One of the many interesting things that we discovered on this journey of building with decommissioned shipping containers is the complexity of the various layers of decision-making.
I think the overarching criteria that we use to make all of our decisions during the project boils down to this:
- How green is it?
- Is it both beautiful and practical?
- What is the price tag?
- Can we operate or maintain it ourselves?
- Is it a necessity or a nicety?
When we started our research phase more than a year ago three building methods were real contenders: light steel frame (LSF), straw bale and shipping containers. More natural building methods such as stone or rammed earth were very attractive, but various factors deterred us, such as cost, the overall look, the availability of service providers (who are not middle-aged hippies doing it as a side-line) etc. (As an aside: if money were no object I would have gone straight to Eco Design Architects & Consultants to design and build a house. Their work is absolutely stunning.) Some of the later aspects of the project will probably include experimenting with rammed earth, but on a small scale that we can do ourselves.
Straw bale was a strong contender, but the tendency of straw bale walls to look “rounded” did not appeal to us. The excellent insulation properties of straw and the fact that it would have been interesting to work with, scored high on our scale, but aesthetically the “rounded” look did not work. The look of LSF is very similar to shipping containers: clear, straight lines. It is quick to build with and versatile and, of course, far more flexible in terms of size than shipping containers. On the downside (for us) was the fact that we would end up with a very nice looking light steel frame, but then we had to find a contractor to build the rest of the construction into the frame. Mmmmm.
If the truth be told, we fell in love with shipping containers very quickly. There are millions of un-used shipping containers in the world. (Some put the figure at 30 million!) For us the fact that we have taken 7.5 tons of steel out of the environment and re-used it was important. Shipping containers are made from Corten steel that is designed to have a very long lifetime. Their box-like appearance creates the feeling of a well-defined space. It is relatively easy to stack and to add more as needed.
A large part of why our shipping container house can be considered green (relative to more traditional housing options) has to do with more than merely using recycled steel boxes. While this is a big part of it, other design aspects play an equally important role. For example: the way in which we use every last bit of cut-out steel to make security shutters and to create two internal walls means that even the “waste” of the old containers – that are themselves “waste” – is used. Other aspects also contribute – but more about that in a next post.
The back half of the container house
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