Shipping Containers: The new urban homes

Innovative architects turn to shipping containers for affordable housing solutions.

Millions of young adults are anxious to get out of their parents’ homes and start living on their own, but low wages and high rents are keeping many millennials with mom and dad. To satisfy this growing need for affordable housing, some developers and architects are turning to shipping containers. Yes, shipping containers! A trend that has already gained steam in Europe is spreading around the world: one of the newest shipping container apartment buildings is being constructed just a few miles from the White House.

SeaUA is a three-story building constructed almost entirely of used shipping containers. The developers started lowering the containers on the site this summer. Architects Kelly Davies and Travis Price designed the building for people like Davies.

Inside a shipping container apartment in Amsterdam.
2007 AFP

"A lot of us young professionals in the area would stuff as many people as possible in for lower rent – so that was the goal," said Davies as she walked through the site pointing out features designed to satisfy the needs of twenty-somethings. "Everyone has their own bathroom, takes care of their own space, but they [also] have their kitchen, living, dining, [and] common area to hang out in at night."

Each floor has a six-bedroom apartment. When SeaUA is complete it will house 18 people, one person per container.

"If I built the same traditional brick building with this many units, I'd be in the $200 per square foot [price range] now I am in the $100s.” said Price, who is the principal architect. “That's a big game-changer because that can offset costs over time and keep rents stable."

Shipping containers are cheaper than traditional building materials. Second-hand, they can cost as little as $2,000. There is also a glut of inventory: more than 700,000 containers are sitting empty across the country.

"It is cheaper to actually build a new one in China and ship new things [to the USA] than to send it back empty," said Price.

Digital reconstruction of a luxury beach house made of shipping containers being constructed in the Hamptons.

The containers can be stacked high. On ships, they are stacked in sixes or even higher, which makes them attractive for apartment building development. Container-residences have been constructed in Amsterdam, the United Kingdom and in several Asian countries.

Shipping-container living is gaining momentum all over the USA, from modest homes in New Mexico to urban areas like Brooklyn, NY. Even the most upscale communities are welcoming containers. A luxury beach home is being constructed from shipping containers in the Hamptons.

"I believe it is like a billion-dollar market because they are everywhere. Everybody uses them for housing, garages for the backyard, sheds,” said Bill Creese Jr., terminal manager at Container Depot Industries, which sells used containers.

But are these giant metal boxes actually suitable for long-term living? Each bedroom at Sea UA is 8 feet wide by 18 feet long with large windows to give the otherwise small space a bigger feel. It only fits a twin-sized bed so rooms are being rented with size-appropriate furniture. The center of each apartment – where the shared kitchen and common areas are located – will also have walls of glass that flood the space with light. It's designed to lower electricity costs.   

The insides will have modern finishes. After the building is insulated very little of the actual steel will be visible inside.

Before anyone can live in the building, D.C. building inspectors must certify it’s suitable for occupancy, but the demand for housing in the D.C. area is so great that these apartments have already been rented, mostly to students at nearby Catholic University. Meanwhile Davies and Travis are already getting inquiries from developers around the country anxious to bring this type of living to a city near you.

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