Point of View: Shipping containers offer alternative building option

Pile drivers, pilings, steel vs. galvanized: What it took to build my home from a Connex

We live in Alaska, a state far removed from the rest of the world, yet we sustain our vitality through many forms of transportation and communication in order to keep our bloodline vital. Shipping containers are an essential part of Alaska’s economy, transportation and fiduciary sustainability.

The largest port in the state, the Port of Alaska, is located in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. This port caters to a wide variety of shipping vessels and handles more than 3.5 million tons of supplies annually. The Port of Alaska links more than $14 billion worth of commercial activity in Alaska, including containerized freight, petroleum products and cement.

Many local artists sketch, paint and draw images of ports of Alaska, shipping containers included. Ports and shipping containers are a staple of Alaska’s economy and identity. So why not build a house out of a shipping container? Why not try something a little different, but not that unusual? I was definitely far from being the first to ever try this style of construction. Nonetheless, there were a few raised eyebrows in the beginning, but mostly curious minds and interested participants with the building process.

Converting shipping containers into housing has been gaining more and more traction in recent years and was already happening in the late 1980s, even as far back as the 1960s. So I do not take credit for being the first to try this style of build, nor do I take credit for being the first to think of utilizing this style of construction. While it continues to gain more and more traction as conventional construction and traditional build continues to evolve, so does the versatile design incorporating shipping containers into residential and commercial design.

What first drew me to this idea was its aesthetic appeal, affordability (at conception), longevity and sustainability. While conceptualizing the design I first began to question the most fundamental part of the building: the foundation. What type of foundation should I use and why? Concrete slab, crawl space foundation, wood foundation, stone, pre-poured concrete, concrete masonry units, concrete panels, below-grade insulated concrete form walls? None of these seemed applicable to my build since I was building in an area which was classified as a flood zone and naturally marsh terrain. So I learned about pilings. Steel pilings or galvanized pilings? How much load can they carry? How much load are containers adding? Will they sustain long term in wetlands? The questions continued and the answers closed in over thorough research and some trial and error.

As a first-time land owner in 2016 and a first-time home builder in 2018, I was immediately drawn to the utilitarian design of the shipping container. Shipping containers are designed to stack multiple containers on top of one another, carrying substantially significant weight. In 2017 I purchased two used high cube containers for $3,900 each. I placed them in an L position to bend the wind and to increase privacy.

I started off small, but I maximized every square inch to utilize space to the fullest, most importantly incorporating all viable utilities: city water, sewer, electricity and gas. I wanted to build from the beginning a year-round home, not a dry cabin nor a place which was only habitable during the summer months. So I persevered. And over time my tiny home of less than 300 square feet has most recently grown into a more sizable duplex for mixed use housing. Shipping containers are designed to sustain all environments, so why not utilize them in more ways than one? Their design, functionality, durability and adaptability make them one of the most utilitarian prefabbed structures to construct a building.

I am not dissuading traditional builds — I am encouraging other building practices. Each style has its own pros and cons. Shipping container builds positioned on pilings made sense for this project.

Here’s a list of the places in the world and how they are being used:

In cities like Amsterdam, they are building low-income and student housing out of abandoned shipping containers.

In over 11 countries in Africa, there have been several mobile schools built out of recycled shipping containers. Some are even Wi-Fi connected and run on solar power energy.

In North Carolina people are converting old shipping containers into greenhouses and indoor farms.

In the United Kingdom, shipping containers are being utilized as above-ground heated and filtered swimming pools.

Shipping containers have piqued the interest of bar owners and restaurateurs as they continue to look for exciting, new experiences to give their patrons. Container Bars are popping up in Los Angeles, California, to Austin, Texas.

In Israel, architects used old shipping containers to make a bridge that converted an old landfill site into a colorful, innovative nature center.

And lastly, the Native village of Unalakleet, a small community sprawled on Alaska’s northwest coast, is incorporating container design to cost effectively expand on housing. They are open to this style of build as an affordable, energy-efficient, adaptable house that meets the myriad challenges facing rural Alaska including high transportation costs, skilled labor shortages, and the accelerating march of climate change.

Constructing buildings from shipping containers can provide a plethora of approaches with how you want to design and utilize your space. One of the most poignant challenges is understanding the load you are carrying on your foundation. If you remove walls completely from one or more shipping containers you must calculate how the rest of the building is supported. Also, roof design is significant. If you live at a higher elevation with much more snow weight during winter then your load bearing beams must be equipped to carry much more, especially if you are incorporating a flat roof, or a roof with a minimal slope.

For more information about where to purchase shipping containers in Alaska, the design process and how to incorporate them in your design log onto Linkedin for my contact information.

Suvi Bayly was born in Finland and raised in Santa Barbara, California, and throughout her life has lived in various cities, states and countries. She has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California Santa Barbara and a Master of Science in interior architecture from Cal State Northridge. She published her thesis on public housing in 2009: “How Does the Interior Spatial Layout and Sense of Security within Two Selected Housing Facilities Affect Residents’ Quality of Life?”

She is the founder, designer and creator of Homer Spit Oyster Bar, Spit Dogs food truck, and has been working extensively with the Alaska Small Business Development Center, City Planning and Homer Port and Harbor for an over-slope development project at the Homer Harbor.