Trailer Talk

Containers Get Second Lives as Homes, Offices, Warehouses

These steel boxes are exceptionally strong, fire resistant and weatherproof, and deserve to be repurposed instead of going to scrap.

July 17, 2015

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Photo by Tom Berg
Photo by Tom Berg

Where do ocean containers go when they’re retired? These steel boxes are exceptionally strong, fire resistant and weatherproof, standing up as they do to extreme weight as others are stacked atop them and providing leak-free service during ocean voyages. Containers deserve to be repurposed instead of going to scrap, and some are.

About a dozen years ago, my car club out in California rented two 20-foot containers to temporarily store auto parts – engines, gearboxes, axle shafts and body items hoarded by an old guy in the club. After he passed away, his widow gave them to us. We sold the parts to other car collectors (paying her a cut of the revenue), and the company that brought the containers out to us aboard a roll-back tow truck came and got them the same way.

Back in 2005, I arranged with a moving company to use another 20-footer to economically ship household goods from California to Ohio. It was loaded onto a trucker’s flatbed trailer (along with who-knows-what-else) and took about a week or two longer than a dedicated moving van would have. That was fine because my wife and I could make a leisurely trip to the Midwest in our motor home. Such uses provide part-time work and second lives for containers, but don’t consume them.

Here’s a process that does: Three Squared Inc., a property development company, buys cargo containers to build homes, schools, offices, and warehouse space. Containers are made of heavy gauge steel and make excellent structural components. And they’re far cheaper and “greener” than buying traditional materials like lumber for that purpose, the company says.  

They’re green because they already exist and don’t need to be built from newly mined, grown or manufactured materials, Three Squared points out. Its “Cargolink” process is fast, which further cuts the cost of assembling facilities and allows them to be sold, leased or rented at low prices.

“We erected our 2,400-square-foot three-story Detroit Model Center in 6.25 hours,” it says on its website, http://threesquaredinc.com/. “Our cargo architecture is strong enough to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes, and meet and exceed all building and safety codes. Using proprietary and traditional insulation applications, our structures are amazingly energy efficient, resulting in significant heating and cooling savings.”

Yes, new materials like fasteners, pipes, wall board and siding are used join together, outfit and disguise containers so their identity is not obvious.

Architecture is an important tool in the design process, and Three Squared recently announced that it had hired Eric Lloyd Wright, who apprenticed with his grandfather, the famous Frank Lloyd Wright. To my eyes, the lines of that Detroit building vaguely resemble some of the elder Wright’s modernistic “prairie” homes.

Architect's sketch shows a three-story stack of containers transformed by glass, siding and wallboard into a school or office building. Art via Three Squared Inc. 
Architect's sketch shows a three-story stack of containers transformed by glass, siding and wallboard into a school or office building. Art via Three Squared Inc.

Last week the company showed off the Detroit Model Center, and garnered considerable local and national publicity. “Three Squared is proud to be part of the rebirth of Detroit,” it declares on the website (and I’m happy to hear from other sources that Detroit really is on its way back). I couldn’t go to the open house, but think the process is intriguing enough to write about here.

What does this have to do with trucking? Those containers got to the job site aboard a chassis pulled by a truck-tractor, of course. Sooner or later, all containers get to or are retrieved from shippers and receivers by truck carriage. It makes me want to buy a container-house.

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Author Bio

Tom Berg

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Senior Contributing Editor

Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978. CDL-qualified; conducts road tests on new heavy-, medium- and light-duty tractors and trucks. Specializes in vocational and hybrid vehicles.

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