Shipping container design and building. Pros and cons.

French container house, via Treehugger.

French container house via Treehugger.

When politics and social justice news gets all too depressing, which is fairly frequently, I hop on over to the green design blogs like treehugger and inhabitat for some nicer stuff. Especially treehouses. Those and many other green design sites report on the growing trend in building with shipping containers. People are doing some pretty impressive stuff with them.

Back in February I wrote a roundup post with a whole lot of photos of container housing and it continues to be very popular. Today there’s been a heap more articles on the topic around the traps including a couple investigating the downside of using old containers for habitation. I must confess, I’d never thought of the toxins in the paint that the things are covered in, in order to survive months at sea.

There’s lots of gorgeous photos in the article at Designbloom.

At ArchDaily Brian Pagnotta wrote a very thoughtful article considering all the ups and downs of building with containers and I thought it was worth sharing.

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.

That’s a fair point. Not many people would use treated pine in their gardens, especially if they’re growing food. So you wouldn’t want your family walking around on the stuff all day and night.

Here’s a studio design that worked around a few of the problems by using a refrigerated container that had been designed for transporting food. In theory that should be at least lined with safe material.

The owner of that studio has written his own article investigating the reality of shipping container buildings.

I grew up around shipping containers; my dad made them. I played with them in architecture school, designing a summer camp out of them, fascinated by the handling technology that made them cheap and easy to move. But in the real world I found them to be too small, too expensive, and too toxic.

Well they’re certainly small when it comes to width. As a bedsit, it would have to be a single bed. Many of the current designs stack them next to each other and cut away sections for this reason. In Australia they’re also much more expensive. You can pay $2,500 or $3,000 for a container and then have to shell out hundreds to get the thing delivered. While you don’t need permits to use them, currently, there are still building guidelines in many municipalities that limit new homes to having to be a certain number of square metres, or on small blocks, or even what colour they’re painted. Large McMansions on small blocks is rampant stupidity when it comes to unsustainable planning, yet it continues because of appearances.

But the high cost, unsustainable practises and huge amount of waste created by building conventional houses makes alternatives look better and better. Earth bag, adobe, rammed earth and mud brick are more labour intensive but cheaper and cleaner than conventional or container housing.

So what are we going to do with all these empty containers that are just sitting around the place? Steel does recycle pretty well, although there’s still the issue of the toxins and contaminants in the paint. If they get turned into low cost public housing, it’s likely to turn into slums. Well planned student accomodation and bed sits are an option, although all this raises the point, yet again, of why we continue to ship plastic crap in laps around the planet in order to prop up growth economics and consumerism. Surely the better option is to address that, since it has such enormous and harmful impact on the planet.


About Syburi

Witch, bitch, creatrix; hippie, dreamer, gardener. Lover of books, music, rescue animals, piss and vinegar.
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4 Responses to Shipping container design and building. Pros and cons.

  1. Jim says:

    The advantages of using shipping containers as your construction building blocks include:

    They are inexpensive. A used container will cost between $800 and $6000 each, depending on size, age, condition and distance from the building site. Each 40 foot container gives you 320 square feet. .

    Energy concerns. It takes far less energy to reuse shipping containers in a building than to melt them down and reform then into steel beams. Add solar panels and even the ongoing energy use will be green.

    Examples of plans can be found HERE-

    • Syburi says:

      I agree, there are substantial benefits in building with shipping containers. Not least of which is not having to send them back on another lap around the planet to transport more cheap, shitty consumables. Be aware, however, of the issues relating to toxic paint and insulation.

  2. Eric says:

    How would you insulate the house(2-3 floors- 6-9 of them)? For heat I would go with the ceramic paint but for the cold… Inside? Outside? Keeping in mind space, look(would like the outsida of the box to show), structural frame (direct contact with the outside)…

    • Syburi says:

      I think rather than take up any of the interior space it might make more sense to have some insulation outside. What type you use would probably depend on the climate. To be honest I’d go for hemp-crete which has a nice rendered sort of texture, is Green friendly and durable. Some people start with refrigerated containers because they already have some insulation and can have less toxic paint and stuff in them. If you’re in a really temperate or warm area, shade trees might do the trick on their own. Perhaps one or two sides could feature the outside of the containers and the rest another external material?

      This morning an article was shared with me about the winner of this year’s Solar Decathlon. The design incorporated air flow for both heating and cooling. It might be something to possibly consider with your 2 or 3 storey design, having space between the storeys.

      Do you have any ideas or designs online? It would be an interesting project I wouldn’t mind following.

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