A container-built house defines sustainability, since its essential building block is a recycled cargo storage container; there’s an affordable inventory of hundreds of thousands of these unfinished “blocks” filling lots in American port cities today. With a likely survival rate of 100 or more years, the container-based house is an asset that can be paid off in full by its original owner and, if desired, passed down to survivors. It requires relatively little maintenance of a non-decorative sort, since its “insole” is made of steel. It is suitably financed by companies experienced in lending against personal property like manufactured housing (of a historically – flimsier sort). Such housing stock, especially if mobile, may eventually become the dwelling of choice for an elderly but able population wishing to take their established residences to their place of retirement (whether full time or seasonally) choosing among the physical locations for their seasonal moorings. The frailty of many elderly persons, however, reminds me of the central challenge to early implementation of container-based housing: Climate control. After all, steel is a conductor of heat and cold. Some readers may even be wondering about who’s figuring out this heating and cooling problem.

My response, albeit borrowed, is this: “The most common use of ISO containers has been to protect goods in transit either by truck, railroad or aircraft; however, such containers have found use as temporary shelters for personnel located in remote regions such as often experienced in military scenarios. While the containers provide a structurally robust shelter for humans, the environmental conditions inside the containers are often far from desirable for human occupancy, mainly due to lack of internal temperature control. Containers located in direct sunlight can easily experience internal temperatures well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit if no thermal abatement means are implemented such as air conditioning, active ventilation, or passive shading.” This text is from US Patent Application 7464504 – “Thermal protection apparatus and method for ISO containers.” Actually, I’ve seen steel panels in dark colors reach surface temperatures in the desert of 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course much thought has been, and continues to be, directed toward figuring out how to make ISO boxes livable from the interior temperature standpoint; and lately, the thought is directed to sustainable means of cooling and heating such as by implementing solar technologies.

Floors of container boxes typically, if not usually, are made of wood, insulating one’s feet from burning or freezing; so indoors, the climate control main issue is insulating the interior walls so as to trap-in the air circulating at the desired temperature for the season. Solutions that are even more sustainable and affordable to the owner than panelized insulation are not distant. Consider, for example, framing and inside covering made of ‘Forroplac’, an ecological product that substitutes wood and is made of recycled plastic packs. It´s 100% recyclable and impermeable and has high mechanical resistance. It´s mold and fungus free, auto-extinguishable and paintable, and it´s actually cheaper than wood.

. . .

I’ve seldom seen myself as a pessimist. But going forward we must think differently about our shelters and how we sustain ourselves as planetary stewards and as economic (family) units. I fully expect a near-complete recovery from the economic mess that “Main Street” now finds itself in. Naturally, many Americans at the first opportunity will resume “full consumption, no savings” mode, trying to balance earnings with their burning need for myriad consumer goods. So, when the economic cycle rotates another 360 degrees, many of these splendid consumers will be ruined anew. One of the unique qualities of Americans, perhaps, is that we are such optimists that lessons about financial accountability aren’t sticky for numbers of us; hope trumps sounder judgment. For the rest of us, feeling fully accountable for enduring family housing, we may never again view home ownership as an entitlement or a retirement-savings vehicle powered by a perpetual-appreciation engine. Indeed, I suspect many will stop thinking altogether of their primary residences as part of their investment portfolios. And another slice of the population of homeowners may be “nouveau poor” – sufficiently ruined by the present financial debacle that credit will not support their future appetite for the latest, “upscale” housing.

In any event, I believe that living within one’s financial and environmental means requires a re-examination of the home and lot – ownership paradigm. Housing without land ownership, and without individually-owned frills, may not necessarily be “downscale.” It may be that we should let ourselves view that type of accommodation as a new definition of “to scale.” Recall the early cave-dwellers. There were only so many safe caves of sufficient depth to keep out the blistering wind and torrential rains and ice in one neighborhood. Peaceable sharing of space “within” became a requirement of communal stability. Land can be shared without compromising privacy or individuality to an undesirable degree – and without being carved up into little chunks of ownership. Residences can be simpler while being comfortable and addressing the basic family unit’s needs without exceeding the 30-35% of after – tax income “rule of thumb” familiar to our grandparents. It will be interesting to observe whether the 90% of this century remaining will see the over-developed world’s shedding its conventional cocoons in favor of sensible housing alternatives that gradually heal the Earth and liberate us from economic-doomsday scenarios. For the majority of the planet, populations of the under – developed nations, I hope their resources will not be stripped, but flourish through implementing solutions for sustainable housing, ending the desperation and homelessness ravaging their societies.

–MNW