Interview: NY architect Maziar Behrooz talks container homes


November 25, 2012

The Insta House shipping container conversion is now available for purchase in the U.S.

The Insta House shipping container conversion is now available for purchase in the U.S.

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Sturdy, convenient to transport and relatively cheap – these are some of the factors that have made the conversion of shipping containers into modern living and working spaces an ever growing trend. Maziar Behrooz of MB Architecture is no stranger to this process.

The Manhattan-based architect's initial foray into this arena – the Container Studio – was originally conceived as a backyard Art Studio and sees the clever use of two standard shipping containers perched over a 9 foot (2.7 m) tall foundation wall/cellar. Spread across two levels, the 840 sq ft (78 m2) design delivers ample light and space to the interior in sharp contrast to its dark charcoal facade.

MB Architecture recently finished enhancing the Container Studio prototype to offer a prefab container home under US$100K. The upgraded Insta House is created from four recycled shipping containers (two on top of two) to create a comfortable, high-ceiling, low cost home. Each house is retrofitted in a factory-setting, before being delivered and erected onsite within seven days.

The 960 sq ft (89 m2) Insta House is now available for purchase in the U.S. and as standard comes fitted with sliding windows, electrical fixtures and all wall, ceiling and floor finishes. The basic model will set you back US$99,800, including delivery.

We recently caught up with Behrooz to chat about the container conversion process.

What inspired the original idea for the Container Studio?

We had a limited budget and my research showed that by using containers we could get a lot for little money. At the same time, the boxy shape of the containers lends itself very well to an art studio.

How long did the project take to complete?

In terms of actual building time, because this was our first one, it took a few months. We learned from this and are now pre-fabricating the studio in a factory setting and can install them on any site in the U.S. in less than a week.

What are the key sustainable features?

Clearly the container itself is a recycled product that would otherwise go to waste. In this particular installation, the ground around the lower level helps maintain an even temperature in the space, therefore reducing energy costs.

What are your favorite design features of the home?

Its simplicity.

How do you envision the future of small homes?

Home sizes are getting smaller for a variety of reasons. For me, it is interesting to see how apartment buildings could be modified so that they could become an amalgam of small homes rather than repetitive generic spaces.

What can we expect to see from MB Architecture in the future?

We are working on a number of projects. In New Orleans, we have developed a prototype for a pre-fabricated computer lab/library that will be installed in different neighborhoods for youth and local communities to use. We are also working on a number of residential projects. And our pre-fabricated Insta House is being considered for people who were displaced by the recent hurricane.

Source: MB Architecture

About the Author
Bridget Borgobello Bridget is an experienced freelance writer, presenter and performer with a keen eye for innovative design and a passion for green technology. Australian born, Bridget currently resides in Rome and when not scribbling for Gizmag, she spends her time developing new web series content and independent cinema. All articles by Bridget Borgobello

If set properly on its foundation these would be homes that are earthquake, tornado, hurricane, and fire proof. it would be a simple matter to embed steel reinforcements into the concrete foundation to bolt these down, FEMA should pay close attention here, i'm sure the trailer homes they are so fond of are much pricier, and much less robust.

The containers are designed for tons of capacity and are stacked twenty and thirty high on cargo ships that roll in the just can't beat that kind of strength with a mobile home...or any other home for that matter.

Designing a home with these things would be no harder than playing with children's blocks. The size of your home would have no limits, just add another block if you need it. I've seen these finished inside and outside so well that the container is invisible, no one would know unless told. They are used worldwide to build malls, restaurants, student housing, apartment complexes, the possibilities are endless...yet we let them sit and rust away in shipping yards the world over. We must love waste...we do it so well.

John Parkes

Containers sound great but they rust. Temporary structures at best.

Mark A

"i'm sure the trailer homes they are so fond of are much pricier, and much less robust."

You are incorrect about the cost Mr. Parkes, they are a fraction of the cost of the cheapest MB Architecture container homes, though you are correct that they as less robust.

