Shipping Container Architecture

By Khaled Abou Alfa • 1st of May, 2021

Built across centuries, the incumbent’s position is fortified. We continue to do things the way we had always done them; the correct way. There are those ideas that make perfect sense but only after the fact. Until the new idea arrives, offering an alternative. A disruptive alternative that overshadows what came before. An idea so strong that you forget what the status quo used to be. An idea that changes how the world organises itself.

Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.
—  Arthur Schopenhauer

Malcolm McLean, was a trucking magnate in the 1950s, identified the sheer inefficiency on daily display every day. Ships would unload goods and transfer them painstakingly onto trucks; his trucks. Then he would witness the opposite. Goods unloaded from his trucks and transferred onto ships. On the 26th of April 1956, 65 years ago, and hundreds of years after mankind started using the sea to transport freight, McLean demonstrated the alternative. A simple, yet remarkable innovation onboard a converted World War II vessel. The SS Ideal X traveled from the Port of Newark and arrived in Houston carrying 58 rectangular shaped containers, each 35-by-8-by-8 feet (10.5-by-2.5-by-2.5 metres). Each of the containers then lifted from the ship and loaded on the back of a waiting truck.

This innovation would transform our world, and fuel the march towards globalisation. The introduction of intermodal distribution. It was now possible to transport goods from truck to sea and back to truck again without the need for unloading or disruption. By 1961, the idea had spread and became an international standard with the ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) agreeing on several sizes. The most common sizes used today are the 20-foot (approx. 6m) and 40-foot (approx. 12m) lengths. The 20-foot container, referred to as a Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit (TUE), became the industry standard reference for cargo volume and vessel capacity. Over the decades the number of containers ships could carry would increase exponentially. The current level is at a maximum of 20,000 TUEs. The estimate for 2067 is for vessels to carry up to a maximum of 50,000TUEs.

Over the last 60 years these containers would go on to become one of the most ubiquitous items used (and reused) across the world. For the first few decades they remained within the confines of their original purpose and intention, transporting goods around the world. Around the late 80s and early 90s, the use of the container as a building material began gaining traction. Their inherent robust features, ubiquity, cost, versatility and size, lent themselves into use across the built environment.

On Limitations

The transition of weaving shipping containers into the built world was not a consideration baked into the original design. This was an industrial item where function trumped form. Rather there was acceptance of the container in spite of its numerous constraints. These constraints enabled and enhance the use of containers as a building block within the built environment.

Ubiquity & Availability

While the shipping industry is a colossal behemoth, complete with controls and regulations, a single global body monitoring and recording the number of shipping containers does not exist. As such the exact number of containers in-service, out-of-service and in-production is not possible. Even so, there are estimates (which vary depending on source) that give an indication of the scale.

Container Type TUE (Millions)
In-service 23 to 38.5
Ex-service 14 to 23.3
Brand New 6 to 10
Total 43 to 72

Regardless of the exact number, the best estimates confirm that there is a considerable amount of unused containers. Furthermore, the latest study from McKinsey’s (a new report to mark 50 years after they first reviewed shipping containers) it is clear that we have not even reached peak container yet. The projections indicate an increase in the number of containers needed over the next 50 years. Regardless of where you are in the world, whether in deepest Alaska or the heart of Africa, it is a safe assumption that there is access to a container.

This ubiquity is one of the key enablers of containers as a building material. While concrete and steel remain supreme, this method requires production facilities. It needs contractors and a knowledgeable workforce. It needs time. By contrast a shipping container doesn’t need any of this infrastructure.

Material Strength

One of the key properties of a shipping container is its strength and durability. It has to not only survive but retain its strength in the face of harsh, corrosive marine conditions. In this environment, a well maintained container, can last for over 20 years in active duty. To achieve this herculean feat, the primary material used in the construction of containers is corten steel. A steel alloy developed to allow welding, while remaining rust-resistant.

In their virgin form, a shipping containers are water tight structures. Leakage is only possible around the gaskets of the original door entrance; the rest of the container maintains its seal. This durability addresses an important requirement of any temporary or permanent structure. New openings added to the container compromise this protection. This is usually an acceptable compromise, as these new structures are usually no longer subjected to the same extreme weather conditions.


