A couple items about shipping containers have showed up recently.

There’s a gallery of shipping container construction from The Daily Green. It doesn’t have a lot that’s terribly new, but it’s a larger gallery (40-some images, I think) so it’s nice to have for reference, although most of them are not what I think are the best examples of the type (the Ross Stevens house (pictured) being a notable exception to that characterization).

There’s also an article that takes some critical jabs at shipping container construction. Although I am a fan of shipping container construction, it’s not such a sacred cow that I think it’s out of line to ask questions like this.

“Why are people recycling perfectly good shipping containers into narrow houses with low ceilings? If new shipping containers are still being produced and steel has a higher embodied energy than traditional home construction methods, then wouldn’t it make more sense to just keep using them as shipping containers? When used as a house, some of the metal will need to be cut out for windows and doors. When used as non-moving parts in low-rise construction, they offer way more structural strength than is needed, making them an inefficient use of steel. They need to be painted often or the metal will corrode, problematic if you were counting on it as the structure. If you add even a modest amount of insulation, then the tight spaces become even tighter. “

To rebut some of these criticisms, although they continue to be produced, there is an abundance of shipping containers, and reusing them is a productive thing to do. Much overseas shipping is one-way, so there is an overstock of them that is available for alternative uses.

Yes, you could use less steel for a low rise construction, but you would have some other material (or more likely materials, plural) in addition to the steel to serve as the cladding. The trade-off is that the shipping container is extremely cheap to produce. Good luck finding another 300+ square foot space with structure and cladding for such a low price. As far the criticism about painting goes, any building material requires some maintenance. Shipping containers are made for transport on container ships, so they start out being painted to withstand a marine environment. I don’t think they need to be painted more often than a wood house needs to be painted.

Shipping containers aren’t a panacea, they’re a design challenge. That’s why I find them intriguing. There is something appealing about taking a fairly unitary material and stretching the possibilities in order to develop something wonderful.


I’m still intrigued by the idea of the shipping container as an element for some kinds of basic construction.

There are cases where it becomes nothing more than an image element, and the containers themselves are so worked over and re-engineered that any benefit that may have come from using them as a simple prefabricated system is lost. I still find those interesting visually, sometimes. But I don’t particularly like the abandonment of the essentials of the material. If you are going to use something, you ought to use it honestly.

I’d like to work on a small house concept that uses a couple of containers as the structural base. I have a couple different elements I have been thinking about, but I’m not sure they are compatible with one another.

One idea is that the container itself is able to support a good deal of load, and that one of the biggest drawbacks in using them is that the containers themselves are narrow. But it should be possible to set two containers down with some separation between them, and then use some other structure to span the gap and create a larger space.

Another idea I’ve had is to create a bracket that could be attached to the container itself which would serve to create an overhang and roof. The projection from the face would help to provide shade for solar control. I’ve also thought that vegetated roofs for shipping container construction just make so much sense. Containers are strong enough to support the load easily, and this bracket idea should be robust enough that it could carry the roof system out to the edge.

Putting the two ideas together means that the spanning structure needs to become heavier if it is going to carry the load of a vegetated roof. So the two ideas aren’t incompatible. But I don’t know how well they go together necessarily.

One further idea is the concept of using shipping containers stacked on top of an existing building as a fast and interesting method for adding inexpensive space to a building. The image at the top is an incomplete model for the Longshore project (what I previously called the Theoretical Project, where 56′ long containers would be used to span the existing one-story building (assuming the masonry walls were, in fact, adequate to support the added load).
This photo from an earlier post about that project shows the existing building from a similar perspective.

The projecting roof on top of the containers that is, in fact, the bracket/overhang green roof. The stack of 3 containers (meant to be a stair tower to the new second floor) is perhaps committing the very sin I was just complaining about in using the container look, but requiring a lot of extra structure to actually make it work. This was never anything but a concept, so I never got further into how it might actually work.

I expect I will keep on exploring these ideas in the coming year. Stay tuned for more.

Other articles on the topic of shipping containers:
The Pros and Cons of Cargo Container Architecture from Arch Daily

Exhibition about shipping container architecture in Dusseldorf earlier this year. (Click the headline image for the slide show)

As the poster of this image writes, “There’s a lot of quakeporn out there, but this shot in particular is amazing:”

Updated to un-nastygram the image. Apologies.

I was excited when I saw a reference to a design competition being run by USGBC-LA that’s “Using shipping containers as building materials and inspiration…” After all, I’ve been talking about containers, so this would be a chance to practice something I’ve been advocating. But, alas, it’s not to be.

Contestants must be present at the AltBuild conference in Los Angeles this spring in order to win. The entry fee is quite modest, but having to fly to LA isn’t in my plans or my budget, as interesting as AltBuild might be.

But, even if I was local, the other requirement in the non-student, ‘Emerging Professional’ category is that all members of the team be under 30 years old. So, while in many instances I’m recognized as an ’emerging professional’ (which in architecture often means someone who has been licensed for 10 years or fewer), this competition’s inability to recognize non-traditional paths to the profession means I was ineligible before I even started grad school. Because it’s so specifically age related, it strikes me as being an artifact of southern California; as I said, most times, competitions of this sort are based on licensure, rather than calendar age.

They don’t get me (since I’m too old as well as being out of their area); I wonder if there are other capable, competent designers who are in the area who are also being excluded because they didn’t take a direct path into architecture.

Shortly after I wrote my latest piece on shipping container construction there was also an article on Treehugger by Lloyd Alter titled “Shipping Containers Being Used Everywhere for Everything.”

One quote I especially like: “Shipping containers are monocoque construction and get much of their strength from the corrugated steel walls. Take those away and you have to do a lot of reinforcement.

If you cut too many holes in a shipping container, or if you stack them unusually or if you turn them in unusual ways, you can end up having to do a lot of structural gymnastics and eliminating the structural benefits of the container. At that point, you’re just playing with the aesthetic of the container, rather than using it as a functional material. That’s not the kind of thing that I’m interested in, though.

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

Something got into the header image of the Pittsfield Library that I use on this blog and corrupted it. The result was that the bottom half of the image had a bilious yellow cast to it. I’m not sure how this came about in the first place, and apparently I didn’t make a local copy of the image, so I have had to re-edit the original image to try to recreate what I had there. If the cropping is off by a couple pixels, that’s what happened. It’s still the same image I’ve been using since I started this particular blog incarnation.

I’m back after last week’s trip to Washington DC. This was a small consulting gig for the EPA, and it’s the second time I’ve done this; I was on a similar panel last September. In aggregate, I think the proposals we reviewed this year were a higher quality than what we had last year. I can’t talk much about the particulars, because it involves confidential reviews of materials that may contain proprietary information and trade secrets. But it is an enjoyable process to take part in, and it gets me exposed to lots of information about building technologies and systems that are outside my area of expertise. One thing I learned this year is that carbon dioxide (CO2) sensors are not cheap nor are they easy to manufacture. Unlike smoke detectors or even carbon monoxide (CO) detectors, CO2 sensors are not available at a cheap, consumer-grade level. To do CO2 monitoring in a building takes some equipment that tends to run in the four figure range.

I also received a copy of Container Atlas: A Practical Guide to Container Architecture which I am planning to review for Inhabitat in the next couple of weeks. It’s a fairly hefty book with both technical information as well as many, many examples of built projects using containers. I’m taking it with me to read through when I take the kids on one last trip before school starts.