Cinnaminson firm Sea Box promotes shipping containers as emergency housing

The interior of an industrial shipping container that's been converted into an apartment.
The interior of an industrial shipping container that's been converted into an apartment.
Posted: November 27, 2012

As New Jersey communities go, Cinnaminson was hardly one of Hurricane Sandy's hardest hit. But for a small business based there, the monumental storm just might prove to be the validation it needs.

Not for its typical work, but for something it has been trying to promote for a few years.

Sea Box Inc. has been an expert for nearly 30 years in customizing shipping containers, turning vessels ordinarily used for moving products from one point to another into works of creative functionality.

Mobile repair stations for military vehicles in war zones. Living quarters for circus elephants. Giant movie screens. All are Sea Box productions.

So is what is set up on the front lawn of Sea Box's office/workshop complex but is as yet without a taker: a temporary-housing prototype the company has been trying to market to New York City and the Federal Emergency Management Agency since 2009.

Made of cargo containers, the prototype consists of fully furnished apartments of 480 square feet to 960 square feet, one-, two- and three-bedroom dwellings costing between $50,000 and $80,000 each that can be stacked into multistory "buildings."

When the goal is providing housing in densely populated areas, such as New York, where vacant land for FEMA trailers is scarce and the need might be for 200 housing units per acre, the ability to go vertical is essential.

"Sea Box has the answer to being able to provide thousands of homes," Bill Begley, director of the company's modular-housing group, said in an interview Wednesday.

That's why the company entered a design competition sponsored by New York's Office of Emergency Management in 2008. The contest was prompted by post-Katrina concern over how New York would handle a Category 3 or higher hurricane making landfall there.

"We were trying to come up with a local solution to a national issue," Joe Bruno, New York's OEM commissioner, recalled.

The idea was not to settle on one design, but to stimulate an industry to think creatively to meet urban emergency-housing needs, Bruno said.

Sea Box was among 117 companies or individuals responding to New York's call for input, its shipping-container housing influencing some of the specifications included in a "playbook" OEM developed in 2010, Bruno said.

With funding help from FEMA, New York's OEM and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to build a $1.3 million prototype of four to eight temporary housing units on a city-owned parking lot near the base of the Brooklyn Bridge next year.

Bruno said he expected construction to take most of the year, and a subsequent study of its functionality another year. After that, specifications would be developed before builders are sought to create emergency-housing stock that could be rapidly deployed should circumstances dictate.

It has not been determined whether Sea Box will be among the companies selected, or even if its container housing would be used, Bruno said.

What is clear, he said, is that an interim-housing program is needed for his city - "Sandy just points out the relevance of it."

Whether FEMA would use Sea Box units to meet housing needs in New York or on the Jersey Shore arising from Sandy also has not been determined, the agency said in a statement Friday.

"FEMA is working closely with state and local partners to identify a variety of housing options for affected residents," the statement said.

Said Jim Brennan, founder and president of Sea Box: "We're ready and willing to help."


Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or follow @mastrud on Twitter.

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