Invented more than five decades ago, the modern shipping container is one of the most commonly used linchpins in the global distribution network of products. Containers are filled with just about any product from textiles to toys, cars, cheese, alcohol and so much more. Today there is a new use for shipping containers. Shipping container architecture is a concept that is quickly growing into a popular buzz word in the construction industry.

Shipping container architecture is a form of architecture using shipping containers as a structural element in a building project because of its inherent strength, wide availability and relatively low cost. Walls & Roofs sheds the spotlight on this trend and investigates the pros and cons of incorporating shipping containers into a design.

According to the website www.thedailygreen.com, shipping containers can be readily modified with a range of creature comforts, and can be connected and stacked to create modular, efficient spaces for a fraction of the cost, labour and resources of more conventional materials.

The possibilities when venturing into shipping container architecture are endless. These containers can be used as disaster relief shelters, luxury condos, green sheds, vacation homes and even offices.  

A green alternative
The website www.archdaily.com picked up on this trend, stating that more architects are turning to cargo container structures for a green alternative. “There are countless numbers of empty, unused shipping containers around the world just sitting on shipping docks taking up space,” the website cites. The architectural website paints a picture of an extremely high surplus of empty shipping containers that create a gap for architects to step in and make good use of these structures.

The website further elaborates on the advantages of using the shipping container architecture model. According to them, strength, durability, availability and cost are among the benefits that architects can expect when using this model. “New applications are sought for used containers that have reached their final destination,” www.archdaily.com  states.

According to Arch Daily, the origins of shipping container architecture can be traced back to 1987, when Phillip C Clark, the first designer of such a project, filled for a patent in the United States. “This patent was granted on 8 August 1989 as patent 4854094. The diagrams and information contained within the documentation of the patent appear to lay the groundwork for many current shipping container architectural ideas.”

The first two-storey shipping container house was designed by a Southern California architect, Peter DeMaria. His structure was approved under the strict guidelines of the United States Uniform Building Code. According to Arch Daily, this type of architecture currently seems to get a lot of attention. “It is described as a trendy green alternative to traditional building materials and could be a smart choice for people who want to live in an eco-friendly dwelling.”

The downside to using containers
Arch Daily also mentions the downside to using shipping containers as a building material. For one, the website cites that the coatings used to make the containers durable for ocean transport also happens to contain a number of harmful chemicals such as chromate, phosphorous and lead-based paints.

According to the website, the wood floors that line the majority of shipping container buildings are infused with hazardous chemical pesticides like arsenic and chromium to keep pests away.

The website also states that reusing containers seems to be a low energy alternative, but one also needs to consider the amount of energy required to make the box habitable. “The entire structure needs to be sandblasted bare, floors need to be replaced and openings need to be cut with a torch or fireman’s saw.” Arch Daily adds that the average container eventually produces nearly a thousand pounds of hazardous waste before it can be used as a structure. “All of this, coupled with the fossil fuels required to move the container into place with heavy machinery, contribute significantly to its ecological footprint.”

Another factor Arch Daily states that architects should consider carefully is that an individual container creates awkward living or working spaces. “Taking into account added insulation, one needs to work with a long narrow box with less than eight foot ceiling. To make an adequate sized space, multiple boxes need to be combined, which again requires energy.”

The website further states that in many areas it is more cost-effective and energy-efficient to build a similarly scaled structure using wood framing. “Shipping container homes make sense where resources are scarce, containers are in abundance and where people are in need of immediate shelter, such as developing nations and disaster relief.”  

Container City
Container City is a fully flexible modular system built by redundant shipping containers in London. This versatile modular system is an outstanding example of recycling in practice, cutting both building costs and construction times dramatically and, with its strong yet lightweight framework, keeping the need for environmentally damaging concrete foundations to a minimum.

Prototypes containers that led to the creation of this large-scale project were constructed to be part of the Trinity Buoy Wharf project. Trinity Buoy Wharf, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, is the site of London’s only lighthouse. These prototype models were used in the original Container City project. Container City I was originally three storeys high, providing 12 work studios across 4 800 square feet. After high demand a fourth floor was added, providing three additional live/work apartments.

As well as being very cost-effective, Container City I is environmentally-friendly with over 80% of the building created from recycled material. Since the prototype models were built, a growing number of projects were commissioned by a variety of local authorities, educational and health establishments and private companies.  

The Riverside Building is the third of the Container City projects to be housed at Trinity Buoy Wharf in London’s Docklands. The building is set over five floors and has created 22 office spaces. With fully glazed front facades, sleek lines and external decked walkways and balconies, the Riverside Building takes full advantage of its riverside location, providing spectacular views at an affordable price.

The box office design
The container box office situated in Rhode Island emerged out of budget constraints. A client contacted Distill Studio to design a brand new, green office building. According to www.Inhabitat.com, the architects went back to the drawing board with the client’s initial brief to come up with a more budget-friendly design and then they came up with the idea to build a container box office.

The website states that besides using cost-effective recycled shipping containers, energy-efficiency was a high priority. “This included the use of high-performance, non-petroleum insulation, doors and windows to minimise heat loss in and out of the office spaces. Numerous cut windows pull daylight into the space, and a large canopy in the centre of the building protects the inner courtyard and shades the space in the summer.”  

According to www.inhabitat.com, the three-storey building has 12 offices varying in size from 640 to 2 560 square feet, made from 32 shipping containers. From the outside, the office looks like piles of container boxes that are coloured in green, yellow and blue colours.

The office is divided into three floors. It is also completed with a box that is functioning as a balcony. To connect the floors on the outside, there are connectors and metal stairs. Inside the office, one will find a comfortable office with a calm colour tone. The roof of the office still looks like the roof of a shipping container. The flooring is completed with wooden texture.

Designing a shipping container house
The architectural firm Studio H.T recently designed the Shipping Container House project. This 1 517 square feet, solar-powered house is located in Nederland, Colorado, in the United States.

According to the website www.innovationtoronto.com, the house is made partially from shipping containers and is also designed to operate entirely off-grid. “The taller central section of the house is not a container,” the website states. “This specially constructed space houses the living and dining areas with some storage space above.”  

Two containers are used to flank the central living space on either side. “These spaces make up the bedrooms and office spaces,” cites www.innovationtoronto.com.  According to the website, passive non-mechanised design approaches were used, such as passive cooling and green roofs, while the building’s orientation and the window design were created to minimise solar heat gain. “Exterior cladding has been applied to the containers in an additional effort to mitigate solar heating.”

Shipping container architecture is definitely a trend that seems to become more popular because of the creative design elements of the container, and the fact that these containers can be re-used or recycled creates the notion that it is a green alternative to traditional building materials. Whether a design structured around containers can truly be classified as a green building is debatable. Several other factors apart from the source of the building material need to be considered to make a balanced judgment. The verdict is still out and it is the architects that will ultimately decide if shipping containers will make the cut.

Full acknowledgement and thanks are given to www.archdaily.com, www.dailygreen.com, www.containercity.com, www.inhabitat.com and www.innovationtoronto.com.