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Thinking Inside the Box

Keith Williams Jun 12, 2014

Even in Williamsburg, a neighborhood seemingly overrun by absurd, futuristic designs, there is something unique about 351 Keap Street: it’s constructed entirely from shipping containers, steel units normally used to convey cargo across the seas.

After five months of preparation, contractor David Boyle and architect Michele Bertomen pieced together the six corrugated metal boxes in a single day in January 2010. The home has all of the amenities one would expect in a city dwelling — a far cry from the spartan image shipping containers often conjure.

With Mayor Bill de Blasio pushing an ambitious plan to create 200,000 affordable units over the next 10 years, we wondered: could the administration replicate the Williamsburg feat on a larger scale?

It’s a tempting idea, as shipping containers have a number of advantages. They’re strong and durable; each in the Williamsburg home had spent over a decade ferrying goods around the world through all kinds of weather.

They’re also inexpensive. The couple’s home cost $400,000 to construct, according to DNAinfo.com, including $100,000 in loan interest while they dealt with multi-year pushback from the Department of Buildings. That’s still well under the $500,000 average to erect a “typical” residential building in the same space.

What might be a sustainable model for large-scale container-home construction has developed slowly over the last 20 years. An early leader in the field was Urban Space Management, a company in Britain. Two of their turn-of-the-century designs were built expressly as living spaces.

The aptly named Container City I was completed in 2001. Located in London’s Dockyards area, it used 15 shipping crates, each measuring 40’ x 8’ x 8’, to create 12 studios. Built next door in 2002, Container City II expanded on the idea of its predecessor — literally. It combined shipping units to create spaces as large as 550 square feet.

In Asia, architecture firms are toying with newer concepts. LOT-EK is finishing an elliptical dormitory complex in Guangdong, China, where 100-plus residents will be able to gather in an open central area.

And then there’s OVA Studio’s proposed Hive-Inn, a 340-foot-tall Hong Kong hotel built of shipping containers placed in a steel lattice. Containers are to be removed or added as needed by a crane sitting atop the structure.

These social and temporary aspects are at the heart of containers’ potential role in New York’s response to future catastrophes. Since 2008, the city’s Office of Emergency Management has worked with other agencies on a container-based plan for disaster housing.

The project, the Urban Post-Disaster Housing Prototype Program, was born from a 2008 competition called “What If New York City…,” the ellipsis hinting at an apocalyptic occurrence. Entrants were asked to help a fictional neighborhood hit by a Category 3 Hurricane, leaving 38,000 families homeless. (In a twist of irony, the plan was almost in place in October 2012, when funding was diverted to recovery efforts from Superstorm Sandy).

In April 2014, OEM finally put the plan to the test, building a five-container “townhouse” next to its Downtown Brooklyn office. With four bedrooms on three floors, the steel structure leaves room to spare in its 100’ x 40’ lot on Cadman Plaza East. 

The model eschews traditional shipping containers in favor of custom-built units, offsetting several problems with the transport carriers. While still 40 feet long, the OEM containers are 12-foot wide and high, making their ceilings more tolerable than the smaller boxes used in Container City and elsewhere.

Shipping containers are also finicky when it comes to regulating temperature. The OEM model has insulation built into the walls, far preferable to the retrofitting needed for a retired seafaring vessel.

The OEM building is modeled after nearby brownstones. If officials wanted to replicate the Asian ideas though, it seems the sky’s the limit: representatives of both LOT-EK and OVA told The Indypendent their designs could be built much higher with proper engineering.

For now, the city appears intent on using these structures on an as-needed basis, with an important benefit: they’ll allow community members to remain in their neighborhood — and to play a role in its recovery.


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