Could America's record balance of payments deficit with China be the solution to low cost housing? Might it even be an unprecedented opportunity to be Green?

If that sounds like two really stupid questions, well maybe not so much.

America is buying so much merchandise from other countries, primarily China and selling so little back to them that shipping containers are actually becoming an environmental hazard. Apparently it is cheaper to manufacture new ones on the opposite side of the ocean than transport them empty back to where they originated.

In port cities and areas around inland freight transit terminals hundreds of thousands of empty containers are piling up. The stacks, dozens of containers high, loom over the landscape and there are residential neighborhoods in their shadow where the sun sets an hour earlier than in the surrounding areas.

The containers, properly called inter-modal steel building units (ISBUs) are familiar to almost everyone. Even inland they are seen riding on flatbed railroad cars or hauled on a dolly behind tractors on interstate highways and are featured in the stock film footage on the news channels, illustrating every story about port security. ISBUs are manufactured of heavy-gauge Corten steel and are water-proof, fire resistant, impervious to bugs and built to hold cargo securely on the pitching deck of a ship. You can almost imagine an architect staring at an impressive tower of containers when the light-bulb flashed on. Wow, a low cost, resource efficient, readily available, and incredibly ugly source of housing.

But architects are working on many plans and building techniques to make shipping container housing attractive and functional. They do not have to be square and flat-roofed - some are finished off with trussed roofs and interior and exterior finishes make them look very much like conventional housing.

ISBUs are supposedly manufactured in two sizes - 20' x 8' x 8' and 40' x 8' x 8' and one container can form the basis for a small, low cost home - perhaps emergency temporary housing following an earthquake or hurricane - or multiple containers can be used as building blocks to create larger and more permanent structures. For example, four 40 foot units placed side by side with the side walls of the inner two containers removed provides an open space 40' x 32' - 1,280 sq. ft of living area. The containers are manufactured to be stacked as much as nine high without compromising their structural integrity so second or third stories are no problem.

Architects are acting like kids in configuring these huge Lego's into bold designs and blueprints for college dorms, artist loft space, shopping areas, and now a wide variety of housing. They line them up, pile them up, cantilever them, and add on decks, canopies, and achieve a final result that can appear ultra modern, traditional, or whimsical.

Container housing is not an American innovation. Containers have been used in Europe, New Zealand, and many third-world countries and they are far ahead of us in the number of completed projects and in innovative technology. Still, building companies and architects are jumping in and it is expected that prices for completed homes will be coming down to a level which will make ISBU homes appealing to American consumers.

This could be a do-it-yourself project, and there are plans available in books and on the Internet, but Bob Villa's website and his television program recently featured a project building a container house by Tampa Armature Works (TAW), a Florida company which has been developing approaches to adapting containers for use as housing units. TAW custom fits the containers at their plant - generally removing all but the outer side panels, leaving the vertical steel support beams for structural integrity and cutting openings for windows and doors in the remaining walls. The company uses a spray-on ceramic coating on both sides of the remaining walls. This spray has an R value of R-19 and bonds nicely to the steel surface. The insulate can be covered with drywall on the inside and a number of finishes such as stucco on the exterior.

At the site - which must be accessible for heavy trucking and a crane - the owner or local builder assembles a concrete block foundation with an appropriately sized stem-wall foundation reinforced with steel rebar. The cells are then filled with concrete and half-inch thick steel plates with a J-hook are embedded into the concrete at the corners. The J-hook connects the ISBU to the rebar and ties it all the way down to the footing. Additional block and concrete work is done to support the sides of the other containers. The ISBU are lifted onto the foundation by crane, hooked down and then welded to the steel embedded in the foundation and at the corners. According to Villa's website, these containers are so strong - each is designed to carry over 26 tons of cargo - that they only must be fastened at the corners but attaching them to the rebar and welding them in place "ensures they will be immovable."

The multiple containers are welded together at top and bottom and roof, where specified, trusses are put on with steel straps that are welded to the steel roof of the container. Interior finish work is done with metal studding and drywall and when finished, the container looks like a real house.

So what are the advantages?

The containers are exceptionally strong and may be a solution to construction in hurricane prone areas and they nearly eliminate the use of trees to build a home. They are energy efficient and since they are built to factory specifications guesswork and fitting is eliminated. This reduces construction time for building crews and wasted materials. While container construction does not necessarily produce cost savings at present, as more and more homes are built with this technology, there will be significant savings.

Of course, one of the big advantages is in eliminating what promises to be a progressive environmental impact on areas around container depots and the recycling rather than land filling of resources.

So how do you find a shipping container and how much do they cost? Well, believe it or not, on eBay. We found quite a number of them and they were available nationwide. A 40' container was for sale in Salt Lake City for $2,800 and another in Houston for $3,900. 20 footers ranged from $1,100 in Long Beach to $2,500 in Florida. We even found places advertising containers that were outside the dimensions specified above. We located containers for sale that were 10, 30, 45, and 48 feet long and as much at 9.5 feet high. Perhaps the construction of these put them outside of the ISBU definition but they were of steel construction and their availability would open more design possibilities. Shipping the containers of course adds to the cost, but if you are interested, perhaps you can arrange to deliver a load of winter wheat from Salt Lake or motor oil from Houston to your new doorstep and cover part of the cost.