Architecture In A Can

Architecture In A Can


Who would have ever thought of re-using old shipping containers for anything other than its intended purpose of storage?

Shipping container architecture is a form of architecture using shipping containers as the primary structural element because of their strength, availability, and low expense.  The advantages such as the inherent strength and durability, standard size, availability, expense and ease of transportation make it very attractive for various uses including clinics, temporary and permanent housing, retail space, storm shelters, research labs, and mobile workshops.    Thought the advantages are great, there are disadvantages such as temperature, humidity, labor, and general safety.


As you can imagine, it would be almost impossible to reside within a steel container due to its high conductivity of heat, especially in temperate climates with extreme temperature variations making it a necessity for the containers to be well insulated.  The humidity aspect would also be due the high heat issue and would be resolved once the unit is properly insulated.  Labor is a relative disadvantage in that it is usually specialized labor that is required to work with these units due to the cutting and welding need to make most changes.  This can cause the price of the finished product to be very high, but still relatively cheaper than finished homes made of other materials.  The greatest concern I found is safety because of the various materials shipping containers carry.  There could be spillage of very hazardous material that normal cleaning might remove from the surface, but remains beyond the naked eye.  This can be avoided by having it cleaned thoroughly as well as having them chemically scanned for anything harmful.  Another possible solution to this problem might only allow the sale of containers that are known for shipping non-hazardous materials.


I find this type of architecture to be very innovative and sustainable.  It addresses various types of modern concerns with one simple and affordable solution.  This is especially relevant in developing nations and disaster relief sites where these types of homes, clinics, and mobile workstations can be a boon due to the fact that they are almost disaster proof.




  1. I really appreciate the way this post identifies the possible challenges of shipping container architecture in conjunction with the benefits. One that was not addressed which I am curious about is the supply of shipping containers. Are the containers built new in any of these cases? If they are always recycled containers, what makes the containers un-qualified for regular use for shipping? Could those weaknesses also make the containers dangerous to use for shelter? (i.e. corrosion, leaks, damages). The answers to this question especially relate to the proclaimed sustainability of the shipping containers because if containers are actually being made new for housing and other mobile programs then they become a commodity, not a resource.

    I was intrigued by some of the challenges you brought up so I did a little more digging and I found an article on ArchDaily which identifies many of the same pros and cons that you addressed in more detail. The article talks about how much energy and resources go into refurbishing the containers to make them safe and adaptable for architecture and states, “The average container eventually produces nearly a thousand pounds of hazardous waste before it can be used as a structure.” That to me is outstanding and really offers a new perspective not only on adaptive re-use of these containers but also the impact of the first life of these materials. I wonder if there is greater merit in designing a new type of shipping container which can also be used as housing and be easily and safely transitioned between the two rather than investing in trying to make the current containers viable?

    Arch Daily: The Pros and Cons of Cargo Container Architecture

  2. nguy1621

    As I already mentioned in my original post, this type of architecture is primarily suited for developing nations, temporary shelter for disaster victims, or emergency medical facilities like in the case of Clinic in a Can. As with most goods, the shipping containers can either be used or new depending on the buyer. Some buyers don’t want to deal with the unknown factor of what the shipping container has carried or the costs related to cleaning it. The majority of shipping containers used for relief aid purposes is recycled, and the supply of shipping containers is around 17 million. There are various reasons as to why certain shipping containers get recycled. They could be what is called a one way tripper, they could have reached their shelf life (15-20yrs), or there could have been damages (minor-major) that are against regulations.
    As you may be aware, there are established laws and policies that protect people against uninhabitable dwellings in most industrialized nations in which these types of containers would be used as a primary residence. As for your concern about the thousand pounds of hazardous waste created from the container, lets not forget that according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) study, an estimated 8,000 lbs of waste is created from the construction of a 2,000 square foot home. I do agree that there is still a lot of progress to be made in this type of architecture, but I find it better than the steel containers sitting in a dump. Everything is relative to something.

    Green Building Elements

  3. wils1489

    I do agree that there is a ton of potential with these shipping containers, especially if these containers were to be used as residential homes as you suggested. Properly insulated, I don’t see a reason not to use them. There are a ton of people that could benefit from this innovative design. In countries where there are so many without shelter it would be beneficial to place the recycled shipping containers in those locations. It minimizes waste and increases the life span of that material, minimizing our ecological footprint.

    Speaking of minimizing our ecological footprint, there are architects who are trying to achieve that with these shipping containers. Luis De Garrido was able to create a net zero building that was bioclimatic and a sustainable house, using nothing but waste. For this R4 House he used a total of six recycled shipping containers and did not produce any waste during construction. So maybe using these shipping containers might be the new way to approach sustainable design. After all, it couldn’t hurt to try.

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