Tiny Tuesday: Home-in-a-Box

I couldn’t agree more with Boxman Studios founder David Campbell when he describes the shipping container as “an engineering marvel.” Its corrugated steel walls and ceiling are structure, weatherproofing, and finish surfaces all rolled into one. It can withstand wind and waves at sea, the vibrations of a cross-country tractor trailer, and the concentrated force of an offloading crane, transitioning effortlessly between these modes. It stacks neatly atop other containers, ten high or more.

One can easily imagine the shipping container as the ideal building block for a modular home or other building. The World Shipping Council estimates some 17 million containers worldwide, with new ones being built – and old ones retired – every day. Why not take all those retired boxes and recycle them into inexpensive, durable, moveable indoor spaces?

Well, it turns out the shipping container is really hard to convert. Mr. Campbell laments that “it requires a lot to take it apart and maintain its structural integrity.” In other words, you can’t just plasma-torch a square out of your container wall and call it a window. You need to reinforce around every hole to make up for the structure you eliminated. And when you start to think about insulation and roughing in plumbing and other utilities, the difficulties really pile up.

That hasn’t stopped enterprises like Boxman Studios from trying. Search the net and you’ll find numerous examples of pop-up retail stores, coffee shops, and (yes) homes built from a single shipping container or several stacked together. Two of my favorite concepts are the PUMA-CITY store, which made the rounds a few years back, and a shipping container hotel in Detroit. Practical challenges may abound, but with all these ready-made structures readily available it would be a shame not to try.

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