AAA  Sep. 24, 2015 2:44 PM ET
Shipping containers: 'The best thing since the brick'
  Annys Shin
The Washington Post News Service
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(c) 2015, The Washington Post.

WASHINGTON - Travis Price sat in a chair in the cafeteria of Miner Elementary in Northeast Washington with his arms folded across his chest and a look of intense concentration on his face.

The advisory neighborhood commission was considering Price's design for 22 townhouses made entirely of used shipping containers that would go on a vacant city-owned lot.

Price is a fervent, sometimes hyperbolic-sounding evangelist for container architecture. He calls shipping containers "the best thing since the brick," because the steel boxes offer a cheaper, faster, more sustainable way to build.

Price would deliver more units, including 10 affordable ones, for less money and in less time than the two other bids under consideration. One offered 12 conventionally built rowhouses and the other, 10.

But there had been "misgivings on the aesthetic design," Dan Golden, head of the ANC's economic development subcommittee, told the April gathering of about 60 residents. Price knew what he really meant: Some of the neighbors thought the containers would stick out among the rowhouses, and not in a good way.

The 66-year-old architect with wavy gray hair and a mild Georgia accent raised his hand to speak. "To be subjective about one aesthetic over another is a little unnecessary," he said.

It was an odd position for an architect, imploring an audience not to get hung up on a building's looks. But the city had asked for more than a pleasing design; it required a certain amount of green materials and energy efficiency. Price wanted to shift attention to his design's economic and ecological advantages.

"This is such bulls---," he vented in the hallway afterward.

The commission does not have the last say on the project; the city does. But still, the reaction was a setback for Price. He had designed the city's first shipping-container apartment building on a privately owned site near Catholic University, which opened last September. Dubbed SeaUA, referring to both its structure and the university, the four-level stack of blue corrugated boxes fronted by floor-to-ceiling windows drew a crush of media attention and calls and emails to Price from developers across the country. The college students who moved into the four six-bedroom apartments quickly got tired of the gawking.

"At first, it was kind of funny," said Jamie Young, a senior who moved into the top floor with seven buddies from the football team. "After the 20th person asked to come to take a tour, we said, 'It's our house. It's not a museum.' "

Although some of his housemates who have doubled up in a bedroom "kinda find it a little bit cramped sometimes," he said, "they make the room-share work." Young, who has his own room, said he has come to love the building. "I can definitely say I lived in quite a special place. It is going to be a great story to tell down the road."

SeaUA's reception was the latest sign that shipping-container architecture had finally arrived in the United States, a conclusion backed by Dwell magazine spreads, HGTV shows and umpteen Pinterest boards. It had already become trendy globally. In London, several temporary container buildings, including the BBC's broadcasting studios, were erected for the 2012 Summer Olympics. In Amsterdam, containers have been used to build student housing. In August, Ganti and Associates won an international competition to design temporary housing in Mumbai with a skyscraper made of containers.

"When you start hitting the mainstream, you know that something is coming," Price said.

A few weeks after the meeting at Miner Elementary, Price holed up inside Catholic's architecture building, where he has taught since 1991, to critique student designs for a proposed container industrial park in Swinford, Ireland. The students used the containers like giant Lego bricks, stacking them to form larger boxy shapes or scattering them at odd angles.

Containers offer builders cost savings, time savings and flexibility. After delivering the sandblasted, repainted and cut units, which cost $1,100 to $3,500 each, prepping the site, stacking them and filling out the interior, the final construction tally comes in around $160 per square foot, Price said, compared with $225 per square foot for a conventional structure. (The cost savings comes mainly from not having to spend as much money on a building's exterior structure.) Because 40 to 50 percent of the walls can be removed without harming the structural integrity, designers can add windows or combine containers to create larger interior spaces and aren't limited to the containers' dimensions of 8 feet wide by 9 feet 6 inches high by 40 feet long. And a building made out of used containers can be put up in half the time of a conventional one.

Price can rattle off these facts and figures, something his students are not as adept at yet. "You're underselling it," he tells one mumbler. He wants his students to be skilled at pitching ideas in the real world of developers, zoning boards and skeptical neighbors. That comes easy to Price, who is a talker. When he gets going, he can be both punchy - "that flagstone ... is so patio suburban" - and ponderous - "nostalgically watered-down exterior decorating will shape our very human character into one monochromatic, bland whisper."

Price was introduced to shipping containers in New Mexico during the 1970s when they were used in passive solar housing. Their moment passed with the energy crisis. He moved to Takoma Park, Maryland, in 1980 and built a practice in preservation and designing modernist buildings with minimalist interiors and lots of glass. Among them is his own 2004 house in Northwest Washington with a copper-clad front, a glass bridge and a four-story wall of windows in the back.

The popularity of industrial-style and sustainable design led to a resurgence of "cargo chic" in the early aughts. By then global economic forces had created a chronic surplus of empty containers. According to Marc Levinson, an economist and author of "The Box," standardizing the size of the containers dramatically reduced the expense to ship goods from low-cost labor centers in Asia to markets in the West.

Today, thanks to the West's huge trade deficit with China, it can be more cost-effective to send new containers full of goods than to pay for used ones to be sent back empty. At any given time, experts estimate, 2.5 million containers are sitting empty around the world. That includes hundreds of thousands at U.S. ports such as Baltimore, which handled about 126,000 empty containers in 2014, Maryland Port Administration spokesman Richard Scher said. Finding uses for the containers has become irresistible to eco-minded architects and consumers.

A notable exception is TreeHugger writer Lloyd Alter, whose father ran a container leasing business and who used them in architecture school projects. He said using containers can be wasteful because a three-story container building has enough steel for a 16-story conventional building. With conventional methods getting more sustainable all the time, Alter said, "there are far more greener ways to build."

Price said the value of containers as cheap, readily available building modules shouldn't be underestimated. He believes they will one day displace the most common form of low-cost modular housing in the United States: the double-wide. "If you combine, in the simplest fashion, Legos with Ikea, suddenly you're in a whole different ballgame," he said, because "the working Joe and Josephine would be able to afford their own housing."

As of early September, there was still no word from D.C. officials about the fate of the vacant city-owned lot. If his design isn't approved, Price said, it will be because of "a tyranny of the few."

Price spent part of the summer working on designs for an outdoor marketplace on New York Avenue NE. He also drew up alternatives for a temporary must-see container structure - "a Cirque du Soleil pop-up," he called it - where people can grab a meal or hear music by the Wiehle-Reston East Metro stop. He said the project won't be like the Half Street Fairgrounds near Nationals Park, which he dismissed as unsophisticated, saying "the Jimmy Buffett crowd have got what they want."

Price also started working with a Silver Spring, Maryland, family to use containers to build upscale apartments and shops attached to an old medical building they own at 12th and Franklin streets NE in the District's Brookland neighborhood.

While the initial reaction of matriarch Ilnez Hinds, a retired physician, was that "nobody wants to live in a container," artist son Rob and opera-singer daughter Lorraine, who both live in Brooklyn, New York, brought her and the other siblings around.

Lorraine made it very clear why the family was going with containers. "We really don't think the containers are beautiful or elegant," she said. "Instead we like them because they are strong, modern, green, cool, energy efficient, faster than traditional builds and, last but not least, cost-effective."

Price does not take offense at this. ("What is that but not beauty?" he said.) He said architects today have made containers a "cooler and more affordable," modular way to build, "but next will be who can shape it most creatively and not in a gimmicky way. I don't know the answer yet, but that's on my plate."

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