Imagine a project that would combine the skills and knowledge of the whole campus community. The innovative endeavor would make use of a ubiquitous material – the discarded steel intermodal containers used to transport materials and products around the world – to make inexpensive on-campus housing for Bellevue College students. This is the dream of researcher and Bellevue College instructor Amir Vojdani.
The idea is unusual, to say the least. When one thinks of shipping containers, the images that come to mind are of large, dirty, utilitarian steel boxes being pulled by noisy trains or gigantic semi-trucks. The idea of repurposing the containers into some kind of hip urban housing takes some getting used to, but the logic behind it is sound.
After all, shipping containers make ideal building materials. They’re durable enough to carry several tons of cargo across oceans and over rough mountain roads. They’re built to a standard measurement, which means they can be safely stacked up to twelve units high into tall columns. And since the containers are frequently shipped in large quantities, they are designed to interlock for ease of transportation. Like toy blocks, they are modular, which means that structures of varying size can be constructed relatively easily.
Housing made from the shipping containers can even do certain things that conventionally built structures cannot: they can be moved. The containers already conform to standard shipping dimensions, so an inhabitant could choose to move across country – or even across oceans to a different continent – and bring his house with him.
In fact, shipping containers are already being used as housing around the world, most notably in a 4-star luxury hotel in Nigeria, and student housing in Amsterdam. Called Keetwonen, the Amsterdam student housing complex was built by Dutch company TempoHousing, and is known as the biggest container city in the world. The 333 square foot homes have all the modern amenities, including kitchens, bathrooms, hot water, centralized heating, electricity, and even high speed internet access.
Although there were initial worries about the size, noisiness, and insulation of the units, Keetwonen has proven to be a runaway success. It was originally scheduled to be dismantled and moved after five years, but due to its popularity, the relocation was postponed for an additional five years.
For Bellevue College, Keetwonen could be used as a source of inspiration. As a new baccalaureate-awarding institution, many people are turning their attention to other aspects of the college experience that BC currently lacks. The college population has a large portion of overseas students, and the lack of on-campus housing is becoming increasingly conspicuous. This was the observation that prompted Vojdani to take action. The part-time instructor was speaking with a group of Iranian students when they all concluded that the College needs an on-campus residence.
“International students travel all this way, and there’s no place to live,” said Vojdani. “Between 200 and 300 international students [are turned away because they] have nowhere to live. That’s possible revenue the College has lost.”
Although there are apartment complexes close to the College, Vojdani stresses that on-campus residential buildings offer something that off-site accommodation is missing. “Students feel more secure on campus,” he said.
But building a conventional residence requires time and money; even the most basic brick-and-mortar structure takes years to complete. Meanwhile, the College loses potential students to other nearby colleges that do offer accommodation.
“We are in competition with schools such as the University of Washington,” he said. Vojdani thinks that shipping container architecture could create a unique incentive for students to choose Bellevue College. “Students from all over would want to come and live in that building, because it’s interesting,” he said.
Since shipping containers are used all over the globe, they are plentiful (an estimated 17 million worldwide) and inexpensive. Once the container’s cargo has been delivered, it is not efficient to simply send them back empty to their origin, so the company is often willing to sell the used containers for around $1,200, or even give them away for free. Vojdani hopes that with community support, other supplies could be donated by companies such as Lowes or Home Depot.
Shipping container architecture is also a very efficient mode of construction, especially for temporary projects. “When you want to do something quick, it’s the best thing to do. It’s the quickest way to do it.”
But Vojdani’s vision extends beyond creating accommodation that’s quick, inexpensive, or green, even though his proposal has all of those attributes. What he wants to achieve is a community project, one that transcends campus boundaries and helps others.
“Too many people lost their homes recently. We could do something for our homeless,” he said.
Vojdani envisions a venture that applies the ingenuity of the College’s students – the prowess of the business department and the creative expertise of the interior design department, for example – and sends a strong message to the world.
“We can tell the outside world that our students did this for themselves,” he said.
So far, Vojdani has approached College officials, including President Jean Floten and the budget committee about his idea, but the plan is still very much in the discussion phase. One of the proposal’s main hindrances is the price. Although the plan is innovative in its use of low-cost, recycled materials, Vojdani estimates that the plan needs about $850,000 in order to go forward. With the College already facing numerous budget cuts, Vojdani thinks that fundraising is the best way to proceed. He hopes that with the help of the public and Northwestern businesses, Bellevue College will make a positive impact on the area.
“We can do a lot, if they just believe in us and give us the opportunity,” he said. “Bellevue College could save the community.”