Almost 500,000 buildings have arrived at the Port of Los Angeles this year. Well- not exactly. Over 490,000 shipping containers have arrived, though. If there’s a design trend that has caught the world by storm over the past decade, it’s been the rise in transforming shipping containers into buildings as a form of architecture. But are shipping container buildings just a fad that was used to propel ideas about taking every day or is there more substance to creating giant Jenga-inspired structures?
It’s important to note that shipping container architecture is hardly a new concept. Fascination with them and their potential date back to the late 1960s, when Reyner Banham wrote an essay about container ports and their representation of the technological advancements of cities. Banham introduced the idea of shipping containers being similar to a “plug-and-play” type of architecture, praised for their industrial-inspired metabolist and simplistic nature. Years later, the first-ever built shipping container home was designed in 1987 by Phillip Clark, who even patented his personal process of turning these raw, steel boxes into occupiable spaces. Gaining more popularity with each passing year, shipping containers have become synonymous with architecture, heavily relying on the much-desired raw grunginess and the illusion of a cost-effective design solution to perpetuate their appeal en masse.
One of the many reasons people like shipping container homes is because of their claim to being sustainable. But are they actually sustainable, or do they loosely borrow that term to describe something that’s just in abundance? Shipping containers alone can’t be lived in they’re inherently dark, dingy, and not insulated, and their dimensions make them less than ideal for common planning ratios, meaning that a lot of work goes into transforming containers into something that feels comfortable and spacious. What does that mean in terms of costs?
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Breaking it down, to build a DIY (Do It Yourself) container home, materials and the container alone run for about 22,000- 32,000 USD. Add in the average cost of land at about 5,000-10,000 USD an acre, the actual fees to pay contractors for the work it takes to construct the home, the costs of permitting, plumbing and electricity installation, and other miscellaneous costs, then a shipping container home might cost upwards of 100,000 USD. While cheaper than the average price of a home in the United States (which currently costs about 385,000 USD), most shipping container homes fall under the tiny house trend, and only measure at close to 320 square feet. Broken down into cost per square foot, they compare at a more expensive price than homes in even some of the most costly cities in the US. It takes significant effort, money, and time to take something so materialistically durable and turn it into something with the human condition in mind.
While not always practical, and leaning towards the side of a fad movement that has perhaps seen its heyday, there is something that can be learned from the last decade of shipping container buildings. There’s a certain aesthetic that they lend themselves to, and with that, have generated interest in how architects can use the abundance of everyday items and turn it into something that is worthy of design exploration. And in a world where there’s always a need for buildings and innovative methods to construct them, maybe we should instead see this trend as the kick start to something bigger. Let’s not celebrate the container-to-building movement, but leave them to their original purpose. Instead, we can celebrate the conversation around the potential for what this movement could become.