Shipping containers are wonderful things, and so many architects and designers are excited about using them as building blocks. And why not? there are thousands of them lying around, they are really strong, and are pretty cheap. In Denmark, worldFLEXhome is using them to build "sustainable and flexible danish housing". They have built a pilot home, designed by Danish architectural firm Arcgency and shipped all the way to the Chinese city of Wuxi. It is designed to Active House standards, which is not the opposite of Passive House, but " a vision of buildings that create healthier and more comfortable lives for their occupants without negative impact on the climate".
It provides yet another opportunity to wonder about whether shipping containers are really such a wonderful way to build.
It is built out of three containers, two on the high side and one on the low, with a roof spanning between. This is a logical approach since the shipping containers themselves are quite narrow, designed for freight and road transport rather than people.
Here one can see the basic structural idea. Prefabricated floor and ceiling panels can be shipped to the site inside the containers. the TRLU designation indicates that the containers were originally from TAL International, one of world's largest shipping container owners and managers, so it is hard to tell where the containers were bought.
The outside is clad in a framework to hold insulation; it is probably strong enough to hold up the roof.
The flex space is quite generous and attractive. The architects write:
The FLEX space is the heart of the house. It contains the living room, kitchen and can be used for multiple purposes. Parts of the room are double height, creating perfect lighting conditions. The rest of the space is one story height, defined by the landing that creates access to the spaces on the second floor. In each end of the FLEX space there is access to the surroundings and daylight. The boundary between inside and outside disappears, when the doors open. This is a fundamental part of the design; to be able to open let nature in. It is a consequence of having varying requirements for inside temperature and definitions of what domestic functions takes place inside and outside.
The bedrooms, not so generous, limited by the width of the shipping container. The interior cannot be more than 7'-6" wide, so the bed has to go at the end like this or you cannot get around it. The architect acknowledges that it is tight and offers options:
It is possible to remove the wall, or part of it, facing the FLEX space. This adds flexibility to the layout and shows the structural systems ability to adapt do different needs.
The design is based on Nordic values. Not only according to architecture, but also design objects. These values are defined as:
• Build for people, human values. – Good daylight conditions, different types of light.
• Reliable (long term) solutions. – Healthy materials, recyclable materials, design for disassembly strategies.
• Materials that age gracefully.
• Access to nature, greenery.
• Minimalistic look.
It's all very green and tries to do all the right things. It doesn't try to expose the shipping containers (which makes insulation and sealing difficult but looks so cool) but is using them simply as strong building blocks, you cannot see them inside or out. The architects use the containers for the small spaces and as support for the big spaces, without trying to squeeze a big living space out of little boxes. They are developing it as an export product, where containers make a lot of sense because of the universal handling and transport system.
But does it make sense?