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Shipping container architecture

A temporary bank branch built from shipping

containers in Germany

Shipping container architecture is a form of architecture using steel intermodal containers

(shipping containers) as structural element; it is also referred to as Cargotecture. The use of
containers as a building material has grown in popularity of the past several years due to
their inherent strength, wide availability, and relatively low expense. We have also started to
see people build homes with containers because they are seen are more eco-friendly than
traditional building materials such as brick and cement.

Strength and durability
Shipping containers are in many ways an ideal building material. They are designed to
carry heavy loads and to be stacked in high columns. They are also designed to resist
harsh environments, such as on ocean-going vessels or sprayed with road salt while
transported on roads. Due to their high strength, containers may be adapted for secure

All shipping containers are the same width and most have two standard height and length
measurements and as such they provide modular elements that can be combined into
larger structures. This simplifies design, planning and transport. As they are already
designed to interlock for ease of mobility during transportation, structural construction is
completed by simply emplacing them. Due to the containers' modular design additional
construction is as easy as stacking more containers. They can be stacked up to 12 high
when empty.
The welding and cutting of steel is considered to be specialized labor and can increase
construction expenses, yet overall it is still lower than conventional construction. Unlike
wood frame construction, attachments must be welded or drilled to the outer skin, which
is more time consuming and requires different job site equipment.
Pre-fabricated modules can also be easily transported by ship, truck or rail, because they
already conform to standard shipping sizes.
Used shipping containers are available across the globe.
Many used containers are available at an amount that is low compared to a finished
structure built by other labor-intensive means such as bricks and mortar which also
require larger more expensive foundations. Construction involves very little labor and used
shipping containers requiring only simple modification can be purchased from major
transport companies for as little as US $1,200 each. Even when purchased brand new they
are seldom more than US $6000.
Containers are designed to be supported by their four corners making a very simple
foundation possible. As well the top four corners are very strong as they are intended to
support a stack of other containers.
A 40ft shipping container weights over 3,500KG so each time one is upcycled we are
saving thousands of kilograms of steel. In addition when building with containers, we are
also reducing the amount of traditional building materials needed (i.e. bricks and cement).


Steel conducts heat very well; containers used for human occupancy in an environment
with extreme temperature variations will normally have to be better insulated than most
brick, block or wood structures.
Lack of Flexibility
Although shipping containers can be combined together to create bigger spaces, creating
spaces different to their default size (either 20 or 40 foot) is expensive and time
As noted above, single wall steel conducts heat. In temperate climates, moist interior air
condenses against the steel, becoming clammy. Rust will form unless the steel is well
sealed and insulated.
Construction site
The size and weight of the containers will, in most cases, require them to be placed by a
crane or forklift. Traditional brick, block and lumber construction materials can often be
moved by hand, even to upper stories.
Building permits
The use of steel for construction, while prevalent in industrial construction, is not widely
used for residential structures. Obtaining building permits may be troublesome in some
regions due to municipalities not having seen this application before.
Treatment of timber floors
To meet Australian government quarantine requirements most container floors when
manufactured are treated with insecticides containing copper (2325%), chromium (38
45%) and arsenic (3037%). Before human habitation, floors should be removed and
safely disposed. Units with steel floors would be preferable, if available.
Cargo spillages
A container can carry a wide variety of cargo during its working life. Spillages or
contamination may have occurred on the inside surfaces and will have to be cleaned
before habitation. Ideally all internal surfaces should be abrasive blasted to bare metal,
and re-painted with a nontoxic paint system.
Solvents released from paint and sealants used in manufacture might be harmful.
While in service, containers are damaged by friction, handling collisions, and force of
heavy loads overhead during ship transits. The companies will inspect containers and

condemn them if cracked welds, twisted frames or pin holes are found, among other
Although the two ends of a container are extremely strong, the roof is not. A limit of 300kg
is recommended.[1]


Shipping containers stacked to form a

semi-permanent wall at an iron ore
mine in Western Australia

Many structures based on shipping containers have already been constructed, and their
uses, sizes, locations and appearances vary widely.
When futurist Stewart Brand needed a place to assemble all the material he needed to write
How Buildings Learn, he converted a shipping container into office space, and wrote up the
conversion process in the same book.
In 2006, Southern California Architect Peter DeMaria, designed the first two story shipping
container home in the U.S. as an approved structural system under the strict guidelines of
the nationally recognized Uniform Building Code (UBC). This home was the Redondo Beach
House and it inspired the creation of Logical Homes, a cargo container based pre-fabricated
home company. In 2007, Logical Homes created their flagship project - the Aegean, for the
Computer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Several architects, such as Adam Kalkin have built original homes, using discarded shipping
containers for their parts or using them in their original form, or doing a mix of both.[2]

Illustration of the structure of Container City

showing how the containers are stacked.

