Just crazy enough to work – shipping containers for emergency shelters in Haiti

I realize this is a bit OT of my normal fare here, but I thought it was interesting. Apparently island nations tend to have a surplus of these (more imports than export), and compared to some of the structures there, these might well be superior strength housing. If they put in some French doors, it will really “open them up”.

Artists depiction from Clemson's SEED project

Clemson faculty explore how to convert shipping containers into emergency housing

CLEMSON, S.C. — Resources to solve the housing crisis in Haiti may already be on hand.

Some Clemson University researchers have been experimenting with ways to convert shipping containers into emergency housing in the hurricane-prone Caribbean, where a surplus of the sturdy boxes often sits in port yards.

Pernille Christensen, a research associate in the Richard H. Pennell Center for Real Estate and Ph.D. student in planning, design and the built environment; associate professor Doug Hecker; and assistant professor Martha Skinner of Clemson’s School of Architecture, collaborated on the SEED Project, working to develop a method to convert the shipping containers into homes.

The original idea was inspired by housing crises that have followed large hurricanes in the Caribbean and United States. However, Hecker said shipping containers would meet those needs in an earthquake zone, too.

“Because of the shipping container’s ‘unibody’ construction they are also very good in seismic zones and exceed structural code in the United States and any country in the world,” Hecker said. “They have also been used in other countries as emergency shelters in the case of earthquakes. As the SEED Project develops this will certainly be an area that we incorporate. With a few simple cuts at the port, a storage container can be turned into something that is livable and opens to the site.”

Faculty and students sought a way to put displaced people in emergency housing that could be sturdy and safe on a permanent site. Putting families back on their own land quickly is key to the idea. Families displaced by disaster often do not return to their permanent homes for years, if ever, but the Clemson researchers are looking for strategies to implement the SEED Project as quickly as possible, ideally having a modified container on site within three weeks.

“You get people back in their communities and it strengthens those communities,” Christensen said. “They work on their home, not a temporary shelter, and then they work with their neighbors to rebuild the neighborhood. It leads to a healthier and safer community. And these are places often in dire need of better housing.”

Many Caribbean countries import more containers than they export, which leads to the surplus of containers in those nations.

“The project has a double mission: to address the local need of providing adequate housing for people in need while solving a global problem of recycling – giving purpose to empty containers that would otherwise be discarded,” Skinner said.

As part of this research, the group is studying the cycles of natural disasters by looking at the larger picture through mapping and logistics to understand how containers move, available surpluses and ultimately coordinating the cycles of natural disasters with the ebb and flow of container supplies worldwide.

The SEED Project also includes plans for using another surplus item, 55-gallon steel drums, as a way to create a starter garden – from seed – on the roof of the container homes as a way to get food crops started when the ground may be contaminated by stormwater. Water also would be filtered through the drums before being used in a water pod comprised of shower, sink and composting toilet.

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January 20, 2010 8:56 am

Why crazy? They’re making luxury houses out of them and our troops are using them in Iraq and Afgahanistan. Not crazy at all!

January 20, 2010 9:00 am

Hmmm … image looks photoshopped for some reason …

January 20, 2010 9:01 am

This is already used in netherland and not for emergencies : http://www.tempohousing.com/index.html

Mike Ramsey
January 20, 2010 9:02 am

Metal gets hot in the sun. Better paint them white and include one of these in each unit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incinerating_toilet
I say use gas (propane) since elctricity might be harder to come by.
Mike Ramsey

Another Brit
January 20, 2010 9:08 am

These containers make excellent accommodation, with a few mods. A number were used in the Falklands after the 1982 war, and I have lived in them for several months on the top of a mountain in near arctic winters. It is not such a daft idea as it sounds.

Bill Marsh
January 20, 2010 9:09 am

Aren’t those things going to get a tad warm in the tropical sun??

Mike Ramsey
January 20, 2010 9:12 am

Mike Ramsey (09:02:18) :
BTW, I am not a fan of composting toilets because human waste contains “pharmaceuticals, steroids, flame-retardants, metals, hormones and human pathogen” to quote one source. Can it be done? Maybe. I would rather be safe than sorry.
Mike Ramsey

January 20, 2010 9:14 am

It looks like a viable solution to a real problem.
Thanks to these Clemson University researchers.
With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel

January 20, 2010 9:14 am

Interesting. ISO containers have been used for generator enclosures for years and are perfect for temporary shelters. Just ask some of the homeless.

Gary Pearse
January 20, 2010 9:15 am

Twenty-five years ago, I shipped a 40′ container with a stone wire saw and quarrying equipment and tools for a project in Tanzania to develop a stone deposit (naturally welded volcanic ash at the base of Kilimanjaro volcano) and train quarry and plant workers. Once emptied, we converted the container to a quarry office in a day. It is surprising that containers for housing wasn’t thought of long ago.

Steve Oregon
January 20, 2010 9:16 am

A very effective application. The engineered combination of the containers has many possibilities for various stable configurations.
Even with very little or even no foundation the structural framework these would establish for adaptation for habitation would be a fast and great improvement over the shoddy structures which may have killed 200K people.
Appropriately stacked and attached they could easily be earthquake resitance and proof.

A C Osborn
January 20, 2010 9:18 am

If I remember correctly someone built a whole building from Containers in the London Docks area a many years ago.

January 20, 2010 9:21 am

Comment from the old “Nuclear Power” engineer.
ABSOLUTELY! The containers are “rigid bodies” with structural integrity. (Unlike masonry structures, which depend on GRAVITY to hold them together.
Thus, let us presume a shipping container, with family inside… is on the gr aound during
a MAJOR Earthquake.
Aside from being thrown to the floor, there is NO other damage which will happen to the occupants. (Actually they will probably lay on the floor as soon as the structure begins to shake.
I’d recommend much passive ventilation or development of an easily installed and removed “sun roof”. Essentially a sun umbrella to keep the structure from becoming a “baking box” in the sun.
Provision of a “portable latrine” would be marvelous. Presume we can have one member of the family take on the undesireable task of discharging same every day.
(To a place designated to receive such waste.)

January 20, 2010 9:22 am

I have this feeling that stacking them would give you something resembling a house of cards. Nice outside the box thinking, though.

