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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's hear, now, about one way architects are tackling affordability, as well as sustainability. Sustainability can involve, say, salvaged wood turned into new flooring or old newspapers shredded for insulation.

A few architects are taking the part about being affordable even further, building entire homes and businesses inside discarded shipping containers. Some are calling it cargotecture.

From Portland, Oregon, Deena Prichep reports.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: About a quarter-million shipping containers pass through the Port of Portland every year. These are big boxes - 40 feet long, weighing thousands of pounds.

JOSH THOMAS: Yeah, as you look across the container terminal here, they look like giant, multi-colored Legos stacked up there.

PRICHEP: Josh Thomas is the Port's spokesperson.

THOMAS: Each one of those is full of some business' cargo, either coming into or going out of this region.

PRICHEP: Today, we see these containers going from ships to trucks to trains all of the time. It can be hard to remember that they really are a pretty recent development.

THOMAS: In the 1950s, we started to see containerization. And since then, increasingly, just about anything that can be shipped inside of a container, is.

PRICHEP: About 20 million containers pass through American ports every year. But traveling all those miles takes its toll. And eventually, the containers are retired. Some are melted down, and some sit around old lots.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah. So we're going to do the carne asada burrito to go...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

PRICHEP: And some become buildings. Like taquerias.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Pinto beans, please.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right. How about...

PRICHEP: Aprisa Mexican Cuisine, in Southeast Portland, is built inside an old shipping container.

Kirk Lance bought the container for $2,500, and worked with architects and structural engineers to overhaul the steel frame, spraying in insulation and cutting out windows.

KIRK LANCE: There's no construction methods that are extremely intricate or technical, other than getting the blueprints permitted through the state of Oregon - that was technical. But...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LANCE: ...the construction itself? Fairly simple.

PRICHEP: A cargo-based business can be hauled to a new location, or loaded on a cross-country train to set up a new franchise. But for Lance, cargotecture was about more than just portability.

LANCE: This thing, it's had a life. You know, it was born somewhere, and it's traveled the world, and hauled millions of pounds of who-knows-what, and it ends up as a little restaurant in a street corner in Portland, Oregon.

PRICHEP: And it's not just here in Oregon. Cargotecture designs have been used for student housing in Amsterdam and a pop-up art studio at New York's Whitney Museum.

A Seattle firm, HyBrid Architecture, has used shipping containers to build one-room cabins and multi-story office parks. HyBrid co-founder Robert Humble says there are some container-specific issues - they've got industrial paints and coatings to deal with, and they're just steel boxes, with no real frame. But essentially, it's a building material.

ROBERT HUMBLE: The mechanical equipment, the plumbing, the electrical, is really quite traditional. But it is that wrapping in a container that allows the house to be so portable, so flexible, and overtly sustainable on the outside.

PRICHEP: Like many in the cargotecture movement, HyBrid tries to emphasize that overt sustainability. They leave on the original stickers, longshoreman's marks, and all of the other little dents and dings that, Humble says, tell people the story of where the containers have been.

HUMBLE: They can imagine the container on a ship, they've seen it on a truck, and they kind of take an emotional journey with that container - and finally it's at rest, and they can live in it.

NICK RADECKI: It's a big bathtub - shower up in the ceiling, pedestal sink, nice window, you know. It's better than a lot of apartments.

PRICHEP: Nick Radecki rents a bright turquoise house in Southeast Portland, made from two welded-together shipping containers. Though his wife, Kelly Cook, took some convincing.

KELLY COOK: You know, I was like OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COOK: Did we sign any papers?

PRICHEP: The couple has had to deal with the pros and cons of an open floor plan, and all the people who stop in and ask for a tour. But they like that it's recycled, and, Radecki says, that ultimately, it's a good house.

RADECKI: People come in, and I want green this and green that - truth be told, the only green home is a well-built home.

PRICHEP: Although both Cook and Radecki admit that with two young boys, two dogs and a cat, they may outgrow this particular piece of green cargotecture pretty soon.

For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep, in Portland, Oregon.

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