Shipping container architecture, seems to have earned a degree of popularity with some significant projects being built around the world.  But is anyone asking “why”.

“Why” should be a question asked continuously about many things.  It can save a lot of trouble.   The “why” test ultimately should comprise three “why’s”, the first asked about the subject in general, then the next two “why’s” in immediate response to the resulting answers.  If at the end of this you still have answers that don’t result in embarrassment, then likely there is at least some sound reasoning involved.

In the first answer to the first “why” asked about container architecture, things go ok but thereafter, it gets a bit shaky.  These container boxes are designed for transport so there is some logic for immediate emergency accommodation, including fitting them out with medical equipment and supplies for natural disaster relief.  Also, in remote areas this box can facilitate transport and holding of tools and materials while more permanent infrastructure is built.

But the second “why” results in a wobble which challenges the logic of using shipping containers used for permanent architecture.

Many building design and construction professionals know generally, that working with existing infrastructure is not as easy as greenfield design and construction, and the process and result with re-work is all about compromise.  Greenfield sites are like the prize in the design and construction world.

So “why” make a conscious choice to start from the very beginning, not even with an existing building, but an existing thing unrelated to a building?  Sure, these big transport and holding boxes can be walked into.  Also, the box has 4 walls a bottom bit and a top bit, and if you visually squint, it all resembles a building.  But these are hardly reasons to convert a big box into a building if you have the option immediately at hand of building using materials developed over centuries, for that purpose.

Let’s look at it another way.  A small domestic front-loading washing machine, if you squint, looks a bit like a domestic oven.   Also, a plane, if you really squint from a distance, can look like a submarine.  In these examples, is there any reason why these objects should be converted to the other object?  No, of course not.  It is ridiculous.  It would infinitely easier, if you wanted an oven or a submarine, to build them from the start using materials, developed over centuries, for that purpose.

So why are we making buildings out of shipping containers?  Many open-minded people with good building experience who think about this conversion process give up on it very quickly.  The thought of installing sealed water-tight windows and doors, insulation behind linings, roof drainage, footings, wet-areas, and more, while working on a solid steel base material, can seem daunting.  Also the planning of such a building within a small rectangle, is the ultimate planning restriction.

Then the next “why” brings us to trend.  Is shipping container architecture simply a trendy thing to do, something to brag about to people who work in other industries?  Even though trend and fashion occupy too much space in architecture, is this the reason for spending bucket-loads of money buying materials, and expending huge amounts of natural and personal energy on this cause?

Shipping container architecture then, maybe best has its place as an example of the need to critically evaluate what we do, without the trickery of applied emotion.  So many past and present thought leaders may be right when they say that one of the hardest things we can do is think.