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A house for every head? Preposterous!

A recycled steel box (opened up so it doesn’t feel like a box), tiny bit of land, and, voila, a house for the houseless. Simple. Good. With the needs of individuals in mind, the container house has promise as the great confluence of mass production and individual personality.

Shipping containers are manufactured mostly in China in 10-, 20-, 40-, and 53-foot lengths. They are airtight, watertight, and made to be stacked. The potential configurations are endless.

Let the imagination run a second. Simple cubes and cuboids. Longer ones cantilevered off of shorter ones to make decks and covered patios. A boy could have a lot of fun with an oxy/acetylene torch, a solid arc welder, and some concrete. With various sizes of standardized, manufactured windows, an imaginative construction contractor could make houses cheap from the same standard materials and never exhaust the architectural and aesthetic possibilities.

The container “home,” however, is an upper- and upper-middle class phenomenon. The shipping container is not used to fill in urban spaces with unique affordable homes. It is not used to create livable spaces for the rural poor. Rather, the cheap, recycled shipping container has found a home with architects seeking to accommodate the insatiable tastes of what we used to all the yuppie. Of course, the yuppie is older. But he or she is no less outwardly focused on conspicuous consumption–that phenomenon that Thorstein Veblen identified in The Theory of the Leisure Class. The impression they try to make, while cloaked in a cool chic and fad-oriented style, is still that of a predatory animal seeking to position itself for greatest social clout and status achievement.

What is most sad is that a work crew with a set of simple plans, a couple of oxy/acetylene torches, a decent welder, and materials could build a spacious container house in less than a week. Easily installed on site, insulated, and opened for windows, rooms, and stairs, the container house promises more for the working poor than even Buckmister Fuller’s Dymaxion house.

Cheap houses build to spec that could fill the city’s empty spaces cheaply, easily, quickly? Houses in rural towns that would be more functional and aesthetically fulfilling than singlewides in the trailer park? That could be twice and three sizes that of a singlewide for about the price of a decently outfitted singlewide? (And I like trailer parks.) Democratic housing that provides for the needs of a people and the profits of entrepreneurs?

Many things stand in the way of making sure every American has a house of their own. The very convention of homeownership–mortgages, interest rates, financial systems, movement of capital, downpayments–demands that homeownership be a predatory, unjust business. The profit, speculation, and investor networks are far too entangled with Americanness to be anything but that which we don’t question, and which, in fact, we idolize and adore. It’s not that we can’t care for every one of us without endangering the idea of profit, it’s that we don’t want to. And, if profit were to be revealed to rest on the rapacious and exploitative systems it does, we would have nothing to believe in. So, money people get more. No-money people get shit, and then get shit on.

And we all blame the people who our systems demand fail for their failures.

Here’s my idea: A container for every family, a house–that is, sacred private property–for every head. Sick spatial relations healing with the addition of houses and people to abandoned spaces. A humane society with a real democratic spirit.

What stands in the way is every designer house everywhere, made of a shipping container or not.

I blame the rich, yes. But I blame the people participating in systems of status and wealth even more. That means, of course, that I blame us.

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3 Comments

  1. And by putting an arrow in the heart of the building industry, what happens to the economy, which is linked to never-ending expansion?

  2. Andy, I believe that even if someone, say, me, put together a company to provide low-cost housing for the working class they wouldn't put a dent in the building industry. Like Fuller, I think that an economy based on illimitable expansion is doomed to fold in on itself. But, with great optimism, I believe we will find a better way.

  3. What is "the working class" – if you include everyone who must work in order to eat, that's most everyone, even if you get folks to reset their expectations of what is "adequate" in terms of food, clothing, and recreation. Buy!Buy!Buy! If we stop, we end up with a recession, just like we did when everyone was glued to CNN during Gulf War I.

    We've managed to turn most of our society against pre-fab housing, with everyone desiring a fancy-pants custom kitchen, extravagant bathrooms, $700 toilets, and a room for your TV that's more of a classic theatre rather than a room for the family to interact in.

    We're constantly bombarded with images of a lifestyle few have yet told that we can have it all if we simply work hard enough.

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