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Shipping containers find new life as homes

Using shipping containers as the basis for affordable housing could take a bit of thinking outside the box for some, but it's turned into a workable solution in many communities around the country. NBC's Roger O'Neil reports.

This takes a little inside- and a whole lot of outside-the-box thinking. What looks like and lives like a house is actually a shipping container.

"I call it my bunker," says Rosalynn Kearney of her container home.

Used to import almost everything we use and wear, shipping containers are now a new concept in affordable housing.

The containers are claimed to be hurricane-proof, fire-resistant, and there's not a termite to be found.

With America exporting so little, shipping companies face the dilemma of what to do with these 32,000-pound containers. Increasingly too expensive to ship back overseas empty, these steel boxes — which can be as large as 20-by-48-feet — are stacked high, sitting in ports around the country. There are as many as 300,000 containers, by some estimates. And they're cheap — ranging from $500 to $2,000 for an unused container.

In hurricane-prone Florida, more container houses are going up, though when finished you'd hardly know they're different from any other house.

"In the spirit of recycling, we're able to take a product that is just sitting idle and recycle it and put it to a use in a way that helps solve our country's affordable housing crisis," says Askia Muhammad Aquil of St. Petersburg Neighborhood Housing.

Atlanta wants 300 units of multistory housing using the containers, and California wants four stories of them for the elderly. In just one day, a crane and a welder can have a container house ready to finish. If time is money, builders say containers are both.

"We can build it for 65 percent of the buildout cost anywhere in the U.S., and it can be built in half the time," Soren Ludwig with Sustain our World says.

And containers don't have to look like boxes. They can be trendy or affordable, with or without "the look." In fact, the biggest hurdle in having one may be getting used to sleeping in the same box your imported pajamas were shipped in.