Stack, cut, transform: the sustainable architecture revolution

From western India to the Dubai Design District, ‘cargotecture’ sees recycled shipping containers converted into buildings that are eco-friendly, convenient and great-looking

If you wandered past the cluster of stylish white buildings that make up Hai d3, a creative incubator within Dubai Design District, you might not instantly recognise that each one was made out of a steel shipping container that once hauled consumer goods over the high seas.

Designed and built by Dubai-based architecture firm IBDA, the neighbourhood hub borrows elements from traditional Arabic design, with landscaped pockets of open space and cooling wind towers to funnel the breeze.

The 40-foot and 20-foot metal boxes have been stacked, cut into, painted and modified in order to turn them into art galleries, prayer rooms and retail space, as well as a cafe, library and workshop. The finished look is clean and contemporary, with an unfussy, industrial edge.

“The decision to use containers came from the idea to present a project that can be easily assembled and dismantled,” write IBDA’s two principal architects, Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto, in a joint email. They describe the containers as “easy to transport, modular and budget-friendly,” and say that they were insulated and treated to survive the elements, but also “crafted with the careful consideration to preserve [their] raw, industrial form.”

The cluster of buildings will remain in place for five years.

 With over 30 million shipping containers in the world currently lying dormant, there are so many opportunities to use them for projects that can really change the building landscape

Gregg Curtis, Co-Founder of ISO Spaces

“Cargotecture”, or architecture made from freight containers, is a trend that has its roots in 1970s American counter-culture, but it’s been gathering pace during the last few years. An unintended side effect of globalised commerce is a surfeit of these tough, stackable boxes, especially in countries that import more goods than they export.

A 40-foot container that has made only one trip can be bought for a few thousand US dollars, and can be turned into anything from a pop-up shop to a snug, eco-friendly house.

Peter DeMaria was the first architect to build a shipping container home that met the stringent US national building code, in Redondo Beach, California in 2005 – after a year of exhaustive research. “My studies found the container to be a ‘sleeping giant’,” he says, “with the most promise as an environmentally conscious building block that was limitless in its applications.”

He explains that the containers have proven to be “structurally sound, economical, enviro-conscious and easily adaptable.”

Since then, experiments with shipping containers have taken place all over the world. Former stockbrokers Ben Treleaven and Gregg Curtis have been turning steel boxes into miniature restaurants, classrooms and showrooms since 2012, when they launched a company dedicated to shipping container conversions, called ISO Spaces, in Cornwall, England, in 2012.

Four years later, after winning a lucrative Ignite award for their designs, they are embarking on a project with a London borough council to build 34 affordable housing units, with a further 128 in the pipeline.

“With over 30 million shipping containers in the world currently lying dormant, there are so many opportunities to use them for projects that can really change the building landscape,” Curtis says. Part of the appeal for him is the fact that the containers are “supremely durable and versatile,” he adds. “They are designed to last at least 50 years at sea, resisting the toughest of weather conditions, guaranteeing that they are robust, secure and fire-resistant.”

However, there are some drawbacks. Mark Hogan, a principal architect at the San Francisco-based OpenScope studio has worked on a shipping container project in the past, and says that it taught him that the benefits of the model “had been exaggerated.”

[Cargotecture] fits a lot of narratives that architects have been obsessed with for decades, and looks like a dead simple path to prefabrication

Mark Hogan, Principal Architect, OpenScope studio

He thinks that shipping container architecture “is an easily digested concept that looks like it would be a good idea. It fits a lot of narratives that architects have been obsessed with for decades, and looks like a dead simple path to prefabrication.” In truth, he says, “you still have to do a lot of work on site and you’re not really saving that much money.”

Steel is hard to insulate, and to modify it you have to cut and weld it, which is labour-intensive. The containers can contain toxic paint or pesticides, and while the corners of the boxes can hold a lot of weight, the tops are thin and easily dented. Then there’s the fact that the standard dimensions – eight feet in width, and only few inches more in height – aren’t ideal for human habitation.

Despite all this, containers can work well, Hogan says, “for specific situations where prefabrication and ease of transport are necessary. Site offices for construction, temporary housing for the military and some types of pop up shops come to mind.” The speed with which they can be transported makes them an ideal solution for temporary housing after a disaster, he adds.

Dhara Kabaria, founder and principal designer at Pune-based firm Studio Alternatives, in western India, is aware of these pros and cons. She has created buildings for clients “who have decided to go with the shipping container space more for convenience than cost.” The model works well in remote areas, she says, where skilled labour may not be plentiful, as the building can be fabricated off-site, although transport costs over long distances can be high. “Another reason people go for our spaces,” she says, “is in cases where people do not own the land, but have taken it on lease. In such cases, it is generally not possible to build a permanent structure.”

There’s one more reason behind the global boom for shipping-container architecture, and that’s sheer aesthetics. DeMaria has created container pop-ups for Red Bell’s Motocross Team, and says that they were the perfect fit the risk-taking and forward-thinking “X-Games persona.” The containers also function, he says, as “an icon of globalisation — a conduit connecting you to every country and industry around the globe.”