Container Architecture: How We Got To Where We Are Today

Architecture has always played an important role in human history. Not only is it a form of artistic expression, but it is also a manifestation of human progress. As we grow and get better at everything we do, we make changes to how we build, and these changes often reflect the challenges being faced at that time.

Currently, one of the biggest obstacles we face as a global society is climate change and its many associated environmental problems. Architecture is responding by becoming more eco-friendly, using fewer materials, and making buildings more efficient. This helps reduce resource use and their corresponding carbon emissions, two primary components of the ongoing crisis.

There are many different ways architects are taking on this challenge, but one of the most unique and exciting is container architecture. This practice is growing worldwide and promises to be a viable solution to some of the problems mentioned above. To learn about how we got to this point, here's a brief history of container architecture, a movement that has grown in leaps and bounds in just a little more than a half-century.

What is Container Architecture?

For those who don't know, container architecture – sometimes referred to as cargotechture or arkitainer – is a style of architecture that uses shipping containers as the primary building material. Yes, we're referring to the large metal crates that are filled with goods and then put on boats and trucks to be sent around the world.

At first, this might seem a bit strange, but there are a lot of reasons why shipping containers make excellent materials for construction, such as:

  • Availability – The global maritime shipping industry – the one that primarily uses these containers – is enormous. It accounts for about 60 percent of all global trade, which is worth a little more than $12 trillion. All of this means that there are a lot of shipping containers out there. Since containers can only be used for 8-12 years, millions of them aren't currently being used to transport goods, meaning there is a vast quantity of containers just sitting in ports and landfills worldwide. As such, anyone who wants one to turn it into some sort of building should have no trouble finding one that fits their project needs.
  • Cost – Because there are so many shipping containers, they are often relatively inexpensive. Exact prices depend on the container's quality and condition, but "cargo-worthy" containers – which are the best you can get – rarely cost more than $5,000. It's also possible to find slightly more used containers for as little as $800-$1,000. Of course, costs go up once you start modifying it, but you can build a standard container home for as little as $60,000, which is far less than what it would cost to build a similar structure with traditional materials.
  • Eco-friendly – Building with shipping containers requires very few "new" materials. The container itself is already built, reducing the waste and environmental harm. Also, shipping containers are designed to be airtight and watertight, which means they can be easily insulated against both hot and cold. When done correctly, shipping containers can be outfitted so that they require very little energy. Plus, since they're small, they can also be equipped with solar panels to reduce their environmental footprint further.
  • Durable – Lastly, shipping containers were made to take a beating from the elements while traveling the high seas. This makes them incredibly resistant to the elements, reducing maintenance costs and extending the lifetime of your structure. And if you go a step further and make a few small adjustments, then these things can truly last forever.

Types of Container Architecture

Container architecture involves any design that uses a shipping container as the base. However, within this field, there are a couple of different subcategories.

In some cases, the shipping container is the building. Nothing is added to it to make it any bigger. It's simply modified so that you can use it for some sort of structure, often a home but also restaurants, offices, hotels, and much more.

Within this world is "prefabricated container architecture." These are shipping containers modified by a design company and then sold "as is." They are marketed as a more hassle-free container architecture option since the buyer does not need to worry about design. However, because of this, they are often more expensive than if you designed and built it on your own.

Another form of container architecture combines multiple containers into one structure, applying modifications to fit them together. These types of structures are obviously larger than other container designs, but they are also more versatile. In some cases, you can combine multiple containers to make structures that don't resemble containers at all.

As you can see, there is quite a bit to the world of container architecture. But if you're wondering how we got to this point, it's essential to go back to 1955, when the modern shipping container was born.

The History of Shipping Containers

People have been trading goods since practically the beginning of human civilization. Each population has its own production specialties and unique set of goods, and exchanging them with others has always been a way to build diplomatic ties and make lots of cash.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that as human civilization has grown and progressed, so too has trade.

However, what is surprising is that for thousands of years, how we have traded with one another remained pretty much the same.

Trade Before Shipping Containers

Before the turn of the 17th century, goods were moved primarily locally using caravans and other forms of ground transportation. There was some international trade moving across the seas and oceans, but this represented just a small fraction of global commerce.

