Shipping containers are wonderful things- for shipping. They are part of an elaborate and extensive infrastructure for moving goods cheaply and efficiently that has revolutionized world trade. They are also all the rage among designers and architects who have been converting them into housing, with varying degrees of success.
Then there is Meka. They do not build shipping container housing; they build what I will call housing containers- modules of houses that are built to shipping container dimensions to take advantage of the shipping container infrastructure, without most of the problems that actually arise from working with shipping containers.
Where a shipping container is designed with enough steel to stack nine high completely filled with stuff, Meka designs their boxes with just enough steel to do the structural job that is required, while filling in the rest with conventional building materials that cost a lot less, that are easier to work with, and provide some insulation. As Jason Halter of MEKA explained:
What we're working with is a more livable structure. A shipping container isn't really an effective building. The envelope itself is a bit tough to deal with if you are going to apply cladding to the exterior, you have to do considerable structural modification if you are going to put in doors and windows and if you compromise the corrugated walls you have to do a lot of restructuring.
Where conventional modular housing has a range of about 500 miles from the factory because of the cost of shipping, these things can go anywhere. Design director Jason continues:
We were fascinated with and wanted to continue to pursue the ease of shipping and trucking and rail. We also started with the idea of trans-ocean shipping, but now are working with a company that builds prefabricated housing for FEMA and others.
So what we are doing is taking a good, practical well insulated building envelope and then we apply our patent-pending framing system to it in order to achieve something that is both structurally very durable and can be picked up from its corner castings and be delivered to a site, and yet functions well with a timber frame that can be finished on the interior and clad on the exterior.
Shipping containers are engineered with really remarkable componentry, but it's the beams and corner posts and the corrugated steel that all goes together to make it wonderfully rigid and strong. But I am working with my engineer to reduce and refine that cage to focus on what is absolutely necessary. But when you apply the timberframe, it becomes remarkably strong, we have been able to meet hurricane requirements for Louisiana.
When I first wrote about MEKA, there was some concern that they had figured out how to offshore housing production to China. In fact, they have found that it is more efficient and easier to control if they build in Indiana, so now it has the additional advantage of being American made. This also solves the certification problems, as the factory in which they are built is certified as a prefab manufacturer.
Here is a module being installed in Nova Scotia, dropped on steel beams;
Four modules fit together to make this unit, two up and two down.
In normal shipping container housing, one has to either leave a lot of wall between the two modules or put in some very big beams to support the roof. here the load is taken by the bathroom wall and a single column at the end of the dining room table. It is a lot more efficient and cost-effective if you add what you need instead of trying to cut away what you don't.
They have shipped units as far as Quito, Ecuador;
Here is the interior of a unit in Los Angeles. Quite jazzy.
This does not look or feel like a shipping container.
Paul Rudolph once said "The Mobile Home is the 20th Century Brick."* After spending most of my life looking at shipping containers and thinking about how they can be used for housing, I really do believe that the ISO shipping container form is the 21st century brick, and that MEKA has turned that brick into a building at last.
*with a tip of the hat to Allison Arieff, who applied the Paul Rudolph quote to Resolution 4's modular housing. See also my post of two years ago where I asked, Does Shipping Container Architecture Make Sense? and concluded that with MEKA, it just might.