Thanks largely to its status as a hotbed of contemporary design innovation, the city of Copenhagen has become one of the most desirable places in the world to live. Yet, as has been seen in places like Manhattan, increased desirability can come at a cost to local residents. Due to rapid growth and a successful university system, Copenhagen has fallen upon a shortage of both student housing and land available for traditional development. The only open, affordable land in the city is located within ports – but it is currently zoned to be protected from any permanent construction projects.
Enter Danish company CPH Containers and architect Søren Nielsen, a partner at Danish firm Vandkunsten Architects. By creating a structure of shipping containers, the team has created a student village that acts a temporary complex, able to vacate the land upon short notice with its close proximity to existing transportation infrastructure.
The trend of shipping container construction is one that has inspired polarizing views from within the architecture community. But regardless of your views on their success as a permanent building element, if preserved correctly, shipping container structures still maintain one quality that other building types do not: transportability. CPH have preserved the container’s inherent transportability through easy access to bolted joints and the placing of insulation on the interior of the containers. Since the structure requires little on-site construction, the site can be left behind exactly the way it was found. With this strategy, the company can provide much needed housing in an area previously considered unusable.
For CPH, the student village is an extension of their CPH Shelter designs, which act as standalone residences and contain many of the same strategies and techniques as the village. In the student village, the units are designed to take maximum advantage of their compact floorplan without sacrificing comfort or amenity. The unit’s central room is created by cutting a 40-foot container in two halves and pulling them two meters apart, creating a large living area flanked by two niches for the bedroom and bathroom. The bedroom alcove faces the living room and features a daybed that can be used as seating and sleeping, thereby saving the space traditionally dissolved by the redundant functions of a sofa and a bed.
One of the recurring struggles in container home design is finding an interior material palette that is compatible with the container’s aesthetic while contributing to the homes’ versatility and comfortability. To resolve this, Nielsen chose to outfit the interiors with wood surfaces. Due to its naturally porous cell structure, Wood provides moisture-balancing properties and little temperature radiation, creating a comfortable sitting surface that is neither too warm nor too cold. Choosing wood also means that less durable, toxic surface treatments such as paint and synthetic plastering can be avoided. By using the same board dimensions for wall and floor treatments, a box-like atmosphere is created, and the anticipated need for disassembling the two parts of the plan can be elegantly solved by hiding joints behind the easily-dismantlable boards. More innovation can be found in the ceiling, where low cost fire-proof fiberboards are mounted using standard aluminum profile brackets, also contributing to the unit’s dismantlability.
As for the unit’s window pattern, Nielsen believes that while natural light is essential for a home, more light does not always equate to better light: “What creates a comfortable light climate is a balance between lighter and darker places. Even a very small residence should contain both qualities. The darker places provide security and comfort, the lighter places provide clarity and energy.”
Perhaps most important was finding a breathable insulation system that could be mounted on the interior surfaces to preserve the container's transportation capacity. To combat the issue of condensation—an inevitable consequence of the exoskeleton nature of a shipping container—CPH selected wood-fibre insulation batts coupled with automated mechanical exhaust systems in the bathroom and kitchen. The capillary action of the wood-fibres draws moisture to the outer surface of the batts and onto the inward profile of the steel. This surface can be sprayed with an antibiotic treatment to prevent any light mold from forming. The complex also strives to achieve as low a carbon footprint as possible, sourcing local containers and reused materials whenever possible.
CPH anticipates that the land housing their student village will someday be rezoned and available for traditional development. When that day comes, the village will be disassembled, transported, and reassembled in a new untapped location. By retaining the inherent qualities of the container, CPH has also created an architecture that fills a much needed gap in Copenhagen’s housing market.
Correction update: A previous version of this article failed to specify that architect Søren Nielsen is a partner at Vandkunsten Architects. It has since been changed.