ECOntainer bridge, connecting two sides of Aerial Sharon Park in Israel by Yoav Messer Architects

ECOntainer bridge, connecting two sides of Aerial Sharon Park in Israel by Yoav Messer Architects

Shipping containers – commodities of globalisation; self-sustainable, lockable cabins; are breaking new ground in the developing world as disaster shelters, housing for the urban poor, as community facilities and as urban infrastructure. This opens new opportunities for architects to grapple with, to creatively tweak these rusty piles of corten steel boxes into the much needed spaces for habitation.

By Eeshani Mahesan


Globalisation has liberalised trade through universal currency exchange making possible the purchase of goods across nations. The information age affords faster access to specifications on products and the ability to communicate their delivery from one part of the developing world to the developed world or vice versa. Our planet is fast shrinking into a unified global village, transcending individual cultures and physical boundaries of nations.

As the re-sending of empty containers back to the points of origin once delivery is complete is considered costly, these sea worthy steel boxes are stored in piles in shipping docks resulting in a surplus. Their structural strength, durability, ready availability and relatively low cost, make them suitable alternatives to traditional construction, justifying their re-use as habitable buildings.In 1989, Phillip Clark of USA was granted a patent to convert shipping containers into a habitable building. In 2006, Californian Architect Peter De Maria designed the first, two storey shipping container home as an approved structural system with planning approval. Later, Seattle based Joel Egan, co–founder of “hybrid architecture”; built cottages and offices incorporating green features and coined the term “cargotecture” to describe this method of construction.

The above laid the groundwork for many shipping container architectural ideas to follow.
As modular living, with advantages of adaptability, mass production and mobility; shipping container architecture has become a global commodity – originating from the Americas and travelling to different countries across the globe. Its use is universal from works of art to personalised houses, apartments, student hostels, commercial entities, hotels, mobile restaurants, industrial plants and as public facilities. Whilst they are stacked above and alongside each other to create complex buildings, they are refashioned for modern day 21st Century living and have appeared in the spotlight as architects through their creative ingenuity have been able to relegate them into avant garde designs.

American architects Lot-Ek and Adam Kalkin, London based developer Eric Reynold’s Urban Space Management and Australian Architect Sean Godsell are some who have made shipping container architecture their forte. Whilst, Adam Kalkin offered personalised, quick build kit homes which are tailor-made to one’s own preference and delivered on site for assembly, Sean Godsell through his winning entry for a contest held by Architecture for Humanity – a non profit group; focused on a “future shack” using containers which could be mass produced and transported to fulfill shelter and community needs of the developing world. Lot-Ek on the other hand focused on avant garde designs re-using containers and experimented later with the idea of mobile dwelling units that would plug into purpose made infrastructure docks in cities of the world, with the capability to un dock and move to another location with ease. Hybrid design, inter modal units and mobile off grid offices and homes are futuristic explorations in shipping container architecture.

Shipping containers are modular units that can be linked together like legos and are capable of forming a column of 12 containers. They come in eight feet width, lengths of 20 and 40 feet, and heights of eight feet six inches (standard container) and nine feet six inches (high cube container). The insulated and water proofed, solid coloured box which is fire and earthquake resistant, costs USD 1,000 – 2,500 depending on the condition for re-use. The structural frame is of four corner posts which connect a bottom and top set of rails in a rectangular profiled monocoque body which is continuously welded. The corrugated walls are made of cor-ten steel (corrosion resistant steel) which is finished with marine paints and the floor is of purin reinforced plywood – a special treatment to keep pests away.
The roof is flat corrugated and has a camber onto both the side rails. The containers are stacked on each other using cranes or fork lifts, which anchor on specially made pockets to lift them and the goose neck tunnels lock them in position.

Container walls can be lined with gypsum board and painted or finished with wall paper or panelling. They are insulated with glass wool for thermal and sound insulation. Floors can be in composite form – steel and concrete, steel and timber or with steel chequer plates. Finishes include tiling, vinyl flooring or carpeting. The roof could have an added protection when used in hot climates to reduce heat loads. Ceilings could be suspended off the container roof. Fenestrations are generally in steel or aluminium frames with glazed, timber or aluminum panels. Building services are fixed along wall surfaces or below the floor – where internal arrangements could be pre-fitted at a factory and plugged onto onsite main services. Additional fire rating could be achieved by adding a concrete inner leaf to the container wall. Spaces can be air conditioned and the sealed container box ensures minimal leakage of cool air.

