Shipping containers: the future of UK housing

The use of shipping containers in housing projects has surged in popularity over the last few years as a result of the fact that these containers are ideal as a building material. They are strong, can be stacked, and are easier to move than traditional homes. As well as all of this, the push for sustainability and green living is something that is part of the wider conversation in society nowadays, and using shipping containers adds to this conversation.

Cargotecture is evolving

HyBrid Architecture of Seattle came up with the concept of cargotecture around 2004. This term is used to describe systems that are built either partially or wholly from shipping containers. Due to the obvious versatility of shipping containers, they can be exposed in the exterior of a development, or they can be discreetly used as a strong prefab building element during the construction of a housing development.

It’s common for architects to use shipping containers temporarily for projects, but they can be recycled into new structures afterwards too.

The uses of shipping containers

Shipping containers are seen as the perfect building material, as they have specific properties that make them appealing to both architects and constructors.

Over the past few years, shipping containers have been used creatively and innovatively by architects to produce some eye-catching results. In fact, shipping containers aren’t just limited to being used as homes.

Football stadiums, hotels, art galleries, museums, swimming pools and theatres are all making use of shipping containers to add something new to their developments and add visual interest to these buildings.

What should architects consider before getting involved in a project using shipping containers?

Cargotecture and the use of shipping containers provide endless opportunities for architects, designers and clients alike. These containers can be turned into garages, pools, stages, offices, and homes. This offers added versatility to architects when it comes to thinking about using shipping containers for their designs.

Having said all of this, there are some key aspects that architects should consider before they decide to use shipping containers in their projects.

Are they new or second-hand?

Due to the fact that shipping containers aren’t categorised and are manufactured overseas to be shipped to the UK and sold, they may not actually be new.

Although a new shipping container may look as expected, it will most likely have already been used. Although they have been used once already, they will still be in perfect shape, and may only have some cosmetic scratches on them.

Shipping containers have been used for around 15 years by the time they’re chosen for modification, and as they are being converted or used in a project, a little bit of rust shouldn’t have too much impact on the overall aesthetics.

When should shipping containers be purchased?

Due to fluctuating foreign markets, the price of shipping containers can go up and down. When negotiating the purchase of a shipping container, an important question to ask suppliers is how the market is currently performing, and how much prices have changed over the last few months.

Companies that sell shipping containers are competitive and will alter prices in response to what the competition is doing, but also in relation to the demand for containers. The end of the financial year and the beginning of a new year are good times to look for shipping containers that are being sold for the best prices.

What were shipping containers used for in the past?

Before architects decide on specific shipping containers for their project, it’s worth thinking about what those containers were used for previously. It’s common knowledge that some containers are used to transport dangerous chemicals, biohazards and explosives. As shipping containers have already been in use for up to 15 years, these hazardous materials could have filtered into external and internal walls, as well as the floorboards.

Depending on what the container will be used for, it’s important to be careful when making a purchase, and if it’s going to be used for housing or offices, then buying a container that has been used to ship food or dry goods is likely the best option.

Shipping containers in use at POP Brixton, London

The delivery of containers

Once an architect has decided on using shipping containers, the next important thing to consider is how they will be delivered. The cost of having shipping containers delivered will be more affordable if using a flatbed truck, as opposed to a tilt bed truck and trailer. This is due to the fact that a tilt bed truck and trailer have specialised functions, so the price is higher when choosing this delivery option.

Regardless of delivery option, consideration needs to be given to how much room the shipping container will need when it’s delivered, as well as the delivery vehicle itself. The delivery path needs to be clear and wide enough for the chosen vehicle’s dimensions, so this is something that needs to be thought about before shipping containers are delivered

container ship

How robust is the container?

When investing in shipping containers for development projects, it’s essential that they are watertight, doors are safely intact, locking handles can be moved freely and flooring is structurally sound.

There may be some rust, but as long as this is only cosmetic and doesn’t affect the structure of the container itself, there shouldn’t be an issue.

Shipping containers require minimal maintenance to prolong the life of up to two decades in some instances if it’s stored outside.

Working within the constraints of the container

Shipping containers are seen as durable, and the front and back of containers are possibly their strongest aspects. When it comes to the roof, they can’t support a great deal of weight, and a general recommendation is to limit the weight on top to 300 kilograms.

