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From cargo container to new home, shipping containers are Seattle's latest housing trend

The outside of a finished, furnished, Shelterkraft home (photo courtesy of Shelterkraft)

Driving northbound into Seattle, it's hard to miss the hundreds of colorful metal cargo shipping containers resting amongst the tall orange cranes. And these very containers are at the center of Seattle's latest housing trend.

"So here we are opening the door of the Cargo Cottage, which is the smallest unit we make," says Anne Corning, co-founder of Shelterkraft, a two year old company that turns cargo containers into homes. "It's 160 square feet in a single 20 foot long container, so 8x20 is the dimensions."

The tour of Shelterkraft's smallest cargo container home took exactly 45 seconds, but the clean, modern design, stainless steel kitchen appliances and the 'Oh my gosh, this is a house made out of a cargo container!' definitely distract from the size.

Anne says the super green, affordable and potentially mobile homes appeal to many.

"They have a piece of property and they'd like a vacation cabin or a weekend getaway. The other thing we're seeing a lot is, within the city of Seattle, there's new codes for accessory dwelling units. So people are using them as what they're calling a backyard cottage. It can be a studio or an office space, it can be a guest house, it can be even a rental unit."

And they're not all 160 square feet.

"The smallest unit starts at $35,000 and then the stock models go up to $72,000 which is a 640-square-foot house built out of two, 40 foot containers. That's a two bedroom unit. We also can do custom designs. I mean, people come to us with all kinds of interesting ideas they've been thinking about."

But no matter which design you choose, they're undeniably environmentally friendly.

"We actually figured out recently, that by weight, 80% of our houses are recycled, reclaimed, reused materials. It's the container themselves, to start with, but then the countertops are made from recycled cardboard."

"We use low energy lighting. The toilet is a gray water toilet;it actually uses the water twice. There's a sink on top of the toilet, so for rinsing your hands, that water gets captured in the tank and reused. The refrigerator is an Energy Star refrigerator," adds CEO Kai Schwartz, who first thought of the concept a decade ago.

Kai says cargo containers are being used creatively, all around the world.

"There are whole dormitories and hotels in Europe that are made out of containers. There's a beautiful orphanage that was just built in Cape Town, South Africa. The thing that I find so intriguing with containers is, I basically use them as a human-size brick. They can be configured in so many different ways, they're basically big-kid Legos."

The simple design, price and portability make them perfect for affordable housing. Kai says they can be easily lifted onto a flatbed truck or configured to be pulled by a sturdy pickup truck.

"It has huge applications for homeless housing, for disaster relief, as a medical facility," says Kai. "We're going to talk to people like the Red Cross, Architects Without Borders. We're talking to some people, here in Seattle, about doing a hygiene station for people that are camping in their cars. We have about 200 people a night, just in our neighborhood, that are living out of their RVs and their cars. Most of them have day jobs."

The brightly painted units still have the cargo container's original wooden flooring and if you go on vacation, you can simply close the big metal doors and it instantly transforms from a comfy home back to an unassuming cargo container.

The Ron and Don Show on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM

Listen to The Ron and Don Show every weekday at 3pm on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Seattle's News, Seattle's Talk.

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