January 20, 2010 9:25 am

Nothing new there… there are companies that are already in the business on container conversion to apartments… and they do look quite comfortable.

Mike Bryant
January 20, 2010 9:27 am

This is brilliant… I’ve been wondering how Haiti should rebuild…

January 20, 2010 9:30 am

Seems like a good idea. Someone would have to pay for the shipping containers eventually. I’m sure they’re not cheap. But, they probably cost a lot less than other temporary housing options and they’re already there.

January 20, 2010 9:34 am

One information that is quite interesting in the above video is that, there are enough containers in the world to go around the equator… twice!

Phillip Bratby
January 20, 2010 9:40 am

ISO containers are seismically qualified for use in the nuclear industry.

January 20, 2010 9:42 am

Steele (09:30:30) :
They are cheap compared to any other material and labor. You can actually get a brand new 45 feet container for about $4000 or less. That is about 360 sq.ft. An average house is about 2000 sq.ft., so, the “walls and floors” would cost you about $22k. That is quite cheap.

Henry chance
January 20, 2010 9:45 am

A close friend lives in a container. He is building a refinery in Russia and it is his personal lodge. Temp housing.
He flies home every 4-6 weeks. It is portable by reason of having lift eyes for the cranes to pick it up.

January 20, 2010 9:46 am

Definitely feasible. One international mining conglomerate was using them as dormitory with individual office on a mine site in Guinea. They were great.

January 20, 2010 9:50 am

Two words (surprised no one else has used them yet):
“Mobile homes” (literally: “manufactured housing”)
But, what do you do in a hurricane (anchors, etc)?
Seems to me most of the ‘homes’ in Haiti were brick/morter/mud? with thick walls that were hurricane proof (to a point)
Pls; correct me if I am wrong …

Ron de Haan
January 20, 2010 9:55 am

This is a very good idea which is not new and already explored at many levels.
Like this container village to house students:

Or even luxury family homes like this:
Especially if the containers are filled with food, water stocks, household equipment and very important simple tool sets.

A C Osborn
January 20, 2010 9:56 am

Ray, thanks for the link, that is exactly who I was thinking of.

January 20, 2010 10:11 am

Back in the 80’s I did commerical fishing in Bristol Bay Alaska and during the summer I lived in a container.
I actually rented it from the Cannery. Something like $100 for the 6 weeks of the salmon season.
They are not to bad, secure with a good lock and insulated enough to handle the Alaska summers.
We just had to be out before they needed to fill them with canned Salmon for shipping.

January 20, 2010 10:11 am

” Ray (09:42:55) :
Steele (09:30:30) :
They are cheap compared to any other material and labor. You can actually get a brand new 45 feet container for about $4000 or less.”
We’re back to the problem of poverty here. GDP / capita in Haiti is 1200 USD according to the CIA world factbook so for them even that container is expensive. I guess that’s why the EU offers billions to developing countries…
… not to buy accomodation or fight poverty but to fight the production of the worlds most evil and sinister enemy: CO2. The gas that brings death to whole planets (see Venus).

January 20, 2010 10:12 am

How much study do they need. The Taiwanese have been converting and living in containers for years. Get the scientists out of the way and call in some good old fashioned fabricators.

January 20, 2010 10:13 am

According to my best friend (an LT in the national guard here in Florida), when he was overseas last year he stayed in something very similar to a shipping container.
This is actually a good idea.

January 20, 2010 10:18 am

JoePapp (09:21:07) :
Comment from the old “Nuclear Power” engineer.
ABSOLUTELY! The containers are “rigid bodies” with structural integrity. (Unlike masonry structures, which depend on GRAVITY to hold them together.

Just be careful about cutting out too much of that unibody without reinforcing the structure. Unmodified they are capable of withstanding hurricane force winds, but modified (i.e. windows, doors, etc cut into the sidewalls) they lose this strength unless the openings are reinforced.

John Wright
January 20, 2010 10:21 am

Very exciting. The most interesting “modern architecture” I’ve ever seen in years in both the UK “yuppy flat” version and the Australian emergency version. The idea of the “flysheet” above to protect from direct sunshine I saw years ago to keep a camper van cool. I can tell you that system works very well and I notice that the Australian uses it even for the outside loo.
I’d like to know more about wall and floor insulation, though.

January 20, 2010 10:26 am

Think of it as a two fer: You can pack relief supplies in them and once emptied set them up as shelter. Keep in mind that the US military has been using ISO containers for years as part of things such as mobile hospitals. The Surgery, X-ray and other areas of a hospital that reguire a sturdy enviorment are spec built into an ISO container that have walls that let them open up and interrconnect and you can attack tents to them as well. I spent 6 months in Zagreb Croatia as part of Fleet hospital 6 back in 94 in this type of enviroment. As to heating and cooling the military has units for that and shouldn’t be that hard to get.
Here is an article about what the army is testing right now for a “Doc in a Box”, complete with expandable walls at the push of a button:

Steve M.
January 20, 2010 10:29 am

Steele (09:30:30) :

Seems like a good idea. Someone would have to pay for the shipping containers eventually. I’m sure they’re not cheap. But, they probably cost a lot less than other temporary housing options and they’re already there.

I’m willing to bet that Haiti imports more than they export. It’s my understanding that it would cost more than the container is worth to ship out empty. I think good deals could be gotten for the empty shipping containers.

January 20, 2010 10:31 am

Whatever happened to the Katrina RV’s?

January 20, 2010 10:33 am

Mike Ramsey (09:02:18) :
BTW, I am not a fan of composting toilets because human waste contains “pharmaceuticals, steroids, flame-retardants, metals, hormones and human pathogen” to quote one source. Can it be done? Maybe. I would rather be safe than sorry.

