Shipping containers revolutionised the transport of goods around the world. Now they’re piling up at ports around the world, thanks to trade imbalances and the bankruptcy of Hanjin Shipping, a major carrier. Shipping containers are incredibly durable and well suited for creative re-use. Could they now revolutionise the development of infrastructure?

First, it’s important to note that shipping containers are strong, durable, and adaptable. Their size and shape, however, present some challenges for certain uses, such as housing. Many architects and critics have declared them to be a poor choice for housing because their proportions dictate an odd interior layout. Opening them up to accept windows and doors also requires extra work in cutting the heavy steel, which then requires reinforcement.

Still, some architects – such as Christian Salvati and Jeff White – have created attractive and affordable projects. It’s true that when used unaltered, room sizes and layout can seem awkward. Other uses, however, highlight the strength and flexibility of containers.

Several companies modify containers as hydroponic farms. Freight Farms, for example, retrofits shipping containers into a self-contained food-growing system capable of producing greens and herbs more efficiently than conventional agriculture.

According to the company, the $80,000 system can be delivered by truck anywhere needed, then just needs to have power and water hooked up. Yields are substantially higher than conventional agriculture, with up to 12 crops per year possible. These hydroponic systems are functional in any climate and can be set up in close proximity to grocery stores, restaurants, schools, and so on. They could also be set up as part of disaster relief efforts to enable the delivery of locally produced fresh food instead of packaged foods.

Containers can also be used for packaging and transporting portable power plants such as wind turbines. Uprise Energy has devised a 50-kilowatt wind turbine that can be packaged in a 40-foot container for transport, then towed by a light vehicle to the installation site. The company, based in San Diego, California, says the package is appropriate for off-grid sites, disaster relief situations, military use, and customers who want to supplement grid-tied sites. The company claims that, compared with comparable diesel and photovoltaic systems, their wind generator is cheaper, cleaner, and more reliable. According to their web site, producing 12 kWhr over a 20-year life cycle, the costs are:

  • Uprise Energy Portable Power Center $0.12/kWhr
  • Diesel Generator $1-40/kWhr
  • Solar Power $0.19/kWhr (inconsistent power, not portable, largest footprint)

Where school construction is economically challenging or lags behind the number of student spaces needed, containers can provide a ready-made solution. A proposal by East Coast Architects and Creating Schools shows modified shipping containers used to provide needed infrastructure for a school campus, such as toilets and kitchen facilities. The modified containers are filled with fittings and other structural elements, such as additional roofing panels, and then are delivered to the site by truck and assembled.

Playgrounds – whether for schools or otherwise – can also be made of shipping containers. Skinner’s Playground in Melbourne was designed by Phooey Architects and used four heavily revised containers to form the basic structure. Offcuts were then used to form many other elements, such as railings.

Another version of the container-based playground is found in Las Vegas. This creation required 43 used containers to create an entertainment district district for both kids and adults. The playground space includes a number of twisting slides, while the family and adults areas include restaurants, boutiques, and the like.

Showers and toilets can be fitted into containers for use at festivals and sporting events, as well as for disaster relief efforts, and in developing nations where homes do not typically them. Structure Now, a South African firm, converts containers for multiple uses. Their shower and toilet projects use either a 20-foot or 40-foot container, heavily modified and ready for connection to water and waste supplies on site.

Advantages of these units, the company says, include options for chemical toilets and solar-heated water. No concrete foundation is needed, and the units can be transported an unlimited number of times, so they can be moved to the next place in need. Units can be delivered in one to four weeks.

Delivering potable water can be a complicated and expensive endeavour, but municipal-scale water purification systems can be readily packaged in shipping containers. A company called AdEdge Water Technologies created a treatment system for the city of Quilicura, Chile. The city’s water supply contained high levels of arsenic, so the company created an arsenic-removal system in modified containers and shipped the system to the site.

Container conversions for bar and restaurant projects are becoming more common, as well. The New Orleans Voodoo Music and Art Festival created space for a VIP lounge by using six containers, then liberally customising the units. This required extensive and time-consuming cutting of steel, but resulted in a striking space appropriate for an artistic organisation.