I had the great pleasure this past weekend of being invited to a little town outside of Seattle, where I witnessed the work-in-progress prototype of Cargotecture’s Studio 320. Had I arrived by chance in the industrial neighborhood to which my directions guided me, I might not have noticed the faded yellow and orange cargo containers that sat at the back of a large, mostly vacant parking lot. They were barely discernable from the backdrop of discarded industrial material. But closer inspection revealed that something surprising was afoot. These two metal boxes are the seed of an ingenious plan by two Seattle architects to turn old shipping containers into sustainable modular dwellings.

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On the spectrum of old to new ways of designing sustainably, Robert Humble and Joel Egan pretty much span the gamut with Cargotecture. They are reusing and recycling post-industrial waste, installing new, eco-friendly systems and materials, and presenting it anew for residential habitation, complete with solar panels, smart walls and rainwater collection.

Studio 320 is just one of a group of designs using cargo containers. This prototype is a scant 320-sq-ft, with a thoughtfully-packed bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and great room. The idea is to create a “box within a box” – the exterior being metal and the interior mostly plywood. I was privy this weekend to the insulation process, where they prepared to fill the space between the two boxes. The insulation was being installed by Progressive Insulation, who use a polyurethane spray foam that is non-toxic, produces no off-gasses and claims to offer energy savings over standard insulation. The process essentially turns the whole container into a thermos. Sound too hot for summer? Later in the design process, one whole wall will be turned into a sliding glass panel, and windows cut to permit true indoor-outdoor living during the warmer months.

This prototype is the forerunner of a whole colony of cargo houses called Cargotown, which is the brainchild of Humble, Egan, and a squadron of others who formed a group called Team HyBrid in 2003. Team HyBrid has proposed a multi-tiered, super-low-impact development plan for one of Seattle’s ports, which would include Cargotown, as well as community spaces and habitat restoration projects. They also designed a Mobile Triage Unit for use by Doctors Without Borders in developing countries where housing and healthcare are acutely needed.

These guys are covering all the bases, from post-industrial re-use to sustainable technology, from humanitarian aid to modern urban cool. And if that’s not enough, they plan to offer up free online DIY instructions on building a cargo dwelling yourself. Needless to say, my little field trip to their site sparked tremendous inspiration and admiration. I hope to offer you all a longer interview with these two visionary architects in the weeks to come.

+ www.cargotecture.com