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Sustainability, Uncategorized


Are Shipping container buildings sustainable?

I happened to listen to an NPR segment on buildings made out of shipping containers, titled ‘Shipping container buildings may be cool—but they’re not always green’, and that prompted me to share my thoughts here.

(check out the article here: https://www.npr.org/2024/01/15/1223259540/shipping-container-building-environment)

There has been much hype on shipping container homes and designs in the last decade, mostly because they seem to solve a problem – to build affordably, quickly, and even sustainably by recycling old shipping containers and converting them into living spaces. There is also the appeal of being able to transport the containers easily, and depending on the project size or use, a building permit is not always required.

Our firm has been approached several times over the years to design a project using shipping containers. The idea seemed interesting and fun, but when doing a feasibility and sustainability analysis, it usually turned out to be easier, cheaper, and more sustainable to build conventionally. Many jurisdictions, at least in our experience in Florida, have strict design and zoning limitations when it comes to using shipping containers.

Several years ago, I spoke about this very topic as a guest speaker at the Florida Gulf Coast University for a Sustainability Class. Like in the article, my take was that shipping containers are not as sustainable and practicable as they are thought to be. For example, old containers are often contaminated with toxic chemicals that are leaking from their walls. These have to be thoroughly decontaminated before proceeding with insulating, running conduits, and covering up the interior walls, floors and ceilings. Furthermore, having to use the rigid size constraints dictated by shipping containers often limits flexibility on space layouts and how they can be used.

There are companies now that offer new shipping containers for building purposes that come with pre-cut openings as needed. This seems enticing; however, using new containers defeats the purpose of the concept of building sustainably and is not a cheaper alternative.

When speaking in front of those passionate students back then, I remember that they seemed a bit disappointed by my arguments against shipping containers. Like many, they thought of shipping container architecture as a creative new way to think about sustainable design.

In my opinion, shipping containers are still a fun way to create temporary and eye-catching structures when a more industrial design intent is desired. I remember visiting The Nomadic Museum, designed and built by Shigeru Ban in Los Angeles, and being impressed by the awe-inspiring structure built from shipping containers.

However, when it comes to designing a home for a family or any other type of permanent housing, I am not sure using shipping containers is the answer. I would also argue that the metal containers often don’t look aesthetically appealing for a permanent dwelling, but again, if they are covered up with some other cladding material, it would defeat the purpose of using the minimalist metal box in the first place.

To refer back to the NPR article, it made a good point about the sustainability aspect. Considering that there are so many shipping containers rotting away somewhere, it would probably be better to recycle them into new steel studs or other construction materials that can be used to build truly sustainable and more affordable buildings.