On the upside, shipping containers are durable and have integral structural strength that suffice as a complete structural system requiring only cast in situ or pre cast pad foundations and stub columns as additional elements for support. It can be elevated off ground and used in environmentally sensitive areas and in uneven terrain. Its resistance to earthquakes make it suitable for application in such locations The box could be retro fitted with green features such as a solar power roof, tanks for rain water harvesting and facilities for waste water treatment and recycling. Its modular and stackable nature allows buildings to grow and contract as the need arises. They can be plugged into vertical services and their use is special in apartments, student accommodation and hotels. Construction is fast tracked and is an immediate provision of space where there is an emergency need or requirement for such spaces. They can be mass produced and reused in similar or varying spatial applications and therefore their relevance for use as emergency shelters and in communities where resources are scarce is relevant. The fact that it is mobile or transportable, allows for use in temporary applications and in situations where a requirement for such is predominant.

On the down side, although used containers are available at a relatively low cost, it is costly to re-fashion them with openings that need to be cut with a torch or fireman’s saw. It also has harmful chemicals in its marine worthy wall coverings and floors and requires paint coats to be stripped bare and coated with non toxic paints and floors to be replaced with other materials to make them habitable. In addition, containers have to be transported to site for assembly, making their ecological foot print high. Thermal insulation is required on walls and the roof, when used in hot and humid climates. The dimensions of the container of 8 feet width, gives spaces that are narrow and long and difficult to plan, requiring many boxes to be combined together using energy.

Thus, shipping containers cannot be typically seen as an alternative to traditional design and construction, but it makes sense to use them where resources are scarce and where there is an immediate need for a livable space or where bespoke designs are required with minimal built interventions in sensitive environments.

In the developing world, shipping containers have become cabins for disaster shelter, low cost housing for the urban poor and as community facilities such as health dispensaries, schools and pre schools, community centres, public toilets, bus shelters and more.  The climates and lifestyles of the Asian, African and Latin American continents require modifications to suit the context they are embedded in. This results in examples of where the local vernacular embraces this technology, and finds new ways in a hybrid architecture – localising the container modules and adapting them for local habitation and use.

The addition of outdoor decks or terraces that act as transitional spaces that merge with the gardens of the tropics and communal courtyards of Africa and Latin America, is one such adaptation that can be seen where the container modules are combined with traditional timber, masonry or steel construction to augment the limited space within the unit. Community facilities designed by South African architects TSAI Design Studio,
Damith Prematilake’s post war holiday cabana for the military, Shigeru Ban’s refugee housing and community centre in Onagawa, Japan for the 2011 earthquake victims built with the integration of paper tubes; display how these architects have adapted the shipping container to the local context and lifestyle. In Sanlitun South-Urban shipping container village in Beijing, China; Lot-Ek has used the traditional Chinese “Hutong” (an urban alley) as an idiom to fashion his design to the local culture.

Insulated walls and containers that sport a single or two pitched thatched roof or sweeping solar roof over them, are another feature incorporated by architects to reduce the heat load and make them more habitable in the hot and humid climates of these countries. Large fenestrations that connect inside and outside providing natural light and ventilation are common in container living of these countries. Most container buildings are supported over pre cast foundations and thus are buildable in environmentally sensitive areas or in rugged terrain and cause minimal impact on the environment requiring minimal ground levelling. Construction is fast tracked for immediate use hence its application in community facilities is enhanced. As modular units they are seen plugged onto shared building services and provide for the communal facility to adapt and grow when required or when resources are available. The containers are also designed as self sustainable units with a solar roof to generate electricity for consumption by the building, rain water harvesting tanks for water supply, and waste water treatment plants for disposal of sewer and waste water and use in irrigation. Sean Godsell’s idea for the “future shack” is a completely self sustainable cabin suitable for compact living, with space dividers that double up as storage and built in rain water harvesting water tank and a parasol like solar roof.

Investment in technology together with the effects of globalisation have proliferated nations with new materials, products, services and energy alternatives; professionals are confronted with new methods of designing and analysing buildings using computer soft ware; clients seek new ways of procuring architectural services. Thus, mega cities are born with intelligent buildings that act smart with touch button technology, offering mankind new lifestyle conveniences.

All these, push architects to challenge themselves into new ways of designing beyond the conventional – to be able to embrace technology and adapt it appropriately to produce meaningful habitable buildings that are akin to its context and users.