GBA Logo horizontal Facebook LinkedIn Email Pinterest Twitter X Instagram YouTube Icon Navigation Search Icon Main Search Icon Video Play Icon Plus Icon Minus Icon Picture icon Hamburger Icon Close Icon Sorted

Community and Q&A

Low carbon and low cost? Planterwald

onacurve | Posted in General Questions on

I think it’s important that green building practices discussed on this site move to the mainstream. But isn’t cost a major problem preventing more widespread adoption? Mr Holladay’s article, “Who Deserves the Prize for the Greenest Home in the U.S.?”, for example, featured super-green, super-expensive homes. I don’t really see much social benefit of such structures.

So I wonder how homes and apartments can be made low carbon, low cost, as well as comfortable and durable. Maybe shipping containers are a good idea, no?

GBA Prime

Join the leading community of building science experts

Become a GBA Prime member and get instant access to the latest developments in green building, research, and reports from the field.


  1. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #1

    I lived in a shipping container for over a year when I was doing earthquake relief work in Armenia. (I was part of a project building housing in Stepanavan.) My own opinion is that container housing is something of a gimmick.

    A container is a painted steel box without any windows, and the door is not usable in any practical sense. If you want a house, the steel box doesn't include anything you want. It doesn't include insulation, plumbing, wiring, windows, doors, a toilet, or a kitchen. It doesn't even include a real roof -- just a horizontal plane of painted steel.

    If you want to convert it into a house, the steel container is not an asset. It is just basically in the way of all good solutions. The ceiling height is 8 feet before you insulate, so you can't really insulate it on the interior unless you like 6'6" ceilings.

    If you want to build a house, I don't think a shipping container will save you any money compared to a plywood box. What a shipping container is useful for (kind of) is emergency housing after an earthquake -- if you don't mind living in an uninuslated steel box without windows.

  2. onacurve | | #2

    Thanks for the interesting insights.

    There are lots of other examples of people building housing with them, in rich countries like Denmark and Germany. I thought it might be a good fit for people living in poor countries, like in Haiti where so many still live in tent cities 3 years after their devastating earthquake. Of course I'm not talking about just a bare shipping container, but with windows, ventilation, plumbing, etc.

    That must have been a neat experience in Armenia. I'd like to hear more about that.

    Thanks again.

  3. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    If a developer in an industrialized country has access to low-cost shipping containers, I can imagine that it might be possible to develop a low-cost housing development with these containers. But it is highly unlikely that these steel boxes will be well insulated or "green."

    A used shipping container usually sells for $2,500 to $5,000. That means that a container is a very expensive option for a family in Haiti.

  4. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #4

    The cost of used shipping containers varies by quite a bit, and can be quite cheap (read "scrap steel value") in port cities of countries with very high import volumes. (My brother was able to pick them up in pretty good shape for well under $1000 each less than a decade ago, for use as lockable storage buildings for his tools & motorcycles, but he lives near the ports of Seattle & Tacoma, WA where many get shipped to China as scrap steel when nearing end of useful service-life, and sometimes sooner than that.)

    Even so, it's not a particularly green or convenient way to build a house.

  5. onacurve | | #5

    Ok, but did you read the Deutsche Welle article? What is the advantage of using them then? Just a trend? I know I've read about other student housing projects - I think it was Amsterdam or Copenhagen, don't recall and can't find a reference.

    Bob Villa doesn't seem to agree with either of your comments. He says they "offer a fast, green, and sustainable approach to building."(1). He made a 3 part video series that's still on the web, even after Martin's takedown of the the SuperTherm paint scam.(3)

    I'm not sure that the whole idea should be canned just because of the "insulating paint" gimmick. They seem hurricane and earthquake resistant, modular and strong, plentiful and quick to install, among other things.

    I wasn't thinking of the indigent people of Haiti coughing up $8-10K for their very own shipping container house. I know that's beyond their grasp. I'm wondering what solutions there might be for large public housing projects in such a poor country. Is any of the great info available here for free on GBA of any use? Or are these solutions for rich countries only?

    I was thinking that some of the estimated $6B that's been donated to Haiti since the earthquake in 2010 could be used for public housing. Much of it remains unspent. Only 5,000 new homes have been built there since the earthquake (5). Maybe the $644M for 2012-2013 that was used to fund the unwanted and unnecessary MINUSTAH force could be used. At $11K each, that would build 58K new homes, according to Bill Quigley's linked research. (6)

    Maybe you've got better ideas than my shipping container idea.

    How about my number 2 idea? Conduct a massive bamboo planting operation. Use native species if possible. Bamboo can be used for all kinds of stuff.