Except for the naturally occurring pathogens, human waste contains those other things because of all the meds being used and additives in processed foods. Like they say, garbage in-garbage out.
Composting human waste is perfectly safe when done properly, and it makes the best compost there is A friend had a sample analyzed for pathogens by a soil lab. It was free of pathogens and the person who tested it said it was the healthiest soil they had ever seen, nutrient rich with vigorous soil bacterium. I’ve seen garden tests where the plants growing in humanure amended soil gave at least a 25% higher yield than their non-humanure counterparts.
The Humanure Handbook:
In situations where sewage infrastructure breaks down, humanure composting is a great alternative in that it’s low-cost, convenient and can be established anywhere. There is a group in Chicago doing an urban humanure program. I’ve personally seen at least a dozen successful backyard humanure systems, and there are no foul odors when the piles are managed properly.
I set up a humanure composting system for a small housing collective a couple of years ago which included building a comfortable bucket toilet, which is basically just a wood box with a toilet seat on top, a tp holder on the side, a door in front to swap buckets and weather stripping to seal the lid and door. It’s totally clean and odor free.
Humanure composting is a great solution in general, especially in areas where water is scarce or standard sewage treatment isn’t feasible. Personally, I think pooping in water is one of the stupidest ideas humans have ever come up with.

January 20, 2010 10:35 am

YOU MEAN IT TOOK A UNIVERSITY TO COME UP WITH THIS??? I’ll even bet there was federal money involved! Jim-Bob and his cuttin’ torch and Johnny-Roy and his tow-truck could’a come up with this on a bar napkin before they finished their first Budweiser.

January 20, 2010 10:39 am

The idea has a sound core, a container provides durable shelter at fairly low ($2000/unit) cost. It’s a transportable steel cave.
There are lots of extras that can be added, windows, electricity, running water, toilets even, if there is money, but these are non essentials. They can be added as people get richer..
There is a problem of scale. Haiti for instance has just added a couple of million homeless people. Housing them would take many hundreds of thousand containers. They are not available in the timescale or the quantity needed. Plus there is no way to get them there, as the transport system has collapsed, even without factoring in the need to haul 40 foot long steel boxes.
The fundamental problem is that a few dollars worth of corrugated steel sheet roof plus some manual labor to erect walls provides almost as good a shelter as the container. Sheet steel is easy to deliver anywhere, manual labor is close to free. For poor people, $2000 is absurdly unaffordable. Worse, if they have to move, a frequent event for those too poor to pay local taxes or bosses,, they cannot move their property with them if it is a 40 foot steel box. So why would anyone accept it unless it was free, with all the negatives that that carries with it.

January 20, 2010 10:40 am

There are many different takes on shipping container living. A few of them can be seen here at fabprefab.com.
Something fairly simple like this one on Flickr would be emminently doable I would guess. They are strong, can be made secure and as has already been suggested – take them to Haiti full of supplies and build a home out of the container that is left.
I wonder if you could make them ready to go – kitted out as a temporary home *and* with emergency supplies already in them.

January 20, 2010 10:44 am

” Steve M. (10:29:19) :
I’m willing to bet that Haiti imports more than they export.”
“It’s my understanding that it would cost more than the container is worth to ship out empty. ”
No. You can actually invest your money and buy your own container and then have it rented out to anyone who needs one. There are agencies for this. Shipping it empty loses you money but far less than the container is worth.

January 20, 2010 10:46 am

As far as these shipping containers goes, I think they’re a good idea if you can’t think of anything else. For example, just one shipping container could hold hundreds of 12′ diameter geodesic dome kits that could be quickly and easily assembled for temporary housing and disassembled for re-use somewhere else. The main problems I see with shipping containers is they’re cumbersome and require heavy equipment to move them around.
Anyways, I guess ya make do with whatever resources are at hand but I think there are better solutions for temporary disaster relief housing.

January 20, 2010 10:47 am

The containers do look like they can be used for the job.
The question is whether the research will be completed in time to be used in Haiti’s emergency.

Jim B in Canada
January 20, 2010 10:54 am

NO! No! No!
Google Haiti and Hurricanes and you’ll see why they make everything out of concrete. It’s very wet, salty, and very, very windy.
Does anyone want to imagine the damaged caused rusty giant chunks of sheet metal flying all over the island?
The problem with most humanitarian efforts if they are not well thought out they usually end poorly.

January 20, 2010 11:04 am

I saw remains of these shipping containers tossed around like leaves after a typhoon in Guam. They would need to be anchored extremely well. And, wow, would it be hot to live in one in the tropics!

January 20, 2010 11:05 am

I’ve used them for construction shacks. In a hot climate like Haiti, they’d heat up unless you stretched a fabric shade, like a bimini, over them, especially in the summer. If you welded a couple of struts on to the container, the fabric could be extended to create a shady outdoor space, by stretching it to them.

Douglas DC
January 20, 2010 11:11 am

Ah,Jim B. containers have been used for shipping,on salt water,taken at high speeds
(up to 85/90 mph ) on fast intermodal freight trains,I had clients who used them for outdoor storage on the southern Oregon coast for decades,properly lashed down, I can see no problem.
I’m forwarding this to a Charity I work for…

January 20, 2010 11:14 am

There are companies putting all sorts of stuff in containers. There is one company that puts a bioDiesel production faclity in them. (D-One Oil?)
Per them getting blown around: No more so than cars, trucks, roofs… but they have the advantage that you have easy attachment points for steel cables to ground anchors. Similar to the way mobil homes are strapped down in tornado country. It works.
Oh, and a simple ‘rain fly’ can be used to keep the sun off. The other thing is that you don’t need to cut vents in the walls. Open the doors and it ventilates well. So pack a “screen door kit” with it. Open the shipping doors when you want it to be accessable, have an ‘inner wall’ that is screening to keep bugs out but let air in. Going to work? Shut the metal doors and lock ‘er up. Think like the old WWII Quaset huts. Basic structure, then a “door and window” wall on each end. Put a small stove in it with a vent out the roof and you are pretty well set.
Per “shipping in domes” or tents or whatever. Yeah, do it. Then use the container as a home / office / workshop too… These are not conficting uses.
The containers can be packed with whole cities worth of goods, equipment, food, shops, hospitals, kitchens. Unpacked and used, then reused as homes.

January 20, 2010 11:16 am

Bill Marsh (09:09:34) :
“Aren’t those things going to get a tad warm in the tropical sun??”
Why not paint them white to reflect global warming? :o)
A C Osborn (09:18:45) :
“If I remember correctly someone built a whole building from Containers in the London Docks area a many years ago.”
You are correct as I remember too.
The idea of using containers for housing and offices is well established even in the Western developed world. They would appear to have to be sturdy for sure as one can see them stacked high, one on top of the other, on container ships, ladened with goods for export/import. They seem similar the idea used in Britain relating to prefab housing when houses were in short supply after the blitz WWII. I might be wrong but I think they were only meant for temporary shelter yet many survived into this century I believe.
“More than 50 years ago, the U.S. converted steel shipping containers for use as portable command centers and medical facilities in Korea.”
Maybe not such a crazy idea?

