If whoever wins the election next month heeds the populist outcry to pump the brakes on globalization, one of the unlikely casualties will be the beloved (by architects and design enthusiasts, anyway) container home. After all, the little-known reason that container homes have come into fashion is that there are literally millions of these big steel boxes lying around the United States that nobody wants. Because of our trade deficit with China, we receive far more shipping containers than we send over; according to government sources, the deficit in 2012 alone was over 5 million. And for Chinese companies, buying new shipping containers is more cost-efficient than shipping back boatloads of the now-empty steel boxes. Hence, the surplus of empty stateside shipping containers, leading to the boom in container houses.
But who came up with the first container house is a matter of some debate. The first patent filed to use shipping containers as buildings actually preceded the invention of actual shipping containers. The shipping containers referenced in a 1962 patent application for a “combination shipping container and showcase” (a rather half-baked idea for convention exhibits that would be shipped in their actual booths) were nothing like the standardized steel shipping containers we have today, and which weren’t invented until the late Sixties, by a trucking magnate named Malcolm McLean. (Speaking of globalization, many experts blame McLean for single-handedly jump-starting it, by inventing the interlocking, hyper-efficient shipping container. Within a decade of his 1957 maiden voyage, he’d lowered the cost of cargo shipping by over 90%, made it 30 times more efficient, and broken the powerful labor union of the dockworkers, most of whom simply weren’t needed anymore.)
The first widely-documented example of people living in shipping containers was in Armenia, after a devastating 1988 earthquake. The country was then part of the Soviet Union, which was ill-prepared to give the devastated area any real aid. Locals, after distributing the food and medicine that was shipped over from foreign countries, took to living in the empty shipping containers. Sadly, many of these ramshackle Armenian shipping container homes, which they call “domiks,” are still occupied by people who never got back on their feet after the quake, even though most of the containers have become rusted and leaky, and are located on public lands. A few years later, during the Persian Gulf War, the US military used shipping containers as bomb shelters and mobile prisons, and the idea spread from there. By 1998, Simon’s Town School in South Africa had built its new school building from 40 shipping containers at a cost of only $227,000.
The first US shipping container home that received the blessing of local authorities was DeMaria Design’s Redondo Beach home (still one of the most elegant), completed in 2007. Made of eight containers, the owners of the house have embraced the corrugated steel container walls (even inside the home), and have even kept the waterproof wood floors that come standard in a transatlantic container; outside, there’s a rectangular swimming pool made of a buried shipping container. The house was met with universal acclaim, and ignited interest in container architecture, as seen today in massive “container cities” made of hundreds of stacked boxes, or the quaint off-the-grid single-container cabins that are essentially a modular offshoot of the “tiny house” movement.
Which is sort of full circle, considering that the very force that has brought us all these cheap wonderful building materials in the form of unwanted shipping containers has also forced us to consider the merits of a minimalist lifestyle, through the gradual whittling away of our earning power. (No coincidence either that minimalism, exemplified in the Marie Kondo-led decluttering craze, originated in Japan, a country mired in the worst and longest economic malaise in modern history.) I’m not quite sure which is the feature and which is the bug, but if my choice is between a good salaried job and a sprawling McMansion, and the gig economy and a stylish shipping container house, I think I might become a free trade advocate.