    If you want to see how the people of Haiti live, check out Gaetantguevara on Flickr.

    The Mennonite Central Committee came up with a report that seems valuable: "Permanent Social Housing in Haiti: Recommendations for the US Government." They've got a compelling website dedicated to housing in Haiti (5).


  6. onacurve | | #6

    Things people are building with shipping containers -

    Under Tents Housing Brief - I tried attaching the document - not sure if it's working. You can look it up. Good read, I thought.

  7. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    Just because I doubt the usefulness of steel shipping containers for use as housing, doesn't mean that I'm not concerned about housing problems in Haiti or other poor countries. I applaud those who are working directly to provide better homes for homeless families in poor countries.

    I have traveled extensively in Africa, Asia, and Central America; I have spent years doing volunteer work overseas. My sister and my mother both served in the Peace Corps. I have thought about these issues long and hard. So have many development experts who are much smarter than me. This is not a simple issue, and there is no single solution to solving the problem of housing the world's homeless.

    Volunteers from a wealthy country who hope to improve housing in a poor country will quickly realize that one has to address complicated issues surrounding development and economic policy if one wants to develop a long-term program that will benefit communities overseas. Many programs backfire, and many volunteers don't stay long enough in the communities they are trying to help to come up with long-term programs with long-term benefits.

    A good program needs volunteers with street smarts and organizers who are politically savvy. Here are some issues to think about: if your church group can afford to build 5 new houses in a poor village, how will you select the families who get to live in the new houses? And once the church volunteers have flown back to Kansas City, is there any way to prevent the families from being evicted from their new homes by politically powerful local leaders who want the houses for themselves?

    I don't have any good recommendations for economic development. But when it comes to housing, I have some strong opinions. Here are my recommendations:

    1. As much as possible, any housing program should use local materials.

    2. As much as possible, any housing program should welcome the expertise of local builders.

    3. Volunteers should spend as much time as possible learning the local language.

    4. Any program should think in terms of decades, not months.

    GBA doesn't have many articles on the issues you raise. However, you may want to read this article: Natural Building In Nicaragua.

  8. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #8

    Sure I read the Deutche Welle article and agree wholeheartedly with the designer's statement:

    "Whether a container building really suits as a home for students is controversially discussed by professionals," explained Berlin-based urban designer Tobias Kurtz. While containers cut costs and time, "the metal shell is not easy to insulate, which means that a normal container is hot inside in summer and cold in winter."

    In most first-world applications it's just a trendy gimmick. Using them as a lockable storage shed (like my brother does) makes sense, but bringing them up to even code-min let alone low-energy housing is more trouble than it's worth. In the third world, I s'pose it's sometimes (but not always) better than a tent (especially where security from intruders may be an issue) but nowhere near as good as improving incrementally on the usually well evolved local low-cost local housing methods in affordable-sustainable ways, where possible. As Martin points out, real progress is excruciatingly slow, and some populations view fly-by-night short-termer westerners with grand schemes (correctly) as well intentioned but flawed disturbers of the real work in progress, and will often go out of their way to avoid getting sucked into the new bright-eyed plan.

    Quoting Bob Vila as an expert opinion on anything regarding construction is a bit of a stretch- the guy was about as knowledgeable on even basic construction issue as the average local-TV talking-head, which is basically what he is- talking on camera is where is actual talents lie. He can deliver the script, with conviction, even come up with questions on the fly, but the guy is far from a construction expert or building scientist- that's why he hires REAL contractors & builders for his productions, some with a better handle on the building-science stuff than others. He may be a nice guy (or not), is certainly personable enough on camera, but of dubious construction credentials & experience.

    Standard camper trailers FEMA style are an easier and more appropriate temporary housing stop gap to drop-ship into disaster zones. Cargo cans just aren't made for it.

  9. onacurve | | #9

    Thanks for those responses. I'd say "Amen brother" to about 99% of what you wrote.

    I would have trouble looking at some of those kids on the Flickr page I linked to, eating who knows what, wading in sewage when there's a heavy rain, and saying, "Sorry kid, 'real progress is excruciatingly slow'". That answer is not sufficient for me.

    I think development appears to be excruciatingly slow if you look in places where it is excruciatingly slow. I don't think you would argue that development has been slow in China, or other several other Asian countries, or much of South America, like Venezuela or Brazil. Many millions have been lifted out of poverty quite quickly in those countries. There's quite a lot of investment going to Africa from China, Japan, South Korea, and India (2). "Japan is promising to promote universal basic health services throughout the continent." The development models they use are totally different than ones where the West invests. It seems that there is plenty of progress in places where the West is not.