January 20, 2010 11:24 am

We had an experimental house at Georgia Tech architecture back in the early 90s, not a new idea.
Europe uses them a lot for this type of thing.
Living in a container is not too sexy, but it works.

Stephen Brown
January 20, 2010 11:41 am

ISO containers are made from Corten steel and are designed and built to live as deck cargo in some of the world’s most inhospitable seas. They will not be damaged by a hurricane or by a wet, salty environment. I have seen 2-storey container-based offices live through a Number 10 Typhoon in Hong Kong and suffer no damage at all.
In Hong Kong the indentations in the steel walls on the outside were filled with a slab of polystyrene insulation and sheeted over with treated aluminium after the fitting of four windows and a door, then the inside was treated in the same way. Result? A well-insulated and most liveable box. The addition of a ‘disposable’ canvas or banana-leaf sun roof would provide an easily replaced sun-screen.
I know I’d rather live in an earhquake-proof box than in a concrete-block and tin-roofed shanty!
I’m puzzled as to why a University study into this concept is at all necessary. It is in practise all over the world.

Stephen Brown
January 20, 2010 11:44 am

@ E.M.Smith (11:14:23) :
BTW, The WW II huts are called Quonset huts. I lived in one for 6 months, also in Hong Kong in 1975, at a place called Volunteer Slopes.

Retired Engineer
January 20, 2010 11:46 am

The Maersk Emma brings 10,000+ of these containers to the U.S. every month, from China, mostly for Wal-Mart. They generally don’t go back. And that’s just one ship. So there are a whole lot of them around.
Fill ’em with relief supplies, Haiti will need tons for a long time, and convert them after they are empty. They don’t need to be fancy, people with nothing will be better off with any simple housing.
Reinforce or rebuild them later, but deal with the immediate problem.

Roger Knights
January 20, 2010 12:12 pm

Steele (09:30:30) :
I’m sure they’re not cheap.

The Yellow Pages of ports (especially on the west coast, where there is a glut) have ads from resellers who have lots of them cheap—I seem to remember being quoted a price of $2000. (Or one could rent one.) I’ve seen them offered on eBay for $950, in good condition. And a search of Google for “‘shipping containers’ for sale” brings up 20,000 hits, plus some sponsored links. Most sellers would rather sell their new items; and the stock of used items is presumably unpredictable.
Once it has served its purpose, it could be sold back to the seller. (At least one seller has told me he’d buy one back, at a lower price of course.)
A used container would make a neat rural outbuilding, or could serve as a spare room (rec room or library, etc.) or storage area. They’d also be fire-resistant–at least against external fires. So maybe they’d be good in wildfire-prone areas like So. Cal.–if the building-code people would go along. (Highly unlikely.) But still, they would be good as fire-resistant outbuildings.
Also, In a flood-prone area, such rooms and outbuildings could be moved to higher ground if rising waters threatened them–a good reason perhaps to construct an entire bottom-land homestead out of such containers, arranged in a spoke pattern around a central kitchen/bathroom hub.
Regarding stackability: The containers are designed to be stacked on top of each other several layers deep, on ships, and not to slide around when the ship rolls. There’s a group in Berkeley that has stacked them three or four deep. So they must have some bumps and grooves that nest together. Probably loops could be welded to them that could allow them to be bolted together, if necessary.
There was a story in the NYT (I think) about how these used containers were being fairly widely used in some places in Africa for housing. I think they use a shade over the top for heat-protection.

January 20, 2010 12:26 pm

@ DirkH (10:44:25) :
Economics can make it more worthwhile to abandon a shipping container than to recover it.
Let’s say a used container is valued at $1000. It is used on a shipping route where more containers are going to a destination than are being shipped out. It costs $100 to ship it back empty. After ten empty return trips, you have spent as much to recover the container as it is worth. For the 11th trip, you would have to justify to the accountants why you are willing to spend $1100 total to retrieve a $1000 box.
Depending on how the accounting is actually done, continually shipping back empty can be justified. You can figure on a certain percentage of return trips being empty, and increase your rates to the destination to cover the amount. However for bookkeeping purposes they may be better considered as long-term consumable items rather than one-time investments, good only for a certain number of trips. Then they become an expense of doing business, deducted from income before taxes. They can be subject to depreciation, and at some point their value is less than the return shipping.
Then there may be countries that are perpetually net exporters, like China, where it may be figured that they can more cheaply make new containers to ship their products than to gather used ones. A “one use” model would seem profitable, use the container to ship products, then sell the container after unloading.

January 20, 2010 12:28 pm

here’s a fully air-conditioned recording studio built in two containers. 🙂

January 20, 2010 12:30 pm

Dozens used 10km from here as semi-permanent cabins (air conditioned) in construction and mining camps and caravan (trailer) parks. There was a news story a year or 2 ago about a woman and 3 kids being charged an exorbitant rent for one but they’re still there. And here it’s tropical, hot, salty, we get cyclones…

January 20, 2010 12:33 pm

Notice all the feel good future thought – why not just start a fund to convert the containers today?
There are unused containers in Haiti, there are lots of unused containers in the US. Let’s fix the cranes in the Harbor, and start the reconstruction. I suspect innovative Haitians will also figure out a way to use the metal cutouts as furniture. They’re not stupid, just poor.

Jack Simmons
January 20, 2010 12:50 pm

In a functional world, some of the billions spent on climate modeling to prevent a potential, future problem, would be spent on a real, current problem.
This is a clever idea with lots of potential. Only problem is, lack of funds.
I have an idea. Let’s take some of the money being spent on climate modeling, say 10%, and spend it on real problem solving.
This is not the first time victims of a real disaster have needed housing in a hurry. Couldn’t we get a team of people, all linked via the web, working on solutions to this single problem? Once something is developed, fund some jobs intended to manufacture the developed solution. Store the resulting housing somewhere, or better yet, ship the housing to places yet to recover from past disasters.
We would be left with about 22 climate models, but we can’t seem to pick the one capable of actually modeling the atmosphere, so who would notice?

