In the last decade, an artifact from the marine and transportation industries has landed squarely on our shores.
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Buildings made from “upcycled” shipping containers were a key feature of the 2010s design aesthetic. Perceptions of affordability, sustainability, and style drove their appeal, which spread under the influence of Instagrammable container developments in newly expensive areas of large cities like London in the early years of the decade.
Are Shipping Container Buildings More Sustainable?
A standard 40-foot shipping container is made of around 3,500 kg of steel. When the shipping industry needs to dispose of a shipping container, they typically use around 8,000 kWh of energy to melt the steel down.
More shipping containers have had to be disposed of in the last few years due to more one-way shipments and the recent breakdown of shipping networks caused in part by the onset of COVID-19.
Repurposing shipping containers in buildings removes the energy cost of disposal, while also removing carbon costs for new materials like brick and cement. Cement manufacture is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
Of course, shipping containers are not designed for human habitation. Their steel walls conduct heat and have to be well insulated to keep temperatures consistent. They are also prone to rust and must be protected from moisture as it builds up with breathing people inside them.
Container interiors may be treated with insecticides containing copper and arsenic, while paint and sealants used to treat container surfaces can release dangerous solvents.
Tackling these common issues with shipping container building bears a time, energy, and materials cost that should be taken into account when considering the building’s sustainability benefits. The additional environmental costs of waste disposal and pollution incurred in container refurbishment should also be acknowledged.
That being said, the energy cost of restoring the average shipping container for use in a building project is around 300 kWh, compared to 8,000 kWh for melting it down.
The durability that shipping containers are designed for means buildings made out of them can last up to a hundred years. Their standardized shape means that transporting them to the site is about as efficient as possible.
Depending on the design, they can also be converted into buildings with a lot less labor and fewer materials than many new builds.
Ultimately, the sustainability metrics for individual building projects are unique. Using shipping containers that would have been disposed of otherwise could save in energy and carbon costs for new materials, but it comes with its own costs that must also be accounted for.
Shipping Container Building Projects Around the World
Shipping container architecture is no new innovation. Reyner Banham wrote an essay in the 1960s that introduced the concept of using shipping containers in a kind of “plug-and-play” architectural system.
Non-trained architects in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have been using shipping containers for kiosks, market stalls, and storage buildings for decades.
The largest organized market in Europe, Seventh Kilometer Market in Odessa, Ukraine, is made out of stacked shipping containers. The busy market, known informally as “Tolchok,” covers 170 acres between Odessa’s airport and central district with shipping containers housing 16,000 retailers. The market also employs 1,200 maintenance and security workers.
A similar-sized market made nearly entirely from containers stacked two high thrives in Central Asia. Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, is home to the Dordoy Bazaar, popular with Kazakh and Russian tourists.
In the west, Phillip C. Clark filed a patent request for “converting one or more shipping containers into a habitable building” with the U.S. Patent Office in 1987; it was granted two years later.
The details of Clark’s request are probably the earliest documented plans for building houses from shipping containers.
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The recent boom in shipping container architecture has its roots at the turn of the millennium. British architecture and development firm, Urban Space Management, completed the “Container City” project in London’s Trinity Buoy Wharf area in 2000 to international acclaim.
A few years later, in 2006, a series of artists’ workshops was made from shipping containers and let on a not-for-profit basis by developers Village Underground in Shoreditch, London – then a swiftly up and coming neighborhood.
The Redondo Beach House, designed by California-based architect Peter DeMaria, was built over two stories from shipping containers. Its design was commercialized under the company name Logical Homes, which still sells shipping container homes on the consumer market.
Shipping container architecture has been criticized in some quarters, however. A dozen shipping container apartments in Barcelona, Spain, had been denied planning permission by the local authority due to fear that tenants would feel stigmatized.
However, this decision was reversed eventually, as the city’s waiting list for emergency housing grew to over 1,000 people.
A similar social housing scheme using shipping containers has been met with criticism in Ealing, west London. National leaders of British social services and NGOs working with families in poverty spoke out over the use of shipping containers, citing residents’ complaints that they are cramped, too hot in the summer, and too cold in the winter.
References and Further Reading
Burgen, S. (2019). Sardine tins for the poor?: Barcelona's shipping container homes. Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/sep/06/sardine-tins-for-the-poor-barcelonas-shipping-container-homes.
Butler, P. (2019). 'They just dump you here': the homeless families living in shipping containers. Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/aug/23/they-just-dump-you-here-the-homeless-families-living-in-shipping-containers.
Overstreet, K. (2021). Shipping Container Architecture: Debunking the Design Trend of the Decade. ArchDaily.com. Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/962476/shipping-container-architecture-debunking-the-design-trend-of-the-decade.
Radwan, A. H. (2015). Containers Architecture Reusing Shipping Containers in making creative Architectural Spaces. International Journal of Scientific and Engineering Research. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.14299/ijser.2015.11.012.
Schires, M. (2019). UK Artist Designs Sculptural Building From Shipping Containers. Archdaily.com. Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/919593/uk-artist-david-mach-designs-sculptural-building-from-shipping-containers.