We see them on trucks, trains, and barges while they travel the landscape of America. There are literally thousands of them circling the globe. Some are new, some old, and some are colorful, while others are covered in rust. I am speaking of shipping containers. They bring us the goods we use every day, and keep them safe. When the containers are emptied, they are often discarded and left in shipping yards. So the question is does a better use for these empty containers exist? I believe that one most certainly does.
We should be using these large, prefabricated, modular, structures as building blocks. Shipping containers are readily available, roughly 265sf, and you can buy them for around $4,000…delivered! On top of that, they are essentially Legos for adults, which is awesome!
The most vocal support for shipping containers that can be heard around the world is using them for low-cost, highly unique, economic hubs. These hubs are community-centric “malls” that create a unique experience of shops, cafes, and restaurants. The “original pop up mall,” Box Park, can be found in London. In New Zealand, Re:START has been developed to spur economic growth and re-birth. Brooklyn, New York has created Dekalb Market to create community space within the downtown community. Even here in Las Vegas our own shipping container park is beginning development, Container Park by the Downtown Project.
Convinced yet? Convinced that we should welcome shipping containers into our daily vocabulary of architectural solutions?
World-wide, shipping containers are already being used for housing. People are using them to build custom homes, cabins, and emergency shelters. If you fancy yourself an off the shelf residency, there are architecture firms in the United States that will ship you (pun intended) the containers for your new home. They even come with the instructions on how to assemble them or you can have their crew come out and do it for you.
As containers are modular, structurally capable of being stacked, and can be both stored and transported easily, they make great solutions for low cost, high density housing. In Amsterdam, one of the largest shipping container villages has been constructed as college apartments/dorms known as Keetwonen. The flexibility and ease of transport lends them to being ideal for disaster relief housing as well. After disasters like the ones in New Orleans, Haiti, or New York, we could be mobilizing housing within hours. No more tent cities would be needed. We could have these units stored throughout the country and have them shipped (there it is again!) to anywhere they are needed. Even FEMA may be soliciting design ideas for container housing this year as seen here.
I’m not saying that shipping containers are the answer to all of our questions of modular building and economic development, but they could be a start. To me, they are an obtainable building block with near endless possibilities. If you have a dream of building a home on your own, the idea becomes less daunting when it can be thought about in literal building blocks. It becomes something that you can physically and financially build over time. This goes the same, if not more so, for dreams of a storefront for retail or dining. At this point, shipping containers still have a unique character when placed in a landscape of traditional structures (be it wood, steel, or masonry…it’s all more traditional than containers at this point) which would certainly warrant a visit from passers-by!
They may not be a new idea, and re-purposing industrial products may be a current trend that cycles like all trends; however the functionality, availability, and endless possibilities should be enough to generate a long living sub-culture of shipping container structures that excites the inner odd-ball in all of us!
A few unreferenced projects just to see what people are actually doing with them!
by architect Adam Kalkin
Decameron House by Marcio Kogan (MK27) in Sao Paulo, Brazil (2010-2011)
Container City II in Trinity Buoy Wharf, London, E14 by Urban Space Management (2002)