DOWNTOWN Just 30 miles from Santa Monica, huge shipping vessels power in and out of the Port of Long Beach.
Cranes reminiscent of the AT-AT Walkers from The Empire Strikes Back load and unload huge shipping containers made of corrugated steel and laden with goods from across the globe.
When those containers are emptied and the products sent down the distribution lines dictated by global capitalism, the massive boxes either go back to sea or enter their own secondary market as storage facilities, temporary offices and, if Michael Bodell has his way, as homes.
Bodell, a Santa Monica resident and former Santa Monica College art and design student, plans to launch a venture to take retired shipping containers and turn them into the pre-fab homes of the future, complete with eco-friendly certifications and some social justice thrown in for good measure.
Rather than melting the old containers down and crafting something new out of the raw materials, keeping the containers whole and refurbishing them in line with modern living standards prevents further use of energy and is, in theory, green.
Some wood is necessary to reinforce the structure, particularly after holes have been cut for windows and doors, but it takes only a tenth as much, Bodell estimated.
Hopefully, theyll be adopted as basically the new wood, Bodell said.
Sustainable features like acid-washed concrete floors, solar panels on the roof and recycled denim insulation to replace fiberglass round out the concept, leaving the eventual buyer with a chic, LEED-certified home.
Shipping-container architecture is a relatively new concept in America, although its been used for over a decade in Europe and some developing countries as a way to make decent homes, quickly.
Bodell happened upon it while working at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The museum bought and refurbished shipping containers to make the ticket booths at its main entrance.
Those are just raw shipping containers with sections cut out and doors put in, so they do get really hot, Bodell said. Thats where I first saw them, and I did research from there.
A quick Internet search turns up dozens of uses that elevate the containers from an expensive moving box to a fundamental building block of a modern structure.
Travelodge unveiled its first hotel built out of shipping containers in Uxbridge, an area of London in 2008. The 120-room hotel used 86 high-strength steel containers which were constructed in Shenzen, China.
According to a release from the company, the container-rooms were sent to England and fit together like giant Lego blocks on the site in Uxbridge.
If you have a crane, they really just fit together, Bodell said. The homes he designed with the help of an architect and structural engineer can be assembled in a day. It will be ready in three.
Bodell sources his container from The Container Alliance, an Internet marketing and consulting company that connects a network of smaller outfits that collect and resell shipping containers.
The company also helps build new features into the units once purchased.
If theyre used as shipping containers on the open water, the average unit can have a useful life of between 10 and 15 years, said Geoff Fargo, president of The Container Alliance.
Similar to a used car, owners may choose to get rid of the containers before they start costing them more money to maintain since a brand-new unit from China can cost around $3,000 to $5,000, depending on the size.
On dry land, they last practically forever, he said.
We visit the ones that are 20 years old and we sold 10 years ago, theyre not wearing out, Fargo said.
Fargo gets orders for containers from companies in the agricultural industry, specialty bicycle firms and even schools looking for extra storage.
Eight years ago, he would get requests about housing materials once every two or three months. Now its three times a week.
Its the strength of the materials thats attractive, he said.
You seem them stacked seven-high when theyre loaded. Loaded is 30,000 to 40,000 pounds. (The load) far exceeds any conventional building, Fargo said.
Affordable housing organizations have gotten in on the action, too.
The Housing Authority of San Luis Obispo got a project approved that uses shipping containers to build studio units in a controversial housing project that was recently approved and is now waiting for financing.
Thomas Fowler, the assistant head of the architecture department at Cal Poly University, and his students helped work out the technical details of that project.
They also won a competition to redesign shipping units for emergency housing in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
I think its a great idea to use these containers for housing, but there are a lot of questions that I have, Fowler said.
For instance, are the containers really sustainable, or are they essentially brand-new units created and shipped?
Some containers make it to The Container Alliance after one use. The voyage over and the cargo that they hold effectively means the shipping on the steel envelope was free, Fargo said.
Theres also a lot of work to do to make the unit habitable, Fowler said.
You cant just take a container with a metal skin and say, lets live in it because youll die from the heat, Fowler said.
The units need insulation and infrastructure, which could beg the question of whether they really are more green or more affordable than a traditional home.
This kind of out-of-the-box thinking should be encouraged, since solutions to Californias chronic housing shortage will not be easy, he said.
As many different ways as people can approach housing and dealing with it, I support more innovation in that area, Fowler said.
Bodells concept will still need a bit of a push to get off the ground.
Hes listed the project on Indiegogo.com, a crowdfunding website. Bodells offering rewards in return for funding, like putting the donors name on the inside of the first home, or worked into an original piece of art that Bodell will make himself for the unit.
He also plans to put cameras up throughout the process to document the construction for donors.
The first home, comprised of six container units, is slated for a plot of land in Woodland Hills. If it sells, it will fund two more, which will, in turn, fund another two homes.
Bodell plans to donate every third unit to help disaster victims who have lost their homes.
It keeps compounding so that the profit of the first projects funds two more to raise awareness for the uses of shipping containers, and also build a third home to donate, Bodell said.
Its similar to the TOMS footwear model, where the consumer buys a pair and another is donated elsewhere in the world.
Ive never seen a BOGO, buy one get one, for houses, Bodell said. Its a new concept.
To take part in the project, visit indiegogo.com/Containerproject .