Building with shipping containers looks straightforward at first glance. Many think of Lego blocks and imagine the possibility of scaling up the designs with containers to quickly assemble houses, apartments, and skyscrapers. While some developers are testing the limits of what’s feasible with new tech and methodology, building with shipping containers is not necessarily easier than conventional construction. However, there are times when it’s well worth it.
Know the difference between building with shipping containers and modular system containers.
Both are forms of modular construction, and shipping container buildings are sometimes mistaken for those made from modular system containers. Factories manufacture the latter specifically for construction. They are custom-made, and major property developers, hotel chains, and government organizations have used them for billion dollar projects. Shipping containers, on the other hand, are usually converted for construction after a one-way trip transporting cargo.
Many modular buildings look like regular structures from the outside. While they have many of the same benefits as shipping containers, like fast build times and environmental sustainability, they avoid some of the issues. These include the need for thorough cleaning and testing to rule out toxic residues, and extra planning if you want to modify or customize the containers themselves.
What do shipping containers and modular system containers have in common?
1) Cost savings.
We saw materials for one 2160 square meter resort complex come to less than a million USD with modular container systems. Building with shipping containers can have similar savings. The reason becomes clear when you understand how developers get a hold of them.
When transport companies ship goods by sea, they must pay for the containers to make a return trip. Trade deficits mean some places see more containers arriving than are needed for exports. It’s simply cheaper to discard or scrap containers than send them back empty. In places like the US and Canada you can find one for around $2000, and many used containers have only seen one freight journey.
Shipping containers and modular systems also save money because they require much less on-site labor to assemble than traditional buildings. This fact brings us to the second point.
2) Fast construction.
Stick-built structures require many specialist tradesmen working in a strict sequence, which often lags construction when someone faces a delay. Modular container systems are made in factories while crews do foundation work on-site. When materials get delivered, workers can finish assembly in weeks or even days.
Similarly, shipping containers are converted and customized while workers complete foundation work.
This shipping container kindergarten is a great example of fast modular construction and took just 30 days to assemble.
The environmental costs of construction are enormous. The biggest impact comes from construction and demolition waste, which is almost entirely avoidable with modular systems and shipping containers. In a regular stick-built project’s lifecycle, 90% of the C&D waste comes from its eventual demolition. Building errors, over-ordering, weather damage, theft and vandalism during building cause the rest.
Shipping containers, like modular systems, can be fully recycled at the end of their life cycles. And at the start of a modular project, developers don’t need to over-order since manufacturers design structures with factory precision.
The sustainability, cost savings, and speed of modular construction have caused more and more AEC professionals to consider alternatives to traditional building in America, Canada, and Europe.
In other countries like Japan, consumers have a long-standing preference for factory-built houses because they associate manufacturing with quality — they even pay a premium for it.
However, shipping containers are still relatively rare compared to modular container systems, light gauge steel, and structural steel. Despite this, their unique advantages can have enormous benefits for some projects.
a. Shipping containers are eye-catching.
Building with shipping containers is an excellent choice for hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, or any venue where off-beat architecture can create awareness through buzz and publicity. For developers who want buildings made of many customized containers, the price might end up equal to conventional construction. But, a shipping container can help make a brand or project distinct and unmistakable.
One example is the Starbucks drive-through. The company built their new drive-through locations with shipping containers, which became the focus for many outlets covering the initiative. Some headlines:
“Starbucks Opens New Reclamation Drive Thru Made From Recycled Shipping Containers” – Inhabitat.com
“Shipping containers inspire Starbucks drive-thru coffee shops here and beyond” – Seattle Times
“A Different Kind of Container Store” – The NY Times
b. Small projects will see big savings.
Some ambitious architects have taken the trendiness of shipping containers and run with it, proposing awe-inspiring skyscrapers that look like they’re from a sci-fi movie. Such plans are controversial, to put it lightly.
Prefab on a massive scale is relatively new, with only a handful of high-rises built with modular technology so far. When builders run into structural problems, the solutions are costly. While that might change as prefab sees unprecedented research and development, more typical proposals, like one or two story houses, can be built with shipping containers right now and save money.
A traditional 2,000 square foot house costs $305,000 to build on average. While specific project details are crucial for cost estimates, a shipping container house of the same size for under $200,000 is entirely reasonable.