Shipping containers are the same all over the globe. According to the World Shipping Council, there are 17 million of them in circulation and due to international trade imbalances, more than half these containers never make it back to their point of origin. Rows upon rows of empty containers, stacked without any identified use, is a common sight at ports. Can these retired containers be used as affordable building materials? The answer is YES, and they have exciting design potential too.
Architecture using shipping containers for their structural strength and inherent building qualities of waterproofing is called Shipping Container Architecture.
Shipping containers offer themselves as modular building elements, as they are of the same width (8 feet) and two lengths (20 feet and 40 feet) across the world. This facilitates easy interlocking, stacking during construction and transportation. The shipping containers are supported by vast transport infrastructure — sea, rail and road. Due to their structural strength and resistance to heavy lateral loads like ocean water forces, corrosion, mold, termites and fire, they can be readily used to carry heavy loads. They can be effective building elements and helpful in structural stacking to create storeys while being cost effective (they cost between `85,000 to `1,82,000 on an average) as compared to masonry, which is much more labour intensive.
Also, reusing shipping containers is eco friendly. The cost of construction is reduced by about 30 per cent. The construction time is reduced by almost half. When you couple these qualities with a little imagination, you can design and use them as very appealing office spaces, off-grid guest camp houses, single family homes and architecturally exciting developments. This should encourage designers and architects to look at Container Architecture as an attractive measure to solve the world’s affordable housing and shelter problems.
Container Architecture is being extensively explored for bomb, hurricane, tornado and disaster relief shelters. It has been used successfully in Haiti. The components you need in the disaster relief houses can be added to containers before they are shipped out to the disaster site. So the container can be transported to the area of need, ready to be used as housing, without expensive on-site work.
While there are several examples showcasing successful Container Architecture, here are some projects highlighting how shipping containers can be used for different scale projects.
Redondo Beach House
Architect Peter DeMaria transformed eight shipping containers into a 3,500- square foot two-storey award winning family residence, Redondo Beach House, in California. Seventy per cent of the project was assembled off-site in a shop environment. To play up the industrial good looks of the containers, the corrugated steel walls were not covered with siding and the sturdy maritime wood floors that are standard in cargo boxes were not replaced either. The project was given an Excellence in Design and Innovation Award by the American Institute of Architects.
Container City is another appreciated and successful example of Container Architecture at an urban design scale. Container City I was designed and installed mostly off-site and craned in in just 15 days with 73 containers by Urban Space Management in Leal Valley in East London to house flexible sports halls, nurseries, community centres, artist’s studios, retail spaces and offices. This was then extended to phase 2, Container City II, and the same concept was used in Container Learn — a project for Tower Hamlets College to provide extra classrooms. The low cost and recycling approach has won the designers laurels in both government and private sectors.
How Shipping Container Architecture is green
The structure is made of recycled materials, thus significantly and positively impacting life cycle cost assessments.
Site disturbances, construction waste and noise pollution are reduced.
The need for foundations and structural reinforcements is reduced to a minimum as the containers have inherent structural qualities while being light in weight.
They can be unbolted and transported to other sites if they have served their purpose on one site.