shipping containers stacked on top of one another.

Contain Your Enthusiasm.​

At their meeting in November, the Valparaiso Commission will mull over a plan to ban the use of shipping containers as building material in city limits. 

The Commission was briefed on the plan to ban the corrugated steel products by the chairman of the Valparaiso Planning and Zoning Chairman, Bob Bachelor, at their October meeting. 

Three buildings use old shipping containers in the City on Valparaiso Parkway – according to Bachelor.

“If you’re not careful, you could get these popping up all over town. Next thing you know, you’re going to get a PUD (Planned Unit Development – a type of zoning that allows for exceptions to rules a city enforces on land inside its limits) that comes in to make ‘affordable housing’. Next thing you know, [the City] will be different,” Bachelor told the Commission. 

RELATED: New Development Hopes To Aide In Relieving Attainable Housing Issue in Valparaiso

A resident, who did not give his name, argued against a ban on shipping containers as a building material in the City. “I would suggest the the planning commission visit the University of Florida’s Architecture Department. One of the most beautiful homes I’ve ever seen in Gainesville is a container home. Container homes started in Gainesville,” The speaker continued, “with the director of the engineering department. I’ve seen some beautiful container homes. I don’t know why we’d want to restrict construction material for homes.”

Bachelor told the Commission he wants to see the restrictions because of the wide gap in quality that can show itself with shipping containers in construction. “You can see really nice homes, you can see $6,000 homes or $10,000 homes where all they are is a painted box, board, and window cut-ins,” Bachelor said, “If you’re going to consider allowing people to use containers to build homes – you’re going to have to put some very heavy restrictions on sighting… If you allow it, you’re going to have to have a whole stack of additional specifications on these structures.”

RELATED: One Man’s Fight To Build Some Attainable Housing in Valparaiso Explains Why Attainable Housing is So Hard to Find

Elected Commissioner's Reaction To The Presentation

In their initial comments, the commissioners seemed to fall in the middle of the two staked-out positions on container homes – neither wanting to ban them outright nor give residents free rein on their use as homes. 

“I think my real objection would be if it looked like a container,” said Mayor Brent Smith, “I wouldn’t want it beside my house.”

Commissioner Kay Hamilton, a contractor by trade, told the rest of the Commission a tale from Hawai’i, where various government agencies have begun to use shipping containers to build affordable housing. “We just don’t want someone living in a box,” Hamilton said, “Manufactured homes nowadays have to conform to and comply with construction requirements. We just don’t want a bunch of ugly containers in people’s front yards. 

RELATED: 900 Square Foot Homes in Valparaiso. Could They Soon Be A Reality?

two men sitting at a dais
Valparaiso City Attorney Hayward Dykes (Left) speaks while Mayor Brent Smith looks on during a conversation at Valparaiso City Commission's March Meeting.

What Does the Wider World Think About Container Use?

According to (I know, I know), there are a couple of downsides to using shipping containers as homes. They are not easily insulated (a problem here in the summer, as we know), they don’t work in stacks unless you put them in specific places (which many DIYers may not know), and they are not the most efficient use of the steel that would otherwise get stretched farther if purpose-made to build homes. “There is a lot more steel in a shipping container than you actually need for a building; that’s so they can be stacked full nine high, get tossed around on the ocean and thrown on trucks and trains,” says Lloyd Alter, who wrote the article on storage containers for, “It’s really being wasted when it’s put into a house. And as Mark (an engineer whose notes Lloyd cribbed off (like I’m cribbing and attributing to Lloyd), you can probably build it faster and cheaper than bringing in a welder and mucking up a shipping container.”

But, in the places where they are in use – the owners swear by them. A story from KVUE in Austin discusses the benefits of building with storage containers in the Texas town of Bastrop. “[the owner] said the they used to stay in a trailer [when they visited their land in the area] but found that contianers were safer, more sustainable in the weather, kept rodents out and were an afforable option,” Conner Board reported in the article for the Austin-based television station. 

A principal architect at a design firm in San Francisco says there is nothing wrong with using shipping containers for buildings – provided they are used correctly. In a blog post he originally put up himself but now only exists on Arch Daily, he writes: “For a temporary facility, where the owner desires a shipping container aesthetic, they can be a good fit. (look, I’ve even done a container project!). For sites where on-site construction is not feasible or desirable, fitting a container out in the factory can be a sensible option, even though you’ll still have to do things like pour foundations. It probably won’t save you any money over conventional construction (and very well might cost more), but it can solve some other problems. The place where containers really don’t make any sense is housing. I know you’ve seen all the proposals, often done with a humanitarian angle (building slum housing, housing for refugees, etc) that promise a factory-built “solution” to the housing “problem” but often positioned as a luxury product as well.”

The Architect, Mark Hogan, then lists why he thinks they are not a solution to mass or affordable housing. 

Hogan's List:

Hogan says the containers are not a good idea for affordable (or any) housing projects for several reasons:

  1. Housing isn’t a technology problem. 
  2. If you build housing in a factory, you might as well build a mobile home – because they are set up better for humans. 
  3. Insulation is an issue. 
  4. The structure isn’t conducive to building in ‘fun’ or showy ways, which are usually the ways that people want to build with shipping containers. 
  5. Stacking containers on top of one another is not easy or cheap – and it doesn’t reduce building costs – especially the higher you go.  
  6. There isn’t enough space for utilities and mechanical systems. 
  7. They aren’t as recyclable as you’d think. Many containers have to be deep cleaned anyway because they might have held something toxic in the past. Add in the fact that the building material in the shipping container could be stretched much farther if you melted it down and disseminated the steel – and you don’t have a strong argument for using the container as is. 

Again, you can find the full list and explanation here. 

What's Next For Container Buildings in Valparaiso?

The Commission will be able to see an update to the proposed ordinance at their meeting on November 14th at the Valparaiso City Commission Chambers. According to the City’s ordinances, The Commission must pass a proposed ordinance by a simple majority after it has been published in a local newspaper for a week before the vote. 

The Planning and zoning commission will have a proposed draft at the next meeting, but the commissioners did not clarify whether they intended to vote on the idea in November. 


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