James F. Evans
January 20, 2010 1:40 pm

A good idea.

January 20, 2010 2:13 pm

5.9 aftershock reported, originally thought to be 6.1 but recalculated.
And what has happened in the Dominican Republic, which shares the same island with Haiti? Besides becoming an airplane parking lot while people and supplies are rushed overland. Didn’t this earthquake affect them at all?

January 20, 2010 2:34 pm

A young australian inventor came up with an extremely low cost framing system to reinforce simple masonry/mud brick structures to make them earthquake resistant. The earthquake still ruins the structure, but the people inside don’t die as it holds structural integrity. Projects like this are around and available at a cost even the worlds poor can accomodate, especially with some aid money. If only the words attention didn’t have to wait until there was bodies in the street before deciding something needed to be done.

January 20, 2010 2:35 pm

This has been in vogue for about a decade in the architecture community. Personally, as an architect too, I am not a big fan. Shipping containers are interesting to many because their dimensions are quite human scaled, have an integral structural quality, and are readily available, and look cool.
They are not good climate , in the HVAC sense, control. Because the interior surface is also the exterior surface any extreme, hot or cold, radiates to the inside. So if it is 100 degrees with the sun beating down on the steel roof and walls, the inside is 100+ and cooking those inside. Same is true for cold temps.

January 20, 2010 2:57 pm

People have been using storage containers as building modules for years.

Mike Ramsey
January 20, 2010 3:08 pm

solrey (10:33:43) :
Humanure composting is a great solution in general, especially in areas where water is scarce or standard sewage treatment isn’t feasible
I lack direct experience with composting human waste.  It strikes me as dangerous in a packed urban environment like Port Au Prince.  Your friend probably didn’t have cholera, dysentery, or other diseases caused by a lack of hygiene.  I am open to being convinced that it is safe.  Please don’t take offense but I am not yet so convinced.

January 20, 2010 3:49 pm

Not that strange, there is a company in my home town that converts shipping containers to accomodation. They put in doors and windows and a floor. My mother has one in her front yard as it was the cheapest way to have a spare bedroom. She lives in the tropics and since the container she bought had previously been used as a refrigeration unit, it is insulated and beautifully cool during the day even without an airconditioner (and they are very easy to aircondition). Kit homes, demountables and trailerhomes in Australia are prohibitively expensive, so many people do this here, especially for construction sites as accomodation or site offices.

January 20, 2010 3:55 pm

This is a great idea. Here in Australia we have a similar thing, whereby shipping containers are converted and called dongas – they are basically shipping containers converted for use in the pilbara and mining areas. Only problem in tropical areas would be heat.

January 20, 2010 4:00 pm

Go check this out if you want to see how high they can be stacked. In the same web-page you will see how well they are anchored on ships.
As for shade, a bunch of solar panels could be mounted on top or if you don’t need solar electricity, just put it under a tree.

January 20, 2010 4:00 pm
January 20, 2010 4:10 pm

Good idea NOW, not after fiddling around as in the photo.
Perhaps a few basics like passive ventilation, and screening for the doors already on the ends. They need something NOW!

Bill Parsons
January 20, 2010 4:34 pm

Hope no lightning strikes in low-lying Haiti!

January 20, 2010 4:38 pm

About 20 years ago I worked for a company that was shipping large centrifuges to So. Korea. The specifications for the shipping containers were very exact and all first class exterior grade materials. It seems that the containers were being converted into housing in Korea.

Ray Donahue
January 20, 2010 4:42 pm

Vietnam saw the use of “conex” containers as living spaces ,fighting positions (IMHO not so good) and shelters from stand-off atack (mortars, 122s etc). One of my sons is presently living in one in Iraq.

Antonio San
January 20, 2010 5:06 pm

In such seismic area such style of housing can surely be more than temporary. They would need a coat of paint per year, nothing that anyone could do for their own homes. Let’s also put the UN bureaucracy in them too.

January 20, 2010 5:09 pm

AJ (10:31:45) :
Whatever happened to the Katrina RV’s?

Dunno about Katrina’s, but here are a few from Ivan:
30°28’22.56″N – 87°19’58.46″W
Last time I drove by, they were still there.

Robert of Ottawa
January 20, 2010 5:23 pm

I was on Bonaire last winter for a very brief vacation. The containers are used for workshops and officecs; why not temporary housing? Seems like a good idea to me

January 20, 2010 5:25 pm

They have been used to build an extension to a jail here down under – must be good.

January 20, 2010 5:26 pm

Perfect solution!
People are playing with these everywhere as green housing parts.
Now the other very important attribute is that they are probably quite hurricane proof too.

January 20, 2010 6:30 pm

The ANU in Canberra is just finishing a student housing project to relieve student housing shortage. It is entirely constructed of shipping containers.
Details here : http://accom.anu.edu.au/UAS/43.html

January 20, 2010 6:31 pm

Just ask the prisoners at GTMO!! Shipping containers can be very cosy with a little welding!!

January 20, 2010 6:54 pm

Bill Marsh (09:09:34) : “Aren’t those things going to get a tad warm in the tropical sun??”
Add a layer of wood, palm fronds, or a thin plywood sheet about 3 inches above the roof, with space for airflow.
JoePapp (09:21:07) : “Aside from being thrown to the floor, there is NO other damage which will happen to the occupants. (Actually they will probably lay on the floor as soon as the structure begins to shake…”
Maybe pregnancy. Or did you mean “lie on the floor?”

Roger Knights
January 20, 2010 7:07 pm

Regarding the economics of shipping back vs. selling. Another factor is that after ten trips (and loads/unloads) a container gets a bit banged up both inside and out. Even a slight bend could make it hard to stack it; even a small split in a seam could admit sea-water or salt air; even a few scratches could start some rust; and even a roughed-up inside could injure a warehouseman.
So maybe the insurance companies insist on containers being perfect. So the cost of required repairs could be uneconomic.

