Andrew Maynard (whose Twitter account concisely describes himself: “I’m an Australian Architect.”) recently posted an interesting comment: “Film crew in the office asking me about containers as bldgs. Tho I try not to be negative, I must say that I think containers make bad bldgs

Despite my own obvious interest in them, I don’t think that shipping containers are the be-all and end-all for construction. However, I think that, as with many other materials, interesting things can be done with shipping containers as one of the key elements of a project.

Maynard expanded on his thoughts with a couple further comments: “To clarify – Yes I agree that there r MANY gorgeous container bldgs. I simply don’t buy the “sustainable/reuse/cheap” arguments.” and “Containers are difficult to work with and require a huge amount of effort to make them thermally effectiveness (sic)”

While it’s hard to express an idea in the course of a couple of 140 character messages, and I don’t disagree with the general points that he is making, I’m less ready to dismiss the idea of using shipping containers.

I don’t disagree with him on the sustainable point, but that’s not just for shipping containers. A lot of what gets built right now is not meaningfully sustainable in the true sense of the word. I think it can be an option for green building, but that’s a very nebulous term, so that’s not really usefully saying that much about it.

I think the reuse question is more to the point. There are thousands of these containers being produced and getting stacked up. Being able to put them to a more productive use, rather than scrapping or recycling them is a beneficial and positive thing to do with them, and so I think it is overlooking a useful material to dismiss them out of hand.

To get a 8′ x 40′ space (320 square feet) for just a few thousand dollars is cheap and quick space. That’s roughly $10/square foot if the container itself costs $3000. There are certainly many things that need to be done to that raw space to make it comfortable and habitable, but I think it can be useful in some cases.

There are certainly many people who think that anything that uses a shipping container must necessarily be green architecture. I don’t think even that is true (even with the admitted slipperiness of the term ‘green’). There is far too much belief in the magical greening of a building by contagion. Slap some solar panels on it and it’s green. Use this green feature and the whole thing becomes virtuous and wonderful. And that’s simply not the case.

I expect Andrew Maynard has seen a number of badly done things that use shipping containers. I don’t doubt that they are out there. But I think there is some potential in the material, and I’m not so quick to dismiss them out of hand.

image: CC-BY-SA-3.0 by RaBoe/Wikipedia