Money makes the world go round, as the maxim goes. To that, we might add “modern shipping containers”. Snigger if you will, but spend a moment thinking about how crucial the humble steel vessels have been in facilitating cargo transportation and global trade over the last half century and the magnitude of its significance will hit home.
China has been, and continues to be, one of the key drivers of global growth. However, because of trade imbalances — China’s trade partners tend to import more goods from the Middle Kingdom than they export — more containers remain in those countries compared to the number that leave. Consequently, a huge portion of the estimated 30 million containers in use globally end up in ports where they stack up, gathering rust.
At the same time, China’s building boom fuelled an insatiable appetite for building materials such as steel and concrete, causing prices to rise. As American architect Peter DeMaria of DeMaria Design says: “The cost of steel and concrete has gone through the roof. That forced us to explore alternative materials.” DeMaria is known for his unconventional use of materials and building techniques.
The Caterpillar House by Sebastián Irarrázaval is made up of 12 containers
The Up-cycle Phenomenon
DeMaria and many others like him have realised that they have an abundance of low-cost assets, which are surprisingly adaptable, sitting at their doorsteps. They have taken to repurposing the unused containers, transforming them into shops, cafés and gallery spaces. One of the earliest and most notable examples is that of Swiss fashion brand Freitag’s flagship store in Zürich. Opened in 2006, it was built entirely of recycled containers stacked 26m high — the equivalent of an eight- or nine-storey building.
In Singapore, containers have been given new leases of life as hawker stalls and artist spaces. DECK, an independent arts venue at Prinsep Street, is housed in a series of 19 containers, within which there is a gallery, resource library, photography studio and cafe. At LaunchPad in One-North, there is Timbre+, a 700-seater food court that sprawls over 24,000sq-ft. Some of the 35 food and beverage operators run their stalls from containers.
In recent years, adventurous developers, architects and builders have converted containers into thoroughly habitable residences. In cities such as Amsterdam and Berlin, they have been used to construct pre-fab student housing. In the US, the movement is so prevalent that there is an entire series on the HGTV cable network, Container Homes, dedicated to the art. Closer to home, the Container Hotel Group operates three hotels, each hewn from containers, in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Penang.
A swimming pool features in the PV14 House in Dallas by Michael Gooden
Though increasingly popular, dwellings fashioned from freight containers is still very much a niche interest. “We’re still trying to overcome the idea that a steel box is not a good place to live. People think bricks and mortar are eternal, but that’s not the case. Gradually, the psychology is changing. I think we will see many more housing projects using containers in future,” maintains Dutch architect Quinten de Gooijer, whose firm Tempohousing designed student accommodation The Wenckehof in Amsterdam.
Indeed. Some estimates reckon that 24 million containers — or 80 percent of the global total — will not be used for freight purposes again. But plentiful supply is not the only advantage of using containers; they are strong, resistant to mould and termites, and are flood- and fireproof, making them excellent building materials. Ranging in length from 20ft to 30ft, containers typically remain in use for between 10 and 15 years, although their robust build quality means they can last much longer.
The PV14 House by Michael Gooden of M Gooden Design in Texas showcases a modern residence within the steel structure
Because the rectangular volumes are designed to be stacked, container dwellings tend to feature regular-shaped layouts that can be tweaked to suit an occupant’s needs. And of course, there are the merits of up-cycling. American architects Adam Kalkin and Matthew Quilty of Industrial Zombie believe that “this form of up-cycling results in unusual, surprising structures, still achieving the highest design aesthetic while reducing industrial material waste.”
While there are many pluses to using containers when building a home, there are some limitations as well. Chiefly, the walls of a container are engineered to support the container above, so while some openings, such as windows and doors, can be cut into them, reinforcements have to be added on either side of the openings. Removing an entire wall could compromise the container’s structural integrity.
As de Gooijer explains: “If you treat [the containers] like Lego, you have to add expensive substructures to give it stability.” The only way to curtail this problem is to stack the containers neatly, one on top of the other, which potentially limits the design. This, however, has not stopped inventive minds from pushing boundaries. Many of these dwellings tend to be more luxurious properties — upwards of 2,500sq-ft — where its larger scale affords architects the opportunity to incorporate the likes of swimming pools and rooftop decks into the design.
Two properties deserve mention in this respect: The Caterpillar House in Santiago, Chile, designed by Chilean architect Sebastián Irarrázaval; and the PV14 House in Dallas, Texas, designed by Texan architect Michael Gooden. Such dwellings defy the notion that container homes tend to be modest in scale and point to the rise in demand from intrepid homeowners.
Set on a hillside in the outskirts of Santiago, the 3,800-sq-ft Caterpillar House is cobbled together from 12 containers — five 40-ft standard containers, six 20-ft standard containers and one 40-ft open-top container for the swimming pool. According to Irarrázaval, who runs the firm Sebastián Irarrázaval Arquitectos, the prefabricated house was built for an art collector and his family, who chose the design based on its quick build time and reduced cost.
The intriguing design, which resembles a series of caterpillars perched on sloping terrain, has a purpose: To draw in cool mountain air to ventilate the entire property, thus reducing reliance on artificial air-conditioning. As Irarrázaval notes: “The strategy for improving air movement through the house consisted in organising the programme along stripes and keeping interstitial spaces among them for the circulation of both the inhabitants and the cool air that comes from the mountains. At the same time, the interstitial spaces increase the house’s perimeter which allows…light and air [to enter] from at least two opposite sides.”
Over at the PV14 House, architect Michael Gooden of M Gooden Design took an even more radical and innovative approach, incorporating containers into the bricks-and-mortar structure of the 3,700-sq-ft property, sited on one of the highest elevations in the City of Dallas.
As Gooden explains: “A primary goal for this house was to design and build a modern residence that has a unique character…which employs construction technologies that are readily available, but not often used in current residential construction. The house is intended to express those things from which it is built, with concrete floors, exposed steel structure, pre-manufactured steel modules, masonry and glass as primary elements.”
“Primary living areas were elevated to take advantage of the views and to separate them from the street traffic activity below. Extensive use of overhangs and porches shield windows from direct sunlight, [reducing energy costs] while still capturing natural light and not obstructing the beautiful views. The roof deck above serves as a solar screen to the insulated single-ply membrane roof below, which reduces energy costs and extends the life of the roof itself.”
Given Singapore’s status as a major shipping hub and its openness to global design trends — particularly when it comes to sustainability — we reckon it is only a matter of time before luxury container homes become a reality here. Presumably, the authorities just have to give the green light.