They are also sensitive to changing the weather, and they can feel like living inside an oven during summer months, or living inside a freezer during winter, so it’s important that insulation and ventilation is considered when designing a project using shipping containers.

The possibilities of using shipping containers are endless, but what are the benefits of using them?

For architects who are looking to design and develop a project using shipping containers, one of the positives is their low price. There are many companies that sell shipping containers for use in projects, so it’s relatively easy to find a good deal on containers.

The construction of shipping containers can withstand harsh elements while they are being shipped, and their steel construction is an ideal material for building that can be modified to suit a range of developments. As containers boast strengthened corners, they can handle the stacking of other units, and they are easy to place on most foundations. This ties in with the cost as a simple foundation can be used for architects, depending on the nature of a development.

With over 17 million shipping containers, there’s plenty to choose from when it comes to using them for building projects. Once containers have been used, they are replaced with new containers, creating a huge volume of leftover containers that can be purchased at low prices.

When designing new projects, an architect is often thinking about the sustainability of a construction and how eco-friendly this development can be. In fact, shipping containers provide a wealth of possibilities when it comes to recycling, which makes them a popular choice among many architects. Once a container is modified or repurposed, the steel is recycled and using containers has an impact on the environment, as there is less use of cement, wood and bricks during their construction.

concept - container use in Brooklyn, NYC

Shipping containers boost sustainability

With the stacks of disused shipping containers not being used for anything else after their intended use, buying them at an affordable price and using them to design a range of housing spaces is having a significant contribution on the environment.

Shipping containers also offer an economical and sustainable way of living. They are cheap and can be used to build new developments in deprived areas, offering both environmentally friendly housing and low-cost living.

The possibilities for shipping containers to be used for upcycling are obvious. Containers usually need very little in the way of refurbishment and modification in order to make them ready for use. With the flexibility of containers, they can be used for storage, homes or pop-up commercial premises, which are a much better way of using them compared to leaving them stacked up and empty.

Shipping containers are designed in such a way to be stacked and easily moveable. This actually offers accessibility to everybody, wherever they live. It doesn’t matter if individuals are looking to use containers for storage or for commercial reasons, their flexibility remains one of their key benefits.

Using shipping containers to design new developments offers the ability to save on space as they are compact in their size, so fewer materials can be used and costs can be low. When designing projects that are more traditional, more space is usually wasted resulting in the use of unnecessary resources and energy. Shipping containers can be kept warm or cooled down using less energy than traditional constructions.

The future of shipping containers in architecture

The use of shipping containers for construction has shown that despite their original use, there is arguably a better use for them once they have fulfilled their intended purpose. In fact, the future is wide-ranging for shipping containers, with more architects thinking of innovative ways to use them in their developments.

These containers have already been used for a range of developments across the country, and the future looks set to feature them more heavily when it comes to new developments. In fact, there are examples that show how the sole use of shipping containers have enabled architects to design homes, swimming pools and many other new environments for a variety of purposes.

When thinking about how the use of shipping containers has evolved over the years, it’s hard to deny that they have been successful in bridging the gap between construction and sustainability, offering a solution for architects who are constantly looking at new ways of developing modern, bespoke developments for clients.

In fact, there are many examples of shipping containers being used across the UK to address the demands of the growing housing crisis. The need for affordable living is something that hasn’t seen much growth over the past few years, and shipping containers are offering a new way of living for many, with projects being developed to support the growing need for housing.

containers in affordable housing

The ability to upcycle, modify and refurbish shipping containers brings with it a whole host of possibilities for architects, and the added versatility and flexibility of using shipping containers in the design and construction of many different developments helps architects achieve unique constructions, whilst offering affordable spaces to live in, work in or as visitor attractions.

Shipping containers boast many benefits for architects, and whilst some work is involved to bring them up to the standard required for human habitation, the cost of such is significantly less than traditional constructions. With an increasing pressure on new developments to provide sustainable buildings, the use of shipping containers allows architects to ensure that not only are they helping to re-use shipping containers once they’ve been discarded, they provide an environmentally friendly way of life for those living in them.

The future for architects looking to develop new ways of producing innovative and unique dwellings is becoming increasingly complex, and shipping containers provide a low-cost, eco-friendly and truly flexible way for the development of new homes and buildings. With a little bit of work, architects can create some truly breath-taking structures that use simple materials and methods at an affordable price, helping to address the existing housing crisis in the UK.

Quirky, Shipping Containers


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