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The Ultimate Reuse: Shipping Containers For Buildings

Flickr Photo/vmax137 (CC-BY-NC-ND)
Starbucks has been rolling out drive-through, walk-up locations made out of recycled shipping containers. This location is in Tukwila, Washington.

The cost of housing in the city is making many people think small, to embrace the micro movement that loves to reuse and recycle. Enter the idea of a shipping container as a building — a natural in a port city like Seattle, which handles 1.6 million container units in a year.

With all that potential lying around Seattle, something had to happen. Worldwide, 450,000 containers are sent to scrap every year. An idea struck Starbucks Coffee designers as they looked out a window at their Sodo headquarters near the Port of Seattle at the containers in the shipping yard.

“We thought, we can take something out of the cycle of refuse and repurpose it,” said Brian Van Stipdonk, a senior designer for Starbucks. “Something that spoke to our heritage and to where we are now.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Brian Van Stipdonk, a senior designer for Starbucks, in front of a drive-through coffee shop built from shipping containers in Ballard, Seattle.", "fid": "25882", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201404/vanstipdonk.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Carolyn Adolph"}]]Starbucks came up with a drive-through coffee shop made of shipping containers. The latest, in Ballard, is the sixth. Its exterior is as glossy and brown as a coffee bean, and visibly walloped by its maritime career.

“You can see that it’s been battered, it’s been beaten, it’s been torn,” Van Stipdonk said. “This is a used shipping container and these things are really made to have a long life cycle. They’re very durable, they’re very stable. They’re just not insulated. It’s just steel.”

Starbucks isn’t alone in thinking that the shipping container’s time has come. All kinds of experiments abound: offices, full-on houses and even a housing co-operative up north in Vancouver, B.C.

But each of them has to reckon with the fixed dimensions of a container — usually a 40 feet long, 8 feet wide and 8 feet high.

At the Starbucks, the team of people inside making coffee surrounded by the usual hissing machines work in a really limited space.

Despite the tight fit, Van Stipdonk is so enthused, he said he would consider building an entire coffee shop with shipping containers instead of just the current drive-through model. He described a model where the containers could outline a space for a café setting, since tables and chairs wouldn’t fit comfortably in the cramped quarters of a container.

The containers could have housing potential as well. A used 40-foot shipping container costs under $3,000 and can be customized with doors, windows and comforts like lights and heating.

But there is a hitch. Barry Harmon, assistant office manager at McKinney Containers, said: “check with the codes.”

Using a container as a place to live brings in the city and the state. The city watches the foundation. The state rules the container's modification.

To live in a container building, the state demands a whole new breed of insulation and other building materials; the costs tend to add up. “We actually found that the cost is triple, sometimes even quadruple than it is to just outfit the container for the same purpose," Harmon said in an interview.

Starbucks said it can get a drive-through coffee shop to make business sense. But for housing — the potential is still out there.