Tim Steele stood outside a pair of orange shipping containers on a hillside about two hours northeast of New York City. The large metal cargo door swung wide to reveal a small mudroom inside the corrugated walls, and beyond that an expansive living room, kitchen and small bathroom. Several tall windows looked out on the Catskill Mountains, a vista that stretched for miles.
The rooms inside these shipping containers might easily be mistaken for those inside any of the timber-framed homes in the hillside country here. In the kitchen, one wall exposed the bright orange corrugated surface of the Corten steel container, but elsewhere evidence of the structure’s origins was scant.
“You’re constructing something that we associate with the most stable thing in our lives,” said Mr. Steele, founder of Steele House, a firm that designs and builds container structures. “It is why we leave the container exposed — it creates tension between movement and stability.”
This particular container home, in Sullivan County, belongs to Robyn Volker, 57, and her wife, Anke Irmscher, 54. And the container wasn’t orange when they went with Mr. Steele to pick it out, but as Ms. Volker said, “If you’re going to do this thing, you might as well announce it’s a container.”
Building with shipping containers isn’t exactly new, but until recently it hasn’t been exactly mainstream either. Now, though, it is becoming a lot more popular, as eco-friendly practices begin to influence market trends. Containers are loved by the hip and the practical, artisans and DIY-ers, engineers and construction foremen, as they are both sustainable and affordable. And used 20- or 40-foot containers can be obtained for as little as several hundred dollars apiece, so it’s not surprising that some industry professionals consider them the future of home building.
“More of the population has been educated on sustainability and ecological principles,” said Paul Galvin, the chairman, chief executive and a founder of SG Blocks, a publicly traded company that repurposes maritime-grade cargo shipping containers that can hold as much as 64,000 pounds. Mr. Galvin’s biggest client is the military — which turns those containers into housing, mess halls, computer server storage and commissaries, among other structures — but he believes shipping containers work just as well on a small scale.
“It’s a legitimately green option for the consumer,” he said. “And it’s not going to cost them more; this isn’t a green solution that requires government subsidy.”
In March, his company received commendation from the ICC Evaluation Service, a subsidiary of the international code council that evaluates and certifies building products, for its “quality control process for selecting shipping containers” for use in construction.
“Anything that’s seaworthy is construction-worthy,” said Mr. Galvin, whose company gets its material from ConGlobal Industries, which sells shipping containers of varied age and quality. All containers are subject to strict international standards, he pointed out, but even so, his team carefully inspects each one before using it in a project: “We’ve established that they perform as good as, or better than, code requires.”
Shipping containers, as we know them today, are the brainchild of Malcom Purcell McLean, a longshoreman from New Jersey credited with revolutionizing the shipping industry. Dubbed the Father of Containerization, Mr. McLean came up with the idea for shipping large cargo boxes one day in 1937, as he waited to unload his truck carrying tobacco barrels. It took him years to convince others that his idea made sense, but in 1956 he oversaw the implementation of a rigged container system, when a tanker loaded 56 containers from Port Newark.