What's wrong with shipping container housing? One architect says "everything."

shipping container in case
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter/ Shipping container under glass

Shipping containers are now such a thing that in Denmark, they are putting them in glass cases. I have had a troubled relationship with shipping containers since I was ten, when my dad went into the container biz. They were made in the USA and Canada then and were really expensive; you wouldn't think of living in them. But every now and again he would get sent a photo of some shipping container in Africa that fell off a truck and had windows and doors cut into the walls.

first-year-summer-camp

I had some fun with them in University, designing a summer camp for temporary use that folded out of a forty footer. Because you would never actually use a container empty; the dimensions are lousy for people and the flooring was treated with insecticides and the paints were designed to last through ten years on the high seas, so are seriously industrial. It may have been a really bad career choice not sticking with containers, but my moves into modular construction and tiny homes were not too successful either.

Perhaps the lesson is that when it comes to housing, technology, or lack thereof, is not the fundamental problem. After watching all the coverage of shipping container schemes with some bemusement, I asked Does Shipping Container Architecture Make Sense? a few years ago, but now, in response to the same architectural competition I covered here, Architect Mark Hogan of OpenScope Studio comes up with his own list of questions.

shipping container project© OpenScope Studio

He speaks from some experience, having actually built a container project, and notes that "For sites where on-site construction is not feasible or desirable, fitting a container out in the factory can be a sensible option." But for housing? On his personal website, Mark makes some very good points. Here are some of the most interesting:

Housing is usually not a technology problem. All parts of the world have vernacular housing, and it usually works quite well for the local climate. There are certainly places with material shortages, or situations where factory built housing might be appropriate- especially when an area is recovering from a disaster. In this case prefab buildings would make sense- but doing them in containers does not.

Here I might argue that the great genius of shipping containers is not the box but the handling systems; there are ships, cranes, trucks and trains all designed around them. So if you do want to deliver stuff fast after a disaster, there is no better form than the shipping container. He then goes through the fundamental problem of width, which is just too narrow really, Insulation, which is a huge problem, and for once, somebody understands about structure:

GA container closeup © Ganti + Associates

Structure. You’ve seen the proposals with cantilevers everywhere. Containers stacked like Lego building blocks, or with one layer perpendicular to the next. Architects love stuff like this, just like they throw around usually misleading/meaningless phrases like “kit of parts.” Guess what- the second you don’t stack the containers on their corners, the structure that is built into the containers needs to be duplicated with heavy steel reinforcing. The rails at the top and the roof of the container are not structural at all (the roof of a container is light gauge steel, and will dent easily if you step on it). If you cut openings in the container walls, the entire structure starts to deflect and needs to be reinforced because the corrugated sides act like the flange of beam and once big pieces are removed, the beam stops working. All of this steel reinforcing is very expensive, and it’s the only way you can build a “double-wide.”

And then there is one that I have never thought about but is important:

Utilities and Mechanical Systems. In a large building, you’ll still need a lot of space to run utilities. Because of the problems with insulation mentioned above, you will need to install a very robust HVAC system to heat and cool the building (that Mumbai tower shown above would literally be a deathtrap without cooling). You will have a hard time taking advantage of passive strategies like thermal mass if you maintain the container aesthetic. You’ll also end up with low ceilings, as even high cube containers are only 9-’6” (2.9 m) in overall exterior height, so any ductwork or utilities start cutting in to headroom.

rock the yard© OpenScope Studio

Finally Mark mentions the issue of recycling. I have looked at this in the past, with the Upcycle House which had " the ambitious goal of being the first house build only from upcycled and environmentally sustainable materials." I did a calculation to determine if using two shipping containers as the structure of the house was actually the highest and best use:

An empty 40' shipping container weighs 8380 pounds. A galvanized steel stud weighs a pound per linear foot. These two containers, melted down and rolled and formed, could have been upcycled into 2,095 8' long steel studs. Framing the walls instead of using shipping containers would have used about 144 of them. Using shipping containers as structural elements for a one storey building is downcycling and wasting of a resource.

There is a lot more steel in a shipping container than you actually need for a building; that's so they can be stacked full nine high and get tossed around the ocean and thrown on trucks and trains. It's really being wasted when it's put into a house. And as Mark notes, you can probably build it faster and cheaper than bringing in a welder and mucking up a shipping container.

Relatively untrained people can build a room that size of simple wood framing in a day without needing to rent a crane or learning how to weld for about the same cost (or less) than buying a used container.

Don't get me wrong; I love shipping container architecture that moves, plugs in, that takes advantage of the tremendous infrastructure. I agree with Mark that it is terrific for temporary or emergency uses. But does it make good housing? I don't think so. Perhaps after all these years I am still missing something.

Tags: Shipping Containers

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