Architect Peter DeMaria stares up at 14 red shipping containers stacked two high.

Of course, stacks of hulking containers are a common sight in and near the giant port complexes of Long Beach and Los Angeles. But DeMaria is not near the ports. He's standing on a sidewalk on bustling Main Street in Venice, and the containers form a 4,500 square foot, mixed-use building.

"This is the first building that is structurally dependent on shipping containers to pull a building permit in L.A. County," he says with a broad smile. "It's taken a lot of work and a lot of time, but we're finally making headroom."

For DeMaria, the founder of Manhattan Beach-based DeMaria Design Associates, this building is one of three he's made or is making locally from castoff containers. The other two are a home and a community center. And he has plans for several more.

He views them as nearly perfect for most building construction. Containers are cheap, adaptable, easily transportable and extremely sturdy after all, they're made to be stuffed with tons of goods and stacked umpteen high on ships.

And if he and others can recycle them as buildings, their efforts would help rid Los Angeles of a big problem: nuisance containers.

"Empty containers are an eyesore and blight, especially in Wilmington, where they are stacked in residential communities," Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn said. "I'm always glad to see people coming up with alternative uses for the containers helping us get them out of the community."

Last year the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, which together receive more than 40 percent of all containerized goods that enter the U.S., got more than 8 million containers. They only exported a combined 3.2 million full containers and shipped four million empty containers back to China. The hundreds of thousands left over, along with those from previous years, litter the ports like soda cans along the highway. Used containers can be picked up anywhere from eBay to the local recycler classifieds.

"The use of containers for shipping goods across the Pacific from China has grown dramatically the past few years," said Patrick Wilson, president of Fast Lane Transportation Inc., which sells and stores containers at both the ports. "Several cottage industries have emerged regarding the secondary market for containers; they're a commodity and can be bought by just about anyone."

The secret

The process starts like most projects involving containers at the ports. DeMaria says he taps a network of wholesalers to find good used containers, which have a life span of about eight to 12 years.

"Knowing what to look for when buying them is the secret," he said.

He adds that ensuring the structure of the container is the most important aspect. He makes sure that rust or corrosion hasn't compromised the structural integrity of the container.

After making his selections, DeMaria has the containers shipped to his warehouse in Manhattan Beach where he fabricates them to the specs he needs cutting windows, doors and holes for plumbing and electrical connections. A dented container isn't always a problem; if need be, the walls and roof of the containers can be taken out, leaving only the floor and exposing the sturdy beams that form the load-bearing frame of the container.

Then, he puts them on the trailer of a truck and sends them over to his work site. That's easy. Containers, after all, are made to be put on trucks after they are taken off ships.

"This is where the real savings come in," he said. "We don't need escort cars or flagmen or special permits for wide loads. We just stick them on a truck, and off we go."

The whole process, from picking out the containers to installing them at the final site, can take as little as five days. "When we get them to the site, we use a crane to lift them into position then weld them together. It's a pretty simple process," he said.

The containers can be faced with standard building materials, or the walls and roof of the container can be left exposed. Because they're sturdy, made to be exposed to weather and termite proof, containers make for durable construction.

"They're practically indestructible," boasts DeMaria, while standing in the kitchen of one of the apartments of the Venice building. (The building will have two apartments on the top floor, retail on the lower floor and garage space below that.) "And the interesting thing is, when used to build a house, they're one of the cheapest ways around."

The recycled containers save on labor costs and material costs. DeMaria estimates that the Venice house cost $127 per square foot to build a big savings compared to the roughly $200 per square foot it would have cost to build a traditional steel or a wood-frame building.

In the next year, DeMaria hopes to open a showroom-like warehouse for affordable, pre-fabricated container homes ranging in price from $200,000 to $640,000.

Building with shipping containers is hardly a new idea. Structures made out of the ubiquitous boxes date to the early 1990s and stretch from New Zealand to New Jersey and have been used to house hurricane victims and in the first Gulf War as makeshift shelters for soldiers and even as transportation modules for Iraqi prisoners.

In the Ukraine there is a bazaar spanning more than 170 acres where the stalls are made of the containers. And a Dutch student housing facility, which houses more than 1,000 students, is also made from modified containers.

Container shortage?

Of course, building homes and commercial space with containers has its limitations and drawbacks.

Containers come only in standard sizes. The traditional box is eight feet wide and 20 feet long, although many today are 40 feet long. That makes putting them on an odd-shaped lot a bit tricky or impossible, DeMaria said. In fact, most any building plans that would depart from the dimensions of the box would pose a problem.

Getting building permits and other approvals has been slow. And, perhaps ironically, it's not clear that there will always be an abundance of containers. Thanks to the low-valued dollar, exports are up and imports are down, which puts shipping containers more in demand.

"We're seeing a shortage here at the ports and there's a big need for containers in the Midwest," said Wilson, the container dealer.

Still, DeMaria claims there is an ample supply for his purposes.

Aside from his Venice project, DeMaria is building a community center in Boyle Heights for a small church named the Foursquare Church. The project caught the eye of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, according to Rudy Perez, an architect and the project manager for the Foursquare Family Center.

"We're a small congregation of about 200 or 300 people and we just really wanted a functional building that the community could use," Perez said. "But if you just take a little time to add some aesthetics, it really makes a statement."

Perez said that the community center on Seventh Street isn't totally made of containers like DeMaria's other projects, but it does incorporate containers to add an original element and to cut costs.

"The building is going to be one of the most valuable buildings in the area and we built it faster, and less expensively, than if we had opted for a more traditional building. It was a total win-win situation," the architect said.

DeMaria has been nationally recognized as the first architect to have one of his container homes approved under U.S. Uniform Building Code standards using eight of them on a $2.5 million home in Redondo Beach more than two years ago. However, that home was not structurally dependent on containers as is the Venice Beach building.

"Getting the permits pulled for these projects has been one of the largest challenges," DeMaria said. "Now that the Mayor is on board and likes the concept, we get pushed to the front of the line for the permit process because we're now considered a 'green' project."

DeMaria said he buys containers for $2,000 to $2,500 each. He said he could cut more costs by buying fabricated steel boxes overseas with similar characteristics as containers.

"But doesn't that sort of defeat the purpose of recycling something old and making it into a new home?" he mused.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.