I have always been fascinated by sea containers and the flexibility of function they offer. But it is not until 5 or 6 years ago that I started to see containers used in temporary structures. The first container conversion project I came across was in Les Halles in Paris. There was a monumental project to excavate the heart of Paris and rebuild it to host underground malls, parking, new metro lines, etc. In an area as congested and expensive as Les Halles, there was no place to set-up the infamous construction trailers that always line up on a construction site. The architects abandoned the traditional trailers and instead bet on sea containers. Stacked up high to house all the trades working on the gigantic project, 10 containers wide and 5 containers high, the construction “village” was impressive. The containers were installed at various angles to create balconies and overhangs, stairs were attached on both ends and men in hard hats were running up and down, as comfortable as they would have been in a concrete building.
The next time I saw a container “village” was at the site of the new Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC. It is typical to use one’s own citizens to build an embassy, but the problem is always housing this work force. At the Chinese embassy the problem was solved by stacking up sea containers 20 long by 6 high. A mezzanine ran along the front elevation at each level and, again, stairs were mounted on both ends. Very easy, quick and affordable. The whole complex was built in 3 days and later taken apart and moved out in 2 days.
So we know how to build with containers. It is effective, inexpensive, rapidly erected and the resource is nearly limitless. In a high traffic port like Baltimore, Md. one can easily find a used 40ft container for under $2,000. It has a complete structure, is generally water-proof or easily made water-proof, and the electric power, drainage, windows, etc. are all fairly easy to install. At the same level of finishing, a brick and mortar house of the same size could reach $60K to $80K in construction costs – the savings become quite considerable, quite fast.
So the question I wonder always is why are containers not used more for temporary housing (after floors, fires, earthquakes, war zones, etc)? In a time when the government is withdrawing funds from affordable housing, why are architects not looking at containers for the base structure of affordable housing? How about homeless shelters? Student housings? Retail stores? And more, so much more…
Containers can be made visually appealing with paints and/or classing and turned into an attractive house or office. At such a savings, it is hard to understand why people are not flocking to containers to build just about anything. Europeans are not shy about it, and have been very create with the finishes and architecture of containers. How much longer will it take for the American and Canadian designers and architects to see the potential?
Sean Saidi is a Principal at SR/A Interior Design. Sean has enjoyed a 40+ year career in architecture and design, with projects spanning the United States, Europe and the Middle East.