The growing trade deficit doesn't just mean fewer exports of U.S.-made goods; it translates into a huge surplus of shipping containers left at domestic ports. Last year alone, close to a million containers piled up at New Jersey's Newark/Elizabeth Port. Multiply that by the number of stateside ports and you've got a whole lot of abandoned steel.

Mark Strauss, a principal with the New York architectural firm Fox & Fowle, has found an inventive way to reuse these 9 1/2-foot-tall boxes, which come in 25- and 40-foot lengths. They play an integral part in a plan his firm put together for a competition sponsored by the Boston Society of Architects. The contest challenged designers to demonstrate planning and design strategies for high-density development in different urban environments. Fox & Fowle's solution centered on a 20-acre parcel in Gloucester, Mass.

Fox & Fowle's plan creatively recycles shipping containers into the structural framework for 351 low-cost live/work units, which are laid out in a crescent-shaped swath across the Gloucester property. "These containers are made of a steel frame with sheet metal and steel sheathing," Strauss explains. "The sheathing is not structural, so if you remove that and start putting them together you start dealing with realistic dimensions."

With millions of containers available for recycling, Fox & Fowle's plan just might have some legs. The firm is currently in talks with a number of developers who have expressed interest in pursuing the idea.