Art & Design


During the recession, shipping containers began stacking up on American shores. Architects saw an opportunity to recycle them into homes and other spaces. Catherine Welch from member station WRNI found a multi-story office building made entirely from shipping containers.

(Soundbite of train)

CATHERINE WELCH: Several times every day, passenger trains travel through Providence, Rhode Island, passing a Smurf-blue building with a shock of yellow and green. It looks like its made from Legos and often grabs the attention of riders zipping past.

Mr. PETER CASE (Architect): When Amtrak goes by its a little event, and they look up from their computer and watch it go by.

WELCH: Peter Case owns and helped design the building, made entirely from cargo shipping containers - those steel, rectangular boxes on trucks and trains. The three-story complex is divided into two sets of offices with a canopy made from the sides of containers covering an exposed central hallway.

Mr. CASE: Our mantra was let the container be a container whenever possible. So we dont hide the dings.

WELCH: Dings and all, the building cost $1.8 million. Thats half the cost of his original plans for a conventional building - plans he scrapped when the economy tanked. There was no precedent in the U.S., so Case had to convince Providence officials who were a little hesitant at first. Then he bought shipping containers for $2,000 a pop and welded two or three of them together, cutting out the sides to create an open floor plan.

Mr. CASE: So this unit is just finished getting the sheet rock on. So you can see, if you look out and go to the very end that there's all glass.

WELCH: It feels like any other office space. It took Case and his team six months to design and figure out the basics, like installing windows, electric and plumbing. It took just four days to truck in the containers and plunk them down on site.�

The buildings now open for business. Website consultant Chris Murray is the first renter. He recognized it from a Craigslist ad and had to check it out.

Mr. CHRIS MURRAY (Website consultant): We decided to come here because it is a really unique and neat place.

WELCH: This office in Providence isnt the only building made from containers. There are homes and art studios sprinkled around the U.S., a school in Mexico, and one non-profit is turning containers into health clinics for poor and rural countries. They may be portable and look cool, but builder Joshua Brandt says dont expect to start seeing them everywhere.

Mr. JOSHUA BRANDT (Builder): If building with containers was like a fundamentally superior way to build things, people would build out of containers all the time. And the reason why they dont is because it is very challenging.

WELCH: And for Brandt, its a relief to get back to normal construction jobs.

For NPR News, Im Catherine Welch, in Providence, Rhode Island.

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