The "big box" comes home: Shipping container houses

With the U.S. housing market currently plummeting, it's easy to forget that there are places in this hemisphere where the housing choices aren't McMansion or fixer-upper, house or condo, or even owning versus renting. For the approximately one million workers in Mexico's maquiladora factories, housing is often composed of whatever pieces of scrap wood and metal they can cadge together, and the living choices are often reduced to shack, stall, or sleeping under the stars.

While the maquiladora population is poor by U.S. standards, they are gainfully employed at what is often a competitive wage in Mexico. Recognizing the difficulties of finding inexpensive, durable housing in these communities, Brian McCarthy and his partners formed PFNC Global Technologies.

The company, whose initials stand for "Por Fin, Nuestra Casa," or "Finally, a home of our own" hopes to transform abandoned shipping containers (a handy side effect of the U.S. trade deficit) into small, single-family houses for maquiladora workers. Having secured basic funding, PFNC has built a prototype and hopes to begin production in 2009, with an initial goal of 30,000 homes per year.
The basic home design envisions a 320-square foot living space with a galley kitchen, a 48-square foot bathroom, separate sleeping quarters and a bunk area for children. The houses have integrated plumbing and electricity, windows for ventilation, and are covered with a special light-reflective paint that is designed to help them stay cool in the brutal North Mexican heat. Furthermore, they can be stacked to produce pre-fab "apartment complexes," complete with small balconies and eaves.

In addition to considering the basic amenities of home, McCarthy and his partners also kept a clear eye on price: the shipping container homes are designed to cost less than $10,000, which would put them within the means of the average border family. Having purchased a home, these families could gain equity, laying the basis for economic security. Alternately, factory owners could purchase multiple units and provide them to workers at a minimal charge: by subsidizing decent housing, maquiladoras could aid employee retention, which has been a major problem for the industry.

One of the most interesting things about PFNC is that it isn't a nonprofit, a humanitarian organization, or a charity. It defines itself as a "Social Venture," and seek to generate income in the pursuit of socially-conscious projects. Its stated goals, in fact, is to make responsible profits, have a social impact, and pursue environmental sustainability. It will be interesting to see if its search for morally sustainable profit inspires other entrepreneurs!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. When he was a kid, he dreamed of living in a refrigerator box. The way the economy's going, he's really excited about PFNC!
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