But The FEMA trailer homes are specifically to be mobile, cheap and temporary shelter.


I doubt that a shipping container is actually tornado-proof I reckon that tornado debris could likely penetrate a container. Perhaps if it were insulated with concrete and wrapped in kevlar..

Alan Belardinelli

Containers are made of Corten steel. They get a little surface rust which forms a protective barrier and that's it. They will last for many, many decades.


cool, but $100k?


Will banks lend on these structures in a similar way as a contemporary home or do you need to cough up the cash?

Matthew Jacobs

@ John Hemingway, thank you, you are completely correct. When containers are anchored to a stable foundation or columns they can resist the uplift of a hurricane. And because their surfaces are made of Corten Steel (about 6,000 lbs of it), they can resist 110 mph wind-borne debris, making them impact resistant. The windows can either be impact-resistant as well for a little more cost, or be covered with plywood in case of strong winds.

@JAT, you are exactly right. Corten is able to maintain the rust with no adverse effect. Keep in mind, though, that since we paint our containers, there are no surfaces exposed that may rust.

@rlk.warren you remind me of Charlie Brown and Lucy in that commercial where they demand that everything should cost 5 cents. Not everything can cost 5 cents. This system costs $100/sf which is astounding for what you get and far less than conventional construction, far less than all DWELL-sponsored prefabs and many prefabs in general.

@YRAG, you are incorrect. FEMA trailers cost $75,000 and a study showed that their life-cycle cost is closer to $200,000. And they are a fraction of the size of the Insta_House and not close to its spaciousness, sturdiness and comfort.

We have studies the pre-fab market very carefully, and I can confidently say that there is no high-ceiling solution under 100k with the structural integrity, functionality and comfort of the Insta_House.



The problem with container buildings is they are expensive to heat and cool unless you build insulating walls in which case one could just build insulating walls in the first place and no be constrained by 7.5' wide interiors which is a real pain to eff use.


Containers are and have been used for shelters for a while now.... If not adequately anchored they are NOT storm proof..... Talk to people who have lived through a cyclone in mining towns of Western Australia, their "dongas" got thrown all over the place.... (Injuring their occupants..)

For a severe storm nothing beats a properly designed cellar/bunker. Just hope that the place doesn't flood or you find yourself like a rat in a drainpipe...

The cost for these shelters is way above what they should be, The containers used are generally those taking up space in ports of countries with one-way transport... Importing stuff from other places, and it becomes uneconomical to return the containers to their place of origin... (Which is why several people have designed collapsible containers allowing 5 to be stored inside one, for a more compact return trip....)

The cost listed is nearly all profit for the architectural firms charging for their art. (AS the container cost is negligible.)

Don't get me wrong, I love the use of containers for structures, and have had plans on the drawing board for decades. (Ideas are cheap, having the means and the need often comes a far second place.)

Also, as the container is reasonably robust, it is cheap to put down a footing, and insulate / weatherproof the exterior, if needed to increase the life expectancy of the steel structure.

Stories like this isn't for affordable dwellings, but rather toys, and extra space for those with the ability to pay.


@ MB - full disclosure please. Your extras could add $55k to the cost. Kitchenette is $8500 and shower and powder room another $8500. I like the idea of the homes and the container use. I did not know you were using new containers, which really defeats the recycle goal. Best wished in your endeavor.

Mark A

Aren't 30 foot containers an odd size? That's the length you'd need four of to get 960 square feet. 20 and 40 seem to be more common lengths, but I have seen them as small as an 8x8x8 cube.

'Course that's the outside dimensions. The inside is somewhat less than 8x8x30, then there's more room taken up by insulation and finishing out the walls. That's offset some by cutting out the walls in the middle.

What's the actual floor space after finishing?

Common inside dimensions of 20 and 40 foot containers.

