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Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Homes of the Future: Shipping Containers

Few people can say their home has sailed around the world, but that soon could be the case in North Charleston.

The state's third-largest city, home to more shipping containers than residents care to talk about, is experimenting with the idea of turning the unsightly metal boxes into low-income, affordable houses.

One project, on the city's economically depressed south side, already is under way, with the foundation recently poured.

"Once we get through with it, you would never know it is a container home," said city Building Director Darbis Briggman, who toured the site Friday. "We can even make them two stories."

City leaders hope the pilot project at 2733 East Surrey Drive off Dorchester Road will be the first of dozens of homes. If the project is successful, Mayor Keith Summey said he will urge City Council to sell $1 million in bonds, possibly as early as next year, to build about 20 more homes. He said the idea could be expanded to create small apartments and senior housing complexes."People will be shocked by what these containers can be turned into," Summey said. "You can recycle a blighted item."

The project on East Surrey Drive, which city leaders said could be the first in the state, calls for using four shipping containers attached side by side to create a 1,280-square-foot, single-family home, complete with three bedrooms. The one-story steel frame, which will be treated to prevent rust, will be framed with wood and drywall. A pitched roof will be built on top. When finished, Briggman said, the house will meet all building and energy codes mandated for new construction.

David Cross of Tampa Armature Works Inc., which is spearheading the project, said used shipping containers range in price from about $800 to $4,200. The four used in this project, he said, were bought locally. All told, the project is budgeted to cost about $71,000, or about $55 a square foot. That compares to about $75 a square foot, city officials said, for new construction in similar south side neighborhoods.

"Fundamentally this is a fantastic structure," said Cross, who has modeled it after similar structures used in the military. "I know this will be here in 100 years."

Containers, often stacked five and six high, are an iconic image around the southern end of the city. Many of the boxes are in unincorporated Charleston County where city regulators are powerless to have them removed. The towering stacks of containers are there because low steel prices in the past meant it often was cheaper for shipping companies to buy new ones than to pay storage fees for older ones, leading to an excessive amount of containers stuck on shore.

Councilwoman Phoebe Miller, who has been an advocate for cleaning up the city, said the pilot project could be a way to help eliminate containers. She was unsure, though, whether the city should build as many houses as it would take to do away with all of the big boxes.

"How are we going to use millions of containers?" Miller asked. "I am baffled to think that we could do something with all of them."

James Scott can be reached at 745-5855 or

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