Blog August 25, 2015

The complicated second life of a shipping container

By Nicola Byers

In 2006, American architect Peter DeMaria designed the first two-storey shipping container home in the US to be structurally approved under the national Uniform Building Code – just under 20 years after Phillip C Clark filed for a US patent for his ‘Method for converting one or more steel shipping containers into a habitable building at a building site and the product thereof’ in 1987, which received approval in 1989.

Nearly 30 years after Clark’s patent application, retired shipping containers are increasingly enjoying second lives as trendy art galleries, food vans, disaster relief capsules – you name it.

Downtown Detroit has just announced plans for a development of “micro-restaurants” and retail space to be housed in ex-shipping containers.

In July, Israel’s Port of Ashdod opened its funky ‘Shipping Container Terminal’ building, which comprises an office building, technical facility and event space, designed by Israeli studio Potash Architects.

Last year, “the world’s most portable open-air bar and grill” was unveiled – a pop-up hang-out for use at corporate events and “tailgaiting” in the parking lots of American football games.  And, of course, shipping containers are being converted into housing – now more than ever.

In fact, there’s never been a better time to plan your own box-based development, especially seeing as the price of second-hand containers continues to fall, as Intermodal Eye reported previously here.  In fact, the resale market shows so much potential that last year Maersk Line launched its Maersk Line Container Sales business unit to better target those looking to buy used shipping containers, especially in emerging economies.

But converting containers into communal spaces is more complicated than it may first appear. You cannot simply buy a shipping container and move in right away. The first hurdle is the coating used to make the box durable for ocean transport, which contains a number of harmful chemicals like chromate, phosphorous and lead-based paints. Similarly, many wood floors that line the majority of shipping container buildings are infused with hazardous chemical pesticides like arsenic and chromium to keep pests away.

The entire container structure needs to be sandblasted bare to remove these coatings and strip these floors – this process produces harmful waste that needs to be disposed of in a way that protects human health and that of the environment.

It has been estimated that, during conversion projects, the average container eventually produces nearly a thousand pounds of hazardous waste before the structure can be re-used. This increases when multiple containers are used and fitted together to make a bigger structure, which increases the volume of hazardous waste created and the energy used during conversion. Being designed for cargo transport, the dimensions of a shipping container (8 feet wide, 8 or 9 feet and 6 inches high, and 20 or 40 feet long) are somewhat smaller than is convenient for human occupation – and adding heat insulation to the structure further reduces the interior dimensions of the box – necessitating the use of multiple units.

These complicating factors expose the ways in which container designs still need to evolve in order to be eco-friendly and more attractive for re-use rather than demolition. In the case of container flooring, steps are being taken to encourage the use of aluminium, steel, plastic/composite and even bamboo floors, instead of tropical hardwoods, as we looked at previously in this report.

The sticking point, however, is still price, and while leasing rates are still low, there is no commercial incentive for operators to opt for more expensive, eco-friendly specifications. In short, container markets need to improve before these boxes can evolve with increasingly green designs that will encourage them to be re-used in their retirement, and minimise costs and environmental impact during conversion projects.