June 18 2011

The Downside of Shipping Container Architecture

Shipping Container Architecture: Is Their Energy Use Worth the Reuse?

Shipping container architecture gets a lot of positive coverage in the design world as a trendy, green alternative to traditional building materials. With high profile firms, like Lot-ek’s Puma City, building with the plentiful material and the purported low price tag, it seems a smart choice for people looking for an eco-conscious home. Yet is everything always as is seems? What are the downsides of building cargo container structures?

  • The coatings used to make the containers durable for ocean transport also happen to contain a number of harmful chemicals; Chromate, phosphorous paint, and lead based paint to name a few;
  • The wood floors that line the majority of shipping containers are generally hardwoods, unsustainably logged in developing nations. This wood is then impregnated with chemical pesticides like arsenic and chromium to keep pests at bay;
  • While on the surface reusing containers seems to be a low energy alternative, few people factor in the energy required to make, what is essentially a closed metal box, habitable. The entire structure needs to be sandblasted bare, floors need to be replaced, and openings need to be cut with a torch or fireman’s saw. The average container eventually produces nearly a thousand pounds of hazardous waste before it can be used as a structure. This, coupled with the fossil fuels required to move it into place with heavy machinery contribute significantly to its ecological footprint;
  • The dimensions of an individual container create an awkward living space. When you factor in added insulation, you have a long narrow box with under eight foot ceilings. To make decent spaces, multiple boxes need to be combined, which again, takes energy.

In many areas, it is cheaper and less energy intensive to build a similarly scaled structure using wood framing. Shipping container homes make sense where resources are scarce, containers are in abundance, and people are in need of immediate shelter (think disaster relief and developing nations). While there are certainly beautiful and innovative examples of architecture using cargo containers, it is simply not the cheap green panacea that many people hope it would be.

Do you live in or have you visited a shipping container home? What are your opinions of their energy and ecological footprint? Is the reuse worth the energy differential?

Jordan Meerdink

Jordan Meerdink, a former GSP blogger, is a graduate of the The Ohio State University. He holds a B.S. in Architecture with a minor in studio art. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Jordan inherited an early interest in mechanics and construction from his grandfather, a developer who was one of the early practitioners of prefabricated housing, and his father who is a retired store owner and highly capable D.I.Yer. Currently living in New York City, he continues to produce art and furniture with a focus on smart, ecologically responsible design. Jordan has a special concern for design that serves people outside the traditional clientele of architects, with an interest in architecture that deviates from the beaten path, ranging from Baroque churches to dismantled bomb shelters.

This entry was posted on Saturday, June 18th, 2011 at 1:05 pm and is filed under Architecture, Engineering, Environmental Design, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


6 Responses to “The Downside of Shipping Container Architecture”

  1. Shipping Container Homes Says:


    Its great to see people think through the entire container home concept rather than just jumping on the cheer leading bandwagon.

    We have been teaching people to build with containers for many years and there is definitely the good, the bad and the ugly to container homes.

    On fact our first video covers just that


    That’s said that’s also true of every construction method in the world, the trick is making sure we choose the right method for the right application rather than trying to shoe horn the latest fad onto our parcel of land.



  2. Solar Panel Guru Says:

    Another great post, keep them coming!

  3. Jordan Says:

    Thanks for the comments. I’m not necessarily against the idea of shipping container homes however a little bit of consideration for all the effects is always helpful.

  4. The Shipping Container Life: Temporary Uses in The Netherlands | The GRID | Global Site Plans Says:

    [...] temporary construction can be a perfectly adequate solution. Still remaining is the question of toxicity levels that may persist from past uses, certainly something that should be addressed with the increasingly ubiquitous use of shipping [...]

  5. carlos Says:

    A couple of things, income for the general population has remained flat, while construction costs continue to go up, so finding cost savings even if it is a couple of dollars a square foot adds up.

    The on-site stick built approach generates 40% waste material, which surely has a larger environmental footprint than a ton of hazardous waste. Not to mention that most materials are imported from other places and include costs of transportation and pollution.

    There is an excess of shipping containers in US ports because of the trade in-balance. We consume more than we ship out. So re-purposing shipping containers is not a bad strategy. It is likely that melting them down and recycling the metal and hardwoods would also have a large environmental footprint.

    I agree that emergency shelter in place with excess shipping containers would be the most efficient and have the least environmental impact.

    If we were adept at creating perfect solutions we would not be in the mess we are in. So advancing change in how we think of home and how we build only if incrementally is very valuable.

    Thanks for the post, I have been looking for the cons of shipping containers.

  6. thenekkidtruth Says:

    Mr. Meerdink – most of your indictments here are against shipping containers themselves rather than regarding their use as habitations. You describe what is actually a minor level of pre-fabrication needed to transform an ISBU into a habitable building block, then you conclude “The average container eventually produces nearly a thousand pounds of hazardous waste before it can be used as a structure.” Jordan, what you describe is exactly what you’ll get if you *fail* to transform that spent ISBU into something usable – thousands of pounds of hazardous waste. After it becomes a home, it’s been transformed into the opposite of what you cite.

    Lead paint will be found on the outside of the container only (the inside is clean, food-grade stainless steel), and a well-designed container home will completely cover the entire outer surface with a well insulated infrastructure. Still, lead paint is lead paint, but that’s also easy to deal with – Ecobond (brand) completely transforms lead paint into lead phosphate which is non-hazardous (despite what you imply) and it’s easily available at any Home Depot.

    You’re quite correct that the wood floors are impregnated with heavy metals, etc., as a bacteriacide, so for that reason no one retains the original chemically impregnated wood floor. It’s likely to be beyond damaged to the degree of unsuitability for almost any need anyway and it would be discarded if that ISBU was transformed into something useful of it was not. What’s under that beat-up wood floor? Food grade stainless steel.

    The amount of necessary ISBU prefabrication is minimal by comparison with old-fashioned stick frame structures, and it can be crafted in a factory environment. The trains used to haul your completely prefabricated ISBU to your home site for final cut-in and assembly are going to run anyway. Ok, bill me for the modicum of gallons of train fuel needed to haul those 3 or 4 train cars for that transit which will happen one time in the history of the home – I can afford it and if the environment can sustain the rest of the cars on that same train trip. Are you suggesting that we should maybe discontinue the use of commercial trains?

    And as far as the awkward living space you mention, I completely fail to get it. When you attach two of these ISBUs side by side, you have a great room that’s 40 feet long, 8.6 feet high (or higher) and 16 feet wide. Sounds pretty livable to me.

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