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Surprising “Green” Solution to School Shortage Literally Ships Into U.S.

July 18, 2016Posted by Terry Turner

In developing countries and even struggling neighborhoods here in the U.S., there is a much higher demand for schools than there is available real estate to fill them.

While school may be out for summer, but “the shipping container school” trend is very much “in.”

These buildings are made from the gigantic transportation crates that has proved highly successful in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean and repurposed into classrooms in developing countries as a greener and slightly more cost effective alternative to the mainstream classroom. 

Now, folks here in the U.S. are taking notice and following suit.

Repurposing containers into classrooms costs $285,000, slightly less than cinder block construction, but their durability means lower maintenance costs in the long term, saving the school money for decades to come.

To be sure, it’s more environmentally-friendly than cost-effective, since less materials are needed. Construction waste is kept to a minimum, sparing a place in local landfills.

The sturdy construction, wide open space inside, and minimal “frills” make containers ideal building blocks for institutional buildings like schools. They are easily insulated, and the exteriors can be given a simple facade or left alone to give a trendy, industrial look.

Vissershok Container Classroom 1

When Fernando Saldain was planning new classrooms for a his school in Mexico, the idea for its design travelled from around the world into his own backyard. 

The site for that school was within sight of the big container yards for Ensanada, one of Mexico’s most bustling ports. Using crates like those to build the school allowed its architecture to reflect one of the city’s most popular industries.

They were sturdy, designed to take a beating and last for years hauling commerce on the high sea—surely they could stand up to kids.

The steel boxes quickly became a natural choice for the school’s design.

Vissershok Container Classroom 4

“We also wanted the architecture to reflect our commitment to a more sustainable society and the creativity that goes along with re-utilizing.” Saldain said.

After enlisting the help of a local architect, the school set out stacking and leveling, cutting windows and doors, and popping in insulation, and Montessori La Milpa opened it’s new school to its first 15 elementary students in 2010.

Steel containers were used for and office, studio, storage, daycare, preschool, and elementary classroom, and were modified to collect and channel rainwater into a 35,000 gallon cistern beneath the school.

“We were definitely among the pioneers in the area,” Saldain said. “I strongly believe that we are better off in going with a shipping container construction vs a conventional approach.”

Montessori La Milpa

Less than 200 miles north up the Pacific coast, a California school took the same approach on a much bigger scale. When construction started two years ago, the $2 million dollar Waldorf School became Orange County’s largest green building project.

Enlisting IPME, a company that specializes in building homes, businesses, and institutions from containers, the Costa Mesa school created 107,000 square feet of classroom space from 32 shipping containers.

It took just 99 days — about half the time as conventional construction — to create four freestanding buildings housing administrative offices, a science lab, a library, a student lounge and an auditorium.

About 350 students attend classes from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. The new complex, which was added and opened in 2015, primarily serves high school students.

Waldorf-School-impe-3

Framing and electrical work was done offsite, at IPME’s Southern California facility. Then the containers were trucked to the construction site and assembled. Workers then installed drywall, flooring, paint, and siding. The school (pictured above) is hardly recognizable as being built from the giant, steel crates.

Bill Hinchliff, IPME’s CEO says the rapid construction time saves on labor costs and is less disruptive to students.

Hinchliff never thought about a business of turning containers into schools when he started out — the concept found him. He was selling the big, steel boxes for actual shipping, but people kept asking to buy them for construction.

Safmarine Sport Center

That forced him to find architects, engineers, truckers and other specialists and put together the process of quickly turning containers into buildings. All of that came together with one of his company’s most recent projects — a classroom and library for a school on the Caribbean island of Anguilla, was built in IPME’s California location, then reassembled on the island.

“What we essentially did was construct a two, 40-foot container library and classroom here in our facility and then shipped it across the United States, deployed it from Miami, on two different vessels and landed in a 16-mile long island,” Hinchliff said.

“We ultimately provided an incredible solution that let them speed up the process in the development of the school.”

Ceres Community Center

Schools in South Africa have also turned to containers as classrooms. They are durable enough to last for decades, but can still be loaded on a truck and moved as populations shift in remote countrysides.

Though he initially started out selling steel boxes to haul freight, Hinchliff says the evolution of his business has given him a purpose: he also sees great potential for containers as part of hurricane or earthquake responses. 

Ultimately, he believes that governments should consider turning to “container construction” as a way to address housing needs beyond natural disasters, too.

“In any natural disaster that occurs, we can deploy twenty and forty-foot containers that can become shelters for people who need to get off the street, stay dry, and feel protected,” he said. “It’s my dream to provide a roof over every child and family’s head. In containers, I believe there is a solution that governments can capitalize on over time.”

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