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The SEED Project - from unused shipping container to sustainable emergency housing


January 19, 2010

The SEED Project is developing a method to convert unused shipping containers into sustainable emergency housing for disaster affected areas
(Image: Clemson University)

The SEED Project is developing a method to convert unused shipping containers into sustainable emergency housing for disaster affected areas (Image: Clemson University)

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Aside from tragic loss of life and incomprehensible destruction, events like last week’s devastating earthquake in Haiti create a myriad of problems in their wake, not least of which is homelessness. With over 30 million shipping containers the world over currently lying dormant, a team of researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina are working to help solve the issue of accommodation in disaster affected areas by developing a method to convert the unused containers into sustainable emergency housing.

The team at Clemson University, operating under the SEED Project banner, were originally inspired by the hurricanes in recent years in the Caribbean and US. As shipping containers are designed to withstand extreme weather conditions and exceed structural code all over the world, their “unibody” construction means they can be equally useful in seismic zones. Currently Caribbean countries have a large surplus of unused shipping containers due to imports far outweighing exports.

While they have been used in past as boutique relocatable homes and even portable restaurants, the SEED Project aims to use shipping containers to provide safe emergency housing for people displaced by natural disaster as quickly as possible. Historically, in many cases people affected by disaster do not return to their land for years, sometimes never. The SEED Project seeks to see people re-housed in a modified on-site container in as little as three weeks. The idea is to use local skills, labor and materials, with the container eventually becoming a sustainable permanent living space.

Making use of discarded shipping containers in this manner also addresses the global issue of recycling, and the team is focusing on another industrial surplus as well – 55 gallon steel drums. It is looking to use these to create a “starter garden” on top of a converted shipping container to grow food crops and the like should the ground below be contaminated. Water can then be filtered through the drums for use in a water pod that includes shower, sink and composting toilet.

The SEED Project team is working with industry partners and currently has a prototype under construction on the Clemson University campus, with plans to build another in the Caribbean within the next twelve months.


shipping containers are of course used the world over as housing,,,offices,,,,,,toilet and wash blocks,,,,,,,, they need to be adequately insulated against heat or cold,,, there is nothing new about this but someone on the ground needs to get stuff moving,,,,,,, the Haitians are in dire need so please,,,,,,,, get a move on someone


Anything that helps people get their live back on track after a tragedy is of course a blessing. Lets hope the team at Clemson University can make this work in an economically sensible way.


In Africa we have been using containers for housing for years, they work exceptionally well as long as they are not put directly on the floor. The pricing is certainly not as high as indicated in your article, a 20\' box can be acquired for about US$1,000.00 someone is making pots of money @ US$55,000.00.


Someone needs to multiply Clemsen\'s efforts exponentially by getting others involved in some way if this is going to help Haiti. Companies need to step up and donate their unused assets including the transportation of containers to Haiti with the return on their investment coming from positive PR. Construction companies need to mobilize unemployed volunteer teams to teach Haitians how to outfit a container into livable space, again looking at positive PR as the motivation. Unemployed volunteers will receive gratification from using their skills in a truly meaningful way that will make a difference in Haiti and in their own lives. Let\'s all get moving on this NOW! We have this amazing social network in place to get the word out. This is one of those projects where we have to learn by just doing it!

Chuck Franke

Not trying to be a cynic, but designers should focus less on architectural triumphs and simply design functional spaces. Skylights and multi-level \'buildings\' seem awfully creative but practically it seems like a non-starter (imagining the architect on site to ensure their vision is achieved is laughable). Since the interior dimensions are mostly standardized, a design that could offer space for; cooking, sleeping, rain water collection?, and bathing would be produced en masse. A shipping port would be a logical place to assemble the units (access to cranes, access to welders, accessible to trucks). Outside features should focus on creating security for those inside as most containers are opened from the outside. Modularizing the insides could allow for some variation and potentially save on shipping (if you could fit 4 \'houses\' worth inside one container). Another point to consider is whether one family would occupy an entire container? Creating sub-apartments could save on cost too.

Bottom line, we have done enough \'design\' we need to fund the creation, transportation, and delivery to make a difference.


Cargo containers are great for housing, easily adapted to local environmental conditions and living or work space requirements. Cargo containers, however, have one glaring draw back that is often \"hidden\" by their seeming basic utility. These suckers are heavy! In a situation where roads and transportation are not up to modern Industrialized Nation status, cargo containers are simply not deliverable to remote or devastated areas. They are great in an area where roads and trucks are available, but without roads or trucks able to haul them they revert to what they are. Big heavy metal boxes. Their utility as fast cheap basic housing is lost.


As Sonoffa says, while the bulk is there, the weight is also, making final delivery and erection unfeasible. Do wish these experts would actually try THINKING for once. The solution is already arriving in-theatre, can be modified and manipulated with tin snips and a trailer, five people can put it in position, and they are modular and in a variety of sizes, making them suitable for combining for larger habitats. I speak, of course, of AVIATION cargo containers. Not suitable for the long-term, but as they can be used to carry aid, then serve a second function why are they not already in use..?


a standard 40 ft long container is 4000kgs an insulated 40ft reefer container is 4.3 to 4.500kgs but there is the avalability of 20ft long boxes again standard or insulated 2000 to 2300kgs a standard box is 8ft x 8ft by either 20ft or 40ft. either way if there is the availability of a port Then all terrain vehicles to transport and off load them is also possible amazing where professional drivers can actually deliver these things to....

John McCann

Could this work for seniors? Perhaps as a "mother in law" independent living arrangement. On a social security income what can be done?

Joyce Davenport
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