Trends come and go within any design industry; architecture is no different. As materials and construction methods become cheaper, more accessible or simply more practical, architects rethink the way we build residential and commercial structures. In recent years, a new concept that involves transforming discarded shipping containers into homes, offices, class rooms and shops has taken the world by storm; seen everywhere from Nigeria to Berlin.
Advocates of the so-called cargotecture will often point to its indisputably efficient use of space. A typical shipping container measures at around 12 metres long, 3 metres high, and with a width of around 3 metres. With each model being a standardized size and simple shape, and with shipping containers being especially easy to lift and stack, many architects have proposed plans that would see entire towers made out of stacked containers. Spanish company ‘CRG Architects’ presented a prize-winning architectural plan that would see this exact idea implemented in Mumbai as a cost-efficient alternative to the slum housing many lower-income families currently occupy. It takes about one week to turn a large shipping container into a two-bedroom house. What’s more, the way in which shipping containers are built to withstand harsh conditions makes them especially durable in hazardous weather – even providing shelter from hurricanes.
Overcrowded locations, such as Las Vegas can also benefit from the space efficiency cargotecture allows. The world’s casino capital attracts well over 40 million visitors per year, and shipping containers could offer more affordable housing solutions to travellers and temporary residents. Vegas has long been at the forefront of experimental architecture (both for practical and artistic purposes), so the city’s readiness to embrace the newly constructed Downtown Container Park is not surprising. The park is described as an ‘open air shopping centre’, filled with boutique shops, bars, galleries and take-away food stalls that all have one thing in common – they’re inside shipping containers. For private individuals, converting a shipping container for personal use either as a home or office is an attractive idea because it encourages minimalism.
The fact that each ‘cargo-shop’ can easily be re-converted for a different purpose has also helped propel the popularity of cargotecture. In London’s BoxPark – an area where several shipping containers are stacked in close proximity to each other – indie shop owners, chefs and artists have the convenience of renting a container in this popular location for a month or two at the time, doing away with the need for long-term rental commitment. Shoppers benefit too, as new shops and cafes will have appeared each time they visit. The next step for many salespeople is to see the containers converted in transportable spaces, meaning they could theoretically take their market on the road and travel to other cargotecture parks around the world.
So far, so good. Cargotecture might seem like a revolutionary concept with no downsides – but criticisms of the architectural style come from all corners. Whilst shipping containers can provide cheaper alternatives to traditional building methods in some instances, the cost efficiency should not be overestimated. Depending on the extent to which a shipping container is converted, building a small wood-based or brick home might cash in at around the same price. As a private individual, it takes a considerable degree of prior knowledge, preparation and skill to convert the containers. Many people who undertake a cargotecture project quickly realise that the process of converting a container is not as simple as it may at first seem.
Secondly, there are a range of impractical issues that present themselves when the idea is implemented large scale. Many of the shipping containers used for cargotecture need safety checks, as even small dents can compromise the safety of the structure, and plenty of commercial containers are coated in paint that contains dangerous chemicals like phosphorus or chromate. Having to put each container through a safety check increases both the time and cost of any large-scale cargotecture housing plan. On top of this, any wide scale implementation will require organised and efficient sewage, electricity, heating and ventilation plans. These necessities often go overlooked when looking at the benefits of cargotecture on a small, individual scale, as opposed to the wide-scale implementation of entire cargo-towers.
Furthermore, many have challenged the common assumption that cargotecture is more eco-friendly than other architectural alternatives. Brian Pagnotta points out that a lot of energy goes into making the container habitable in the first place. Sandblasting the structure, replacing the floors and sawing entrances are all necessary procedures that produce large amounts of waste. On top of that, fossil fuel is needed in lifting and transporting these heavy structures with machinery. All in all, cargotecture is not the impeccably ‘green’ solution many hype it up to be, Pagnotta claims.
Ideas on how to maximise use of shipping containers keep pouring in, and it does not seem to be a trend that will go away anytime soon. Whilst plenty of issues need to be addressed before cargotecture can truly be implemented as the perfect solution to different types of housing crises across the world, adamant believers in the potential of architectural concept potential are working to see the trend develop and eventually improve the lives of people from all over the globe.