However, once the Europeans set to the seas, more and more goods began traveling further and further. It started with the Portuguese and the Spanish in the 15th century, conquering and colonizing distant lands and using their natural resources to enrich themselves.

Typically, they were packed up into wooden boxes, crates, sacks, barrels, etc., and moved to seaports where they would wait until a merchant ship became available to take them to their final destination. Once a ship was ready, all of this merchandise was loaded onto the ship by hand, which took time and lots of human effort.

In the end, this system was effective, as it allowed goods to move from one place to another, but it was far from efficient. The loading and unloading of ships was extremely time-intensive and would therefore cost a lot of money. Plus, there was very little standardization in terms of the size of ships and the container sizes, making it difficult to predict what was needed for each shipment and produced a lot of waste.

As time went on and we eventually entered the 20th century, considerable improvements had been made to global shipping. Boats were powered by coal and oil instead of wind, which made them faster and more reliable. Yet, there were still incredible inefficiencies in how the goods themselves were loaded onto ships and transported to other parts of the world.

Then came a man named Malcolm McLean, and from that point on, everything was different.

The Invention of the Shipping Container

In 1955, shipping and transportation magnate Malcolm McLean set out to single-handedly reshape the world of global trade. Seeing how much time, effort, and money was wasted in his own business, he sought a way to standardize shipping so that goods could be loaded onto ships much more quickly.

His idea: the shipping container.

Made of steel and typically 8 feet tall, 8 feet wide, and 20 feet long, these boxes are durable and roomy. What made these containers so special was that they were stackable, easy to load and unload, and also theft resistant (they came with a built-in lock.)

He then purchased an oil tanker that could fit 58 of these containers and began taking orders for shipments. Because his containers could be quickly and easily loaded and unloaded off the ship using a crane, and because he could fit so many of them onto his ship, he offered his customers a whopping 25 percent discount as compared to his competitors.

Obviously, people jumped at this idea. His first ship was sold out even before all the containers that would go on it were built.

The initial voyage was a success, and the rest is history. McLean had a ship made specifically for these containers to carry even more, and the rest of the shipping industry caught on to the idea.

McLean took out patents on his ideas, and the shipping containers we use today are slightly different than his original concept. Later, during the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s, containers were used extensively to move cargo across the Pacific Ocean, and their efficacy helped promote them to the industry standard.

Fast forward seventy years, and there are an estimated 20 million or more of these containers in the world. The design used for the modern container is slightly different than that in McLeMcLean's, but the concept is the same. Yet, with so many of them no longer being used because they are too old, there was a surplus. This, combined with the need to create more eco-friendly buildings, opened the door for container architecture, which emerged in the 1980s and has been growing consistently ever since.

When Shipping Containers Became Houses

As shipping containers became the preferred method for moving goods across long distances, manufacturers started making them in much larger quantities.

However, in most Western countries (the United States and Europe, mostly), more goods are imported than are exported. Since nearly all of these goods are moved in shipping containers, not all of the boxes brought into the country leave it, leading to an excess supply.

In countries that export more than they import, it's cheaper for them to order new containers directly from manufacturers than to locate containers in other parts of the world and move them to where the goods are.

All of this means that the world is continuously building new shipping containers, and in many parts of the world, they are beginning to accumulate, taking up space in ports, or, in some cases, ending up in landfills.

This is not only inefficient from a business perspective (ports and shipping companies have to pay to store these containers even when they're not in use) but also from an environmental perspective.

It wasn't until a few years after shipping containers became the standard that they started building up in ports, and as is often the case in human history, innovation occurs when there is a problem to be solved.

The First Examples of Shipping Container Architecture

The first example of a shipping container used for something other than trade appeared in 1962 when the New York-based freight company Insbrandtsen Company Inc. filed a patent for using shipping containers as exhibition booths at trade shows. However, there aren't many examples of this idea being used.

The next time the concept of repurposing shipping containers made its way into the public eye was in 1985 when they were used to help build the set for the film Space Rage. Shortly after that, in 1987, perhaps inspired by the movie, a man named Phillip Clark filed for a patent for a "Method for converting one or more steel shipping containers into a habitable building."

