Once you decide you can stomach living on turf defined as an easement, without any ownership rights, and you’re still determined how to live affordably and sustainably, then your next challenge is to overcome your aversion to the boxcar lifestyle. One of my daughters, a writer with considerable imagination, had to put away the Gertrude Chandler Warner series called the “Boxcar Children Mysteries,” because she found the thought of living in a caboose too distressing. Too dingy, too bound to echo, too, well, industrial. Cold steel – nasty – but are you sure about that? Before you make up your mind, take a look at the series on the shipping container-built house built in St. Petersburg on Bob Vila’s Web site. It shows a remarkable transformation of ugly steel containers into a strong, weather-proof homestead.
There are many forms of building materials available in the new community of dwellers but for now, let’s focus on a single base material: Cargo storage containers, sometimes known as shipping containers or ISOs; for short, I’m going to call them ISOs. Using ISOs is not an innovation in building construction. There are books available about their use in construction, like Jure Kotnik’s Container Architecture (2008) or Lori Ryker’s Off the Grid: Modern Homes + Alternative Energy (2005) (available in preview format at Google Books). Earlier this year, the American Institute of Architects awarded a Texas architectural firm a prize for use of ISOs in the residential development of a “retreat.” Here are the properties of ISOs that render them highly desirable building materials:
1. Availability: There are hundreds of thousands of ISOs sitting idly throughout the country; estimates are as high as 700,000 units simply being stored, empty, in 2009.
2. Affordability: An ISO with the dimensions of 10 X 20 feet may be purchased, as of the date of completion of this article, for as little as $1,000 per unit.
3. Strength: ISOs are made essentially of corrugated metal, which makes them unlikely targets for destruction, absent a “direct hit” by a substantially-heavier object; they are far more likely to withstand hurricane force winds or tornados than any other form of “temporary” housing construction or by frame constructed, permanent houses.
4. Rectilinear shape: ISOs are boxes; with such configuration, boxes can be stacked in multiple tiers, or turned on their sides or ends, rendering them adaptable for rectilinear design.
5. Weight: ISOs are heavy, but lack the weight of a structure made of block; therefore, they can be transported, in a state ready for final, exterior assembly, on an 18-wheeled trailer truck.
6. Configure-ability: ISOs are metal and therefore may be cut with a torch to the configuration of fenestration, doors or integration with other ISO units or other materials by a dwelling’s designer, without compromising the strength of the remainder of the structure.
7. Barn Door Adaptability: The end doors of ISOs can be maintained for security purposes while permitting, in an open position, fenestration or other decorative forms.
8. Height Potential: ISOs can be stacked, evidenced by their classic use on railroad flatbed cars. Yet the ISOs can be carefully anchored due to their design feature that incorporates big holes for marrying posts in one end. Stacked units can be moved into position in developments quickly, using cranes.
9. Attachment to utilities sources: Because the floors of an ISO are very strong, they can be set in place upon posts, elevating them above ground level, which permits them to be “wired and plumbed” with minimal cost (avoiding saw cutting a slab) to utilities connections installed beneath the base of the floor without weakening the floor; this feature permits, in raised position, ISOs to be used in areas with surface drainage challenges (consider their application in the 9th Ward neighborhoods in New Orleans, Louisiana, where they could be erected above-grade in areas of lower mean elevations and still withstand the wind and “storm surge” dilemmas that area faces.
10. Integration with sustainability technologies: By standing an ISO-based structure on piers, wiring, plumbing and solar-powered apparatus configuration are all made easier beneath the dwelling unit. The walls are sufficiently strong to support solar panel integration where roof placement is inconvenient.
11. Insulation properties: Some existing ISOs, being originally designed for refrigeration, are manufactured with heavy insulation in place, which enables the structure’s interior to withstand extremes of temperature throughout the year without substantial additional expense to the contractor.
You might think, yeah, but how do they appear to the city officials in the community where I live? I’ve been in touch with planning departments in two counties in Florida on the subject of building container-based residences. The planning department’s responses are the same. These are manufactured housing products under our zoning code’s definitions; manufactured housing is accepted housing stock in residentially-zoned districts; so comply with the building codes, and go forth with your project. There’s no apparent prejudice within the bureaucracy. So basic resistance to container projects may come not from a government but from an HOA, if there were restrictive covenants that dictated what types of materials can (and cannot) be used in construction. That means the consumer may not be able to live in a planned community that has a few remaining vacant lots. On the other hand, how do you suppose HOAs in the busted subdivisions populating Nevada, Arizona, Florida and elsewhere will react to the opportunity to see build-out achieved? I imagine there are some boards of directors that will be only too obliging to amend the covenants, conditions and restrictions to permit construction of alternative-materials dwellings.