Working Inside the Box: Shipping Container Buildings Catch On 0

Justin Hienz | Tue Oct 25 2011

When entrepreneur Malcom McLean developed the intermodal shipping container in 1956, he became more than just an inventor; he became an architect. Today, when these containers aren’t moving cargo on truck, ship, and rail, they are being used for various methods of habitation: a home, office, and—in at least one case—an environmental education center.

The Los Angeles design group APHIDoIDEA is working on plans for an Environmental Center of Regenerative Research & Education (eCORRE) Complex, a place where evidence for recycling’s potential is written on the corrugated steel walls. With close proximity to the second busiest port in the world, the firm has proposed a building made from 65 shipping containers. The eCORRE complex would boast a slew of sustainable innovations including a botanical garden “green roof” and the incorporation of reusable energy sources.

“[The project] re-adapts the shipping container as core building elements and implemented sustainable strategies to educate its visitors and users about “green” building practices,” said Jesus Eduardo Magaña, a senior collaborator at APHIDoIDEA. “We separated the structure and the space design from the container itself…at the same time we utilized its two best elements: its design modularity and the durability of its material.”

The largest container city in the world, Project Keetwonen is a 1,000-room dormitory.

The eCORRE complex is one finalist in the fifth annual Emerging Talent Design Competition, hosted by the Los Angeles Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Emerging Professionals and the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency. The competition asked entrants to design a building for a multi-purpose structure using shipping containers for materials and inspiration.

Shipping around the world

The Emerging Talent Design Competition is part of a wider trend of using shipping containers and other low-cost, durable recycled materials for building projects. Worldwide, there are multiple developing and completed projects where otherwise unattractive boxes are repurposed into aesthetic architectural wonders.

The Boucher Grygier Shipping Container House in East Bay, California uses three 40-foot insulated containers forming a 1,350 square-foot, three-bedroom house. The container insulation helps moderate temperature, though all container buildings can be fitted for insulation. The building design, as well as being aesthetically pleasing, limits solar heat gain in summer and facilitates it in winter.

Billed as the largest container city in the world, Project Keetwonen in Amsterdam is a 1,000-room dormitory for college students. Each unit has a bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, study area, and balcony. Each also has central heating, high-speed Internet access, and a central phone system.

Container buildings have a lighter impact on the environment than traditional homes.

The Container City System is a series of buildings made from shipping containers throughout the United Kingdom used as a nursery, sport and youth center, retail, office, and living space. The system began with Container City I, constructed in 2001 along the Trinity Buoy Wharf in London. Four stories tall, over 80 percent of the complex is made from recycled material. Due to high demand, Container City II was built next door in 2002. The system has 18 projects completed thus far, with two more in the works.

A lighter footprint

Building with shipping containers presents myriad advantages for both the environment and the building owner.

“Construction consumes a huge amount of natural energy resources, while also producing an inordinate amount of waste,” said Marques McClary, Director at LOT-EK, an architecture and design firm known for using industrial objects and systems not originally intended for architecture. “The ‘upcycling’ of shipping containers as a construction technology is a highly sustainable practice, given the vast amount of containers that lie in our ports unused.”

Indeed, container buildings have a lighter impact on the environment than traditional homes. Reusing the steel makes use of otherwise discarded material. It also decreases the need for new building materials, which can tax natural resources and produce waste during construction. Further, because component pieces can be constructed in advance, building time is often faster than traditional homes, which means fewer days of workers and machines crawling over the local environment.

Shipping containers make good substitutes for traditional building materials because they are durable, strong, and can resist the elements. Once converted to buildings, containers are mold, termite and fire resistant, waterproof, and structurally more durable than wood. They can also support heavy loads and are generally less expensive than other materials.

There is an “upfront approximate savings of 30 percent on structural and shell components,” McClary said. There are other benefits, he added, from container buildings that contribute to cost savings including flexibility in design, efficiency, time savings, and the long-term strength and durability of the containers themselves.

Benefits aside, if shipping container buildings are to catch on, they must provide the necessary comforts of a traditional home or office. In ongoing projects across the world, insulation, flooring, windows, and all the conveniences of traditional architecture are already being utilized, making it clear that recycled material buildings are not only a good choice for the homeowner but also for the environment.