Shipping Containers Are Recycled Into Housing

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Lisa Berke is a Los Angeles freelance writer

A 7.1 earthquake tore through Guam, city and slum. It was the summer of 1993, and Los Angeles native Mark O’Bryan ran for his apartment doorway to protect himself. When the shaking stopped 60 endless seconds later, the 30-year-old visitor on a working holiday in the Pacific found himself among countless hundreds left homeless in the rubble.

Then O’Bryan noticed that some of the slum dwellers had ridden out the quake with little or no damage to their makeshift shelters.

For a time, it seems, the homeless of Guam had homes when others didn’t. They were the squatters who had colonized a storage yard of old steel shipping containers, which neither cracked, crumbled nor collapsed in the violent shaking. That was enough to make O’Bryan, a Berkeley architecture student, ponder possibility among the squalor.

What if cast-off containers could be cleaned up? What if two containers were joined together, windows installed, the interior finished and what if you added a proper kitchen, bathroom and porch, along with some exterior siding and a coat of paint?


Talk about recycling: A sturdy, if small, $28,000 single-family home via the junkyard.

And what if these container homes were fabricated, not abroad, but here for needy Americans? That purchase price (not counting land) of $28,000 is no typographical mistake.

Now you see the outlines of O’Bryan’s vision, which subsequently cut short his studies and put him on the path as a would-be mass-scale developer.

Ever since available caves became overcrowded, humans have been trying this and that to shelter themselves. Thatch and hide and sun-baked mud, dried cow dung, pressed sheets of beer cans, even blocks of ice have been employed as home-building materials in various places.


Americans came to accept three choices: The steel frame or poured concrete apartment building, the mobile home and the wood-frame house, with allowances for stone and brick too. And it has come to pass that we ceased thinking much about other choices.

Yes, we did allow for adobe in the Southwest. And Alaskans, who live without serious building codes, try all sorts of things, including reclaiming caves. Elsewhere, here and there, energetic nonconformists have experimented with old tires, compressed paper, prefab plastics, ceramics and other materials. But these are mostly oddities in the larger scheme.

As a result, America’s homeless are left to live in cardboard refrigerator boxes on the sidewalks and in tattered tents under freeways, for lack of anything else. Shelter Partnership, a Los Angeles-based homeless advocacy group, says that up to 80,000 people in Los Angeles County lack permanent addresses. “I’ve been there. It’s not a good place to be,” says O’Bryan.

Even the poor who do have housing are often living in substandard conditions. The Southern California Assn. of Non-Profit Housing estimates that 40,000 households in Los Angeles are in two-car garages. According to HUD’s statistics, about 80% of rental units in the city are overcrowded (more than 1.5 people per room).

So O’Bryan formed a company called Habitat Systems. And with the assistance of innovative thinkers at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, he is nearing a breakthrough that would set him apart from your everyday make-the-world-a-better-place dreamer. The Milwaukee Housing Authority recently agreed to the first housing project using O’Bryan’s container design.

According to the plan, 20 prototype Habitat duplexes--one pair of containers stacked atop another--will be arrayed in clusters. Each duplex unit will have 640 square feet and two bedrooms. The exteriors of the containers will be finished in clapboard siding to blend as much as possible with typical Milwaukee homes. A single container can be added to create a 320-square-foot triplex studio dwelling.

“It is a very unique idea,” said Matthew W. Fuchs, department chairman at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. “I doubt this concept will replace [2-by-4] stick-built housing for the masses, but it goes a long way to making housing affordable for the disadvantaged.

“The interior of a unit is comfortable, and the exterior adapts easily to the traditional architecture of the area. Future residents will have nothing to be ashamed of.”


Perhaps. But there still is a freight-car image to deal with. The Milwaukee experiment will help determine whether people can find themselves at home and snug in cast-off containers. “Ghettos are defined by how housing is configured and managed, not in what it’s constituted from,” O’Bryan said.

On the plus side, the integral strength of the steel container makes it a stronger and more durable core for a house than most, if not all, other types of prefab and even on-site construction. Yes, this will require meeting, and perhaps modifying, building codes. O’Bryan says this is his primary goal.

If Milwaukee’s experiment proves the appeal and usefulness of O’Bryan’s cheap and stalwart dwellings, America could be sitting on an overlooked bounty. According to the world’s largest container leasing company, Genstar, there are roughly 5.4 million of the 8-foot-by-40-foot steel shipping containers in use worldwide. About 6%, or roughly 324,000 containers, are retired each year, with the most common use today being as storage sheds.

O’Bryan’s plan calls for screening containers for toxins, then putting them on an assembly line for cleaning and rehabilitation. Windows and doors will be cut in the steel and ready-made frames installed. Insulation, plumbing and wiring are added, and composite wall and ceiling panels finish the basic configuration.

Kitchens, baths and flooring will depend on the specifications of the purchaser. Household siding and a house-like roof can further hide the wandering past of the dwelling. Then, of course, the container-house is hoisted back on a truck or train and shipped off.

As O’Bryan sees it, the units can be self-contained to provide short-term emergency shelter, say in a natural disaster, or bolted to a concrete foundation and connected to local utilities as entry-level permanent housing for the disadvantaged. He also believes there will be a call for remote or overseas projects that require shelter for workers.

“Affordability, mobility and efficiency allow for the creation of housing immediately and at a low cost to meet demands that exist in the present moment,” O’Bryan said.