Behind the Scenes of Shipping Container Architecture

Green Architect

Ever wonder how container architecture works? Where do the containers come from, how are they modified and exactly how much do they cost? Well, we're hoping to do a container house at our architecture firm, so earlier this week we headed to the south side of Chicago to Vaccaro Trucking, Inc., a container shipping, storage and modification company.

The company I visited, Vaccaro Trucking, Inc. is an ISO shipping container shipping, storage and modification company. They have tons of shipping containers stored on site: all sizes, new, used and some with minor modifications (e.g. construction site offices). His company was a great resource to gain a better understanding of what options are available, how modification works and generally how much it costs (not very much). At the warehouse Vaccaro can do all raw cuts, metal work and window and door installation and they currently modifying a container to use as demonstration and marketing for container architecture (also known as containerization).

Shipping containers are designed to withstand some of the most extreme conditions and carry large loads and as such are some of the most durable structures. They are manufactured to international standards and modular sizes; can be moved across water, rail and highways; and can even be stacked inside one another. However good this may be, because the cost of shipping empty containers is so high, they are collecting and sitting unused all over the world, particularly in the US and China. All of these things make containers ideal for a second life as housing, offices, dorm rooms, and disaster shelters – pretty much any type of structure you can think of. And for cheap.

Shipping Container Specifications:

  • The common ISO Shipping container is 20'0" or 40'0" long; 8'0" wide and 8'6" tall. A taller version is available at 9'6" tall and is known as a 'High-Cube'(HQ) container. Long containers are also available in 45'0, 48'0" and 53'0" lengths and are HQ standard.
  • The containers are manufactured using a steel tube frame and corrugated Corten steel skin, which makes them not only very strong but also holds up very well to the elements.
  • The floors are made of a very strong and durable 1 1/8" thick plywood. Some older models even have a finished quality wood plank flooring that most people would pay lots of money to have in their house.
  • The nature of the shipping container materials and construction makes the units essentially weather tight, immune to mold, rodents, bugs and vandals
  • Some units are refrigerated (or heated), and theoretically may not need any additional insulation.
  • A typical shipping container costs around $1500; a 45'0" long used container is about $1800; 48'0"-53'0" long container is about $2400.

Containerization & Construction Methods:

At a plant such as Vaccaro's, all rough modifications are made at the warehouse, including cleaning, prep work, any cuts and welding for doors and windows, actual door and window insulation and any necessary wall or ceiling openings.

  • The openings are reinforced with 3x3x1/8" steel tubing, and larger members may be needed when cutting entire sides off containers and when merging two containers together. Windows and doors can be inserted very similar to standard door and window installation. Doors can be maintained as-is, insulated or welded shut. Additionally the handles can be shifted for easier handling at grade.
  • Entire sides and tops can be removed, containers can be cut down to size, and can conversely the can be attached together for additional length. For residential use it would be ideal to use a 40'0" long (or longer) HQ container for the higher interior ceiling height. The containers are so strong that they can also be stacked vertically up to 9-12 units high.
  • Basic modification takes about two weeks, but the time frame depends on the complexity of the design.
  • Once the rough modifications have been made the container is shipped to it's home site and place on any necessary foundations.
  • The level of finish is up to the owner, however a general technique would be frame out the interior sides of the corrugated walls with either wood or steel members at 16" on-center, insulate the interior with closed cell spray foam insulation (or your choice of eco-friendly insulation) and then finish with a layer of drywall. The exterior can be left as is if you are going for the industrial look, or it too can be framed, insulated and sheathed, though this would require addition costs, energy and material. Framing, insulation and drywall will reduce the interior width by approximately 6" overall and 3" in height.
  • Installation of all electrical and mechanical work also occurs at the property site.

Containerization Cons:

As with all new and 'radical' construction techniques, one of the biggest barriers is getting not only contractors and builders on board with construction methods, but also even convincing city officials that shipping containers are a good idea. The hurdle we are currently facing in Chicago, a city that burnt to the ground, is getting the proper fire rating for container homes. Even though shipping containers have demonstrated high durability and fire resistant materials, because there is no technical UL listing for this specific type of construction, they will not allow it for residential use within city limits.

One or more of these containers would make a super inexpensive, durable and modular housing unit. Because of the modularity they could be easily modified to grow or change form as a family's needs evolve. While many of the impressive container projects we’ve seen so far are for a normal family residence, we see good prospects for these to be used as artist studios, backyard sheds, vacation homes, low-income housing and temporary and permanent disaster relief housing. Even China is currently fabricating ready-to-live containers with all the plumbing fixtures, furniture, etc. already to use in the container – how great would it be to have these in Haiti right now?

Hopefully we'll be able actually get one of these built, Chicago or elsewhere, and we'll let you know how it goes in one of our next installments!

Related Containerization Posts:

Green Style: Adam Kalkin's Shipping Container Home
Green Style: Shipping Container Homes by Infiniski
A Warm Shipping Container House
Recycled Container Community
Container House by Leger Wanaselja Architecture
Hot or Not? Shipping Container Getaway

(Images: Top:Shipping Container Homes by Infiniski; All others by Rachel Wray)

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