Alan Fields
January 20, 2010 8:06 pm

What nutcase is paying for someone to study something that has been common knowledge and practice in large parts of the world for many, many years.
Don’t these people have anything useful to do? If any money, time and effort is spent on this it is wasted. There are a large number of companies already specialising in doing this and I would be very surprised if a bunch of academics and students can come up with something better in any timeframe to to be of use. What is needed is money to do it and the will to do it. The expertise is readily available – tell these nuts to try looking at the internet

January 20, 2010 8:11 pm

I think using old shipping containers for more permanent housing is a great idea. I just don’t think they’re practical for temporary emergency housing. They could be used to ship other housing kits then setup for other uses like clinics and such. That way, a lot more shelters could be delivered faster and more economically.
Right now the people of Haiti need water, food, medical supplies and more doctors.
The humanure subject may be a bit OT, but I also think it’s a good solution when infrastructure is wrecked like it is in Haiti.

I lack direct experience with composting human waste. It strikes me as dangerous in a packed urban environment like Port Au Prince. Your friend probably didn’t have cholera, dysentery, or other diseases caused by a lack of hygiene. I am open to being convinced that it is safe. Please don’t take offense but I am not yet so convinced.

No worries mate. Those diseases are exactly why humanure composting is the best solution for resource limited areas or when infrastructure is destroyed. Human pathogens like cholera are mostly spread through contact with water contaminated by human waste. That will be a huge problem in Haiti very soon, like now. Keeping the waste out of the water is the priority. A proper setup, and management of a pile, which is super easy, will produce temperatures, due to naturally occurring thermophilic bacteria, well above that required to kill all human pathogens in just a few days. I was a certified manager of a standard sewage treatment plant for a small community for a couple of years and I’ve also managed humanure systems so I’m not just guessing here. Standard sewage treatment is very expensive, from the cost of infrastructure and the plant, to ongoing maintenance and daily operations plus they require a lot of energy for aeration pumps and such. Humanure is cheap and easy plus it would provide free fertilizer for local agriculture and greatly limit the risk of contaminated water supplies thereby reducing, or even eliminating those persistent water borne diseases due to lack of proper treatment. Population density issues can be easily managed with a little planning and organization.

January 20, 2010 8:29 pm

They work very well, but paint them white for the tropics and add a verandah and pairs of french doors for light and ventilation.

January 20, 2010 9:06 pm

The UN has been using these containers as a security perimeter around their compound just outside the Port au Prince airport for years – staked 2-3 high in some places. The earthquake shook the top ones off, so stacking them without highly-reinforced joins would be a non-starter. I’m not sure what rust problems they had, if any. I think the real problems that would be encountered would be related to locating them in Haiti. The containers would have to sit at ground level, which means they would be subject to flooding from all of the hurricanes – unless they were placed on hillsides, which would then make them likely to slide down the hills due to the lack of vegetation holding the soil in place (same problem with the shanty towns). They would need to be anchored to the ground somehow if they were placed on hills – which would be technologically challenging in Haiti, as well as likely driving the costs up. Siting is not a problem that couldn’t be solved, but it would take some land/water/vegetation management planning, and more than just the cost of buying the containers. That’s my take on it, for what it’s worth.

Tim Neilson
January 20, 2010 10:31 pm

In the middle of the CBD in Melbourne (Australia) there’s a vacant lot down a back lane where for some reason a couple of shipping containers were left, and some visionary genius converted one into a bar and the other into the toilet facilities for the bar, slung a tarpaulin between the two to give the customers some shelter, and now has one of the hippest nightspots in town. Eeven if the Haitians don’t use them as houses they can start getting some partying happening again.

Steve (Paris)
January 20, 2010 10:32 pm

Containers could be used in Haiti as temp. polling offices so the locals could vote on whether to join the US or not. After 200+ years of dire history I think most would leap at the chance of joining civilisation – law and order imported in a box as it were. Puerto Rico shoud be give full status too.

January 20, 2010 10:47 pm

Bob Villa visited a company in Florida several years ago. Their product was houses made of cargo containers. They easily cut window and door openings with a plasma torch. The sprayed the interiors with an insulating epoxy paint. The structures can be multi-story and even in the worst of storms, the structure would survive, even if the contents, doors and windows were destroyed.
If grids of small holes are cut for the windows, they would be more secure and can get by without glass windows, until later. The double doors at the end of the container can be permanently locked and hinges added to a cut-out person-sized door (use the cut-out piece as the door.)
Great idea – there are piles of empty containers in every port. Fill ’em with supplies and deliver them to the disaster zone. Empty them, then use them for houses.
Considering the global economy, there are probably idled cargo ships on-hand too.

Andrew Parker
January 20, 2010 11:04 pm

A Vanderbilt architecture student was presenting this same idea at a global development conference at Stanford in 1988. My comment then was, “It will make a great solar oven.” Now, I agree there are some simple workarounds for that problem and an ISO container would make a great secure core structure for a house. There are some other potential pitfalls, but in a crisis, it may at least be worth trying. I would recommend using the shorter containers, especially in the hillside slums. They would fit the property footprint better.
There is a strong market for used and refurbished ISO containers, so I don’t know if they have much of a price advantage anymore.
I remember seeing fotos of stacked concrete culverts being used as emergency housing for refugees in India from, then, East Pakistan. I suppose that any roof is better than no roof.

January 20, 2010 11:49 pm

Depositing waste in water is NOT “the dumbest idea ever.” It’s saved the modern world from the scourge of serious epidemic disease for the past 100 plus years. I freely admit my bias; I was an attorney for a water/wastewater utility for 26 years. Wastewater technology in the developed world has greatly improved over the years and it will continue to improve.
That being said, the idea of an incinerating toilet for use in connection with container housing in Haiti is a good one; and if conditions were right, there is nothing wrong with a “humanure” project as a temporary stopgap measure if it is properly and carefully done by experienced persons. But I would not use “humanure” composting on a mass scale basis. I simply think there is too much of a possibility for unintentionally spreading disease. People also don’t really want to notice their where their waste goes, it doesn’t matter whether the compost box has no odor or not.

James S
January 21, 2010 12:51 am

They are talking of building some new prisons over here (New Zealand) out of shipping containers. NZ is one of the more geologically active countries so they must be able to handle a shake or two!
As an aside I still don’t get why the houses in Haiti seem to be built out of concrete – wood is used here for the reason that it flexes and so a good sized quake does little damage. Even the masonry houses have full wood framing.

