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Cargotecture Brings Cargo Containers Home

Credits: ©2011 HyBrid Architecture

A Recycled Green Building System

The term Cargotecture was coined by HyBrid Architecture of Seattle 2003 to describe any building system built entirely or partially from ISO shipping containers. Probably 90 percent of the world's trade moves in these steel containers, and one hundred million container loads crisscross the world's oceans each year in more than 5,000 container ships. About twenty-one thousand containers arrive in US docks every day. With the US currently importing more goods than it exports, an estimated two million empty shipping containers are sitting idle at any given time. The empty containers can provide a flexible method of construction as a modular/prefab structure that is structurally strong. HyBrid Architecture adapts them for reuse as office and workspace, retail or residential. Shipping containers can be modified with all the comforts of home, and can be connected or stacked to create modular, efficient spaces for possibly a fraction of the cost, labor, and resources of more conventional materials. Cargotecture usually has added insulation for a better thermal envelope and often add solar panels to the roof, along with rainwater collection. The containers are also appropriate for short and medium term land use projects, where container buildings can simply be unbolted and relocated or stored when land is required for alternative uses. (Scroll to bottom for additional resources)


Cargotecture Studio in the Woods

Cargotecture is a building system built entirely or partially from ISO shipping containers, such as this studio created by HyBrid Architecture of Seattle. ©2011 HyBrid Architecture

Transforming cargo containers into a weekend studio
By Lawrence W. Cheek / Seattle P-I
If there's any positive spin to the U.S.-Asian trade imbalance, it might be resting in the bottom of a wooded river canyon near Enumclaw -- two scuffed and scarred cargo containers that a pair of Seattle architects have ingeniously transformed into a weekend studio.

It wasn't as inexpensive as it looks, and it decidedly isn't beautiful, but this 320-square-foot "Cargotecture" prototype is stuffed with more intriguing and challenging ideas than a whole subdivision of conventional builders' new houses. If you accept the assumptions that housing today costs too much, consumes too much and adapts too reluctantly to individuals' differing needs -- all dead-on, in the view from here -- then this steel crate is worth a look beyond its homely skin.

Robert Humble, 37, and Joel Egan, 35, developed Studio 320 as an outgrowth of their work for Allied Arts' Seattle waterfront design collaborative in 2003. They proposed a "Cargotown" of apartment buildings at Terminal 46 assembled from containers, creating an affordable live-work industrial neighborhood that could easily adapt to changing space and housing needs. Incorporated as the art-and-architecture firm HyBrid, they've since designed a couple of urban mini-towers, a Third World triage clinic, and several other cargo container buildings. The Enumclaw studio, completed over last winter, is the first realized project.

Some of the reasons for making surplus containers into architecture are obvious. They're cheap and plentiful -- the 40-foot box that became one half of Studio 320 cost $1,800 delivered. Egan says that because of the trade imbalance, it's sometimes more economical for shippers to sell used containers here than ship them back to China empty. They're terrifically strong and durable, designed to be stacked up to 14 units deep on container ships and nine high on docks. They're highly portable, handily delivered by truck, train or ship. And they may be the most direct, efficient form of turning recycled goods into housing.

Less obviously, all the structural load in an 8-by-40-by-9 1/2-foot container is carried by the corner castings, steel columns at each of the four corners. This means that doors and windows can occur anywhere else in the structure. Whole walls can be cut out and replaced with glass, and interior walls can be anywhere or nowhere. The boxes can be stacked like giant Lego blocks, cantilevered into space to create intriguing overhangs and practical decks, or cut apart and reassembled into new configurations.

Humble and Egan also like the idea that every container has a world-traveling history, that it's been places its inhabitants will never see. That's why they left one section of Studio 320 with its original industrial orange paint, tracking numbers and even a longshoreman's Magic Marker scribbles on one wall.

Since the interior space of an 8-by-40-foot box would have felt like a mine shaft, Humble and Egan cut it down to an 8-by-20-foot piece, then salvaged a 20-foot container from a previous project and joined them side-by-side, offset by six feet. This created a sleeping nook in one of the offset ends that's precisely filled by a double bed, and provided space at the other for a bathroom.

Interior walls are furred out with steel studs and spray-in foam insulation, and fir plywood screwed to the studs -- used plywood, salvaged from another building, with no pretense of prettying it up. Large swaths of the walls open out or slide away, becoming a floor-to-ceiling window on one side and a large sliding glass door on another. Fully opened up, the studio feels more like a pavilion than an enclosure, a minimalist shelter that falls somewhere between Thoreau's primitive cabin and Philip Johnson's pristine glass house. Closed up like a mechanical clam, it could be left alone for years without an owner's worrying about any of the usual threats to a weekend cabin. Fire, quake, wood rot, bugs, burglars -- it's as vulnerable as a boulder.

Aesthetically, this prototype will annoy, or possibly infuriate, more people than it fascinates. The contrast with its natural setting is stark, as jarring as a rusty chainsaw abandoned on a wilderness trail. But aesthetics aren't the point. As Humble puts it, "The idea is more important than the object. The underlying values that support and drive the object can change society."

Most architects who talk like that never seem to actually build anything, but Humble has made at least this modest start. He and Egan also are consulting with builders on other forms of prefab construction, and are working with half a dozen cargo-container clients in various stages of design. Although they didn't hatch the concept of Cargotecture -- in London, two container-cluster apartment buildings have gone up since 2001 -- they're getting daily queries from around the world as the idea ripples across the Web.

