Shipping container architecture

Shipping container architecture

Shipping container architecture is a form of architecture using steel intermodal containers (shipping containers) as structural element. It is also referred to as cargotecture, a portmanteau of cargo with architecture, or "arkitainer". The use of containers as a building material has grown in popularity over the past several years due to their inherent strength, wide availability, and relatively low expense. Homes have also been built with containers because they are seen as more eco-friendly than traditional building materials such as brick and cement.


  • Strength and durability

Shipping containers are in many ways an ideal building material. They are designed to carry heavy loads and to be stacked in high columns. They are also designed to resist harsh environments, such as on ocean-going vessels or sprayed with road salt while transported on roads. Due to their high strength, containers may be adapted for secure storage.

  • Modular

All shipping containers are the same width and most have two standard height and length measurements and as such they provide modular elements that can be combined into larger structures. This simplifies design, planning and transport. As they are already designed to interlock for ease of mobility during transportation, structural construction is completed by simply emplacing them. Due to the containers' modular design additional construction is as easy as stacking more containers. They can be stacked up to 12 units high when empty.

  • Labor

The welding and cutting of steel is considered to be specialized labor and can increase construction expenses, yet overall it is still lower than conventional construction. Unlike wood frame construction, attachments must be welded or drilled to the outer skin, which is more time consuming and requires different job site equipment.

  • Transport

Pre-fabricated modules can also be easily transported by ship, truck, or rail, because they already conform to standard shipping sizes.

  • Availability

Used shipping containers are available across the globe.

  • Expense

Many used containers are available at an amount that is low compared to a finished structure built by other labor-intensive means such as bricks and mortar which also require larger more expensive foundations. Construction involves very little labor and used shipping containers requiring only simple modification.

  • Foundations

Containers are designed to be supported by their four corners making a very simple foundation possible. As well the top four corners are very strong as they are intended to support a stack of other containers.

  • Eco-friendly

A 40 ft shipping container weights over 3,500 kg. When upcycling shipping containers, thousands of kilograms of steel are saved. In addition when building with containers, the amount of traditional building materials needed (i.e. bricks and cement) are reduced.


  • Temperature

Steel conducts heat very well; containers used for human occupancy in an environment with extreme temperature variations will normally have to be better insulated than most brick, block or wood structures.

  • Lack of Flexibility

Although shipping containers can be combined together to create bigger spaces, creating spaces different to their default size (either 20 or 40 foot) is expensive and time consuming. Containers any longer than 40 feet will be difficult to navigate in some residential areas.

  • Humidity

As noted above, single wall steel conducts heat. In temperate climates, moist interior air condenses against the steel, becoming clammy. Rust will form unless the steel is well sealed and insulated.

  • Construction site

The size and weight of the containers will, in most cases, require them to be placed by a crane or forklift. Traditional brick, block and lumber construction materials can often be moved by hand, even to upper stories.

  • Building permits

The use of steel for construction, while prevalent in industrial construction, is not widely used for residential structures. Obtaining building permits may be troublesome in some regions due to municipalities not having seen this application before.

  •  Treatment of timber floors

To meet Australian government quarantine requirements most container floors when manufactured are treated with insecticides.Before human habitation, floors should be removed and safely disposed. Units with steel floors would be preferable, if available.

  •  Solvents

Solvents released from paint and sealants used in manufacture might be harmful.

  • Damage

While in service, containers are damaged by friction, handling collisions, and force of heavy loads overhead during ship transits. The companies will inspect containers and condemn them if there are cracked welds, twisted frames or pin holes are found, among other faults.

  • Roof weaknesses

Although the two ends of a container are extremely strong, the roof is not. A limit of 300 kg is recommended. .

Shipping containers have also been used as

• Affordable housing
• Press boxes
• Emergency hurricane shelters
• Fire training facility
• Military training facility
• School buildings
• Apartment and office buildings
• Artists' studios
• Stores
• Moveable exhibition spaces on rails
• Medical clinics
• Radar stations
• Shopping malls
• Sleeping rooms
• Experimental labs
• RV campers

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