A 'double wide' container home might not be allowed under some zoning rules because at 16 feet wide it's no wider than newer single wide manufactured homes. Three containers side by side would be 24 foot, which is in the range of double wide manufactured homes.

For those who don't know the specifics of how containers are stacked on ships, they have oblong holes on top and bottom of the corners. Steel blocks fit into the bottom ones and twist 90 degrees, much like the Kensington lock slots on laptop computers. The pegs on the bottoms of the blocks fit into the holes in the top of the container below. Some containers also have holes on the ends and sides for connecting and lifting more than one at a time. It's common to connect two 20's end to end to handle the same as a single 40.

For building use containers either have to be welded directly together or if the blocks are used to provide extra space between levels for wiring and plumbing, something has to be installed to cover the gap.

Containers aren't left un-painted. They're sprayed with a special coating that's scratch resistant and usually resistant to a wide range of solvents. To weld on them, the coating has to be removed where the welds will be, then it burns around the weld, making quite a mess. Takes quite a bit of work to make the surface look nice, if a nice look is your desire.

Wood flooring is common but steel and various plastics are available for use with cargo that could damage or be damaged by contact with a wood floor.

If you're building a container house, don't expect to be able to simply sand down the floor and apply some polyurethane, not unless you get verification it's never been used to haul hazardous liquids or other substances that might have leaked and contaminated the wood. Even then, some containers have the floor treated with preservatives not recommended for interior living spaces.

What MB Architecture is doing is the equivalent of polishing turds, big, steel, turds that fortunately don't stink. ;-) Getting that "I can't believe it was a shipping container!" look doesn't come cheap.

Putting four 30 foot containers together could be done quite a bit cheaper, but the result either wouldn't be as nicely finished or the person doing the job would have to take quite a lot more evening and weekend time on their own to do the job.

Gregg Eshelman

Here's a thought... MB's price too high for you? Don't buy one. Buying a used shipping container is a fairly straight forward and comparatively cheap endeavor. What the architect has done for 100k is finish it out, make it livable, stylish, functional, and rather cost effective. You can go to Lowe's and spec out the cheapest stuf they have - from drywall to bathroom fixtures, and yes, you'd come out cheaper. I doubt very seriously it would have the look or livability these designs have.

All the negative crap that gets posted here is starting to make this place smell more like dpreview or gizmodo. Please just go there if you have nothing truly constructive to add...

Vince Pack

Containers replace some of the framing, and the sheathing and siding in a conventional building, but not the rest of the required package: insulation, interior panels, cutting & welding steel, sub- and finish flooring, plumbing, electrical, insulation, HVAC, windows, flashing and water-proofing, handrails, interior & exterior painting, final installation and more.

Those with imaginary, keyboard-ready ideas about cost of construction and Charlie Brown notions of how easy and cheap it is to retrofit containers have little to no experience in construction. If you believe that you can, we would hire to build our houses -please send us your contact info.

The Insta_House is the only product in the US pre-fab market that delivers a high ceiling space, functionality and comfort at a price that makes home-ownership a possibility for many.

@Mark A, there are no new containers in the US. They have all been shipped here from China and are therefore used. Our basic unit is for an art studio or workshop and does not require options or extras. The extras turn this space into a habitable house; if you are builder, feel free to add the extras yourself.

@Matthew Jacobs, we are exploring construction loans. Banks seem to be favorable to pre-fab housing, as inherent risks of construction are lowered.



@Vince, thank you.

We hope that our product will provide housing for many who would not otherwise afford it.



@Vince The title of the article claims container as a home. Any home should have, at a minimum, a kitchenette and bathroom. An art studio or workshop may have different requirements suitable to the owner. "MB Architecture recently finished enhancing the Container Studio prototype to offer a prefab container home under US$100K."

I applaud all creative endeavors that re-purpose items. Perhaps it is the reporting that should be corrected to indicate these items as options with corresponding costs, $17k for the kitchenette and power room.

"Just the facts mam" - Sgt. Friday

Mark A
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