil and created by architect Danilo Corbas, also includes a living and dining area, integrated kitchen, several balconies, and covered garages. photo: Plínio Dondon

Leave it to the brilliant minds of architects to embrace these abandoned structures as their brainchildren and turn them into sculptural statements.

Despite the current popularity of the trend, it’s hardly an idea fresh from the oven. As early as the 1950s, shipping containers entered the architectural realm when they started to be used as makeshift sheds. But it’s what came next that made shipping containers such an enigmatic find.

These steel boxes proved to be compelling elements of adaptive re-use. Apart from mitigating the challenges of energy efficiency and sustainability, shipping containers, being highly modular and easily customizable (not to mention Herculean in strength), allowed homeowners the ease of expanding their dwellings organically; simply, they could just add more.

Better yet, shipping containers are virtually invincible. “The sturdiness of the container’s outer shell resists any on-site manipulation and withstands the worst of weather conditions: the cold and heat, as well as salty water, high winds, downpours and other inconveniences,” says Slovenian architect Jure Kotnik.

photo: Jack Parsons

"The Tim Palen Studio at Shadow Mountain" was the first repurposed container home to be permitted and built in the Mojave Desert. Based on the fuel-efficient Prius automobile engineering concept, the residence is a veritable "green machine" for living. Its futuristic, edgy design features a 10-gallon water tank and a solar breezeway.

design: Walter Scott Perry, Echo Tech; contractor: Eric Engheben, 44 West Construction

Among the many organizations that deal in shipping containers, Shipping Container Homes is a leading provider of shipping container housing solutions. The website is a one-stop shop that allows architects around the world to put their creative ideas into action. “Perhaps we love container homes for the same reasons people love Legos,” says Russell Hunter of SCH. “Containers can be modified and connected in so many different ways, they give anyone who uses them a chance to ‘play’.”

If you’re thinking that shipping container homes only present themselves as small, private cabins, think again. Forget feeling “boxed in”; when used in multiplicity, they can be as big as your dreams… formed into ginormous exterior silhouettes that mesh with, and expand into, any landscape.

This five-room home, set in Soderbykarl, Norrtalje, Sweden and built by Mathias Beer, Erik Wedlund and Peter Wedlund, melds with the glorious landscape that surrounds it. The thoughtfully selected containers echo the understated tones of nature. Even the locals - a small herd of curious sheep - are drawn to it.

photos: Henrik Nero

And yes, the interior design possibilities are equally vast. Container homes do indeed allow for sprawling spaces and soaring ceilings, so rich appointments and luxury furnishings feel perfectly at home.

This modular home in Amagansett, Long Island, NY is the culmination of ten years of prototyping by architect Maziar Behrooz. "Technically it is not a cantilever—but it is structured from the top and held back in tension, down to the foundation on the opposite side. It’s kind of a structural breakthrough; we used the inherent structural strength of the containers to our advantage," he says.

Large windows in the upstairs bedrooms create an illusion of floating in the treetops. (custom furniture by Santiago Campomar)

A 20-foot container cut down to half its length was attached to the second floor as a "pop-out" to house the master suite.

A vintage reed mat made by the Tuareg tribe of North Africa, Ligne Roset's Toga sofa, and a Saarinen table surrounded by red Tolix stools adorn the sun-soaked living room.

So how many boxes does it take to build the shipping container home of your dreams?

Let's see...

Here's the one-container "Pocket House" in Belo Horizonte, Brazil...

design: Cristina Menezes Arquitetura e Decoracao. photo: Jomar Braganca

... and a two-container home in San Jose, Costa Rica.

design: Benjamin Garcia Saxe

At the Casa Reciclada (Recycled House) in Peru, a third container brings it to the next level...

architecture: Sachie Fujimori, SF Architects

This sensational 3-bedroom home in Santa Barbara, California, is comprised of four shipping containers.

architecture: AB Design construction: Barber Builders

Shall I keep going? The "Glassberg Container House" in Kansas City, Missouri, uses five...

design and build by BNIM and Home Contained (Debbie Glassberg)

... while "The Hanging House," a 3-story, 2-bedroom shipping container home in Campos Novos Paulista, Brazil, was built with six.

architecture by Daniel Assuane Duarte and Nadia Barros Assuane, Casa Container Marília photos: Celso Mellani

Last but not least: how do you turn a whole bunch of corrugated steel boxes into a warm and fuzzy house? This 3,000 square-foot Denver, Colorado abode harnesses a whopping nine shipping containers, assembled by a passionate D.I.Y. aficionado with the help of his wife. The result is a home focused on a strong sense of family and community.

architect: Joe Simmons, BlueSky Studio general contractor/owner: Regan Foster

It's plain to see that the architect, builder, designer, or homeowner who thinks beyond the box can turn shipping containers - regardless of how many - into a dream house. Whether tiny or colossal, each one has its own story to tell.

And only the sky is the limit.

For more information and inspiration, visit:

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