Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cargo Containers Could Help House Haitians

This school, fashioned from containers by Richard Martin's organization in 2005, now stands in the Haitian town of Gonaives.

Richard Martin, a retired professor of construction and industrial design, says he has the answer for Haiti's sudden housing shortage: steel cargo containers. "Right now, the way I see it, there is no way you can use conventional construction to rebuild Haiti," says Martin. "The concrete block they use is very weak. It just crumbled, and they can't afford the cement to make proper concrete. Everything has to be imported, so why not import some containers, just position them and put in windows and doors and interiors?" Corrugated steel shipping boxes, which come in standardized 20- and 40-foot lengths, are universally used on container ships, which haul them daily across the world's oceans, through hell and high water.

Though smaller than most manufactured homes, the containers are built to withstand the rigors of stacking and freight shipping. They are also watertight enough to ward off heavy rains and stout enough to remain standing in all but the worst earthquakes. What's more, Martin notes, because the U.S. is no longer a net exporter of manufactured goods, empty containers are piling up at U.S. ports and can be purchased relatively cheaply for under $1,000 apiece. Martin is not just talking theory. He has already used containers to build schools in Jamaica and Haiti, and says he has seen photos of containers that remained intact after Haiti's 7.0-magnitude earthquake on Jan. 12. "I'm sure they are in great shape. They are designed and built to cross the ocean in all kinds of rough seas," says Martin, whose Atlanta-based Global Container Partnerships used four of the steel containers to build a Haitian school in two months in 2005, aided by grants from the Transamerica Corp. and the Andrew J. Young Foundation, named after the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. (Martin's company is not a registered nonprofit, but he says he's not making money from it.) The school was constructed in Port-au-Prince but installed about 80 miles north in Gonaïves, well outside the immediate impact zone of last week's earthquake . Martin previously installed a school compound of four containers in Mandeville, Jamaica, in 2000. Built at a material cost of just $12,000, the school serves more than 100 students through the fifth grade. "My company is prepared to go down to Haiti at any time," says Martin. "We can secure the containers. It's just a matter of what they need. It's a matter of getting hold of Bill Clinton, since he's raising all this money. It will take money to hire Haitians and to buy the containers and the equipment to move them and convert them." Martin initiated the cargo container home idea when teaching at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He assigned his students to find uses for the thousands of old steel shipping containers piling up around the world. Martin and his students came up with the housing idea, and they went to work. The advantages are many, Martin says. Shipping containers can be quickly shipped by rail, truck or ship. Openings can be cut for windows, doors and ventilation. They also can be wired, fitted with plumbing, insulated, painted or finished with brick, stone or other facades. At 20 to 40 feet, 8 feet wide and 8 feet high, each provides about 160 to 320 square feet of living space. They are studio-apartment sized when alone, but adjoined, much bigger. Using them as shelter is also much cheaper than breaking them down for the scrap metal heap. There may be one drawback: A compound of steel container homes might reverberate like one big steel drum concert. Martin isn't the only shipping container home proponent. Clemson University researchers are experimenting with containers as emergency housing for hurricane-prone regions. A prototype, under construction on the Clemson campus, will be featured at the 2010 National Sustainable Design Expo on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in April. At the high end, New Zealand's Atelier Workshop has a prototype for a $90,000 container home called the Port-a-Bach, designed as a rugged, transportable domicile to help potential owners-with-a-view escape rising sea levels due to global warming. In Toronto, a firm called Ecopods claims to be "rethinking the box," using containers to create living, working and display spaces for as little as $41,000. Units can include sliding-glass doors, solar heating and flooring made of recycled tires. And London-based Urban Space Management's Container City projects include Lego-like homes, schools, studios and park structures.

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