SEED Shipping Containers Could Supply Haiti With Emergency Housing

Converted shipping containers can solve the housing crisis in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. They just have to get to those in need.

SEED Shipping Container

What is completely constructed of steel, reinforced with corrugated steel walls, able to withstand winds up to 140 mph, and can make a comfortable living space for the survivors of the Haitian earthquake? A standard shipping container. And researchers at Clemson University are scurrying to figure out how to turn their project, known as SEED, into a way to contribute emergency housing to Haiti right now.

SEED was initially conceived as a way to utilize some of the estimated 30 million shipping containers that were languishing in ports all over the world by turning them into homes for victims of hurricanes in both the Caribbean Islands and the United States.

A research and development team led by Pernille Christensen, associate professor Doug Hecker, and assistant professor Martha Skinner, received an Environmental Protection Agency P3 grant and funding by Container-It of Atlanta, Sargent Metals of Anderson, and the Intermodal Steel Building Units Association. A model container will be part of the 2010 National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C., in April and a prototype was to be built in the Caribbean in the next year.

Then disaster struck. "This situation [in Haiti] which is so sad is forcing all of us to be quicker to implement something of great need while people are ready to help," says Skinner adding, "this is something that will help a lot of places, and a lot of people."

Hecker notes that despite being originally earmarked for hurricanes, the containers' "unibody" construction "are also very good in seismic zones and exceed structural code in the United States and any country in the world."

Creating a Home from SEED

The way he describes it, the container is simply cut in a few strategic places to allow for airflow and light while it is still in the port, then transported to the site for further modifications such as a coated with ceramic paint for insulation and fitted with wooden shipping pallets that act as "pods" for bathing and cooking.


Christensen explains that at 320 square feet, the containers are roughly equivalent to what many islanders are used to. "Extended families of 6 to 12 people often live in 200-to-400-square-foot spaces," she says.

Additionally, the containers are augmented with another surplus item: 55 gallon drums fitted with an interior slip to protect against leaching. On the roof of the container they become the real "seeds" of the project" filled with dirt and planted for "emergency food restoration." Christensen says other surplus items such as old tires can also be made into raised beds for growing food.

She says the ability to restore people to homes in their neighborhoods that they can be proud of—brightly painted, secure, and sustainable- strengthen communities. The fears raised by the toxicity of the trailers FEMA provided to the victims of Hurricane Katrina would not be a factor. It would also cut down on looting.

Growing a SEED Home

But even Skinner admits that logistically, getting these homes to Haitians is going to be a complex task.

The main port in Haiti, in Port-au-Prince sustained considerable damage according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Port cranes may be submerged in the water, cargo containers have been tossed on their sides, and an oil spill—possibly caused by a broken pipeline—has fouled the harbor's waters, according to the Miami Herald. However, a Reuters report on January 18 said the U.S. military planned to have the port opened in 2-3 days. The accompanying photo illustrates the damage, but you can also see a good quantity of containers stacked by the shore.

This is exactly what the SEED team believes could be the beginning of hope for displaced Haitians.

Skinner says, "We are working to get shipping companies on board to donate their empty containers already in Haiti, and governments that have sent containers with goods for the relief effort and neighboring ports could also donate." She says the are also looking for a company to donate or set up the equipment needed to modify the containers at the port.

"We will probably put a team together but we need help," underscores Skinner. "It is a huge, but could also be a simple task, if all entities get coordinated."

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  • Its been a few years since the last comment, but I'd like to add some additional info. The whole idea of shipping container homes never took off like many expected.

    Although they are very sturdy, they are built for a specific purpose, and customizing them for housing requirements takes extra planning and thought. Specifically, you need to increase the structural integrity of the containers. The loads are meant to be distributed in a specific manner, which in many cases is not similar to the structural layout of a house, bunker, or shelter. This is especially true when placing containers underground (which has gained a lot of interest in the last couple of years).

    Pre-fab homes are a better solution for situations such as Haiti, multiple units can be placed in one 20' container, then built onsite. Long story short, its not as easy as sending some containers over to a place and adding some windows/doors/insulation/utilities etc.

    Dustin Boray

  • keith schmidt

    I sell shipping containers throughout the US and as soon as the earthquake happened in Haiti we noticed that the supply of available containers from our vendors in the South East US almost immediately dried up, this was because Tens of Thousands of the units were filled with relief supplies and sent to Haiti.

    I am not sure if they built houses or structures out of the containers that were sent to Haiti once they were emptied of the relief supplies. 

    Keith Schmidt
    Giant Lock Box

  • Pete Stoppel

    Interestingly today I was pitching a competition on a Sketchup forum as we have thousands of architects and designers itching to design something with meaning and Mike Lucey gave me this link.
    I definitely see a dire need for this type project, heck even Pakistan could use this today.
    Anyway, the challenge would be to convert a 20ft shipping container into a permanent abode as green and cheap as possible, all done in 3D and rendered (as a good picture is worth a thousand words)
    I'd like to involve y'all if interested.

  • stephane victor

    I am a young professional currently in Haiti and I would like to get as much information possible on this project and how it is moving along. I would also like to know how I can contribute on making a positive impact on the project because I truly believe that it could be an answer to the haitian population.

  • cvxxx

    Hmmm Why not use them to build housing for the student-artist-homeless-cheap American!!! These containers are cheap. cheap to rehab into small apt because the utilities can be easily installed and with advanced building and foam insulation on the outside usable in most any climate. Best of all they can meet the cheap but hip market,