    The CIA's World Factbook is quite informative on Haiti "a free market economy that enjoys the advantages of low labor costs and tariff-free access to the US for many of its exports." (3) Free market -- no kidding. There's very little structure at all in the country. Over half of the federal budget comes from outside sources, though there's plenty of wealth in the country, building sweatshop factories for workers to assemble clothing for the US. Haiti is a shining example of the "government you can drown in a bathtub" that is the dream vision of so many here in the US with such loud voices as Mr Norquist. Anytime they do try to stick their nose out of the water, they can easily be dunked back under, as Mr Aristide was, twice.

    I agree that many NGO's are not contributing much at all. One great example of the opposite, however, is Dr Paul Farmer's Partner's in Health (4). A similarly run "Partner's in Housing" might be a good model to work from.

    There are even examples here, though environmentally destructive ones, such as the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota(1), the tar sands regions of Alberta. There's plenty of small, once run down towns in areas where fracking is taking off that look nothing like they did 10 years ago.

    I don't take it as a given that progress has to be excruciatingly slow.

    Progress was not slow in the US following the Great Depression when it industrialized, overnight practically, to fight in WWII. It was not slow in the few decades following, when the war machine was switched to build a consumer and middle class. There was nothing slow about that. There was nothing slow about Germany or Japan's WWII recovery.

    It seems to me that there must be a way to develop an economy that's not based on war or environmental destruction. 'You may say I'm a dreamer, but I know I can't be the only one.'

    I appreciate the Bob Vila response. I was hoping someone would bite on that one. Thanks Dana.

    I still wonder if shipping containers have some advantages. Their modularity makes installing them quick. I've seen them used for power stations, waste water treatment, medical facilities, etc.

    I'd have a more thought out response but I got to run to work.

    Thanks again.


  10. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #10

    I think cargo containers have GREAT advantages for being able to modularize shipping across boats, trains, & trucks safely, with a minimum of labor & damage to the goods.

    Housing, not so much, especially in the context of low-carbon footprint (from a lifecycle perspective) housing.

    Recovery of wealthy (or recently wealthy) highly industrialized highly educated countries from massive war damage or economic depressions created by speculative bubbles in securities markets is a very different problem from bringing the economies of countries with low average wealth & limited wealth distribution, very low infrastructure etc up to 21st century first-world economy standards. China's economic growth since 1980 has been happening at an astounding rate, but the 1980 version of China is still WAY ahead of the development curve of most third world countries. To be sure the economic development of Africa is starting to hit some stride, with a lot of outside money for resource development, but it's hard to say if that won't eventually have the same "love 'em & leave 'em" flavor of the colonial powers previously extracting resources from Africa.

    I'm hopeful for some African nations, not so much for others, but on the whole the next 50 years look like they will be transformative. I have relatives with business interests in both Zimbabwe & Ghana, and another who recently did a 2 year Peace Corps stint in Botswana, who now speaks a coupla Bantu languages with some facility, and my next door neighbor spent 6 months in South Africa on an agricultural venture bootstrapping project recently. (Ever seen a hundred-trillion Zimbabwe-dollar bill? You can't even buy a sheet of toilet paper with one, but it's a good conversation starter.) The city where I live has the largest Ghanaian population of any city outside of Ghana, with significant numbers other western-African disapora too (mostly Mali & Nigeria)- I get to hear multiple perspectives on what's happening in sub-Saharan Africa.

    There are large political components to making economic development sustainable in out of the way places, and out of the way places that don't have resources the developed world want to pay for are kinda S.O.L., generally. Both Japan & Germany were powerful empires with powerful militarys and well-coordinated highly functional centralized governments in the generations prior to WW-II, with well-educated populations and huge amount of already-built infrastructure to work with. This isn't the case in Haiti, Mali, or Afghanistan, and it'll take quite awhile to get them even to the bombed-out condition of Japan or Germany circa 1945 from an infrastructure, education, and social cohesiveness point of view. And it took a gigaton of cash, military occupation of those countries (the vestiges & expenses of which exist to this day) and long term international commitments from neighbors to the rebuilding too.

    Comparing those situations to third world economic development problems isn't even apples & oranges or night & day, probably more like night & oranges- fairly orthogonal axis.

    Resolving some of the political & central bank issues in South America has definitely led to an upward economic trend, but the economic surge/resurgence hasn't exactly an overnight phenomenon, nor is it always transportable to neighboring countries, let alone across the world. It's had many cycles, a very long history to even begin to recount, but hasn't always been a net positive for indigenous cultures still hanging on in south American backwaters.

    OK, enough thread drift- this has next to nothing to do with green building.

Log in or create an account to post an answer.


Recent Questions and Replies

  • |
  • |
  • |
  • |