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How Shipping Container Architecture Has Evolved Over the Years

The shipping container has not only revolutionized the cargo shipping industry, but has also transformed modern architecture across the globe. Shipping container architecture refers to an architectural style that uses shipping containers as the primary structural component for building modular structures for residential and commercial buildings. 

Evolution of shipping container architecture

These designs are inspired by:

  1. Quality prefab

    The concept of prefabricated buildings has been around for a long time, but it was associated with poor or low-quality structures. However, with the sturdiness and durability of metal shipping containers, as well as the drive for low-cost, sustainable buildings, container buildings are surging.

  2. Aesthetic

    As the architectural trend shifted towards industrial aesthetic designs, shipping containers provided a convenient medium for buildings. Moreover, these steel structures are very strong and durable, which means that the final modified structure will maintain its integrity.

  3. Cost benefits

    Many decommissioned shipping containers in Alberta can be rented or purchased at a low price. Even if you include the fabrication work involved to transform the steel box into a stylish and habitable structure, you will spend a lot less on labour, materials, and time compared to other forms of architecture.

  4. Sustainability

    The whole concept of shipping container architecture is based on repurposing the steel boxes, which is a sustainable way to build. Repurposing is particularly appealing compared to the energy required and carbon emissions for melting down the shipping containers.

  5. Multiple applications

    Shipping containers can be used for permanent structures, such as residential homes and retail stores, as well as for temporary units for trade shows, exhibits, and events. The versatility and portability of shipping containers allow for greater creativity in the architecture and design of container spaces for different applications. 

Malcolm McLean developed shipping containers in 1956 for shipping, but it was not until the late 80s when other applications of these solid metal structures began to emerge.

In 1987, innovator Phillip Clark filed for a US patent for his newly created method for modifying one or multiple shipping containers into a home, which was granted two years later in 1989. The information and diagrams in Clark’s patent were used as the basis for many architectural concepts used for modifying shipping containers in Alberta today.

Shipping Containers Beyond Sea Transport

With the growing popularity of shipping containers and the innovative ideas of Clark and other like-minded people, it was only a matter of time before creative minds developed new uses for these incredibly versatile and durable steel boxes. Thus, making them a fantastic raw material for different kinds of projects. 

Shipping containers are becoming a common site for homes and buildings, displaying various architectural designs that can be used as affordable homes, trendy restaurants, mobile clinics, and so on. Their easy availability and affordability mean that just about anyone can get one and transform it to their liking in all manners of creative projects. 

Another common repurposing project for shipping containers is the design of sculptural art, which makes recycled metal containers a source of raw material for art and commerce. 

Other shipping container architecture trends include:

  • The appeal for smaller units — 10 and 12-foot units — that can be towed with a pickup 

  • Design of purpose-built containers to compliment retrofitting decommissioned units 

  • The use of fold-down walls, especially for portable units used for events and exhibitions 

  • The use of fold-up and gullwing awnings to create a sense of space

The Inspiration of Modified Containers

Although Clark was granted the patent for the technique for creating a habitable building from a container in 1987, other innovators before him had similar ideas:

  • 1947 — salt boxes

    The Levitt Brothers built 17,000+ identical salt boxes in Long Island, giving birth to the concept of modularity and consistency. This led to the cubist architectural form of affordable housing, which may have inspired the design of modern suburban living.

  • The 1950s — shipping military supplies

    Malcolm’s invention took off after the military used shipping containers to deliver supplies to bases and troops during the Vietnam War.

  • The 1960s — Plug-in city

    The idea of a “Plug-in City” was introduced by Cook of Archigram, and comprised multiple container shapes connected to a centralized structure to deliver continuously morphing living spaces. Although the drawings were never actualized, they marked the interest in creative shipping container buildings.

  • The 1970s — container city in Canary Wharf

    Nicholas Lacey prepared a university thesis based on the concept of reusing shipping containers as “habitable” dwellings and then proceeded to create a container city in Canary Wharf. The ideas were inspired by the need for portable homes as an alternative to identical suburbias.

  • 1987 — patent application for converting a modified shipping container into a home

    The patent application was made in November 1987 and granted in August 1989.

  • 1991 — Gulf War prefab builds

    After the Gulf War, the US army used modified shipping containers to provide secure shelter and storage areas for military distribution.

  • 1994 — book publishing

    This lead Stewart Brand to publish the book “How Buildings Learn” exploring how containers can be repurposed with the owner directing the design and construction process. This may have triggered the evolution of customized container homes and buildings.

  • 1995 — proposal for a major-container structure

    Californian Wes Jones proposed the design of Californian mountain getaways made from 20-foot shipping containers.

  • 1998 — shipping container school

    Simon’s Town High School Hostel marks the first-ever shipping container building comprising 40 units.

  • 2004 — Cargotecture

    The term “Cargotecture” was first used by HyBrid Architecture of Seattle in reference to systems built partially or entirely from ISO shipping containers.

  • 2006 — two-storey container house

    The Redondo Beach house is the first two-storey container home-recorded. Californian architect Peter DeMaria undertook the project. 

There’s a surge for shipping container builds in the 21st century, inspired by creative applications of the 20th century. These include builds such as humanitarian homes and emergency shelters, as well as the recent green and sustainability drive that emphasizes recycling and repurposing. 

With shipping containers in Alberta, you can proceed with your modular construction that uses kinetic architecture and flexible updating options while maintaining structural integrity for long-term use. 

To learn more about how shipping container architecture has evolved over the years, call Secure Container at 416-817-3216 or contact us here.

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