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SFGate: Shipping container prefab at West Coast Green


by Paul Kilduff, Special to The Chronicle - 9.24.08

West Coast Green, the home show dedicated to sustainable home construction and design, kicks off its three-day run Thursday at the San Jose Convention Center with a logical centerpiece: a house made with the smallest possible environmental footprint.

What makes this year's showcase home different from the prefab modular model seen last year in San Francisco is not all the green bells and whistles, such as doors made from reclaimed wood and bathroom floors fashioned from recycled glass pebbles; it's the actual framework of the house that is truly innovative. This year's showstopper is made from five 40-foot-long shipping containers that once roamed the high seas, packed with washing machines and the like.

From the outside, the two-story, 1,700-square-foot house, dubbed Harbinger for its potential to influence home construction in the years to come, looks like the sort of modern dream home one finds in the pages of Sunset magazine - not a major surprise, as the publication is one of the home's sponsors.

Look at the advantages

The fact that a layman can't tell that, underneath its sleek lines, Harbinger was once a collection of lowly shipping crates suits David Cross just fine. The founder of SG Blocks, the St. Louis company that transforms the containers into box frames suitable for home construction, likes to compare his product to the leading brand in home construction: wood.

Just as homeowners don't make a point of saying their wooden houses are made out of trees, Cross doesn't foresee anyone boasting about living in a former shipping container. He'd rather his company's product be thought of as "prefabricated steel box trusses."

Whatever they're called, the advantages to building a house from steel shipping containers are significant. They're made of heavy-gauge steel, which holds up nicely in a hurricane or earthquake, but is usually too expensive to use in construction.

"You wouldn't dream of asking your builder to use heavy-gauge steel," says Cross. But he gets the containers cheap - $500 to $2,000 a pop - because the fuel costs to ship them back empty to China or other places overseas are prohibitive. Because of the United States' huge trade imbalance, there are many empty containers lying around, proof of which can be found on a drive by the Port of Oakland, one of the world's biggest container ports.

Steel-container homes are as environmentally friendly as the user wants to make them. They are also only about 5 percent less expensive than building in wood or other conventional materials, but homes using them can be built about 40 percent faster. The savings are more significant if the containers are used to build apartments or condos, a popular utilization of them in Germany.

So far SG Blocks, working with designer the Lawrence Group, has built six single-family homes in the United States and countless military barracks. The company will soon unveil a 400-unit elder-care facility made from containers in Oceanside (San Diego County). Locally, Berkeley architecture firm Leger Wanaselja Architecture has built a house from three containers in the Richmond hills, but those containers weren't bought from SG Blocks.

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