Roger Knights
January 21, 2010 5:42 am

Here’s a link to a book on the subject, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, by Marc Levinson

January 21, 2010 7:12 am

James S (00:51:56) :
As an aside I still don’t get why the houses in Haiti seem to be built out of concrete –

I’ve seen that question asked quite a bit. Think about where Haiti is located.
Hurricanes. Haiti faces an annual threat of hurricanes, the last to blow through was in 2008. They only experience earthquakes every century of two.
I lived on St. Thomas, V.I. for a while and pretty much all of the buildings there are made of concrete as well. Wood, stick frame structures don’t last long in the Caribbean because of the frequency of hurricanes. They are using appropriate materials for their region. The problem in Haiti is poor quality as a result of inadequate building codes and poverty. I remember hearing a witness describe a “jumping”, that this quake produced an initial vertical displacement of the ground before the side to side shaking. That kind of quake is devastating to well made structures too because of the increased structural loading. Even a small quake of that nature can do a lot of damage, which happened in California several years ago.

January 21, 2010 7:25 am

…I think the NGO’s prefer tents in the shorterm, quicker and cheaper. Containers are a good medium/maybe long term proposition…isn’t it just called ‘affordable housing’…?
Anyway….it will never drive, can you imagine the howls of outrage from the NYT when its suggested that Haitians live in our old containers? Some people would rather other people die of exposure than allow such political incorrectness?

Andrew Parker
January 21, 2010 8:11 am

One of the major reasons for using concrete and masonry construction is security. It seems counter intuitive to build homes in the tropics with concrete or masonry walls, few and small windows and a metal roof (a more efficient solar oven than an ISO container), but it is the most effective way to protect one’s family and property. Security is one of the major benefits of using ISO containers, as long as there are not too many openings cut into them.

January 21, 2010 8:24 am

Steve (Paris) (22:32:49) :
Containers could be used in Haiti as temp. polling offices so the locals could vote on whether to join the US or not. After 200+ years of dire history I think most would leap at the chance of joining civilisation – law and order imported in a box as it were. Puerto Rico shoud be give full status too.

Haiti has endured 200 years of dire history at the hands of western imperial powers, the US being among the worst. They have been punished in a number of ways ever since they fought for their freedom in the slave revolt against Napoleon’s France. Even thought they won their freedom, they were still punished with “reparations”. The brutal Duvalier dictatorships, that lasted for decades, were fully sponsored and supported by the US. After the earthquake, the US military brought soldiers and guns, instead of doctors and supplies. Reports of violence and looting in the MSM are fabrications, based on independent eyewitnesses in PauP. The US military is actually thwarting relief efforts in Haiti. The Haitian people are proud and resilient and they are not about to become an official puppet state of the US, because their dictatorial governments have already been defacto US puppets for a long time. Do you forget that the US ousted Aristide not long ago? I think the Haitian people have had enough of the US brand of “law and order”.
I’ve managed both a standard treatment plant and humanure systems plus I understand the biology quite well. Based on my experiences and knowledge it’s my conclusion that pooping in perfectly good water is a really bad idea for a number of reasons. Are you even aware of how much untreated wastewater by-passes treatment plants on a regular basis? I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the need for legal defense of the utility involved by-pass, or other contamination issues.

January 21, 2010 9:58 am

I think its a bit disingenuous to compare US political motivation during the cold war to todays situation. The US made very strange bedfellows back then, but that is, in hindsight, understandable having lived through the repeated attempts of Soviet expansion in the area, Cuba being the obvious one.
A friend works for Oxfam, I know that they hate being told what to do and when by the military, its almost inbred in the NGOs, therefore the US is on a hiding to nothing, everything will be the US militarys fault. Same thing happened in the Tsunami..while the US got stuck in with ships and helicopters, the aid agencies moaned about military involvement. If it was not impossible to ignore the plight of the people, the US would be in its rights to say ‘sort it out yourselves then if you don’t like us’ to all the ngos who know better. Meanwhile the EU is going to have another crisis meeting to discuss a rapid reaction humanitarian force…just like they did after the Tsunami.
And then they will just sit on thier hands again and just let the yanks do all the heavy lifting, again.
I could understand the anti-US side more if they got off their backsides and did something themselves, but that is not going to happen is it, when you can have the US for the whipping boy eh?

Joel D. Jackson
January 21, 2010 10:29 am

Re: Haiti re-Housing problem;
I have been watching with horror the millions of homeless Haitians from the quake. I have been trying to find a way to help. I believe I have found a way.
Please consider the following solution to some of the needs of the; Haitians, employing many out of work American construction people, all while helping green the environment.
Since losing my home building company of 20 years to the recession, I have been finishing the last ten years spent designing and developing an inexpensive way to address the low income senior housing problem.
This green, low environmental impact solution I have developed could be fast-tracked for a partial solution to the 2 million homeless earth quake victims in Haiti. The shelters can be produced from readily available materials and containers in the USA by American construction workers, all all which are all abundant. These dwellings could be produced quickly, economically, and would be shipped and unloaded, and delivered to site with existing technologies in place.
Once ruble is cleared, these structures could be easily tethered to existing foundations (in place) to be earthquake and hurricane resistant.
The homes could be expandable at a later date, adding more bedrooms, facilities, etc. Also, septic holding tanks and or water holding system, potable and for grey water uses, could be employed until infrastructure could be put into place to connect onto. Simple lighting, small refrigeration, radio, communication cells, and other needs could be powered by solar until more electrical infrastructure could be put into place. Then solar could be used as supplemental energy.
I have over twenty years of experience in construction of residential design, build and development. I would like to put these ideas and pre-developed designs into place, manufacturing these dwellings quickly for the victims.
Please have the proper person contact me to begin implementation of action.
Container home designs for Haitians, or anyone for that matter, will be forthcoming on my web site: 1jdj.com
Donations will be accepted to build, ship and install these homes as soon as possible.
Thank you.
Sincerely Yours,
Joel D. Jackson zenjdj@gmail.com 1jdj.com

