Eco_Logic: Cargotecture - Pros and Cons

Photo by Braden Gunem

Photo by Braden Gunem

A recent trend in architecture that seems to be gaining traction is "cargotecture," or the re-purposing of steel shipping containers for both residential and commercial construction. As a nation that tends to import more than we export, the US has found itself with an excess supply of cargo containers. These well-traveled metal boxes, designed to be transported by rail, road and sea, are now beginning find their way into a range of other more "grounded" uses - from pool liners, to personal storage units, to creative and dramatic architectural statements.Shipping containers are typically 8-feet wide, 7-foot-9 to 9-foot-6 tall, and come in a variety of lengths. Most shipping containers adapted for architectural use are typically 40, 45 or 48 feet in length. Here are some of the primary advantages and disadvantages of cargotecture for your next home or commercial building.ADVANTAGES:• Durability - Designed to stack up to eight high (with typical transport container loads), while enduring the demands of long distance travel across rough seas, these steel clad and framed structures are sturdy, durable, and built to last. • Adaptability - With structural steel corners and frames, shipping containers have proven to be surprisingly adaptable in the variety of ways they can be used, arranged, stacked, cantilevered, and opened-up for windows and doors. The possibilities are many.• Environmental - Despite green building advocates touting of cargotecture's earth-friendly benefits, they're actually no more or less energy-efficient than most other types of construction - which depends more on building orientation, window and door glazing (size, type, and placement), insulation type and thickness, the efficiency of the building's heating and cooling systems, and numerous other details. The main environmental benefit of using shipping containers, however, is the creative upcycling of a product that might otherwise end up in a landfill, or as recyclable waste.• Aesthetics - Due to the building-block nature of shipping containers, as well as their ready ability to be opened up for windows and doors, architects and designers in the US, Europe, and beyond, have managed to create some very unique and interesting pieces of architecture using cargo containers. This is particularly appealing for those seeking to make an aesthetic "statement" with their new home or business.• Transportability - In coastal communities, where the prospect of rising sea levels is now giving pause to certain types of development. A sub-trend within the cargotecture movement is the design and detailing of structures that can literally be unbolted from their foundations and moved to higher ground. The prospect of transportable buildings also is applicable for temporary, disaster-relief, military, and remote-location building needs - or anyone else who would simply like the option of moving their building from one location to another.• Speed of Construction - Because shipping containers are essentially prefabricated building units, construction times are typically shorter for the structural phase of the project. Site prep, foundations, mechanical / electrical / plumbing systems, and interior finishes still must be completed, however, and are typically no less time-consuming than for conventional construction.• Security - While most building envelopes can be breached given enough time and motivation, shipping container construction offers a slightly more secure enclosure, at least compared to most stud-framed structures. Generally, security will only be as good as the quality of the door and window hardware, and integrated security systems specified.DISADVANTAGES:• Cost - This isn't so much of a disadvantage as it is a misconception. While the general belief is that shipping container construction is a significantly less expensive way to build, in reality, this is only the case for typically unfinished structures such as storage units or workshops. For conventionally finished residential or commercial uses, cargotecture usually ends up being just slightly less than, or comparable to most other standard construction types. • Toxicity - Shipping containers are often coated with special saltwater-resistant paints that are usually quite toxic. Container floors also can be treated with pesticides in order to deter insect infestation. Some containers have been used to transport particularly toxic payloads that can leave residues. Containers intended for habitable use should be researched prior to selection *. During construction, your containers should be stripped of all existing paints and sealants before repainting. Existing flooring materials should be removed and replaced with non-toxic, low VOC materials and finishes.• Permitting - While more communities and their building departments are gaining experience with cargotecture, many building departments are not. Unfamiliarity on the part of code officials can slow the permitting phase of the work, and add a bit of time to the architecture and engineering, in order to answer questions and/or provide additional details or documentation. • Residential CC&R's - With respect to residential use, some Home Owners Associations have CC&R's (Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions) that specifically restrict the use of shipping containers. Be sure to consult with an architect or your HOA prior to purchasing containers.• Climate Cautions - Because shipping containers are made of steel with flat tops (as are most cargotecture designs) they're not particularly suited for humid climates with higher than average rainfall. In such locales, a cargotecture building should be carefully evaluated, designed, and detailed in order to minimize rust and the potential for roof leaks.Purchasing containers is easier than you'd think, and can either be bought prior to construction, or procured through your builder. Because shipping containers are widely used for road and rail transport as well, being close to a major port is not typically a factor as there's a fairly extensive inland network of container sources.Shipping Container construction may not be the ideal choice for your new home or business, but given the right application and mindset, the advantages of cargotecture seem to clearly outweigh its disadvantages. * A container's serial number can be used to reveal its shipping and payload history.