In 2000, the firm Urban Space Management completed the project called Container City I in
the Trinity Buoy Wharf area of London. The firm has gone on to complete additional
container-based building projects, with more underway. In 2006, the Dutch company
Tempohousing finished in Amsterdam the biggest container village in the world: 1,000
student homes from modified shipping containers from China.[3]
In 2002 standard ISO shipping containers began to be modified and used as stand-alone onsite wastewater treatment plants. The use of containers creates a cost-effective, modular,
and customizable solution to on-site waste water treatment and eliminates the need for
construction of a separate building to house the treatment system.
Brian McCarthy, an MBA student, saw many poor neighborhoods in Ciudad Jurez, Mexico
during an MBA field trip in the 2000s. Since then he developed prototypes of shipping
container housing for typical maquiladora workers in Mexico.[4]
Application for the Live Event & Entertainment Industry: in 2010 German Architect and
Production Designer, Stefan Beese, utilized six 40 long shipping containers to create a large
viewing deck and a VIP lounge area for to substitute the typical grand stand scaffold
structure at the Voodoo Music Experience, New Orleans. The containers also smartly do
double duty as storage space for other festival components throughout the year. The two
top containers are cantilevered nine feet on each side creating two balconies that are prime
viewing locations. There are also two bars located on the balconies. Each container was
perforated with cutouts spelling the word VOODOO, which not only brands the structure
but creates different vantage points and service area openings. And since the openings
them self act as signage for the event, no additional materials or energy were needed to

create banners or posters.

Grand Stand and VIP Lounge made

from Shipping Containers for the 2009
& 2010 Voodoo Music Experience,
City Park, New Orleans, LA.USA.

In the United Kingdom, walls of containers filled with sand have been use as giant sandbags
to protect against the risk of flying debris from exploding ceramic insulators in electricity
In the October 2013, two barges owned by Google with superstructures made out of
shipping containers received media attention speculating about their purpose.[5]


Brisk trade in Bishkek's Dordoy


Shipping container store in Joe Slovo

Park, Cape Town, South Africa.

Empty shipping containers are commonly used as market stalls and warehouses in the

countries of the former USSR.

The biggest shopping mall or organized market in Europe is made up of alleys formed by
stacked containers, on 69 hectares (170 acres) of land, between the airport and the central
part of Odessa, Ukraine. Informally named "Tolchok" and officially known as the SeventhKilometer Market it has 16,000 vendors and employs 1,200 security guards and maintenance
In Central Asia, the Dordoy Bazaar in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, almost entirely composed of
double-stacked containers, is of comparable size. It is popular with travelers coming from
Kazakhstan and Russia to take advantage of the cheap prices and plethora of knock-off
In 2011, the Cashel Mall in Christchurch, New Zealand reopened in a series of shipping
containers months after it had been destroyed in the earthquake that devastated the city's
central business district.[6] Starbucks Coffee has also built a store using shipping

Other uses

A 40-foot Portable Modular Data


Shipping containers have also been used as:

Affordable housing[8]
Press boxes
Emergency hurricane shelters for thoroughbred horses
Concession stands
Fire training facility
Military training facility
Emergency shelters

School buildings
Apartment and office buildings
Artists' studios
Moveable exhibition spaces on rails
Telco hubs
Bank vaults
Medical clinics
Radar stations
Shopping malls
Sleeping rooms
Recording studios
Abstract art
Transportable factories
Modular data centers (e.g. Sun Modular Datacenter, Portable Modular Data Center)
Experimental labs
Combatant temporary containment (ventilated)
Starbucks Stores
Intermodal sealed storage on ships, trucks, and trains
House foundations on unstable seismic zones
Elevator/stairwell shafts
Block roads and keep protesters away, as photo journalized during the Pakistan Long
March [9]
Construction trailers
Mine site accommodations
Exploration camp
Aviation maintenance facilities for the United States Marine Corps when loaded onto the
SS Wright (T-AVB-3) or the SS Curtiss (T-AVB-4)

For housing and other architecture

Shipping container cottage.

Containers are in many ways an ideal building material because they are strong, durable,
stackable, cuttable, movable, modular, plentiful and relatively cheap. Architects as well as
laypeople have used them to build many types of buildings such as homes, offices,
apartments, schools, dormitories, artists' studios and emergency shelters. They are also
used to provide temporary secure spaces on construction sites and other venues on an "as
is" basis instead of building shelters.
Phillip C. Clark filed for a United States patent on November 23, 1987 described as "Method
for converting one or more steel shipping containers into a habitable building at a building
site and the product thereof". This patent was granted August 8, 1989 as patent 4854094.
The diagrams and information contained within the documentation of this patent appear to
lay the groundwork for many current shipping container architectural ideas. Even so, this
patent does not appear to have represented a novel invention at its time of filing (Paul
Sawyers described extensive shipping container buildings that were used on the set of the
1985 movie Space Rage Breakout on Prison Planet).
During the 1991 Gulf War, containers saw considerable nonstandard uses not only as
makeshift shelters but also for the transportation of Iraqi prisoners of war. Holes were cut in
the containers to allow for ventilation. Containers continue to be used for military shelters,
often additionally fortified by adding sandbags to the side walls to protect against weapons
such as rocket-propelled grenades ("RPGs").
The abundance and relative cheapness of these containers during the last decade comes
from the deficit in manufactured goods coming from North America in the last two decades.
These manufactured goods come to North America from Asia and, to a lesser extent,
Europe, in containers that often have to be shipped back empty, or "deadhead", at
considerable expense. It is often cheaper to buy new containers in Asia than to ship old ones
back. Therefore, new applications are sought for the used containers that have reached their

North American destination.

See also
Further reading
External links
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