Amid neck-craning stacks of shipping containers at an Alameda depot, a building crew has worked for the past two weeks to fashion an eco-friendly, two-story structure from five recycled and refurbished steel cubes that had been used to haul cargo.
The project by SG Blocks LLC and the design firm called the Lawrence Group will bring an 1,800-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath home to San Jose, where the structure dubbed Harbinger House will be the centerpiece on the tradeshow floor of the West Coast Green conference that runs from September 24 to 27.
The builders hope the project will hold not only the promise of more business for their nearly 2-year-old firm, but also help fuel an emerging market for commercial construction using recycled shipping containers.
Reclaimed shipping containers have been used for housing and workspace for decades, mostly abroad and often in areas where building materials are scarce. Building with containers is gaining popular currency as a timesaving, more affordable, eco-conscious building alternative to traditional construction, particularly in Europe and the United Kingdom. Earlier this summer, Travelodge opened a 120-room hotel in the greater London area built from 86 containers.
In the U.S., construction with shipping containers, called intermodal steel building units or ISBUs, has largely been residential — a situation that gives rise to ambitions for a commercial market.
"The showhouse is very cool," said Bruce Russell, the managing partner for SG Blocks, which has worked on single-family and multiple-unit residential projects and completed its first office building last fall. "But I think the real impact we're going to have is in the commercial segment. That's really where the system is going to shine."
The company's first non-residential project, which was also the first of its kind in the United States, was a 4,322-square-foot, two-story office building for the U.S. Army. The 249th Engineer Company Operations Building at Fort Bragg, N.C., was made from 12 former shipping containers that are known in the trade as Hi-Cubes — containers measuring 9.5 feet high, 8 feet wide and 40 feet long.
The construction project marked "the first time that I'm aware of that somebody designed a building using containers as building blocks to create structures that inside and out look just like any other building," said Nathaniel Hermann, a resident engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Bragg. Hermann enlisted SG Blocks for project and worked closely with the firm to achieve the results.
Russell and the other co-founders of SG Blocks, director of business development David Cross and structural engineer Steve Armstrong, said that's a key point of their business. "The container does not have to drive the design," Russell said.
The firm obtains used shipping containers, which are certified as being structurally sound as well as precise as to dimensions, and modifies them so that they are further strengthened, refurbished as needed and made architect-and-contractor ready. Preparation of the containers can be done off site to facilitate modular construction with final assembly occurring at the ultimate destination. Advance work for the showhouse was done at a depot of ConGlobal Industries Inc., a strategic partner and the container supplier for SG Blocks.
It takes an estimated 8,000 kWh of energy to melt a four-ton shipping container, about 6,500 kWh to make a ton of steel of virgin material and almost 1,800 kWh to recycle a ton of steel from 100 percent scrap, but 400 to 800 kWh to convert a shipping container into an SG Blocks building unit, according to the company and its representatives. In terms of supply, proponents of container construction estimate that there are 16 to 22 million containers in active circulation with 1 million new units becoming available each year and some 700,000 being retired. SG Blocks has its own term for recycling the containers it acquires.