Another Container House- Really?

The incorporation of shipping container in architectural projects is a now widely used technique when it comes to green and alternative architecture. They are cheap and their uniform structure and regular cuboid shape makes them easy to handle and to transport. There are plenty of unused, cheaply available containers all around the world, because often the containers are left behind after they have been used.

The steadily rising demand for affordable dwellings, caused by a growing level of urbanization and nevertheless by the increasingly number of population and mass migration, give a reasonable impression that shipping containers could be the solution- but is container architecture really as sustainable as it seems to be?

Shipping containers were constructed to endure the harsh conditions on the high sea, therefore the metal structure is treated with harmful chemicals, such as chromate, phosphorus and lead-based paint. To prevent the risk of spreading pests, the wooden floors are treated with toxic insecticides and it requires a tedious and costly cleaning before reusing the boxes. For this reason, some architecture projects don’t reuse old containers, but buying new ones from China, apparently this doesn’t make these projects green at all. Jamie van Tongeren, CEO of the Australian manufacturer Container Build Group states that his company is only using brand new containers.

“It’s definitely unsafe to use the old ones, they’re really the unknown. I wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole.”

Combining or stacking containers seem to be as easy as playing with lego bricks, but to do so, the structure reinforcement has to be anticipated. A shipping container is made out of a corrugated steel frame, constructed to bear loads on the corner points. If there are any deviations from the original use of the structure, such as openings in any of the walls, reinforcements need to be applied. Furthermore, the dimensions of a standard container make it difficult to create a usable living space, as the boxes are narrow and have low ceilings; in addition to that, the choice of an internal insulation, which is applied in most of the cases adds a new set of walls on the inside that narrows the space even more. Thermal bridges and condensation are common issues resulting out of the difficulties of creating a thermal enclosure when combining the boxes.

When deciding to use shipping containers in architectural projects, it should be taken in consideration that its not always a low-energy alternative and the efficiency as well as the sustainability should be questioned in advance.

Reusing containers might make sense in the context of temporary living solutions, for example in the process of disaster relief or when an immediate assistance is requested, but in most of the cases these containers fail to meet the essential requirements for a long term residency.

Nevertheless, there are many interesting approaches to the reuse of shipping containers in an architectural context. Check out the projects listed below.

Container houses for homeless

Temporary student village

Student apartments in Johannesburg

What I wish I´d know before

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