The Pros and Cons of Cargo Container Architecture

Photo by Håkan Dahlström - http://www.flickr.com/photos/dahlstroms/

With the green premise growing in popularity across the globe, more and more people are turning to cargo container structures for green alternatives. There are countless numbers of empty, unused shipping containers around the world just sitting on shipping docks taking up space. The reason for this is that it’s too expensive for a country to ship empty containers back to their origin. In most cases, it’s just cheaper to buy new containers from Asia. The result is an extremely high surplus of empty shipping containers that are just waiting to become a home, office, apartment, school, dormitory, studio, emergency shelter, and everything else. More information after the break.

There are copious benefits to the so-called shipping container architecture model. A few of these advantages include: strength, durability, availability, and cost. The abundance and relative cheapness (some sell for as little as $900) of these containers during the last decade comes from the deficit in manufactured goods coming from North America. These manufactured goods come to North America, from Asia and Europe, in containers that often have to be shipped back empty at a considerable expense. Therefore, new applications are sought for the used containers that have reached their final destination.

Photo by SlapBcn - http://www.flickr.com/photos/slapbcn/

On November 23, 1987, Phillip C. Clark file for a United States patent describe as a “Method for converting one or more steel shipping containers into a habitable building at a building site and the product thereof.” This patent was granted on August 8, 1989 as patent 4854094. The diagrams and information contained within the documentation of the patent appear to lay the groundwork for many current shipping container architectural ideas.

In 2006, Southern California architect Peter DeMaria, designed the first two-story shipping container home in the U.S. as an approved structural system under the strict guidelines of the nationally recognized Uniform Building Code. Even more impressive is Lot-Tek’s Puma City, which was built with abundant material at a low price, without substituting design quality. As such, there are many great examples of shipping container architecture in the world.

, Photo by Ari Herzog - http://www.flickr.com/photos/ari-herzog/

Shipping container architecture gets a lot of encouraging coverage in the design world as a trendy green alternative to traditional building materials, and seems like a smart choice for people looking for eco-consciousness. However, there are a lot of downsides to building with cargo containers. For instance, the coatings used to make the containers durable for ocean transport also happen to contain a number of harmful chemicals, such as chromate, phosphorous, and lead-based paints. Moreover, wood floors that line the majority of shipping container buildings are infused with hazardous chemical pesticides like arsenic and chromium to keep pests away.

Photo by mr.push - http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr-push/

Reusing containers seems to be a low energy alternative, however, few people factor in the amount of energy required to make the box habitable. The entire structure needs to be sandblasted bare, floors need to be replaced, and openings need to be cut with a torch or fireman’s saw. The average container eventually produces nearly a thousand pounds of hazardous waste before it can be used as a structure. All of this, coupled with the fossil fuels required to move the container into place with heavy machinery, contribute significantly to its ecological footprint.

Another downside is that dimensionally, an individual container creates awkward living/working spaces. Taking into account added insulation, you have a long narrow box with less than eight foot ceiling. To make an adequate sized space, multiple boxes need to be combined, which again, requires energy.

Photo by john.duffell - http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnduffell/

In many areas, it is cheaper and less energy to build a similarly scaled structure using wood framing. Shipping container homes makes sense where resources are scarce, containers are in abundance, and where people are in need of immediate shelter such as, developing nations and disaster relief. While there are certainly striking and innovative examples of architecture using cargo containers, it is typically not the best method of design and construction.

Photos: Flickr user: Håkan Dahlström, Flick user: wendyfairy, Flickr user: SlapBcn, Flick user: RO/LU, Flickr user: pakitt, Flickr user: OneGoodEye, Flickr user: mr.push, Flickr user: Mr. Kimberly, Flickr user: Matt Brock, Flickr user: mark.hogan, Flick user: macguys, Flickr user: lorigami, Flickr user: john.duffell, Flickr user: JaviC, Flick user: Dom Dada, Flickr user: Ari Herzog
References: firmitas

Cite: Pagnotta, Brian. "The Pros and Cons of Cargo Container Architecture" 29 Aug 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 23 Apr 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=160892>

27 comments

  1. Thumb up Thumb down +4

    Question for the author. I’ve been doing research on shipping containers and have not found much info on the plywood floors and exactly what and how they are treated. Can you share the resource for your information regarding possible hazardous chemicals? Thanks.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +3

      The container floors are typically made from 28mm (1.1/8″) thick Apitong plywood. Most Apitong comes from Southeast Asia and Brazil. It is decay resistant (similar to iron wood, teak and mahogany) and good for exterior projects. Besides container floors, it is often used for truck and ship decks.

