Real Estate Trends: From Trash to Treasure

By Paige Tepping

From homes to cabins to dormitories—and everything in between—re-purposed shipping containers, or ISBUs (Intermodal Steel Building Units) are making their mark on the residential real estate sector, blurring the lines between two very distinct industries as one’s trash becomes the other’s treasure. Originally built to transport goods, the average life of a shipping container is now being extended, thanks to environmentally conscious consumers, builders, designers and a host of other real estate professionals who see their potential when it comes to building homes.

“While the number of ISBUs available for construction isn’t nearly as high as the media began reporting in 2006-7, various shipping companies ‘retire’ and sell older units about every 5-7 years,” says Barry Naef, managing director of the ISBU Association. Conceived in 2006 and officially functioning by 2007, the ISBU Association was created to inform, educate, promote and protect. Naef goes on to say that the maximum number of ISBUs in North America rarely exceeds 10,000 within a given month.

The advantages that come with incorporating container technology into the home construction process are numerous. According to Naef, ISBU modules can be up to 25 percent less expensive than conventional construction. However, he goes on to say that the biggest factors driving consumers toward ISBU module homes are the strength, longevity and speed of construction. In addition, the fact that they can be re-purposed or recycled can’t be overlooked either.

“We’re basically taking an instrument of trade and turning it into an instrument of construction,” says David Cross, vice president of business development, SG Blocks, a company that redesigns, repurposes and converts steel cargo shipping containers into Safe Green Building Blocks (SG Blocks) for commercial, industrial and residential use. The company employs its SG Blocks Building System, a proprietary structural engineering method that offers a safer, faster, longer lasting and more economical alternative to conventional construction methods. While construction time can be cut by up to 40 percent, clients can typically get any size home they want since containers can be broken down and modified to fit any need.

“Shipping containers are designed to carry tens of thousands of pounds across brutal seas,” says Duke Claghorn, business development associate, SG Blocks. “The strengths that are built into the container translate into housing situations very well.” One such strength is their stacking ability, which enables a very efficient starting point within the construction industry. “Re-purposed shipping containers provide a really sound, environmentally friendly methodology that can be easily translated to multi-family, multi-story projects,” adds Cross.

Whether clients are looking to build a cost effective home or they’re interested in showcasing the containers throughout the space, container technology has something for everyone. “Once the structure is up, there are virtually no limitations,” says Paul Gavin, chairman and CEO, SG Blocks.

While the sky’s the limit when it comes to utilizing re-purposed shipping containers, over the past five years, they have become more prevalent in the following areas:

1. Residential and Commercial Building Construction (permanent and temporary): Homes, offices, cabins, medical facilities, dormitories, hotels, schools, emergency shelters, disaster shelters, restaurants, retail stores

2. Technology Shells (permanent and temporary): Equipment housings, data centers, mobile expo booths, special events, sanitation recycling, energy modules, restrooms

3. Storage Units (permanent, mobile, temporary): Residential, commercial, military

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