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Think Outside the Box…Literally

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They came in red, blue, yellow, and every other color imaginable. Some were made of plastic with ridges and others were wooden and smooth. You used them to create the most imaginative buildings and let your young, innovate mind churn. Has the nostalgia kicked in yet? 

You may think back to your childhood building blocks fondly as a thing of the past, but there’s a grown-up version available that resemble modern, real-life building blocks: shipping containers. 

From single-family homes to office buildings, restaurants, and other unique spaces, shipping containers are being used worldwide for many different purposes. Some are painted in bright colors, while others are more neutral. Some projects feature stacks of containers; others are single story. 

Shipping container construction often results in some eye-catching structures. But, as with any other project, container developments come with a unique set of challenges that often motivate builders to literally think outside the box.  

The Container Conundrum 

Elizabeth Debs, a Providence, Rhode Island-based architect and part of the advisory group for the American Institute of Architects’ Housing and Community Development Knowledge Community, says she considers shipping containers better suited for commercial developments. 

This is mainly because the size and weight of containers may pose challenges in many residential areas. However, what works best for each project can vary. 

“I think newer generations of homeowners are trying to make a smaller footprint, and that’s very admirable. If you’re comfortable living in less square footage, then a container makes sense.”  

Containers come in a variety of sizes and shapes. They are usually 20-foot or 40-foot long and 8 feet wide. They come in the shape of cubes or other dimensions, and can range from 4,800 to 8,400 pounds!

Because of their weight, containers must be placed on the building site using a crane. While this is a challenge and a large expense in itself, a prefabricated structure can sometimes be the best solution for certain projects and building sites.   

“You may have a less accessible site, where you might not have building materials or a labor force to put things together,” Debs says, explaining that it’s situations like these where shipping containers can be most useful. Also, using a prefabricated structure can sometimes speed up the building process. 

In more traditional instances, she explains, “It’s quicker and cheaper to use a crew to set up a light wood frame structure than it is to crane in a 5,000-pound steel structure.” 

Shipping containers, in their raw form, are essentially large steel boxes. This means they require different kinds of construction methods than traditional building to turn them into functioning structures. 

Windows and doors must be cut. Plumbing, electrical, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning must be carefully planned and installed. There are also thermal-comfort issues and the need for insulation. 

Stacking containers creates another challenge. Depending on the design of the development and how containers need to be stacked, it usually requires additional steel reinforcement

Shipping container construction often requires a different skillset than that of  traditional building. This includes strong metal work and heavy equipment expertise, Debs explains. 

Anecdotally, Debs shared instances where some shipping containers previously held toxic materials, which had to be addressed before building. It’s also difficult to see the containers before purchasing, so they can sometimes arrive damaged.  

Then, there’s the issue of how municipalities deal with building permits and zoning issues, which can widely vary based on location. 

Innovative Spaces 

While building with shipping containers comes with elements of recycling and up-cycling, their actual ecological footprint may be difficult to measure compared to other green building practices. 

“It’s a pretty hefty amount of steel,” says Debs, who has worked in the planning community development, and nonprofit sectors. 

“I think it’s not an obvious sustainable practice, but it’s a nice way to deal with some leftover stuff. It appeals more to a niche of hipper, innovative kind of people who consciously choose it.” 

Despite the challenges associated with shipping container construction and the sustainability debate, there are many thoughtfully designed developments that have incorporated containers in interesting ways, says Debs, the AIA housing group’s designated “container person.” 

One of her favorite shipping container developments is The Box Office in Providence. This development includes 12 small offices and studios, catering to entrepreneurs, startups, and small businesses. It is also one of the largest container structures in the United States and emphasizes energy efficiency. 

Debs also serves as a studio critic at the Rhode Island School of Design, and says her students studied the SEED Library in South Africa. This shipping container library was created to be a prototype for future libraries that can be mobile.  

Another of her favorite projects is the Containers on Grand shipping container residential community in Phoenix, Arizona. The community features one bedroom, 740-square-foot spaces. And, she says, the many single-family homes made from containers are another unique use of the materials and fall in line with the tiny house movement. 

“I think newer generations of homeowners are trying to make a smaller footprint, and that’s very admirable,” Debs explains. “If you’re comfortable living in less square footage, then a container makes sense.” 

Overall, Debs says shipping container developments likely take the same amount of work and cost just as much as traditional construction. It’s the innovative designs, inventive uses of materials, and up-cycling elements that make the building practice so unique and vital to keeping the construction industry fresh. 

“I think as an industry, it’s always good to push the edge on what we try,” she says. “The challenge with innovation in construction is that it’s a permanent thing. We have so many tried and true traditions and techniques. It can be harder to experiment [in building] than it is on something else less durable.” 


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