  2. Thumb up Thumb down +5

    In TreeHugger I just called this ” one of the most balanced and thoughtful articles I have seen on the subject of container architecture.”

  3. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    I’ve been looking into building a garage from shipping containers. Some of the “cons” wouldn’t seem to apply (toxicity, for example) as much as they would when used for a dwelling. Or am I wrong?

  4. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    Containers have been used in the war zone for quite awhile. After spending 15 months living/working in Afghanistan I can attest that they are more than adequate for temporary housing – or even permanent (somewhat permanent) housing in some parts of the world. I have seen 2-story office and dormitory structures created from containers. They can easily be combined and altered in many ways to create a functional, usuable space.

  5. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    Very interesting, but can you give me your source of information about the toxicity? do you have scientific studies of that? or simply you are guessing? I will appreciate your answer, thanks

  6. Thumb up Thumb down -4

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

  7. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    Hi, I’m currently an undergrad at OSU looking into the use of shipping containers as potential for coastal subsidized housing communities in the Global South–specifically in Brazil and South Africa. I’d be really interested in acquiring your sources, especially about toxicity levels.

    Please contact me at stults.8@osu.edu

  8. Thumb up Thumb down -1

    Eu gostaria de saber como fazer para retirar os residuos toxicos, já que estão impregnados nos conteiners.
    Obrigado.

  9. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    Shipping container floors are treated with:
    “IM/ Tailileum 300/2006,” which contains formaldehyde. Google it. 

    I copied this from a container on our property that was manufactured in China, in 2007. 

  10. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Shipping container floors are treated with:
    “IM/ Tailileum 300/2006,” which contains formaldehyde. Google it. 

    I copied this from a container on our property that was manufactured in China, in 2007. 

    CYa

  11. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    hey,
    i am looking to start a venture in low cost housing using shipping containers in India. could you please tell me more about the cons of shipping containers, when they are used as housing options, especially about the toxicity of the materials they are made with and how to treat them??
    please contact me at gurtoo_ashu@yahoo.com

  12. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    I will be looking into this information you have cited. However I wonder about the smell when you walk into a “cheap” furniture store that smell is formaldehyde so is the flooring in these containers any worse?? Mobile homes (new) also have that odor – I am sure I’m not extra sensitive to this. Also wouldn’t sanding and sealing them contain this problem?? Just wondering – as many people jumping on this and being approved by building codes are you being a bit negative for a particular reason? Like I said I will be looking into this more because this is the first article I have read that didn’t think this was a good idea.

  13. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    I am interested in building a home out of shipping containers on my property. I do not need any permits and can do what I want as I own and live on a reservation in Ontario. Does any one of a site I can work with to do a DIY project. Thanks

  14. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Interesting claims but where is the evidence? Your only citation is a website that is pro-containers. Where does the claim of 1000 pounds of waste come from?

  15. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    “1000 pounds of waste” means the designer did not consider potential reuse of the cutouts. Use the metal from the window opening as shutters. Use the metal from the door opening as a roof over the door so visitors don’t get wet waiting for you to open the door. Use the metal from room openings as roofing for a shed. You get the idea. This metal can be reused many ways. It is not saw-dust.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      To “Poor Richard”
      Totally agree with the usability of the material cut out of the containers. With just a bit of thought as you suggested there will be zero waste. Cheers

  16. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Are shipping containers conversions more toxic than renovating an old victorian or midcentury modern home? Why not present informstion on how those issues were overcome. Not very balanced. High energy bills, high building cost, etc its quite possible that new building ideas and technology may be fueled and developed outside of traditional areas….but that’s just plain old American ingenuity.

  17. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    hello, i’m a masters student at the university of Lagos, Nigeria.i’m carrying out a research on using containers for markets in tropics to curb security and economic challenges. I’ll need all the information i can get on their basic construction.

  18. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    not to be a troll… but the entire world is now made up of hazardous material, and if its on the outside of the conatiner… who cares? its not like i lick the walls of my home on a semi-regular basis. The negatives, having to take out the wood floor, and sand blast, are not really that big of a deal. Every single day we learn about something else that is hazardous to our health… hell, tomorrow it could be proven that the internet causes cancer.

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