Customizable shipping container for the Caribbean

WorldChanging's Julia Levitt reports on an architecture project underway at Clemson University in South Carolina to come up with plans for turning shipping containers into good, humane, locally appropriate, customizable housing in the Caribbean. Shipping containers that land in Caribbean ports are treated as waste because it's not worth anyone's while to ship them out again.

"Our goal for the initial start up phase of the project is to come up with a design that, like the ISO container, can navigate the many different scenarios -- Haiti, Dominica, Jamaica etc. -- in the Caribbean, and at the same time be "open" enough to take root and adapt so that families can take ownership of the dwelling to meet their needs but within their means," says Hecker.
Turning Shipping Containers Into Customizable, Affordable Housing


  1. This is not a comment or a critic but a bona fide request for more information: can anyone point to such architect dreams for the poor of this planet that produced a self-sustaining, durable and actually livable solution which is still thriving at this time… other than mobile home parks, of course ;)

    Thank you.


  2. The Levis are one of the 12 tribes of Israel; 1/12 of Jews (approx) have a name like “Levitt” “Levinsky” “Levi” etc. My Mom’s a Levitt. No likelihood of being related — it’s like “Smith” or “Taylor.”

  3. Is there a reason so many of this containers are going to the Caribbean?

    These containers are frequently used as temporary site offices in the construction industry. Some even have air-conditioners attached to a cut out “window” at the side.

    They’re also used as temporary housing for the construction workers. These are of lower quality, and I suspect contain holes that let in rain water, because the workers have added make-shift roofs.

  4. I hope the architects figure out how to make them hurricane-safe. I can visualise fields of them rolling over and over with the poor occupants cyclically pondering the nuances of the small-print they didn’t read.

  5. You are structurally limited to this oblong box, and when you start poking holes in it, you lose strength. Ferrous metal conducts: heat, cold, voltage, and it rusts. To make a comfortable home you’d need 3 of them, and when you start thinking about foundation, the amount of material you need to cover the floors and insulate the walls and roof, you are actually overbuilding a trailer house, which can be assembled to N.American code for about $4K (minus labor) on wheels, ready to haul anywhere.

    You need more material than just the container; that is where this idea starts looking complicated to me. It isn’t lying around in large piles free to recycle for third world homes. You have to either weld or cut the steel (tools and skilled labor), You have to insulate it, secure it to the site (concrete, piles). Put whatever plumbing and electric work at your location, doors, and glass for windows. They build a trailer house in about three hours. I don’t think you have any advantage re-engineering the container.

  6. Not BS and not really related to demurrage.

    It’s more likely that Carriers (Shipping Lines) are deciding that purchasing a new container from China is cheaper than shipping an empty container back from the Caribbean.

    As the Caribbean countries import more than they export and due to the distances involved this will happen.

    Interestingly (well sort of) is that before the Credit-Crunch, China had the opposite problem – not enough empty containers – probably as they were all sitting in the Carribean (actually most were idle in the US).

  7. #2, check out . They make housing and medical self-contained units, as well as stacking large numbers of them into larger buildings (although no pics or renderings of those on their site, unfortunately). The idea is more along the lines of easily-shippable disaster relief housing than recycling waste materials in situ, though, as the interior photos look decidedly government contractor comfy/bland rather than green architect minimalist/funky.

  8. Unlike the US of A the Caribbean does not import all its stuff from China.
    It also seems to me that the shippers seem fairly desperate to get back their container to be stuffed with rum, bananas and cocaine for the return journey.
    The only loose containers I see are ones that have obviously passed their useful life or have been damaged – in fact their is one outside my office right now looking ugly and distinctly seaworthy.

  9. The idea of using this as an environmentally based project has been used by several people over the last 6/7 years at the university I attend, all with similar outcomes and I’ve seen similar projects being released from other uk universities. It seems that every year somone tries to cut in with “their brand new, environmentally friendly” idea based around these containers whilst all the work released is almost identical. With this project it’s nothing I haven’t seen before and it’s a shame people try to pass it off as original.

  10. this quote caught my eye: “Shipping containers that land in Caribbean ports are treated as waste because it’s not worth anyone’s while to ship them out again.”
    Years ago someone told me that the empty shipping containers going back to China from Oakland quite frequently were just dropped into the ocean because unloading them in china would cost too much and would take too much time. I did not believe it back then but now after reading this I think it is true.

  11. There’s a set of presumed realities that become displacing of the truths. The presumptions about the cargo boxes need some FAQ checking. Sadly there’s several reasons for us not to trust in objective honesty about those things which endanger the status quo. Housing profiteers have reason to fear change. Even if the economic artificial factors about these cargo boxes are not sustainable. The danger is creating another “Cargo Cult.” One sweeping a nation with less factory REAL capacity than the original “Cargo Cult” tribes had..

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