Shipping containers were all the buzz a few years ago, finding uses as pop-up food trucks and retail stores or placed in tourist locations for exclusive views.

Now a skyscraper competition has reignited the conversation demonstrating the opportunity for shipping containers to provide housing solutions, particularly for vulnerable communities.

Along with the environmental benefits of repurposing an unused shipping container, the Superskyscrapers’ Competition: Steel City – Container Skycraper asked entrants to design a temporary skyscraper solution for the densely populated Dharavi Slum in Mumbai, India.

Local firm local firm Ganti+Associates placed first with a proposal that sees containers stacked 10 storeys high in a Jenga-type formation.

“The steel skin itself takes the load like a ‘Monocoque’ structure thus cutting cost for additional columns or beam,” the firm said. “The design of a 100 M tall high rise structure (approx. 32 storeys) calls for erecting portal frames connected with steel girders placed every eight storeys and this module repeats vertically.”

Each apartment features three standard 40-foot containers with each floor above cantilevering over the floor beneath to create a covered corridor.

Solar panels on the west side of the structure and micro wind turbines on the east side provide electricity through a hybrid cogeneration model.

The corridors are lined with screens made out of recycled terracotta jalis made by local potters.

“It is a proposal that rightly addressed the issues of sustainability, circulation, energy use, ventilation and lighting by the clever adjustment of the containers to allow light through to the other modules,” said the jury.

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Shekar Ganti’s winning container skyscraper proposal

In second place was Jin Young Song, a registered architect in New York State and a founder of DIOINNO Architecture PLLC.

The University of Buffalo stated that “unlike traditional skyscrapers, which rely on a central core for support and safety routes, Song’s design employs several vertical structures connected by a bridge system, which allows multiple means of egress, new green open public space, and structural innovation using exo-skeleton and pre-fabricated units.”

The juxtaposition of the towers also allows for growth according to the jury.

The third winner, Spanish architectural firm CRG, is receiving the most global coverage for its sustainable initiatives.

Its “Containscraper” concept proposes two shipping container towers, one 400 metres and the other 200 metres high, comprising a combined 2,344 containers planned to house approximately 1,300 families.

“The stacking style of the containers reminded the panel of a recent hotel development and presented nothing exceptionally new,” the jury said. “However, where this project proposal excels is in the treatment of the interior and proposing a solution for many issues, especially temperature control, water and circulation.”

The cylindrical shape is designed to maximise the views for inhabitants; by rotating 90 degrees, views are enhanced opening windows offer thermal benefits.

The original colours of the shipping containers would be kept, but not just for aesthetics. The different colours would be aligned with warm colours on the south side and cooler colours on the north to respond to heating and cooling needs.

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The colourful Container Skyscraper by CRG Architects

The idea is reminiscent of Luca D’Amico and Luca Telso’s container skyscraper proposal for eVolo in 2011.

That proposal featured an exoskeletal framework of steel beams, and every 100 feet offered a large platform of indoor/outdoor recreational spaces to create “micro-cities” or communities within the skyscraper itself.

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Luca D’Amico and Luca Telso’s Nomad Skyscraper

Last year, OVA also created the Hive-Inn City Farm, a modular farming structure proposed for New York.

Each shipping container unit would act as an ecosystem to produce food and harvest energy while recycling water and waste.

The idea was to bring farming to inner cities with units being able to be owned by restaurants, brands or local gardens. Again, this type of set-up could be moved into struggling communities and be used in a shared format.

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OVA’s Hive-Inn City Farm

In addition to providing housing for those living in poverty, shipping containers could be extremely useful in providing shelter and amenities in post-disaster areas.

In 2010, The Clemson University School of Architecture began researching ways to convert shipping containers into emergency housing in the hurricane-prone Caribbean.

“Because of the shipping container’s ‘unibody’ construction they are also very good in seismic zones and exceed structural code in the United States and any country in the world,” professor Doug Hecker said. “They have also been used in other countries as emergency shelters in the case of earthquakes.”

Furthermore, shipping containers can hold incredible weight, which makes them ideal for stacking.

“A standard 20′ shipping container can hold 1,170 cubic feet and the max gross weight is 30T with a tare weight of 2.2T,” according to UK’s Billie Box, while “a 40′ high cube contains 2,700 cubic feet and the max gross weight is 32.5T with a tare weight of 3.8T.

Also, shipping containers are sturdy; the Intermodal Steel Building Unit (ISBU), as it is known, is water, wind, rust, mold, fire, and pest resistant.

The demand for shipping containers could be met with an equally large supply. According to a 2014 White Paper, Alternative Housing: The Shipping Container Home by Mary Martinez-Garcia, there are an estimated 300 million freight containers sitting empty at seaports all over the world at any given time.