It’s time to end the “shipping container recycling” fad in architecture

Shipping containers in conceptual architecture have become shorthand for “recycling” and “environmental sustainability”, and yet they are neither. You should run a mile from any architectural company that is genuinely enthusiastic about the potential of shipping containers, for the reasons I’ll explain below.

  1. The most important point: you’re not “recycling” shipping containers at all. Architects think they are, but here’s the nature of steel: you can melt it back down again and make it into a hundred thousand steel screws. When you use those screws you can build ten or twenty or fifty timber frame houses. That’s how you maximise recycling steel.
  2. Steel is 5,000 times more thermally conductive than timber or brick. This means shipping containers will get exceptionally hot in summer, and they have zero ventilation unless you drill holes into the sides.
  3. If you drill holes into the walls, then they’re going to be exceptionally cold. In winter the steel walls will be incredibly cold, way colder than the dewpoint for condensation to occur. Warm, moist internal air will cause water to run down the inside walls. This is the reason we don’t ever, ever, ever use steel as the fabric wall element of houses. Steel as structural beam: yes. Steel as structural shell: no way.
  4. The average height of a shipping container is between 2.59m to 2.89m. If you’re converting it you’re going to need a ceiling void for lighting, plumbing and ventilation and a floor void so you’re not walking on bare, cold steel. For that you’ll lose 300mm top and bottom, so now you’re in a long, thin room that’s barely 2m high.
  5. Because shipping containers are designed for the rough, salty air of the high seas they are painted in highly durable and highly caustic paints. If you don’t want to kill your future inhabitants you’ll have to scrape off this dangerous paint (more prep work, more wastage).
  6. You’ll also have to repair any rust that’s occurred from a lifetime being sprayed by seawater.
  7. Shipping containers are designed to stack. The actual walls are paper thin, designed to protect the internally-stabilised shipping products from the weather. They carry products, not people. As such, the walls cannot take any weight for windows or doors to be hung from – you’ll need to reinforce them with lintels for that (more work, more steel, more excess).
  8. Also, shipping containers are designed structurally only to stack on top of one another at their four corners ONLY. If you’re a kooky architect that likes pushing the envelope you’ll have to reinforce the points where you want to stack another shipping container (even more work, more steel).
  9. You’re now adding steel to something you were attempting to recycle to save steel because it wasn’t designed for what you thought it was. That is not smart design, it’s not “DIY living”, or “modular” construction.
  10. Cutting into an old shipping container that is decades-old, chemical-treated steel is tough, dirty, dangerous work. That’s not a nice thing to force the builders actually making your project to do, so why make them?
  11. It’s at least as expensive to retrofit a shipping container as it is to build a timber frame home – so why bother?

To sum up, using shipping containers to make any sort of liveable space is irresponsible, bad for the environment and terrible for the people that are involved. I really hope this is one architectural fad that dies out soon. The fact that London architect James Whitaker is in the middle of a commission to build one in Joshua National Park, California, next year, describing it as “visionary”, tells me that sadly it’s not. Yet.

Boycott any architect that rolls out this dangerous and environmentally reckless fad until they do.

And if you’re still convinced shipping containers are amazing, read this article about the regrets people have had in choosing to try and adapt to live in a shipping container.

1 thought on “It’s time to end the “shipping container recycling” fad in architecture”

  1. Thanks very much for your lucid points on the shipping container fad. I also wanted to build a home with them, but rather than live IN them, i wanted to arrange them in a circle or square, separated with tall glass windows. That way the containers would remain closed, with no holes or cuts to their envelope, and perhaps only limited insulation put around them. The living space would be between the containers siting on steel joists that would span the foundations for the containers. Im excited at the idea of using the containers as storage so that the main home space could be minimalist and save me having a bunch of outbuildings like lots of country homes tend to have. The outbuildings would be the walls. I’m not worried about land use because this is a dream home scenario in the future that would sit in the middle of a large plot of land in France somewhere. I thought that the airtight seal on them might make them excellent insulation for walls, and structurally sound supports for an large pitched roof structure over the top. Do you this is a silly idea also? Do you think the stability and insulation benefits of a container full of air would be cheaper, stronger or more insulative than brick, concrete, SIP and timber, or anything else? Thanks! Jason


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