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Unexpected Inspiration

April 29, 2017

The large amounts of shipping containers available today provide architects with a new framework for unique building projects.

With cost effectiveness and timing being two of the most important factors in building today, shipping containers have become a solution in both residential and commercial projects. As something that is made with an intention of transporting and storing goods, modern buildings have given the containers a brand new purpose. Shipping containers are purpose-built as they are essentially large boxes, much like a corrugated cardboard box that provides strength and rigidity to form an enclosure. According to Jim Garrison of Garrison Architects in Brooklyn, N.Y., the containers are currently being used more as a resource as global shipping is in a bit of a depression, and they can be purchased at a very low price.

Shipping containers provide an easy-to-build solution that offers the basics in a living space along with unique aesthetics, short lead times, and less waste (in the best scenarios). For example, Garrison is involved with a housing project in Tanzania that offers affordable homes made from shipping containers. “There happens to be a lot of container stock available, so we’re looking at using it,” he noted. Shipping containers have also become a viable option in hospitality. An example is the Light Hotel, a one-room, 120-square-foot converted storage container that is a mobile urban-living demonstration and exhibit focused on environmental sustainability as users can plot power and water consumption with digital readings.

People who have found an interest in building with shipping containers, Garrison said, can be divided into two groups: those who are fascinated with the possibilities of the containers themselves and those who are working with broad uses in construction. “They kind of overlap,” he noted. “They came of notice because of kind of an amazing thing: they have volume that can be occupied with human dimensions and are shipped worldwide as a multimodal shipping device—they can be transported on trains, boats, trucks. [These containers are a] universal system and have regulated structural and attachment systems. They present a uniformity of performance and standards.”

Facilitating a Unique Approach

LOT-EK is one firm that has become synonymous with shipping container projects. It heavily promotes its sustainable approach that the containers support through upcycling. LOT-EK’s projects are powered by the technological benefits of industrial supplies and objects to give life to a new form of architecture. The firm has worked on jobs in a number of metropolitan areas, including several in Manhattan. At 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, for example, LOT-EK built the Container Mall, a system created to address leftover empty lots throughout the city, illustrating the modularity of shipping containers. Nine levels of containers comprise the mall, each individual “box” housing a booth much like what you would find in other urban markets. Views of the area are given by removing portions of the containers from the mall’s façade. An undulating visual was created by shifting the containers back and forth from the lot line, which formed overhangs above the street level.

Another project that uses shipping containers for retail is the Innovation and Design Building (IDB) in South Boston. Meeting the needs for a
revitalization, the project aims to host a number of different industries that are spearheading “the innovation economy.” Shipping container kiosks support entrepreneurs breaking onto the scene and makers within the community. Elkus Manfredi designed the new entrances to the IDB and Boxman Studios designed and built the kiosk containers. A 24-hour urban innovation district, IDB incorporates open and flexible spaces to accommodate light industrial tenants, makers and innovators, and lab space. Jamestown, the real estate investment and management firm that oversees IDB, explained that the containers are a visual connection to the diverse array of tenants while providing creative spaces for the center's amenities. The containers also create a double-loaded pedestrian street out of the old loading dock and form a counter-play between the retailers and shipping container kiosks. The goal was to create an atmosphere in and around the containers that encouraged community while reflecting the maritime and shipping history of the site.

For IDB, shipping containers brought together practical design, aesthetic appeal, and environmental responsibility. The development team used containers that had been used in shipping globally before they came to the IDB. It knew the shipping containers would grab people’s attention, but the challenge was turning them into viable spaces for small businesses to operate out of. The final product is engaging and unique but still serves multiple functions. Repurposing shipping containers created an attractive space for new amenities while eliminating the need for further buildout or additional materials.

Knowing Limitations

While shipping containers seem like an easy solution, they do require some extra work, particularly for larger projects, Garrison explained. “A shipping container is a really useful utilitarian device in a lot of ways. But, in order to use it you have to cut it apart, add some structure, and sometimes the things that were transported in the containers previously may be toxic, so you have to clean the interiors before you can turn them into something. It should be said and explained to people that these containers are a kind of raw material and they require a significant amount of structural work and retrofitting for them to function properly. You can’t put people inside a hermetically sealed container. [On their own] the containers don’t do such a good job environmentally—they aren’t insulated or ventilated, and they don’t let light in. So all of those things have to be thought about and added.”

Garrison noted that sizing of storage containers has to be considered for a project, as well. The interior dimension of a container is about 7.5-feet wide, so for many uses they are too narrow. Usually when used in a building project, the containers are “doubled up. Once doubled up, you have to cut an entire side out of them, and then you have to add something to keep it from falling down. That’s just the nature of building with shipping containers; they have very specific uses—pop-up stores, tiny houses, for stuff like that they do a great job. Once you start to become ambitious with them, their limitations start to push back very hard.”

A related alternative to shipping containers is modular building, which Garrison has found more beneficial in his projects. His firm’s involvement in modular construction revolves around tall, non-combustible, steel-framed urban buildings. He chooses not to use shipping containers for these jobs “because they are not structurally or economically viable for those circumstances. We are working at the cutting edge of this effort, of this technology, and it has proved to be very challenging. But it’s evolving and as people have become more interested and the manufacturing base becomes more sophisticated, it gets easier and becomes more useable.”

When comparing steel-framed modular construction to shipping containers, Garrison said the main similarity is having them transported to the job site, with limitations in width, height, and length that tend to make these building components similar in size. “After that, the similarities start to drop off,” he said. “The parts that are doing the work in a contemporary modular building are far lighter and environmentally far less energy-intensive than a shipping container. A shipping container is often a discarded object from another purpose, which made them compelling to begin with. People were thinking, ‘Hey, they are sitting around, but we can occupy them and use them. If I can buy one for $4,000 and I can use them for some novel purpose, I don’t care if I cut it up.’ But if you have to repeat that several hundred times for a large building, then it becomes unworkable.”

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