There is a new fad in architecture that hopefully will be quick to go out of style. To some, the idea of turning old shipping containers into habitable buildings (either for homes or shops, either permanent or temporary) seems like a hot new idea. It’s shiny. Shipping containers are modular, they’re stackable, they’re about the size of a mobile home, they are everywhere in this globalized economy. They are easy to transport since they fit on trucks, on trains, on container ships…(that is the point, right?) They are a cool re-purposing of a big box that used to hold something. So why not put people in it?
Here are 10 reasons why not.
- Shipping containers are already reusable. They can be reused in their original form for their intended use until they fail.
- When they do fail, their structural integrity has been compromised. They leak, or rust through or are in danger of failing in some way that could damage their contents. If they aren’t safe enough to carry cargo any more, we should not then fill them with people.
- Shipping containers have been filled with all kinds of toxic contents, and are made with toxic paints and other chemicals that are not good for people. Even those that carried food have been treated with fungicides, insecticides, herbicides and other poisons. Either you need to spend lots of time, money, and energy stripping hundreds of pounds of toxic waste from the container before use or you inhabit a toxic building.
- Cutting large holes in shipping containers (for windows and doors for instance) compromises their structural integrity, which depends on the unbroken continuity of its framing and corrugated sides. Then you have to do all kinds of engineering tricks to reinforce the structure you have broken, and you need welding skills and more steel to do it.
- Shipping containers should only be stacked squarely on top of each other with the weight distributed evenly on their corners. Architects like to stack them up in cantilevered piles, but they won’t stand up to those stresses.
- Speaking of moving them, they aren’t as DIY as they seem because you need a crane to move them.
- Containers are uninsulated metal boxes. That’s not a good home for people in any climate. They are inefficient to heat and cool without adding lots of insulative material and HVAC systems. How energy intensive is that? How much room do you have left inside?
- Because they are almost entirely steel, when shipping containers are no longer useful as shipping containers, they are efficiently recyclable into new steel. They are not a waste resource. There are good markets for recycled steel, and the new steel is structurally as good as the old, so it isn’t down-cycling.
- The amount of steel in one shipping container can create enough new building materials to create multiple buildings that were designed for habitation.
- And lastly, shipping container houses are big rectangular boxes with flat roofs and no windows that have low-ceilinged small rooms inside. I’m just gonna say it straight; they’re ugly inside and out.
Making buildings out of shipping containers is a super-trendy bad idea. It is hipster urbanism at its worst.
Just don’t do it.
If you want to turn shipping containers into houses, recycle them into new steel and then build houses with it.