How Did Shipping Container Architecture Become a Thing?

24 Apr, 2018

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Back in the 1930s people still relied on wooden crates to transport products overseas. Armies of men at ports all over the world would unload these wooden crates from the vehicles at the ports and transported them by hand to the ships. A young trucker named Malcolm McLean thought there had to be a better way to do it, and came up with those big metal boxes that can be detached from the truck transporting it, and put on a ship; and so the first shipping container was born in 1956 when McLean loaded a former war tanker with 58 “trailer vans” as The New York Times called them.

 


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But nowadays, shipping containers are a lot more than just tools for transportation and storage. What McLean couldn’t envision back in the day is how these containers would take the architecture world by storm. Shipping containers are sturdy, affordable and easy to transport which led them to find an alternative use in 1987 when someone wanted to make a “habitable building” out of these portable metal containers.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t until more recently that Adam Kalkin, an American architect considered the father of modern container architecture, or “cargotecture”, made the concept so popular that his 2003 project, 12 Container House project, is still often cited as one of the most elegant and functional examples of container architecture. However, he claims that things have changed a lot since then as now container architecture is so popular that there’s no challenge in gaining credibility, unlike when he was trying to make people take his work seriously.

The make-it-up-as-you-go nature of container architecture has made heroes of those who got it right early on, like the first two-story container structure to comply with the National Building Code in earthquake-prone Southern California. This home was designed to combine heavy gauge steel and high-quality materials, while still being affordable.

Shipping containers are cheap, ubiquitous and resistant to many of the threats buildings usually face, such as fire, mold and termites. On top of it, they’re already fabricated, which unlike popular belief provides incredible flexibility and adaptability while keeping the cost low. Container homes are varied in style and cost. Some are affordable, configurable and eco-conscious. Others go straight for the wow factor, such as the Joshua Tree Residence, a 2,100-square-foot house made from white containers bursting out from a central point, to be built in 2018 just outside California’s Joshua Tree National Park.

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