Let’s See Are Container Houses Eco-Friendly or Not
At first glance, the answer to the question “Are Container Houses Eco Friendly” might seem obvious. Container-based houses (especially their customized versions) are especially attractive housing solutions for the countryside. Due to their short on-site “construction” time and “out-of-the-box” nature as well as quite easy transport, they can be deployed in almost no time even in remote locations.
There is an overwhelming perception that container-based houses are eco-friendly, so they can perfectly blend with the surrounding nature. Such opinions are based on assumptions that houses are built from cargo shipping containers (what in fact is often the practice). In reality, however, it is a simplification because the situation on the ground is much more complex.
Let’s first examine a few “eco-friendly” facts:
a) Cargo shipping container houses are built from used, retired transport units.
The up-cyclin process gives them a new life, preventing abandonment (most likely in Third World countries) or ending in steel mills. While steel mills recycle containers (which is the first step towards sustainability of the environment), the process takes a lot of energy, mostly far from the green one. In this sense, finding new applications for used cargo shipping containers is definitely an act of “Eco-Consciousness”.
Used cargo shipping container shows traces of time, travel and “hard work” (Cleveland Containers, Middlesbrough, UK)
What makes sense for used cargo containers is quite questionable when new (so-called “One Trip” units) end up as building blocks for container houses. Given the substantial amount of “restoration & clean-up” work necessary to transform used, often damaged, sometimes rusted and certainly contaminated with toxic materials cargo containers, many manufacturers of modular houses prefer to use new modules.
It’s a common and cost-effective practice to send them overseas to the West from Asian manufacturing plants loaded with cargo. Then, after their “maiden voyage”, they are removed from transport and allocated to the construction industry.
While converting a One-Trip container into a habitable space is still economically justifiable, such a process is far from being eco-friendly.
This is because each cargo shipping container contains much more steel than it will ever be needed for the house. Just to remind you – cargo shipping containers are designed to carry heavy loads. For example, the GWR (Gross Weight Ratio) of the standard ISO 20ft cargo container is specified as 67,200 lbs (30,480kg) and each one must withstand the combined weight of 8 fully loaded containers piled on top of each other (about 220,000 kg or 500,000 lbs). It’s an immense load, requiring a lot of steel, all unnecessary in typical housing applications. From this point of view, One-Trip (as well as all “little-used”) cargo containers as way overbuilt and cannot be considered as Eco-friendly!
One-Trip ISO cargo shipping container usually comes overseas in a perfect shape
c) Prefabrication Process
Customized Containers (CC) as designed solely for habitable commercial and residential spaces. That’s why they do not bear the “Primordial Sin” of being overweight, so characteristic of their cargo “cousins”. Comparing the weight of a typical 1-TEU customized container (1,350kg -to- 1,800 kg/ 3,000 -to 4,000 lbs including full thermal insulation, finished floor, ceiling, door, windows….) with that of a standard 20ft ISO cargo shipping container (2,300 kg / 5,100 lbs) gives you a clear picture of excess.
Customized Container houses belong to the class of prefabricated modular structures. As such, they are manufactured in large quantities in presumably well-controlled and hopefully energy-efficient and eco-friendly industrial processes. Once ready, after arriving at the final destination, they can be set up in a very short time by a few workers without the need for heavy machinery and extensive preparation works (foundations…). This is in contrast with the traditional construction process which by nature is long, time, materials, energy-consuming, workforce-demanding, and in general, leaving more “scares” on surrounding nature (to name only a few of its drawbacks).
The truth about eco-friendliness
Offering new lives to empty, otherwise useless cargo shipping containers is certainly an attractive “Green Alternative” to traditional construction practices. Critics may point out at necessary effort and energy required to adapt these raw steel boxes into safe habitable spaces, but let’s face it – by eliminating the demand for traditional construction materials like wood, concrete, and bricks the overall eco-balance will be still “Green”.
The green aspect (at least at the first look) may be less evident in the case of Customized Container houses. They are built for housing applications, so their potential eco-friendliness does not come directly from up-lifting some useless objects (as in the case of cargo containers). It does not mean, however, that Customized Container houses (similar to all other container-based houses) do not contribute to the preservation of our environment.
Nature inspires us to follow her rules… Here a container-based Airb&b in Bergslagen (Sweden)
Eco-friendliness of any commercial or residential structure should not only be measured by the number of construction materials and necessary labor, but also by the “built-in” excess (in a wide sense) as well as the ecological footprint such structures will leave over their lifetime due to our activities.
a) The “Excess” is the main culprit of a large carbon footprint characterizing traditional residential housing. Conservative planning (it’s hard to predict what we will need in the future), but also the impact of consumerism fed by industry promoting self-serving ideas that “more is better”, “big is beautiful” etc… as well as common “show-off” approach, often lead to over-designed and overbuilt houses (literally mansions). Not even mention tons of gadgets that no one really needs…
b) Used cargo shipping containers come with an “inherited” excess (much more steel than needed) but giving them the new “purpose of life” at the end of their industrial carrier is in fact a part of the well-thought “Green” policy. Unfortunately, such a strategy is much less justified in the case of One-Trip containers.
However, what dramatically changes the narrative of Eco-friendliness is the fast-growing trend of container-based housing. More and more people deliberately chose to live in close contact with Mother Nature rather than surrounded by concrete, asphalt, noise and a stressful environment. Such decisions, by our respect to Mother Nature, must be followed by sustainable, off-grid operation of the house. Needless to say, container-based houses perfectly fit into this eco-conscious trend.
Thankfully, in close contact with nature, our appetites for lavishness and excessiveness go down to earth, and then suddenly the “Good-Enough” and “Small is Beautiful” approaches start to be preferred “modus-vivendi” (way of living)! After all, container-based houses are portable and relatively easily can change locations. Also, as modular structures, they can be almost effortlessly “expanded” by adding one or more container units when needed. And the best is – it all can be done in a matter of days (s) compared to the long and costly process of adding an extension to the traditional house.
So here we come to the next chapter dedicated to “Off-Grid” container houses, where you will find what it take to make your container house independent from the municipal grid (not only electricity but also fresh and wastewater), but at the same time create the warm and comfortable ambiance for permanent living.