In 2005, the U.S. trade deficit reached its fourth consecutive record, of $725.8 billion — 18% more than the previous year, and exactly twice the deficit of 2001, according to the Commerce Department. One consequence of this trade gap, is that 7 million shipping containers arrived on our shores, filled with our imports; but only 2.5 million of those went back, filled with our (fewer remaining) exports. As a result, hundreds of thousands of empty containers have piled up in storage yards throughout the United States, and especially near busy ports, such as Los Angeles. Those unused containers are slowly rotting, going to waste, creating eyesores, and serving only as visual reminders of America's unprecedented trade balance. They are also polluting residential areas near the ports. In fact, in some parts of Los Angeles, the stacks of containers cause the sunsets to occur one hour earlier than normal. In response, the city has passed a law prohibiting the operating of new storage container facilities in residential areas.
Fortunately, creative architects and home builders are making use of these large steel boxes, by converting them into custom-build homes, some more than 3000 square feet in size. The resulting homes are not just bare-bones structures: Many come preinsulated, and some even have hardwood floors. Using shipping containers for this purpose offers many advantages, because they have much structural strength, and are quite resistant to mold, termites, and fire. In addition, they are especially attractive at this stage in the commodities boom, given that wood, concrete, steel, and other traditional building materials are becoming far more expensive.
Home builders are thus able to appreciably reduce the cost of constructing a home — sometimes by hundreds of thousands of dollars, in such areas as Los Angeles that have experienced dramatic increases in real estate prices. By significantly reducing the cost of creating a custom building, the construction industry can make possible housing options that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive. For example, architect Peter Demaria, of Demaria Design, is one such innovator. He is now working with the City of Los Angeles to use shipping containers for creating low-income housing.
It is ironic that it is China's current voracious appetite for building materials that is a major factor in driving up the prices of construction materials — an appetite for creating factories to manufacture items, which will be sent to Americans in even more shipping containers. Some critics may argue that living in the leftovers of the massive shift in manufacturing from America to Asia, may be an unpleasant reminder to America's "knowledge and service workers" of the ongoing shift in global wealth and trade. But it certainly beats living in the cardboard boxes seen lined up along the streets of Los Angeles and underneath freeway overpasses. Furthermore, recycling the containers is far better than the alternative of letting them go to waste.