At first glance, Cargotecture would seem to deliver, finally, on the elusive promise of prefab housing: affordability. But not really. Humble and Egan say that if they'd built Studio 320 for speculative sale, it might have been available for $45,000. That's $140 per square foot, not counting land, roughly double the cost of typical manufactured housing. Says Humble, "Our 'affordability' will always be as compared to custom construction rather than Habitat for Humanity."

Cargotecture's most significant feature is its adaptability. Like Lego blocks, again, the boxes can easily be disassembled, reconfigured or moved to meet the needs of changing land uses or people's needs. Underused, postage-stamp lots sprinkled throughout the urban area could host a cargo container mini-tower of four or six apartments for 10 years, say, and when the land becomes ripe for another use, the tower could be whisked away and reassembled somewhere else. Studio 320, Egan says, could be unbolted in an hour, its site cleared in a day -- even the foundation is temporary -- and the land would return to its natural condition in the space of a season.

There isn't a lot of what we normally think of as architecture in this prototype. It isn't picturesque, refined or sensual, and its cultural associations are all about sweaty cargo ports and Chinese industrialization -- not exactly the stuff of home-sweet-home dreams. But it's a stunning reminder of what architecture ought to be about: solving some of civilization's thorniest problems by radically reconsidering the built environment.

Joel Egan of HyBrid Architecture wrote the following in response to an article on Solar Burrito about HyBrid’s c3600 office building in Seattle,

26 August 2010.
I am a Principal of HyBrid and HyBrid was the Architect of Design and the Architect of Record for the top green buildings that you see, the c3600 buildings in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle.

Solar Burrito makes really accurate points here. It’s true, even a cheap container does nothing to reduce the cost of the other required components inside. In the case of the c3600 buildings we recognized that the containers are so overbuilt that they are not a good value to use as simply enclosing space. Since they carry nearly 250 lbs per square foot, and commercial loads are 100 psf, they are best used in combination with kits and panels to span over space between them.

If you want to make a container building less expensive, use as few containers as possible and alter them as little as possible. That’s what we did in the Georgetown c3600 project. We also designed the site and the building to avoid exterior fire proofing, sprinkling, elevators, underground parking, mechanical rainwater vaults (there is a wetland), and each building only has one stair. It’s really in this site and building design where we drove costs down.

The building cost about 20 percent to 40 percent less than conventional construction and was designed for a six month erection. The time to build can save on the debt servicing and the extra rent by an additional six percent to 12 percent depending on the size of the project.

Feel free to visit our firm’s website, hybridseattle.com. We mostly do wood modular and other prefabricated systems, plus some relocatable buildings.

Please note, the clients for these buildings are an interior design firm which sometimes likes to imply that we did not design this project so that people presume that they designed it. It’s not true of course, they needed a stamped architecture firm and they came to us in June 2008 for our known specialty which was and remains container buildings. We transformed a well published design of ours from 2004, a design that never got built called the Urban Mini Tower. We completed permit and logistics of all the consultants, and we employed the exact same design as this UMT.

On this project our interior designer client operated as typical clients who approved the designs that we developed as the project advanced. They selected the exterior color and managed the tenant improvement once the space was dried in. That’s about it, 99 percent of the rest was our design. Someone from their office keeps claiming on line that their firm designed it for some reason, sometimes emphatically, but most people know better. If you visit the project try not to tease them about their misrepresentation, just take the high road and don’t mix it up with them please.

The buildings are cool though.

The following list is from John Wells' The Field Lab Blog
10 things to consider in the use of shipping containers:

1. Even with all the hype, they are difficult to obtain and expensive to ship long distances. If you live close to a major port city and have a really big truck and trailer - it's much easier and far cheaper to get them.

2. Don't bother with those websites that have you fill out your info and up to four suppliers will contact you with competitive prices - THEY WON'T!

3. The price for a 20' shipping container (not including delivery) can range from $2500 to $4000. You can stick build a building with the same amount of square footage, that is just as water tight and structurally sound using traditional construction methods for less than the cost of a shipping container - it just won't weigh as much.

4. They do however provide an extremely secure storage structure which requires a blow torch or dynamite to break into - and they are too heavy to walk off with.

5. If possible, get delivery by tilt bed roll off truck. Otherwise you need a small crane or huge forklift to move and position them - or at least 50 really strong men (watch your fingers!) A 20' shipping container weighs almost 5000 lbs.

6. Rust is the only natural predator that can harm a shipping container so don't scrimp on a good paint job.

7. These metal monsters become ovens or freezers depending on the outside temperature, really good insulation and ventilation is a MUST!

8. The real bonus to using a shipping container is the new green phrase "adaptive reuse." Our trade deficit with the rest of the world is causing these to pile up in our country.

9. If you are going to use one for a structure - stay true to the form. Don't cover the exterior with other building materials - show it for what it is.

10. While searching the web for how containers are being used, I have found that for the most part: A. Most sites only show computer renderings. B. Actual completed structures have been built at astronomical cost.


Cargotecture HIVE Houston

Architecture and Hygiene (USA)

Container Bay Shipping Container Homes Case Studies

Residential Shipping Container Primer

Container Spaces Blog

Tin Can Cabin (Wisconsin, USA)

Greentainer Project (Italy)

Container City (London, UK)

HyBrid Architecture (Seattle, USA)