In From the Docks, a Surprising Building Material

Adam Kalkin's Quik Build house in New Jersey was made from six shipping containers, at a cost of just under $300,000.
Adam Kalkin's Quik Build house in New Jersey was made from six shipping containers, at a cost of just under $300,000. (By Katherine Salant For The Washington Post)
By Katherine Salant
Saturday, June 6, 2009

As the home-building industry becomes ever greener, it's still overlooking one abundant source of reusable material: international shipping containers.

At any time in the United States, about 125,000 shipping containers are available for conversion to houses. Built to hold 60,000 pounds when fully loaded, the containers can be stacked up to nine high. They can meet the standards of any residential building code, including those with hurricane or seismic requirements.

They're resistant to wood-eating bugs, a big deal in the Gulf Coast areas with rapacious Formosan termites.

They don't cost that much. After a single sea-hauling trip, a standard 8-foot-by-40-foot shipping container costs about $3,000 to $5,000. A 10-year-old container that's logged 50 ocean-crossing trips and is full of dents goes for about half that.

And a house built with shipping containers is really cool.

I discovered this when I visited architect Adam Kalkin's new home in Califon, N.J., about 60 miles from New York City.

Kalkin's 1,920-square-foot Quik House sits on top of a hill in the middle of three wooded acres. The first surprise was that such an alien, industrial form can look natural in a rural setting, the rust-colored exterior blending in as much as the shape stands out.

The space is three containers wide -- a generous sized 24-foot-by-24-foot square. Two opposite sides are entirely glass, flooding the space with daylight and beckoning views. Each of the other two sides opens onto three 8-by-8 spaces, each one a modified half of a 20-foot shipping container. They become a dining alcove, stairwell, half-bath, pantry, and mechanical and laundry rooms.

The only giveaway that shipping containers were used are the corrugated walls of the stairwell. For the other walls, the corrugations are hidden behind drywall.

The second floor has three bedrooms, two baths and a central eight-foot-wide hallway lined with bookshelves where kids and dogs who want to be in the middle of everything will happily nap and play.

Kalkin used six containers for his house -- three 40-footers for the second floor and three 20-footers for the first floor. Because a container is only eight feet wide, some of the side walls were removed to get larger, more livable interior spaces.

Although Kalkin's design is unique, other American architects are also experimenting with shipping containers. Some, like Kalkin, have left the containers exposed while others have concealed them behind traditional building materials, so that the finished house looks like every other one on the block.

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