Shipping Container Architecture: Waste Not, Want Not

My grandfather used to live in a small lake house located on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, just across from New Orleans. I remember driving past the ports when we would visit and seeing the shipping yards full of shipping containers in every color of the rainbow, stacked higher than some buildings. The containers looked worn and sun-faded, with graffiti tattoos and rust-colored rain stains covering the sides, sitting idle with full bellies, waiting to go off on their next destination and adventure. I never thought about what they did with those giant metal boxes after they no longer had a use. Their enormousness made them seem indestructible, like they would last forever. Each container would travel the world, sharing secrets and collecting graffiti tattoos with each port it visited. I never thought of a shipping container being used as a space for living, shopping, eating, working, or even going to the hospital.

Shipping containers need to carry heavy loads and endure harsh weather elements, so they are built to be durable and strong, but ironically, they are not meant to last. The containers’ modular design and thick corrugated steel make them stackable, strong, easily transported, and ideal for secure storage. However, in the shipping industry, these containers have a life span of only about 10 to 15 years. Being that it is too expensive to reclaim the usable raw steel from a container after its usefulness has run out or to ship an empty container back to its country of origin, it is retired to a lot with the rest of its brethren, stacked twelve high and left to rust away. These metal monstrosities become eyesores to the community, pollute the environment, and decrease property values.

Because these dead shipping containers are both inexpensive and ideal building material, some eco-friendly developers and impoverished countries have already begun to make use of them. With global environmental awareness increasing, more people are shifting towards a greener way of living and turning to container structures for viable alternatives. Phillip C. Clark lay the groundwork for many current architectural plans back in 1989 with a patent for “converting one or more steel shipping containers into a habitable building at a building site and the product thereof,” and the process has been gaining momentum ever since. To make a container habitable, one simply needs to sandblast it, have the floors replaced, and cut openings into the sides for windows and doors.

In the design world, this architecture is noticed for its trendy green alternative to less desirable building materials. Likewise, in the eye of the eco-conscious consumer, container architecture has endless advantages, particularly in regard to strength, durability, accessibility, abundance, and price. Of equal or perhaps greater significance, in impoverished developing nations or disaster stricken areas in need of affordable shelter, this form of architecture serves as something more than just an appealing cultural statement. Necessity breeds invention and action. Hence, legions of abandoned and empty shipping containers that were previously wasting away in shipping docks around the world are now being snatched up and used as habitable and durable living spaces by those who have few alternatives and see the wisdom of capitalizing on this eco-friendly and cost-effective option.

container 3

Shipping containers as building material for living spaces

Forward-thinking institutes of higher learning are also making practical use of shipping container architecture. The University of Amsterdam was in need of expanded low-rent student housing when developers suggested building dorms constructed from old shipping containers. University administrators took the idea seriously, and through intelligent planning and construction, one of the most popular student dorms in the Netherlands was created. The Keetwonen student housing project has become the world’s largest shipping container city. A total of 1,000 containers were used to make up five blocks, each containing 250 units, fifty containers long and five high. The complex provides all the amenities a student could want.



Though some feared the container homes would be too noisy, too cold, too hot, and too small, they turned out to be spacious, quiet, and well insulated. Each small apartment has a private bathroom, kitchen, balcony, bedroom, and study room. Additionally, the apartments include high speed Internet, central audio phone systems for visitors, ventilation, thermostats, security systems, and 50 liter water tanks. Aside from the containers being environmentally friendly, each complex has an integrated rooftop that accommodates rainwater drainage while providing heat dispersal and insulation for containers below.

Student in recycled container dorm

Student in recycled container dorm

Natural disasters have led innovative communities to make use of shipping containers, too. In 2010, Christchurch, New Zealand was struck by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake followed by several aftershocks that continued through 2012. After the fist earthquake and aftershock, the city was in physical and financial ruins. Needing to find a way to rebuild the shopping district and maintain tourism, the city built a temporary “pop-up” mall out of shipping containers. As an added bonus, they made the mall earthquake proof. By using the shipping containers, they were able to rebuild the shops in a quick, efficient, and eco-friendly manner. The Re:START project, as it is called, took only eight weeks to assemble, is comprised of 60 containers, houses around 30 stores, and has a full food court. Thousands of patrons and tourists flock to shop and marvel at this state-of-the-art mall’s unique design and bright array of colors.


The Re:START community

People across the world are proving that something as simple as a shipping container can be used for much more than storing and shipping goods. Shipping containers could help rebuild Haiti, for instance. This could also prove true for areas affected not only by earthquakes, but also by tsunamis, hurricanes, fires, and war-ravaged regions. Reusing these metal boxes and turning them into livable structures is becoming a trend. For instance, France is now building their own student dorms modeled after those in Keetwonen. In Sydney, Australia, developers are building a 14-story apartment building out of the containers. Container architecture is no longer just a minor trend. It’s a smart and often necessary alternative.