Sorry I was away on vacation last week and lost time for blogging to the beach! While there I was thinking about a time when I was younger and had less responsibility and how I used to travel and live 'off the grid'. So when I came back to an email from a guy who wants to build a house out of shipping containers - well- I had a lot to say!
(There is often the urge - especially in the green or creative worlds - to use found objects or alternative products as building materials. In architecture school we all do projects of this sort. It is very mind opening for a designer to really work through the realities and fantasies of building.)
Below is part of that email:
I used to live in the high desert of Colorado (I lived in Crestone CO, in the Sangre de Cristos just north of Taos + Sant Fe) I lived there in a converted railroad box car. While there I built straw bale and adobes and pumice houses and earthshps (passive solar tire houses). So I am very familiar with building in the climate of the desert as well as that of Connecticut.I have always been interested in container architecture and have done many designs with containers in mind and while I feel it is possible to get a pretty awesome house out them I think that it is only ideal for certain climates- like Los Angeles (where I also used to live).
The old box car I lived in in CO was an insulated/ refrigerated car. Awesome insulation in the walls and really nice raw wood lined the insides- walls and ceilings. This was a perfect 'container' to turn into a house - especially in the high desert where it is really quite cold half of the year. Not only was the car insulated but we burmed it into a hill on the north side and opened up a good deal of the south wall for passive solar heat gain. We poured a simple adobe floor to collect the sun's heat through the day. The wood walls we easily stained and they made for a beautiful warm interior. Because it was a box car it came with 2 rectangular cut outs in the roof - one at each end - used for adding ice to the box car. These we turned into beautiful sky lights.
Your average shipping container is not like this. The average container is all steel and only steel. There is no built in insulation and there is no beautiful exterior or interior surface as a given. Unless you live in L.A. you have to add insulation. (For either heating OR cooling). And unless you truly love the look and feel of cold rough steel as a wall surface you have to cover the interior and possibly exterior with something more appealing. (Drywall, wood paneling, cedar,etc). Steel can look really cool- especially slightly rusted- but really you probably don't want to lean on it or touch it a lot in your day to day living. It will always feel very cold.
I could see a steel exterior but then you would have to add insulation to the interior and then a secondary wall inside to cover the insulation and so would lose a 4-6 inches all around the house on the inside. Containers are already small inside.Also you will have to cut openings for windows and doors and carefully craft the doors and windows to fit those opening and avoid leaks etc.
So what are you getting from a container? Structure. You are getting a structure and you are getting a potentially interesting house. You are re-using items that may otherwise go to landfills. You can stack them! You can arrange them, etc. They are inspiring to the designer mind. You will not get and average house for sure and that may be enough of a reason to take that route...but it is not easy or cheap really in the end. It would probably be more cost effective in a CT climate to simply build a stud wall box from scratch.
Actually- below is a picture of a house clad in steel (rusted - or 'corten' steel). It is not built out of shipping containers. (house by Simon Ungers and Tom Knislow)
Shipping containers are designed to be water tight. If you insulated on the inside, the moisture would condense on the cold steel skin. If there was an interior vapour barrier, you would trap the moisture. It would probably be best to insulate on the exterior. In any case, reusing a shipping container (a former boss from Newfoundland called these seacans) is an interesting challenge.