Cap'n Geoff
January 21, 2010 1:38 pm

I’ve been in shipping since the early seventies. [My parrot’s dead, and my beard is a pale grey]
There is at least one container-based building – owner occupier – in East London.
I believe there is also a student accommodation set, but I’ve not seen that myself.
The whole shipping industry is now deeper in the – ah – doo-doo than I can remember, and probably as bad as anything seen in shipping since the Thirties.
In a word – baaad.
We have hundreds of thousands of surplus containers, lots in the Caribbean, USA and Europe, and scores, probably hundreds of surplus ships to carry them.
{One problem
Even empty, even your local Strongmen’s club doesn’t lift even a twenty foot (= c. 6 metre) container.
What cranage facilities did Haiti have?
What cranage facilities does Haiti have?
What cranage facilities does Haiti have – today?)
If [and I do emphasise if] enough cranage, storage and transpportation is available in Haiti, and necessary ground can be cleared: –
For a few hundred thousand dollars in bunker fuels; pay for the seafarers [mostly third world citizens themselves] ;, & insurance – in case of accident and bunker spills, plus incidentals, like agency – I am sure ‘Shipping’ can get thousands of empty containers – or, if the cranage and distribution systems there can – indeed – cope, containers with ‘Shelterboxes’ |visit http://shelterbox.org/ ; look, see, maybe donate . . .| – into Haiti within weeks.
With the surplus in the system at present, that should not be a problem at all.
Some containers – if suitable cranage faclities exist – could carry old plant vehicles, etc; shelter/groundsheets; welding/burnng kit, and so on. This needs to be paid for/donated.
Gas for welding/burning, gas axes and so on, might well need deck stowage, or even separate carriage.
Possibly, if the ships are old – reaching the end of their [2010, not 2007] economic lives- Haiti could set up a thriving ship scrapping industry, too, exporting – or processing – the scrap.
Another requirement for gas axes, and their gases.
If any nasty substances are on board – boiler chemicals, bunkers, and asbestos all spring to mind – a suitable disposal contractor should be consulted [my brother-in-law runs one in the UK, for example, see http://www.wastesafe.net/%5D or the UK has NCEC – http://the-ncec.com/ – the National Chemical Emergency Centre, who could be contacted for help – from the UK, I suppose.

hotrod ( Larry L )
January 21, 2010 5:00 pm

There is an old axiom in emergency management;
“Earth quakes don’t kill people, collapsing buildings do!”.
The problem in Haiti, and some other major earth quakes is use of poorly reinforced or designed concrete structures in areas that have no building codes or corrupt construction companies that ignore proper building techniques to cut corners.
The shipping containers have lots of possibilities which are obvious from all the comments above. Like mobile homes they would need to be tied down to prevent problems in hurricane winds but once anchored they would be just about indestructible for use as small unit housing. You could increase your your effective floor space by 50%, by positioning 2 containers side by side with an open area in between, then just adding a simple roof and two small end walls. In a tropical environment this open shade area could be left unenclosed most of the year, with simple awnings stretched between the containers.
The flying roof heat shade has been used in tropical areas for a very long time. I saw the technique used in Guam in the 1970’s as the Sea Bees would space a sheet of corrugated roofing tin, 2-3 inches above the structural roof to provide flow through ventilation from eve to ridge of the gable due to natural convection. it greatly reduced air conditioning demands. They also constructed simple canvas awnings on the home ported ships to shield the metal bulkheads from the tropical sun, creating outdoor patio like environments under the awnings.
The same could be done in Haiti. The people who died were mostly in the “upscale” areas, that had concrete structures that were not properly reinforced. The really poor in the shanty towns had much lower casualty rates, as the light weight wood and scrap construction was much more tolerant of ground motion. Even if it did fall the crushing injuries were much less than you see with masonry, concrete or block construction.

January 22, 2010 1:50 am

“They have also been used in other countries as emergency shelters in the case of earthquakes”.
In fact, thanks to our previous governements, in Sicily (after the 1968 Belice’s valley earthquake) and in central Italy (after the 1980 Irpinia earthquake), thousands of people were forced to live in a container for many years (!), waiting for a new house.

Roger Knights
January 22, 2010 4:06 am

Put them on the deck of an aircraft carrier (too bad we scrapped all our “obsolete” ones), helicopter them to their destination, return to the US & repeat until all housing done. No need for cranes or trucking or roads.
Later, provide instruction on & tools for adding windows, awnings, etc. It’s better than, or a good supplement to, what we’re doing now.

January 22, 2010 8:57 am

In Peru, container houses have been used and are being used.
They are called “chalacasas” (chalaco: from Callao + casa=house) and low income people can get them instead of living in houses made of cardboard and plastic.
Hell, even a well-to-do friend of mine lived in two of them when he bought a plot of land for his house and was settin up his business. Saved a ton of money.

Roger Knights
January 23, 2010 12:28 pm

PS: Since flat spots for container homes would take time to grade, containers could be helicoptered in initially to staging areas for later lifting to their ultimate destinations. This initial staging would also facilitate trained and perfected container modifications like adding windows, tie-down loops, awnings, human-sized doors, etc.

January 27, 2010 7:03 pm

I have been trying to contact and work with numerous so called non-profit acencies about the domes I sell. No one seems to want to reply or actually help the people in Haiti. Everyone knows that huricane season is coming and the tents made of canvas, plastic and tarps will soon be blown away with any winds produced from a storm just passing by the island. Why doesn’t any one think ahead enough to prevent future problems?? Look at my website and please pass it along to others to try and help the people of Haiti. Haven’t they been through enough? Go to http://www.domesweetdome.us.

January 29, 2010 4:09 pm

Nice photoshop work, but where are the stairs, etc.????
These are just more poor houses for poor people.
To make them suitable for the rich takes hundreds of
thouands of dollars of modification. DomeSWEETdomeD
is the right track. Just no trains on it…..
There are better
alternatives but the FEMAs of the world insist they are
ready. “Tents, sheet-goods and trailers”.
UN admits that
tents rot in storage and have a useful life of about three months,
sheet goods blow away in the first storm, and trailers are toxic
with formaldehyde. How about a folding house made of foam and
“Oh we great crazy ideas for better mousetraps all the time.” (NGO)
What is crazy is not looking ahead. Hotrod, did you see what happened to Guam in 1996? Etudient, you are right on. Till then, “Great Job Brownie!”

February 15, 2010 5:54 pm

We are a company from Malaysia, Jasib Engineering were very concern over the loss of life and widespread damage caused by earthquake in Haiti. We have used container equipment at our disposal for immediate shipping at a reasonable price. Those interested to purchase our used containers please state the amount, capacities and types. For further clarification and information please do not hesitate to communicate with us.

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