In the quest towards sustainable architecture and green building design, shipping containers are becoming the next big choice. The idea of using shipping containers for architecture, popularly referred to as ‘Cargotecture’ has promise. They are available in plenty and are littered across the globe on shipping docks and railway lines. In most instances, sending back containers is more expensive than buying new ones therefore presenting the opportunity to use them as building blocks.
Containers by nature are designed to be easy to transport and lift – a green flag for easy and quick building methods. They are built in modular sizes of 6 x 2.4 x 2.5m and 12 x 2.4 x 2.5m, making it easier to create spaces inside. Moreover, containers can take tonnes of vertical load – ideal for any kind of function. The boxes can also be stacked to create more floors, thus also allowing easy future expansion. Cargotecture thus becomes especially useful in situations where fast construction is required, for eg. in rehabilitation spaces, disaster struck places or social housing. The reduction in waste of these giant metal boxes by ‘recycling’ them as living spaces is another step in the green direction.
LOT-EK, a New York based design firm who has experimented a lot with Cargotecture serve a good example to study the potential of the material. They’ve designed a residence in New York using 21 containers in a 25×100 plot. The Carroll House goes against the conventional new York single house typology of one structure with a backyard by cutting the containers diagonally, creating an open space at every level. High cube containers (40 x 8 x 9.5 ft) are stacked in rows and columns to create levels. These are punctuated with spillover deck areas. Painted rustic brown, the interior design also follows a more industrial vibe with corrugated walls and thin fixed glass windows.
‘Sheltainer’ a social housing concept by UAE based architects Mouaz Abouzaid, Bassel Omara & Ahmed Hammad, makes another compelling case for Cargotecture. The housing project is envisioned in Cairo, Egypt for low income groups and student. This vibrant project reimagines shipping containers as living and shared spaces keeping refugees and homeless as the main stakeholders. With the modular advantage of containers, private house units are put together in clusters with semi open spaces in intervals. These community spaces are automatically generated with the variable stacking in the containers in the form of shaded spaces or decks.
The downside of using shipping containers for architecture is that in some cases they are still less green than conventional wood framing. The initial manufacture of a container itself, as well as its transportation and assembly uses considerable amount of energy. More is spent in making it habitable as they have to be thoroughly treated and cleaned to remove chemicals from its corrugated surfaces. These chemicals which are applied to the container for safe transportation of goods and merchandise can be harmful if inhaled regularly by humans. Even though fittings and fixtures like glass, wood flooring, lighting, electricity is easy to achieve inside of a shipping container, it comes at a certain cost and ecological footprint. The durability and strength of the box is high, however so is the temperature inside the metal box. It is important to create a good air conditioning system to make the space livable and thus containers might not be the best choice for hotter climate zones.
Tackling the over-population and resulting housing crisis in the world can be challenging. Cargotecture poses a possible if not perfect solution. It reduces overproduction and consequential waste and promotes recycling of ready made living niches. This can prove to be miracle solution for increasingly displaced populations especially in war struck countries, nations struggling with natural disasters because of climate change. Temporary architectural solutions for exhibitions, relief work or pop-up testing centres / clinics for the ongoing Corona pandemic can also be explored. In these scenarios, cargotecture also becomes a statement that we are not done inventing!