Urban and rural areas alike are seeing increased interest from property owners looking to build alternative homes, from yurts and tiny houses to modified shipping containers and treehouses. The interest stems from changing housing preferences, financial realities, and evolving household circumstances particularly as household size has decreased.

A 2007 housing study looking at Greater Portland found that nearly 30% of the region’s 99,726 households were people living alone. According to the report, there is evidence that people are willing to live in small spaces as long as they are in attractive locations, efficiently designed, and affordable.

The drive toward smaller, more efficient, and more affordable homes has led individuals and the housing industry to introduce several alternative housing options for prospective homeowners. Shipping containers, for example, are gaining popularity as an economical housing choice in part because uneven international trade and the low cost of purchasing containers abroad has left stockpiles of containers sitting unused in U.S. ports. In addition to being abundant, shipping containers are also sturdy, weatherproof, and relatively inexpensive.

In Maine, shipping containers have been repurposed for a number of development projects, including:

  • Blue Hill: A 12-container house designed by architect Adam Kalkin. Welding and installation by Sheridan Corporation.
  • Ellsworth: A two-container home installed and designed by homeowners Trevor Seip and Jennifer Sansosti
  • Belfast: 1,000 square foot houseboat made of shipping containers.
  • Brewer: SnapSpace Solutions specializes in the design and modification of shipping container buildings and has designed homes, office spaces, and other structures for use across Maine and the U.S.
  • Portland: Proposed clam shack on Thompson’s Point that will be made from two shipping containers.

As shipping containers and other alternative housing options provide novel housing solutions, community planners have a unique role to play in ensuring that they are applied safely, and that their value is taken advantage of to meet resident and community needs.

A few applications for shipping container housing are outlined below:

Disaster Planning: New York City plans to use modified containers as interim housing following disasters. The plan involves deploying container-housing in empty spaces, like parking lots, to provide temporary shelter. An advantage of the standardized structure of shipping containers is that they can be stacked to create apartment-like housing relatively quickly. A prototype unit offers 480 square feet of living space and is pre-fitted with utilities and amenities. Planners in coastal communities that may be subject to severe flooding or storm events may consider this option. Container housing may also be a solution for residents in less developed areas of Maine during winter storm events.

Affordable Housing: Communities across the globe are exploring shipping containers as a means to provide affordable housing in developed and rural areas. In the UK, a modular development uses containers to house the homeless while in France, 100 shipping containers were converted into student housing. A social housing project in Vancouver, Canada offers 12 affordable housing for women. Here in Maine, a shipping container bunkhouse offers worker housing for Bangor-based Northwoods Management.

Economic Development: New York’s DeKalb Market was an open-air market comprised of 22 shipping containers. Budding businesses, from retail shops to restaurants, customized containers to create unique and finished spaces. The market closed in 2012 to make way for a new housing development. A similar effort in Asbury, New Jersey uses shipping containers for pop-up retail shops along its beachfront boardwalk.

While the benefits and potential applications of shipping container housing and other alternative housing options continue to increase, it is also important to remember that these homes must provide a safe and resilient form of housing for occupants. This has been one of the challenges to more widespread use of shipping container housing and other forms of housing. Compliance with the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code (MUBEC), Maine’s statewide building code for municipalities over 4,000 people, can make shoestring shipping container conversions difficult. Once the structure is altered by adding windows, particularly egress windows and other modifications, the MUBEC question becomes: does the structure still meet wind and snow load requirements and can it meet energy code requirements? Involving an engineer or architect to review modifications can be costly to the homeowner, negating some benefits of the micro-housing option.


Does Shipping Container Architecture Make Sense?

The Pros and Cons of Cargo Container Architecture

A primer outlining standard ISO container specifications and common alterations for shipping container housing.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thanks to Matt Nazar for his contributions via the MAP listserv, which helped inform this article.

This article was originally published on April 15, 2015.

Written by

Caitlyn Davison

Caitlyn Davison is a senior associate with the Orton Family Foundation. She serves as the Communications Manager for Maine Association of Planners.