Amsterdam student Rose Mandungu stands in front of a colorful apartment complex constructed of a rather unusual material—discarded shipping containers. The crowded Dutch city has been meeting a pressing need for student and other low-income housing by using ubiquitous steel shipping containers. After years at sea, the containers were rusted and dented but ready for reuse to house people instead of products.
The interior of a shipping container is compact, but it can be surprisingly comfortable, as this Amsterdam student dorm attests. When their service at sea is finished, a growing number of steel containers are cleaned and refurbished with flooring, insulation, air conditioning, electricity, plumbing, and other modern conveniences.
The result is creative green housing that requires only a fraction of new construction’s energy and materials and costs less as well. In Amsterdam, students have happily taken to dwelling in these unconventional new digs built by Tempohousing.
An Amsterdam woman produces clothing inside her shipping container dwelling. The cheap, green, and durable freight containers, available for just a few thousand dollars before refurbishing, are also being pressed into new commercial ventures around the world.
Former cargo carriers are in use as shops, marketplaces, office buildings, hotels, and even a Nomadic Museum, which has circled the globe as a traveling art exhibit.
A giant student dorm serves as a shining example of “cargotecture,” the growing application of discarded steel shipping containers to serve architectural purposes around the globe. Despite their uniform size and shape, the containers can be used in an endless number of configurations because they fit together like real-world Legos.
The uniform size and shape that made them easy to transport on long-distance trucks and ships allows them to be stacked up to a dozen high without significant external reinforcement.
According to figures from SG BLOCKS, a New York-based shipping container builder, fitting a container for housing use takes only one-twentieth the amount of energy of reprocessing the same amount of steel—and results in an additional hundred years of lifetime.
About 18 million steel shipping containers are currently moving cargo on seas and roadways around the world. But at many ports, mountains of them may be found stacked up due to a lack of outgoing cargo, particularly in nations like the United States, where imports outnumber exports.
Some 2 million steel containers are sitting idle at any given time and all the containers in use are eventually headed for retirement. In a growing number of cases, being put out to pasture means a second life as a functional building material.
An Amsterdam resident enjoys the benefits of “cargotecture,” the growing practice of reusing steel shipping containers for housing units. The internationally standardized (ISO) containers are 40 feet long by 8 feet wide by 8.5 feet high (12.2 by 2.4 by 2.6 meters), though there are some 9.5-foot “high cubes” that are are especially favored for building.
They can be stacked, mixed, and matched like so many Legos to create larger buildings of creative configuration. The containers are super strong because they are designed to carry 30 tons of cargo while withstanding the rigors of sea travel.
Today half of the people on Earth live in cities, and the figure is expected to reach 60 percent by 2030. Most of that urban expansion, some 95 percent, will occur in the sprawling cities of the developing world that already suffer from a lack of decent, affordable housing. And all of Earth’s cities combined occupy only two percent of its land—so space is increasingly scarce where most people live.
The topic of sustainable cities is high on the agenda for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), to be held in Brazil from June 20 to 22. The kind of compact, modular, stackable housing being created from shipping containers may be of particular use in the world’s growing cities—and affordability is one of its great assets.
More than 800 million people live in slums and that number is growing quickly. Slum housing often lacks basic necessities for human health, including running water and proper sanitary facilities.
Steel shipping container housing can be economically fitted with necessities like modern bathrooms and other amenities common in the developed world for a fraction of traditional construction costs.
The units are also entirely portable, making them well suited as temporary housing for disaster response.
You needn’t be a student like this Amsterdam woman to experience a shipping container stay. In 2008 the hotel chain Travelodge opened a 300-room hotel constructed of shipping containers in Uxbridge, in the United Kingdom. Verbus Systems fitted out the containers in China with plumbing and insulation, as well as heating, ventilation, and air conditioning—then assembled them into a complete building on site in just three weeks.
The intriguing hostelry is not just green in terms of saving energy and materials compared to building from scratch, but it’s also green in terms of the bottom line. Companies that build modular buildings from shipping containers claim savings of 20 to even 50 percent of traditional construction costs.
Amsterdam-based Tempohousing, builder of student dormitories and other ISO shipping container frame buildings, was launched in 2002 because of the obvious need for affordable student housing in a crowded urban area of central Amsterdam. By 2004 the company was fitting out container homes at the rate of 40 per week in a Chinese factory.
From these beginnings, Tempohousing has branched out to build low-cost worker accommodations, cafes, supermarkets, hotels, an office building, a laundry, and even the prototype of a portable miniature hospital—all on the framework of the 40-by-80-foot steel blocks.
A student smiles from a window of her shipping container apartment—and looks toward a possible future of low-income urban housing where space is scarce and expensive. Thanks to their convenience, affordability, and friendly environmental footprint, a growing number of shipping containers may continue to make the journey from the high seas to become the high-rises of affordable urban housing.