By Liana Grey
Earlier this year, Paul Galvin, a veteran affordable housing developer, visited a hillside town outside Rio de Janeiro. In January, a mudslide swept away dozens of homes in the area, and Galvin hopes to rebuild them with recycled shipping containers.
“You can get to hard-to-reach places,” he said of the metal boxes, which are growing in popularity as an architectural tool. “There are no limitations.”
Over the last four years, Galvin’s company, SG Blocks, has used containers to assemble dozens of structures around the United States, from a luxury condominium in Salt Lake City to affordable housing in New Orleans.
“We have relationships with the biggest container lines,” said Galvin. “Whenever we have a project, we go to the closest port.”
When Galvin returns to Brazil later this month, he will work with APM Terminals, a subsidiary of shipping giant Maersk, to build 4,000 mid-rise apartment buildings in the mudslide zone. For developments on the East Coast, he contacts port officials in Jacksonville, Florida or Charlottesville, North Carolina. “We’ve done a little work with Newark,” Galvin said.
Local contractors begin modifying the boxes right where they are stored. The half-finished products are then loaded onto freight trains or flatbed trucks, and shipped to one of two places, depending on the wishes of a client: a modular plant, where they leave for their final destination 98% complete, or directly to the intended site.
Either way, assembly takes several days, and costs a third less than traditional construction. “With a single crane, we can set a finished container every 20 minutes,” Galvin explained. “It’s less expensive for a better product,” he added. “It’s green and sturdy.” Constructed of steel and weighing, on average, 8,000 pounds, containers are airtight, waterproof, and weather-resistant: they can withstand earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes. They are so strong, Galvin said, that they can be stacked nine stories high without needing additional structural support.
That’s good news, considering the increased frequency of intense storms brought on by climate change. As an added bonus, depreciated containers are plentiful, with thousands stacked at ports across the world. And they’re versatile — the sustainable equivalent of lumber or bricks. “Something so physically strong is so malleable in the marketplace,” Galvin said.
Months after Haiti was devastated by a magnitude seven earthquake, Galvin showed a group of Haitian doctors a rendering of a college dormitory. To them, the sleek white building was a blank canvas. “They said, ‘Wow, that would be a perfect hospital,’” Galvin recalled.
Soon after, SG Blocks broke ground on a medical facility at a 30-acre site in Saint-Michel, a city in northern Haiti. Construction stalled during the country’s presidential election, leaving the project in limbo.
In the meantime, Galvin’s staff of 10, along with a team of consultants, has been scrambling to complete a flurry of new projects. They’ve come up with a plan to ship containers filled with medicine to rural Africa, which are then transformed into clinics for poor women. “We’ve had some inquiries from Japan” following the recent earthquake and nuclear disaster, Galvin said.
On the luxury end of the spectrum, a developer in India is working with SG Blocks to build 20 to 25 hotels. And Galvin has sold the idea of container architecture to retailers. Last year, he assembled a pop-up Puma store at the South Street Seaport. Inside, it resembled any other Manhattan shop, with some funky twists like recessed lighting in the ceilings and floors.
“This is the absolute evolution of the pop-up store,” Galvin said. “Retailers can tell us where they want to be,” and can follow their customers around the city.
As for other temporary applications, he envisions the steel blocks being fashioned into Olympic villages that can be disassembled when the games are over, and repurposed for permanent use — as a hospital, say, or a housing project. And he has built a prototype for a pod-like personal gym, which can be placed in backyards. “The process is so mechanized, it doesn’t matter if they come out a hotel or a gym,” Galvin said.
Recently, demand has risen among developers in New York — a city that’s no stranger to experimental architecture. Lot-Ek, an architecture firm based in the West Village, has dabbled in container construction, incorporating stacked, protruding boxes into a design for Lafayette Tower, a mixed-use space in lower Manhattan. The firm also developed a “container home kit” for clients, and built a mobile Uniqlo store out of a single container.
Galvin sees containers blending more seamlessly into the city’s fabric. “Can you imagine building a brownstone out of these?” he said. “You can do it in three days.”
He was approached by a developer in Queens to build an eight-story apartment complex with an elevator. A builder in Brooklyn, where Galvin developed affordable housing and domestic violence shelters before launching SG Blocks, reached out to him as well.
In August, SG Blocks will begin assembling an “eco-luxury” mansion in the Hamptons for a sports celebrity, whose identity Galvin kept anonymous. Though assembly is cheap, container houses can still fetch high prices. Units at Center City Lofts, the condo complex in downtown Salt Lake City, were listed for $1 million.
In addition to overseeing projects through completion, Galvin supplies containers to architects like Adam Kalkin, a New Jersey based designer. One of Kalkin’s best-known creations is Quik House, a 2,000 s/f residence made of five containers. Kalkin advises prospective buyers to budget anywhere from $125 to $165 for the homes, which contain three bedrooms and 2.5 baths. A model was recently displayed at a gallery in SoHo, but producing art is hardly Kalkin’s focus. Like SG Blocks, his firm has experimented in disaster-relief housing.
Several years ago, Kent Pipes, a developer of affordable housing in southern New Jersey, came across Kalkin’s work during an Internet search on inexpensive housing. A lightbulb went off. “Why couldn’t these be used to house homeless people?” he asked himself.
At a depot south of an airport in Georgia, Pipes came across a 53-foot-long container. It was the largest he’d ever seen; some containers are as small as 20 feet, and many are in the 40-foot range. “What that did was give me a chance to think of spatial dimensions,” he said. He could place bedrooms at either end of the container, and even a pop-out front porch.
“You can be really creative,” Pipes said. He is looking into setting up a cluster of containers in a New Jersey suburb just outside Philadelphia, which will serve as a village of sorts for the homeless. “These can be lined up all underneath the I-95 expressway that runs north and south,” he said.
Over the last two years, Pipes has been seeking zoning approval for a prototype home. Having made little progress, he approached churches, including the Friends Meeting House in Medford, in Burlington County, with his plan.
In New Jersey, he explained, houses of worship are exempt from certain zoning constraints. And churches can provide food and support for the homeless. “We have the container ready to go, we just have to find a site to put it on,” he said.
Like Galvin, he sees containers as a practical device, rather than a medium for avant-garde creations. But he prefers the structures in their raw form. “We decided to build a house that would leave the structural beauty” of the containers, he said. “Don’t try to hide it.”