What’s not wrong with shipping containers

That last post received far more traffic than I ever expected (What’s wrong with shipping container architecture? Everything), and continues to generate requests for quotes on shipping container projects in other cities. It has also received a thoughtful reply from architect Colleen Lashuk. In her reply she says :

There aren’t so very many things in the world of design that engage the general public to think about space in a creative and engaged way. Architecture has to work, but it also has to make us dream.

I couldn’t agree more, and I certainly don’t have a problem if someone wants to go out into the world and build his or her own home out of containers (or office or business). As I mentioned in the first post, there are instances where it might make a lot of sense to build something this way, and there may be cases where someone wants to spend a bit extra to get the shipping container aesthetic. There’s nothing wrong with that. You’re not going to be building a $5,000 home, but you might get something unique that doesn’t look like your neighbor’s place and you might have fun doing it.

My main criticisms were of the idea that shipping containers are a practical and cheap solution to housing large numbers people around the world (when I use the world “housing” I mean large multifamily housing, not one-off shipping container homes but these are rarely cheap either).  This is a trope that is decades old and is trotted out again and again, in support of projects usually entered into competitions. Even Tempohousing, a large company in the Netherlands that manufactures shipping container housing modules at scale states on their home page:

When we can reach you by road in Europe, modular units of 3 meter wide and up to 14 meter long may fit your needs better. These modules are not bound by strict transatlantic shipping standards and can be tailored exactly to your needs, as long as they fit on a truck.

The other issue is that speculative architecture should be interesting, thought-provoking, and not necessarily buildable. I get that part. It should make people ask questions, and probe issues without having to answer to the realities of architectural practice. However, shipping containers have been a recurring theme for several decades now, and it’s not exactly a ground-breaking idea. Lot Ek has done some very interesting work for a long time, as have others.

Looking back to the 1960s, Archigram worked on a project called Plug-In City that proposed megastructures with moving pieces that could be rearranged with cranes. In their own words:

The Plug-in City as a total project was the combination of a series of ideas that were worked upon between 1962 and 1964. The Metal Cabin Housing was a prototype in the sense that it placed removable house elements into a ‘megastructure’ of concrete. The discussions of Archigram 2 and 3 built up a pressure of argument in favour of expendable buildings: and it was then inevitable that we should investigate what happens if the whole urban environment can be programmed and structured for change.


Plug In City Section, via the Archigram Archive

These projects went on to inspire other architects, and continue to until this day. It was a years long creative project that tied into an entire body of speculative work, and was investigated in a variety of media, but Archigram didn’t spend a lot of time telling people how practical their idea was, or how it was going to save the world. Places Journal has a fantastic piece about the emergence of container urbanism that ties the 1960s to the present and investigates the differences between the two eras. 

Yes, you can build things out of shipping containers.  It may save you 15% off your construction costs (or it may cost a lot more in some cases), it has trade-offs and some benefits, and no, it’s not always eco-friendly (it’s actually down-cycling a lot of valuable steel). It can be a good way to build a movable temporary building.

Most importantly, I don’t actually want to tear down container buildings despite what the CBC might have you believe.


By Mark

Mark is an architect in San Francisco.