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From the Shipyard to the Backyard
Posted by MSC on September 5, 2008 at 9:59 AM.

By James Falls


Steel containers have been a mainstay in the world’s shipping industry ever since 1956, when U.S. trucking entrepreneur Malcolm McLean loaded 58 steel containers aboard the tanker Ideal-X and sailed them from Newark, N.J. to Houston.


But what happens to these containers when they are “retired?” At the end of its lifespan, a container is traditionally sold for scrap or, when it’s cost-effective, shipped back to its country of origin. But today, many retired containers are finding new life—as garages or spare bedrooms. Known as intermodal steel building units (ISBU), these repurposed containers are being used to build strong, sustainable, and durable structures.


Some major shipping companies are selling their used containers for approximately $1,200 each, and many containers are being sold over the Internet. A search for “shipping container” returned more than 100 advertisements for shipping containers in the U.S.—all of which were listed for less than $3,000 each.

The standard dimensions of a container are 8 ft in width, 8 ft 6 in. or 9 ft 6 in. in height, and lengths of 20 ft, 40 ft, 45 ft, 48 ft, and 53 ft. The containers are made from high-strength COR-TEN steel, water-resistant, and designed to resist harsh oceanic environments, making more than acceptable for use in building construction.


Dropping Anchor


Transforming an ISBU into a useable structure is fairly straightforward. Since they are originally designed for efficient transportation, they can easily be relocated to a construction site. After delivery, holes for doors, windows, and other desired openings are cut in the sides. The ISBU is then lifted by crane onto the building foundation and securely welded to the foundation; when properly anchored, it can resist winds of up to 175 miles per hour.


Commonly, several ISBUs are stacked on top of each other or placed side-by-side to form a large home or office building. The steel is insulated with a ceramic powder, making it rust-proof and preventing mildew build-up. Typical exterior and interior finishes such as drywall, stucco, and wood are then attached to the steel frame as desired. At this point, the transformation from a sea-faring shipping container to a durable, static structure is complete.


Mixed Use


ISBUs can be used to build a multitude of different structures. Architects use them to build custom homes and trendy bungalows of all sizes and shapes. The U.S. military uses them to set up temporary command centers and training facilities. ISBUs are also very useful as emergency shelters and temporary housing, as they can be delivered quickly and set up with little effort. Press boxes, concession stands, storage facilities, radar stations, and apartment buildings have also employed ISBUs.


In addition, several notable projects around the world have been constructed using these special steel boxes. Architect Peter DeMaria designed a two-story home using eight ISBUs in Southern California; the 3,500-sq.-ft home was awarded the 2007 AIA Honor Award for Design Excellence/Innovation. In Whistler, Canada, home of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, 294 rooms are being constructed to make up for a shortfall in living spaces for workers, media, and volunteers. Also, the Nomadic Museum, built in 2005 in New York to house a photography exhibit, used 152 shipping containers for its exterior walls. (Interestingly, the museum was dismantled and then rebuilt in Santa Monica, California a year later and Tokyo the following year.) And in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, hundreds of containers are double-stacked to create the Dordoy Bazaar, a large wholesale and retail market; an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 containers stretch more than a kilometer long to make up one of the largest commercial centers in the region.


The use of shipping containers to build structures is still in its infancy, but with a little imagination and creativity it is possible to construct almost anything. So the next time you walk by a shipyard or rail yard and see an empty shipping container, don’t assume it will be crossing an ocean—it might just turn out to be your neighbor’s new kitchen.


James Falls is a summer intern with AISC.


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