After seeing a post on Inhabitat titled Compact Prefab House is Made from a Single Shipping Container in Milan, Architect and writer Lance Hosey tweets:
When will the shipping-container-home fad die? Not greener, not cheaper, architects playing with Legos.
— Lance Hosey (@LanceHosey) September 7, 2014
Lance is right about shipping containers. They are grossly over-designed for housing, being capable of stacking 9 high when full of tons of stuff; the floors and the paints are selected for international travel and are toxic. The corrugated walls are hard to insulate and they are structural so they have to be replaced with beams when removed.
Lloyd Alter/ Container ship/CC BY 2.0
In fact, the important part of the shipping container isn’t the container at all; it’s the handling system, the amazing infrastructure of ships and cranes and and trains and trucks that move them around, delivering their contents for a fraction of the cost of the old break-bulk shipping. It’s the transportation system that made globalism happen.
That’s why this Nova Deko house is so interesting and ominous. The housing industry is one of the few that has not been globalized; that’s why it is such an important part of the North American economy, it is one of the last things still built here. This is not a shipping container house as Lance or Inhabitat knows it. It’s a modular house, built in a factory in Foshan, China, built to the dimensions of a shipping container to take advantage of the transportation infrastructure. This is a very different thing; It can be built with the amount of steel needed for a house (a lot less than is needed for a shipping container that gets stacked 9 high) out of wall that is properly insulated, out of appropriate materials.
It can be very green; Australian builder Nova Deko is working with the University of New South Wales to reduce its carbon footprint.
The company aims to be at the forefront in housing technology and is committed to achieving affordable, sustainable housing…. The ultimate goal is to produce a fully sustainable home that doesn’t need to be connected to any external services such as power, water or sewerage. This collaboration will cement Nova Deko’s position as leaders in our industry and allow us to bring our customers the most advanced, environmentally sustainable products in the world.
The specifications are pretty upscale, with lots of insulation, LED lighting, stone counters. The cost is competitive but not particularly cheap; this Milan unit at 320 square feet checks in at US$44,140; installation, site prep, approvals and appliances adds about $US19600. However this can change quickly. The real issue here is that it costs a lot less to build in a factory in China than it does in a field in Arizona. There is a massive infrastructure of finishes, plumbing and electrical manufacturers right there, who are making all the things that go into a home. Put them altogether and put them on a truck and ship them anywhere; then just stack them up like the proverbial Lego.
Nova Deko is not the first company we have shown trying to do this; MEKA is doing the same thing using a North American factory after running into issues trying to build their modules in China. To solve this, Nova Deko has experienced Australian trades supervising the work in the Chinese factory:
Nova Deko maintains complete control over the entire process, from design through to production. We can guarantee that all our homes either meet or exceed all Australian and New Zealand standards and the requirements of the Building Code of Australia…. All our products are designed and built by skilled craftsmen to the most exacting standards, using sustainable materials and practices.
Modular construction is a step forward in construction for many reasons, from quality control to materials efficiency to speed. These homes have all those benefits. Their biggest problem is that the shipping container dimensional limitations are still great for freight and lousy for people, But Nova Deko can squeeze out a few extra inches because they can make thinner walls, and they are not cutting out walls to put two boxes together, they are not building the wall in the first place.
Globalism hasn’t had much effect on the housing industry yet, but looking at these houses built by Nova Deko and looking back at what globalism, Walmart and IKEA have done to everything else, I think that the building industry should be afraid, very afraid.