Note: This is a “classic” Interesting Thing of the Day article from over 10 years ago. It has not been edited recently, so it may contain broken links, outdated information, or other infelicities. We plan to eventually update or retire most classic articles, as time permits.

In the years I’ve lived in San Francisco I have seen more than my fair share of cargo shipping containers—sometimes being hoisted by cranes in the busy Port of Oakland, other times filling the decks of gigantic freighters passing through the Golden Gate. They have become so ubiquitous that I almost don’t see them at all; they are just one part of the Bay area landscape. When I have noticed them, it has only been to ponder the immense scale of the global economy, and to imagine the variety of goods they may be carrying. Although I may view them only as vehicles of commerce, there are some who have re-imagined these behemoths in an exciting new way. They have looked at shipping containers and said, “I could live in one of those.”

While the mention of people living in shipping containers may bring to mind horrible images of would-be immigrants forced into appalling living conditions by leaders of smuggling rings, I am not talking about that kind of living arrangement. Instead, I am referring to savvy architects and planners who have seen the benefits of incorporating shipping containers into their designs for homes, schools, youth centers and live/work complexes.

Shipping News

The use of modern shipping containers first developed in the mid-fifties in Denmark, Canada, and the United States. These containers soon became invaluable, as their use streamlined the transportation of goods between ports and inland destinations via railroad cars and large trucks. They were created to be easily stackable and made sturdy to withstand wind and water, and these same attributes are what make shipping containers so attractive to architects and builders.

In addition to their sturdiness and flexibility, shipping containers have other benefits. Designers looking for more environmentally friendly construction methods can practice recycling by using decommissioned containers from shipping companies. These containers are also much cheaper than standard building materials (sometimes by as much as half), and with their use, buildings can be assembled in much less time, with lower labor costs.

Another advantage to shipping containers is that they are easy to transport, having been designed expressly for that purpose. This can facilitate their use in disaster situations, allowing re-purposed containers to arrive quickly in areas where temporary housing is desperately needed. It also means that containers can be worked on in one location, and then easily transferred to the actual building site in another area when needed.

Contain Yourself

While building with shipping containers may make economic and environmental sense, who would want to live in a windowless metal box? Designers have gotten around this limitation in a variety of ways, most notably by incorporating containers into larger construction projects, cutting and shaping the existing containers as necessary. However, there have also been exciting projects created with only one shipping container, such as a “sauna box” developed by a Toronto design firm; a portable utility module that provides remote locations with water, power, and heating capabilities; and a girls’ athletic facility in South Africa.

The next level up from the single container structures are private homes designed using multiple containers. Zigloo Domestique, built using eight containers, was created by designer Keith Dewey in Victoria, British Columbia. The containers form the frame of the unique house he shares with his wife and daughter. Another example of this type of structure is a Redondo Beach house, designed and currently under construction by DeMaria Design Associates. According to their Web site, the new home will be “mold proof, fire proof” and “termite proof.”

Come Together

The most ambitious projects undertaken using shipping containers are large-scale housing and office complexes, such as Container Cities I and II in London. Designed by Urban Space Management, Container City I is located at Trinity Buoy Wharf in London’s Docklands district, and comprises 12 work studios and three live/work apartments. Amazingly, it only took four days to install, and 80% of it is made from recycled material. Following the success of Container City I, Container City II was built adjacent to it in 2002. Notable for its ziggurat shape and bright colors, Container City II hosts 22 studios on five floors.

This development, as well as many others being designed and built around the world, may herald the shape of things to come. With its economic, environmental, logistical, and practical benefits, shipping container architecture provides a compelling alternative to conventional building methods. —Morgen Jahnke

More Information

The fabprefab Web site has a very useful and extensive list of shipping container building projects around the world.

Urban Space Management, based in London, UK, has created a variety of container projects, including Container Cities I and II.

cover art

LOT/EK, an architecture firm based in New York, has produced a book about their work with shipping containers. LOT/EK: Mobile Dwelling Unit by Henry Urbach, Robert Kronenberg, Aaron Betsky, and Christopher Scoates, is available from