Thursday, 28 March 2013

Shipping containers 1

I have been ignoring one of the more interesting sustainability initiatives in architecture for far too long.  There might be something counter-intuitive about the idea that butchering shipping containers to build houses, is a particularly admirable thing to do, rather than reusing them for their intended purpose.  But it is a fact of life that world trade is hugely asymmetrical.  It is uneconomic to ship as many empty containers back to source countries, as arrived fully loaded.  So, the bottom line is that there are very many shipping containers being stockpiled, and available for reuse.

It might therefore seem slightly ironic that my first example, in what I intend to be a series of posts, should actually be about an exemplary design for a single dwelling, in China.

The WFH House, designed by Copenhagen-based studio, Arcgency  is made of three stacked shipping containers.  It comes immediately obvious that the containers are used primarily for their structural function, and that there is considerable additional work in both external and internal finishes.  There is also a catalogue of other sustainability initiatives, that have little or nothing to do with the genesis of the project as recycling containers. According to the designers, the house was:
designed to produce more energy than it consumes through the use of upcycled shipping containers as a steel frame, a sustainable bamboo facade, a rainwater collection system, solar cell-clad green roof and permeable paving.”
Thinking of the house in this holistic way makes it much easier to appreciate the direct gesture of the big skillion roof, superimposed on the simple support of the three containers.  Also thinking beyond the simplistic, one realises that by separating the containers and roofing over the void, nearly half the external surfaces of the shipping containers become the framing of interior walls, rather than exposed to the weather as part of a more pixelated composition.  Not only does this produce cheaper volumes of habitable space, but it simplifies reliable weatherproofing, and maximises the chances of a house like this fitting with more conventional neighbours.  All of these considerations come legitimately within more subtle sustainability thinking frameworks.

I found one of the better collections of pictures on,  As usual, images of construction and other systems figure less than interior decoration, but patient scrolling down a few screens does have its rewards.  To read more, go to the article here.

Next time, an exemplary project by Phooey Architects in Melbourne, Australia, which you cannot mistake for anything but the obsessive use of every bit of the original shipping containers.


Brian Chan Lok Man said...

Agreeing with the post, it is true that shipping containers are seldom to be re-exported back to its origin and it creates a bunch of unused waste. Reusing these containers as construction materials could be a good way to solve the problem of piling up disposed containers in a country.

Shipping containers in some sense are very useful materials for building architecture. As mentioned in the post, containers themselves can already be the structure of the building, it require less materials on framing and supporting themselves. It basically doesn’t require any timber materials (excluding interior furnishes). Hence the cost of this type of architecture is relatively lower than normal apartment constructions and meanwhile tends to be more eco-friendly. Further reading could be found on:

Since these containers are designed for trades, it adds certain protection qualities to the products inside the units. Applying such technology to living modules, it automatically provides living safety and housing durability to occupants. To achieve thermal comfort in within, it could possibly be maintained by adding insulation and few roof decking in preventing from overheating and moisten conditions.

Just to further extend the topic on shipping containers housing, this type of housing has provided an amount of emergency housing supports to victims suffered from natural disasters. With the attractiveness of its low building cost and short erecting time, it is favorable for the containers to be applied in performing as shelters. The prototype emergency housing designed by Sean Godsell proves the possibility on such building form to be used in reality. Therefore, apart from treating it as an “innovative housing design”, it can possibly support as a support to people in needed. Further reading could be found on:

More innovative container housing projects can be found in the page below:

Edward Rosier said...

Hi Steve,

This is an interesting area of discussion that has had my interest for a number of years. With the limited resources that our planet has, it always seemed such a waste that these containers would just sit and rot. I understand that it in uneconomical to send empty shipping containers back to their country of origin, but at the same time it seems uneconomical (in an ecological sense) to have to keep producing more containers simply because export is larger than import.

Thinking of this, I remember being extremely excited when I saw the first projects of student housing in London appearing over the net. They were made out of shipping containers and had been simply converted in to small single bed dorms. The circulation was added on the exterior and then you had yourself an quick to build, relatively inexpensive student housing building. Due to the normal tiny nature of student rooms, the containers didn't need to be adapted to create larger rooms. All that had to be done was to cut a few holes in for doors and windows and you had your basic structure. I thought it was such a simple solution and should be used more in Australia.

My ideas took a slight hit when I discovered a blog by Lloyd Alter of Tree Hugger fame. It turns out that wooden platforms in Shipping containers are sprayed with heavy toxins to protect against bugs entering our shores. These toxins are so strong they can still be found in the shipping container after the wood has been removed. The other thing I found quite alarming was the frequent use of lead based paints on the containers, I guess because they are meant to survive harsh conditions whilst in transit.

These two things are worrisome alone, then you add carbon and environmental cost to prepare these containers for living. It would take a great deal of effort to remove the lead paint and remove all toxins, and this is before you even begin to think about cutting holes, creating walls and insulation and applying services.

Whilst I am very much for re-using all this wasted material as much as possible, one must think about how eco-friendly it actually is. As I look at it, in order to make these containers safe to live in, we might just be outdoing any good we have done by re-using it in the first place.

Perhaps another discussion is need on how we can start to make these shipping containers "toxin free", which would then make them much easier to re-purpose down the track.

Whilst using the containers might not be the most efficient way to build, there are many wonderful ways these containers can be used to create interesting and varied buildings.

Here are a couple of links written by Lloyd Alter:

What happens to shipping containers:

Steve King said...

Thanks, Edward.
Great comment, prompting a lot of thought.

One of the reasons I picked the project I did in the post, was because it showed a use of the containers that was not the stereotype Lego stacking. Used the way it is in that house, they become part of a composite construction, where the finishes 'encapsulate' the original painted surfaces to a much higher degree.

But your comment about the toxins is very sobering.

Mitzi YUMMY said...

This post reminds me that how surprised I was the first time when I saw the news and images about a two-story supraposition containerization combination building in Sichuan China, which was the Containerization School District of Wenchuan Yanmen Center School. Owing to the surplus growing population, the widespread population movement, natural disasters and the limitation of resources, traditional housing concept is becoming not appropriate, which inspires architects and the relatives to think more creatively about living space. And using shipping containers to build a building can be one of the ideas.

From the article written by Helen Smith, I discovered more advantages of using shipping containers as a kind of building materials. It is green and sustainable. It is saving time and saving labour. Compared with traditional house, it can provide more options, such as easily remove. Because of the firm quality it has good resistances to crushing and earthquake. This is the main reason to have a temporary building like the Containerization School District of Wenchuan Yanmen Center School.

Shipping container is not only a kind of building materials, but also a kind of physical carrier to space shaping. As we known, a container is a standard size, which gives them modal character. Shapes of buildings can be combined freely. The different function architects designed can produce composite spaces. The shape of container however gives some limitations for design mainly in the aspect of space, such as the height and the length. While the good thing is that the frame of container is the main bearing structure. So maybe we can change the ways to combine them. This can be exemplified and illuminated by the case of PUMA by Lot-ek.

Here are some container housing projects:

And this are some further readings about container building.