While in regular circulation for over 60 years, the options and dimensions of shipping containers have not changed since 1961. Some additional sizes have been added (such as the 10, 30 and 60ft options). The fundamental size of the two base sizes (20ft and 40ft) have not changed.

Length (ft) Length (m) Dimensions (l x w x h)
10 2.9 2.9m x 2.4m x 2.6m
20 6.1 6.1m x 2.4m x 2.6m
30 9.1 9.1m x 2.4m x 2.6m
40 12 12m x 2.4m x 2.6m
60 18 18m x 2.4m x 2.6m

Alone these modules by themselves do not lend themselves to spacious spaces by themselves. Their modular nature however allows them to create varied spaces that can become spacious. They are modular building element that can be interconnected vertically and horizontally. Without any further support, these containers are stackable up to eight containers high (fully loaded) or approximately 20m.

Circularity & Creativity

The use of containers as a building material is a prime example of the school of design that considers constraints as the driver of innovation. Limitations in certain areas allows freedom of expression in other areas. The material, tensile strength, size (within reason) and overall industrial look, is all defined. What is not defined is the shape of the final structure. Or the colour and layers (cladding) added to the container. Will it be temporary or mobile? Will there be an impressive cantilever? In this manner, the limitations are only defined by the imagination of the designers and modifiers themselves.

This versatility has led to some impressive expressions of architecture from across the world. From the Caterpillar house outside Santiago Chile to Common Ground, in South Korea, the world’s largest shopping mall made from shipping containers. While this project is not real (and remains a set of computer renders), the Starburst building gets a mention because of the creative application of these containers.

Like with timber structures, a notable omission is an example of a tall structure made from containers. This may change soon with Patalab Architecture’s 118 Valance Road project, a 9-floor container office building, which has received planning permission. There is a bigger willingness to consider the module in smaller residential applications. This trend highlights one of the single biggests hurdles that container architecture struggles to shake. A perception that touches on permanence and quality. When compared with the more traditional solutions on offer (concrete and steel) this solution feels less enduring. Disposable architecture.

As a direct cause of climate change, the reality of what is acceptable and what is possible, will continue to shift. To solve the plethora of problems humanity faces across the world will require us to look at what we already have around us and use it, rather than pulling more out from the ground. The steel container will remain a ubiquitous part of the world landscape, floating or built. How we choose to further use this material within the built environment is down to acceptance and ingenuity.


Prometheus Fuels

Every once in a while you stumble on a website that looks to push what is possible on the internet. Prometheus Fuels is definitely one of these kinds of websites. Carbon capture technology to convert back into fuel. Importantly this is back by BMW i Ventures.

The Ocean Cleanup Interceptor V3

There is something encouraging about the relentless development cycle that The Ocean Cleanup are on. They have not only brought their various ideas into the world, they are learning and going back to improve on what they did. In many ways this model has taken a lot from the tech world but applied it to something more meaningful? Version 3 of the Interceptor is now being deployed across rivers which has an even larger funnel. Also the company is set to return to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch later this year with version 2 of their System 001 (now system 002 of course).

Publications of Note

250 Things

Following an obituary of the late Michael Sorkin led me down multiple rabbit holes. First you discover Two Hundred and Fifty Things An Architect Should Know, beautifully presented at Reading Design. This take you over to the architecture section that collects a host of essays from the likes of Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas. The 250 things hasn’t left your mind, so you stumble on Pentagram’s presentation of the same. How do I get one of those you ask? By donating to Terreform. What kind of work does Terreform support? Ah, Urban Research.

Tools of the Trade


A call back to issue 006, (in fact to the very first Tools of the Trade segment), which showcased the Iris. Makers Cabinet are back with their 4th product, the Ferrule. A solid brass pencil holder complete with a clutch mechanism (inspired by machining collets). For those wondering about the name, a ferrule is the metal part at the end of a wood-case pencil, that holds the eraser.

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