A Critique of Shipping Container Homes

 In Design, Sustainable Design

The past ten years have shown an increased interest in shipping container homes. Often hailed as an ingenious, cost effective, and eco-friendly option, shipping container homes have also become a subject of criticism and debate. Dominique is among the skeptics.

While there are many factors to consider, Dominique’s central critique of shipping container homes is based on ergonomics.

Designing for human size, motion, interaction, and comfort is a core principle — and a central joy — of Architecture. Shipping containers, designed for shipping, are fundamentally incongruous with that aim. The dimensions of a standard shipping container are 8’ wide, 8’6” tall, and 20-40’ long. In other words, they are narrow, low-ceilinged, dark, claustrophobic tunnels of steel. Dominique likened using shipping containers as residences to using discarded plastic bottles as shoes – it might work in a pinch, but it is not a viable long-term solution when taking actual humans into account.

Examples abound of shipping container homes where it’s impossible to walk around the bed to make it, stretch arms without touching the ceiling, or sit around a table as a group. Or, the shipping containers have been so structurally altered – with walls, windows, and doors cut into their corrugated steel, as to render their original form and function unrecognizable – a process, it should go without saying, that involves substantial expense and the addition of structural material (usually more steel).

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to sustainable design: context is everything. The specific site, function, inhabitants, and surrounding environment of a space must be considered to determine an approach that maximizes sustainability and inspires conscientious living in harmony with nature and community. Our team is inspired by the Living Building Challenge when considering the full scope of what “sustainability” can mean.

While the challenge of creating a residence from shipping containers offers an enjoyable “mental exercise” or challenge (in Dominique’s words, “like tying one arm behind your back”) (hence the proliferation of design competitions along this theme), their real-life application appears not only impractical but at times antithetical to “green” intentions. What about the energy (and financial) expenditure of transporting the containers overseas and inland? Or the difficulty (and cost) of regulating the temperature of flat-roofed steel boxes in any but the most temperate of climates? Or the steel itself? Shipping containers embody a huge amount of steel, which could also be recycled for use in more suitable contexts.

But while these calculations are important to consider, the sticking point for Dominique remains the unnatural dimensions of the containers themselves. Almost any setting will offer sustainable options and solutions for housing materials that will nurture, inspire, and protect their inhabitants. Why would you choose to import a material that is essentially unsuitable for the purpose of housing humans?

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