This is perhaps one of the first times that someone thought of turning shipping containers into homes, but by this point, people had already been thinking up many different uses for shipping containers.

Then, in 1994, this idea appeared in a printed book for the first time in Stewart Brand's book How Buildings Learn. In this text, Brand outlined how you could use shipping containers to make office buildings.

Later, in 1998, this idea became a reality when The Simon's Town High School Hostel opened in South Africa. Although it's difficult to confirm, this is likely one of the first actual examples of shipping containers used for construction.

From there, things started to take off, and the trend reached the United States when Californian architect Peter DeMaria built the Redondo Beach House (pictured below), which many believe is the first example of container architecture in the world.


[Source: Demaria Design]

Shipping Container Architecture Today

The idea of shipping container architecture first emerged in the 1960s and took almost 40 years to become a reality. However, once it burst onto the scene, a true movement emerged in which containers are used for a wide variety of uses worldwide.

Here are some examples that show just how far shipping container architecture has come in just a few decades:


The Redondo Beach House was one of the first homes built in the United States using shipping containers as the base construction material. It won numerous awards for its unique design and inspired others to create unique looking homes.

For example, The Joshua Tree Residence pictured below was built to look like a blooming flower and shows that shipping containers can and often are turned into exciting designs that complement the surrounding landscape and push the limits of what's possible.

However, there have also been many more "traditional" or simplistic designs that prove that you don't need to be an elaborate designer to develop a unique application for shipping container homes. One of the better examples of this is the Flagstaff Container House, located in Flagstaff, Arizona. Unlike other shipping container homes, you can still easily see the containers themselves, yet this adds to the aesthetic and creates a modern, industrial look that many crave when building with shipping containers.

[Joshua Tree Residence]

[Flagstaff Container House]


One of the very first examples of shipping container architecture was a hostel in South Africa, and ever since then, these boxes have become quite popular in the hotel industry. It makes sense. Their size is perfect for a hotel room, and since you can easily stack them on top of one another, builders can get lots of rooms in a small area for a lot less money than if they were building on their own.

Plus, since container architecture is still somewhat new and flashy, using these materials allows hotels to create a chic, modern look that is often very appealing to travelers. Here are a few examples:

Farmville Cafe and Homestay – Sekinchan, Malaysia [Farmville Homestay]

Dock Inn – Rostock-Warnemünde, Germany [Dock Inn]

Humanitarian Applications: Schools and Hospitals

One of the most significant benefits of shipping containers is that they are already built. They just need to be modified so they can be used. One area where this advantage is really being put to good use is in humanitarian aid.

Shipping containers can quickly be converted into hospitals. Since they were designed to be moved, it's relatively easy to get them to disaster areas rapidly. Providing people in need with quality medical facilities can often save lives, and while alternatives exist, shipping containers are ideal because of their versatility and durability.

Also, many places around the world are using shipping containers to build schools. Again, their durability and versatility make it easy to convert them into buildings that can become places for people to learn. Because they're relatively inexpensive, this has become an excellent way for those living in underprivileged areas to gain access to one of the most important tools of human progress: an education.


Not all container architecture is focused on buildings. Because of their size and ability to keep water in and out, many people use these boxes to build in-ground pools. Since these are often expensive to construct, shipping containers represent an exciting alternative that can also open up some quirky design opportunities. Here's an example of what a shipping container pool can look like.


These exciting designs have inspired designers and architects worldwide to think of even more uses for shipping containers. One of the most eye-popping ideas is the shipping container bridge currently in the works in Israel.

Although not yet built, the concept image shows how the uses for shipping containers are unlimited. Once this construction is finished, there are sure to be many more examples throughout the world.


In the span of just a few short decades, shipping container architecture went from being nothing more than the idea of a few academics and ambitious entrepreneurs to an entire movement. New constructions are popping up all over the place, and each one pushes the boundaries of what is possible. In the grand scheme of things, shipping container architecture is still very new, but this just means that the future is sure to be endlessly fascinating and exciting.