• 10.12.15

So You Want Sustainable Housing? Try Shipping Containers

Meet the startup converting used shipping containers into off-the-shelf, off-the-grid dwellings.

So You Want Sustainable Housing? Try Shipping Containers
[Illustration: Sam Glynn]

The idea of off-the-grid living has a romantic, back-to-nature feel to it—but the reality is significantly more complicated if you want anything more than the most basic amenities. Dutch startup Sustainer Homes is attempting to eliminate at least some of the difficulty by producing the world’s first off-the-shelf, zero-impact dwelling. Set in a converted shipping container, the 323-square-foot space includes a bedroom, bathroom, full kitchen, and living room, all constructed from wood-free, Ecoboard panels. The entire thing costs $78,000, approximately $1,300 of which would be made up annually in heat and electricity savings. And because it’s completely self-contained, it can be shipped anywhere and set up in minutes. Several pilot programs, which will rent out Sustainer Homes to travelers in the Netherlands, are in the works for early next year. If all goes well, these houses-in-a-box could be available internationally by next fall.



The Sustainer uses hybrid solar panels that gather both energy and heat from the sun. In temperate climates, 280 square feet of panels, plus two small rooftop wind turbines, should fulfill the home’s energy needs. (If production dips, a 20-kilowatt battery with about two days’ capacity makes up the difference.)


Rainwater flows through a series of gutters on its way to a 689-gallon storage tank. Debris such as leaves and twigs are filtered out first, then electric pumps send water either to the shower (via a simple carbon filter) or through a fine membrane that sterilizes it for drinking.


Wastewater from the sink, shower, and composting toilet runs through a plant-based filter six times to mimic the earth’s natural filtration mechanisms before being sent back out into the ground.


An onboard computer and smart thermostat help balance energy production and consumption, while a 4G LTE modem provides high-speed Internet for up to 10 devices. In tests, the container’s steel facade has acted like a giant antenna, strengthening the cellular signal. Future Sustainers in more remote areas might rely on satellites or older mobile networks.