Global container architecture

The year 2011 was devastating for New Zealand. On both February 22 and June 13, magnitude 6.3 earthquakes struck Christchurch, the country’s second largest city. In addition to destruction of infrastructure, loss of life, and interruption of services, the central business district was ravaged. With an economy partly based on tourism, the local government and residents were justifiably concerned.

The Christchurch Earthquake Appeal Trust provided an interest-free loan of $3.36 million to open a new central city retail precinct in October 2011. Built out of shipping containers, the precinct opened in time for the pre-Christmas shopping period and was the only retail outlet open for business downtown at that time. While it was intended to be temporary, residents have expressed interest in keeping the retail container shops.


City Mall, Christchurch, NZ.


What makes shipping containers ideal for different structures? They are strong and durable, and are intended to carry heavy loads and resist harsh environments. They are made to standard measurements and provide modular elements that can be combined into larger structures, which simplifies design, planning, and transport. They are already designed to interlock for ease of mobility during transportation, and additional construction is as easy as stacking more containers. Available globally, prefabricated modules can also be transported by ship, truck or rail, because they already conform to standard shipping sizes.

Used containers are relatively inexpensive, compared to other structures which are more labor-intensive to build and require larger foundations. Construction involves little labor and used containers requiring only simple modification can be purchased from major transport companies for as little as US $1,200 each. Even when purchased brand new, they are about US $6,000.


So what’s the catch? Containers definitely present challenges. Steel conducts heat and cold very well, and humid climates can cause condensation inside. There’s the risk of rust and corrosion. The steel needs to be well-sealed and better insulated than most brick, block or wood structures. Moving the containers usually requires cranes or forklifts, where traditional construction materials can often be moved by hand. Using steel for residential structures is not widely seen; therefore, obtaining building permits may be difficult in some areas.

Containers with steel floors are preferable since wooden floors are often treated with toxic insecticides. Due to potential contamination during the working life of a container, ideally all internal surfaces should be blasted to bare metal, and re-painted with nontoxic paint.

Other International Examples

Beyond New Zealand, there are many examples of container architecture around the world. A few are noted here. The Seventh Kilometer Market, outside of Odessa, Ukraine, began in 1989 on 10 acres and as of 2006, sprawled over 170 acres. By comparison, the Mall of America in Bloomington, MN, covers 96 acres. The market is made up of “shipping containers, stacked two high in rows long enough to be called streets, though these are little more than overcrowded alleys.”


7th Kilometer Market, Odessa, Ukraine. Photo credit: James Hill for New York Times.

Container City is a complex made from large shipping containers and is located in Cholula, Puebla in central Mexico. Though an English idea, this version was built by a Mexican developer. Fifty containers are joined and painted with bright colors to create 14,800 ft. of space for workshops, restaurants, galleries, a few homes, and other businesses.

Cholula Container City, picture from Wikipedia

Cholula Container City. Wikipedia, 12/1/2013.

The Downtown Eastside housing project in Vancouver, B.C. is Canada’s first recycled shipping container social housing development, and it features 12 self-contained units of roughly 285 square feet each. “The development meets all building codes, and indeed exceeds code requirements for insulation and sound transference.”

Photograph by: Ward Perrin, PNG

Photograph by: Ward Perrin, PNG

Future of Container Architecture

As manufacturing has decreased in America, more manufactured goods come to our country in shipping containers. It’s often cheaper to buy new containers in Asia instead of sending the old ones back. Therefore, there’s a need to find uses for these used containers.

What can this mean for planners in the United States? Shipping containers provide an inexpensive, modular, and mobile option for both temporary and permanent structures. As shown in this blog, many countries use them for a variety of uses including our neighbors in Canada and Mexico. Both commercial and residential zoning requirements should be examined and altered to allow for the use of container architecture. Economically challenged regions throughout our country could benefit greatly from this flexible style of construction.