Fast Company

Would You Live in a Shipping Container?

Cheap, transportable and recyclable, Adam Kalkin's container homes may be the next wave of prefab.

Interior-of-the-Collector's-House-at-the-Shelburne-Museum

Adam Kalkin isn't the only architect to make homes out of shipping containers. A handful of architects, including Jennifer Siegal and Lot-Ek, began using them ten years ago as a gritty reaction against the tidy white surfaces of modernism. But nobody has employed shipping containers more inventively than Kalkin, a New Jersey architect and artist who has used them to design luxurious homes, museum additions, and refugee housing.

In architectural circles, Kalkin is regarded as something of an oddball. He began his talk at the Urban Center in New York Tuesday night by playing the first five minutes of a Jerry Lewis movie, followed by the actor's acceptance speech at the Academy Awards last month. His website includes lessons on hitting a tennis forehand and a selection of songs to sing after taking antidepressants. Years ago Kalkin shaved while delivering a lecture at the Whitney Museum.

His talk this week was tied to the publication of Quik Build: Adam Kalkin's ABC of Container Architecture ($49.95), which shows 32 of his projects in all their odd ingenuity, including Bunny Lane, a home he built for himself with a 19th century clapboard cottage inside an industrial hanger, and the Push Button House, a furnished room that unfolds from a container with hydraulic walls.

Interior-of-Bunny-Lane

"Adam continues to be subversive, and subvert what architecture is supposed to be," design historian Alastair Gordon said by way of introduction in the panel discussion that followed Kalkin's presentation.

For all his artsy provocations, Kalkin's strategy makes some practical sense. After all, shipping containers are cheap, mobile and highly recyclable. The Kalkin project that puts these qualities to best use is the Quik House, a prefab home ($150 a square foot) made from six shipping containers that can be completed in three months. A smaller version, called the A Pod ($50,000), will be available later this year.

The-Push-Button-House

"Quik Build" arrives as modernist prefab has begun to lose its bargain appeal after years of hype. The most popular cost from $250 to $400 a square foot including installation, which is more than a thrifty consumer would pay for a home built by an architect and contractor. Last summer the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened Home Delivery, a show that celebrated prefab's design innovations but cast doubt on its current economics. Barry Bergdoll, curator of the show, suggested on Tuesday that Kalkin's containers could be used to provide low-cost housing in places like the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

Can Kalkin provide a viable alternative to conventional housing? On Tuesday he said that he had never even considered himself a prefab architect until Bunny Lane showed up on the cover of a book about prefab. He's one of architecture's more unorthodox practitioners, but original thinking may be what's called for as architecture works its way through what Kalkin calls "a crisis of relevance."

Browse the gallery of shipping container architecture

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26 Comments

  • Cooper Pie

    Thanks for the post, and when my friend first mentioned that she wanted to live in a steel barn I just thought that she was acting weird.  But after looking at these pictures, I kind of want to live in one now.  Because it's kind of like a house within a house.  And it has this rustic appeal that I really like. 

  • Sylvia Meyers

    Beautiful! I've often thought they would make a fabulous office if one could choose to forgoe the commute..

    Dual function of living furniture would be a big plus in an enviroment such as this... what comes to mind is the coffee table turned dining table for 8 (or 2,4,6) by Calligaris... various models have different looks the most modern is the Magic-J - 7 height options as well. (speaking of the office, it might make a good boardroom table) we saw it here in our travels: http://www.niagarafurniture.ca...

  • Mary Richards

    Each shipping container houses 6 American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan... Though, they were nowhere near luxurious.

  • Daniel

    Actually, there are some amazing shipping container house ideas and the finished structures can be really awesome. I don't know about the tudor house inside the warehouse idea though. :) Seriously, there are some designers in California that are creating truly beautiful container houses. They don't look like corrugated boxes at all! This construction style is gaining popularity too. Bob Vila (remember 'This Old House') has a series of videos showing the construction of a container house. You should check them out!

    http://www.myshippingcontainer...

  • Andrew Snowball

    I know people who have converted shipping containers into offices but never a home. Fascinating to see what can be done with one.. Amazing. Tempting to run my company from one.

  • Kell Bill

    OK a bit patronizing here..but i guess its alright:

    Soon the recession will cut into peoples lives. They will be living inside containers, get their online nursing degree ( because medical is too expensive ) - will lead a taboo life and go prehistoric. :D

  • Austin Strickland

    Oh my goodness.. I never thought that a container would be more luxurious than my own room.. its amazing..
    I do agree with the comment that these houses are cheap than usual and it can even withstand natural calamities like earthquake due to its flexibility in movement.
    But I would disagree with the comment that this idea is impractical. I would love to reside in a container house like the ones in the pics above. I mean, in this era of economic constraints, one can think of a lot of similar options to minimize one's expense.

    Well, its a whole debate that whether they are useful or not but one thing is for sure that the containers in the pics are awesome and one can think of living in it easily.

    I'll look for more similar houses so that I can think of one of my own.. ;)

    Austin
    http://www.allegrofreight.com

  • David Arthur

    Some of the building designs using intermodal shipping containers have been truly beautiful. The designs illustrated in this article are not the best of the lot. Although the image that immediately comes to mind is that of a dank metal trailer, buildings made from these inexpensive and readily available materials can be comfortable, energy efficient, and resource responsible. Think of the often written about modular homes by Michelle Kaufman. Containers essentially occupy the same space as the building modules utilized in Kaufman's designs. It is only a matter of architectural creativity to make container buildings something desirable. A container home might not be for everyone, but neither is a resource intensive drywall palace McMansion. www.GreenBusinessOwner.com

  • Travis Price

    We hipster architects used them extensively in the early 1970's in New Mexico with pizzaz as well as superinsulation green machine thinking. Nothing new here. Most of this pre-fab wash ends up like all 3 year waves of pre-fab hype, they are reinvented, then always die and reappear as the real facts unfold and the cost/sf is always the same as normal arch/builder on site design. Rarely if ever is the real cost less, it only appears that way as the next sweat equity project is published. Stick to a well versed modernist architect and you'll be just fine. Travis Price

  • Jazzy Jeff

    These all look like metal barns. Does Kalkin live in the country somewhere?? No chance I would live in one of these. I've seen the DeMaria container projects from LA and they aren't barns, they're real modern and sleek cribs.

  • Joel Dechant

    No way. While I enjoy reading about his beat-of-a-different-drummer take on, well, everything, I highly doubt that living in a corrugated metal box could be that comfortable, especially in a humid place like Japan (where I live now).

  • John Gleichweit

    There's a company out of Florida that has been repurposing containers into homes for years. The containers are storm and earthquake resistant, and are a relatively low-cost alternative to conventional construction or traditional manufactured homes. They were even featured on an episode of Bob Vila's Home Again, with a 4-container home built in South Carolina. http://www.bobvila.com/HowTo_L...

  • Eric Laub

    For my Deck and Engine colleagues in the maritime industry...with a little ingenuity you'll never have to leave your ship (or jobsite) again!

  • Russell Turnage

    Earthquake proof housing is not oddball. My car withstands all sorts of vibrations that my house wouldn't shelter me from. They can be used as a sealed pontoon like foundation in flood prone areas. It's stick and stone construction that's oddball and old fashioned, keep mine mobile and I'll defragment your city with them.