Liveable Structures from Shipping Containers

Architects of today are creating beautiful liveable structures from discarded shipping containers

Everything begins with an idea, said American author Earl Nightingale. Thomas Alva Edison, one of America’s greatest inventors once said, “The value of an idea lies in the using of it.”

Someone said “One man’s retired shipping container is another man’s crazy, high-end modular home.” This idea has turned into an accelerating global wave of creativity around retired shipping containers.

Shipping containers are a post-1950 creation. An American transport entrepreneur from North Carolina, Malcolm McLean developed the modern intermodal shipping container, which created a revolution in transporting goods and in international trade during the second half of the twentieth century. McLean invented and patented the first shipping container in 1956. During this time, he owned the largest trucking fleet in the American South and the fifth largest trucking company in the US. During the pre-container era, it cost $5.86 to load a ton of loose cargo. With the ISO shipping container, the cost was reduced to only 0.16 cents per ton. The first container ship the Gateway City began regular shipping between New York, Florida and Texas from April 1957.

In early days, there were various standard sizes of containers. However, the most commonly used sizes today are the 20-foot and 40-foot lengths. Container sizes needed to be standardized so they could be stacked one on top of the other with maximum efficiency and utilization of space, and so that all equipment needed to handle and transport containers could be produced to handle a specific size. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) set standard sizes for containers in 1961. Containers are usually built from aluminium or steel, and are built according to ISO specifications, wherever they are made.

In an ideal world, when containers arrive in any country, they would be unloaded, then refilled with exports and sent to the country of origin. However, international trade does not happen in a balanced or equal manner. For instance, in the US, imports significantly exceed exports. If one hundred containers arrive in the US filled with imports, half of them would leave US shores empty, and probably five would carry exports while the remaining forty-five containers would idle. On the other hand, the scenario in China is the exact opposite. China exports such enormous quantities, the demand for containers far exceeds supply. China regularly charters entire containerships just to get empty containers to pack exports. Added to this, China produces almost all of the 100,000 new containers that are manufactured annually in the world.

An inventory of new containers is a consistent necessity because a container is generally used as a container only for about 10 or 15 years. And, as it happens, there is an estimated 24 million empty shipping containers in the world that will not be used any more for shipping cargo. However, containers are made from the world’s precious resources, and a new container costs about two or three thousand dollars. Discarding them onto the scrap heap once they can no longer serve as containers, would be a criminal waste.

Containers also get lost in the sea. Some industry estimates assume a daily loss of four containers, while other estimates indicate 27 lost every day. However, professionals in the business focus heavily on the prospects of building containers, shipping them and then repurposing them. This trend has led to coining of the term “containertecture.”

A man named Phillip Clark trail blazed the building of shipping container homes and filed a patent on November 23, 1987. He named his patent the “Method for converting one or more steel shipping containers into a habitable building.” He described how containers could be placed on a weight-bearing foundation to create a liveable structure. He stated that containers were ideal building material. He was awarded the patent after two years.

Today, architects have come to identify and appreciate discarded containers as fascinating building material that can be bought cheap and re-created into an aesthetically-appealing structure. Being flood-proof and fireproof enhance their suitability to be used as houses. Fascinating creations are found in different corners of the world. In 2012, a Chilean architect used 12 shipping containers to build a family residence overlooking the Andes Mountain. The containers were used as bedrooms, living quarters and a swimming pool. In Amsterdam, a temporary shipping container “city” was created for a theater festival. Some container interiors were cleverly dressed up as dining rooms. The container “city” took four days to assemble, provided two weeks of theater entertainment and was taken down in two days when the event ended.

Although converting containers into living spaces is not new, in this Green Age where people are habitually recycling to maximize on scarce resources, many containers are being reused as homes, offices, apartments, schools dormitories, studios, and emergency shelters.

Indeed, eco-friendly and relatively inexpensive container houses are fast becoming an acceptable substitute for traditional housing. Paul Galvin, CEO of SG Blocks, a public company focused on repurposing shipping containers, says, “It’s a legitimately green option for the consumer. And it’s not going to cost them more; this isn’t a green solution that requires government subsidy.”

As Confucius said, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”

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