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?