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Innovative Recycling of Shipping Containers Provides Needed Housing

It seems like such a simple idea you might wonder why someone hadn’t thought of it before. After all, shipping containers are a common sight in many seaports. So why not convert them into low cost housing for people in need?

VOA’s Tim Wardner says architects and designers are finding a new use for these steel containers that in the past have just been used for storage.

These shipping containers, stored by the hundreds of thousands in U.S. ports because they are not needed, are now the objects of some innovative thinking.

"This is like a bare bones kind of living structure," says Floramae McCarron-Cates, a curator at New York's Cooper-Hewitt Museum. She is showing a shipping container made into a small house called 'Future Shack.'

"It's a home that is portable, it's a home that can be moved all over the world," she says.

The universal design of the containers make them easy to move anywhere by ship, train or truck, and they could be quickly taken to places that need emergency housing.

"Individuals who are either refugee populations or there's a place where there is always earthquakes, mudslides, where these kinds of things could be outfitted at very low cost," she says.

The containers are very strong and can be outfitted with the same amenities found in a modern apartment.

"As you can see it's lined with plywood, it's fully insulated," Ms. McCarron-Cates says. "On the outside the future shack looks very industrial, but once you come inside you can see that it's actually very warm."

These containers have been adapted to make moveable rooms in a large art gallery space in lower Manhattan. They were the idea of Giuseppe Lignano and his New York architectural firm Lot-ek. His idea is to use the shipping containers not just for refugees, but also for the affluent who want a mobile lifestyle.

"We wanted to create a product that could become like a second home or even your first home that you can ship all over the world," he says.

Lot-ek adapted this shipping container into what they call a Mobil Dwelling Unit.

"This thing will container your belongings and would be your home," he says. "You go there, you ship it ahead of you, you get there and it's as if you never left it."

The mobile trailer home has been manufactured for over half a century. But a container's heavy steel frame means it can be stacked and modified to make more permanent structures, like these in a place called 'Container City' in London. The idea of making these kinds of small communities from the containers is something that architect Mark Strauss at Fox and Fowle in New York is working on.

"By stacking them and taking advantage of their structural integrity, one has the ability to create a more lasting positive effect on the environment," he says.

Mr. Strauss has designed a community cluster of container homes called Gloucester Green for an old seaport in the state of Massachusetts.

"But they are fully modular and they are designed to stack and they are designed to stack eight high," he says.

He emphasizes the environmental advantages of recycling the containers.

But if one can think about turning lemons into lemonade, and how you can take advantage of those blights to make something positive of them, and make that one's objective and one's goal, we can all contribute to a better environment," Mr. Strauss said.

The containers cost a couple of thousand dollars and can be outfitted for living for as little as $15,000 each, to make what could be called a primitive hut for the 21st century.