In 1977, the United States Army’s Construction Engineering Research Laboratory produced a technical report titled Shipping Containers as Structural Systems. The report noted that shipping containers – which had also been developed and standardised by the US Army in the 1940s and 50s – were increasingly being used to transport ammunition, and that the rush to get large amounts of ammunition close to a front line in the early stages of a conflict meant that large number of containers would be available just as construction in the field was needed. Engineers subjected the containers to load stresses, gale-force winds and deep snow, and found them durable and versatile – and 76 per cent cheaper than standard field base buildings.
Through the 1990s, the US military began using container ships to transport everything from provisions to tanks in standard commercial containers. At the same time, the growth of trade and offshore manufacturing hugely increased the number and spread of container.
Perhaps this is why architects, who began proposing domestic buildings made from shipping containers at around the same time, like them so much. In 2001, Container City went up in London, offering accommodation and office space to young professionals in the rejuvenated East End. It was followed by office and retail developments such as Boxpark and Containerville. In Seattle, a Starbucks was created from containers. In 2015, Carl Turner Architects designed “A New House For London”, made from the ubiquitous boxes.
But last week, with the publication of a report entitled Bleak Houses by the Children’s Commissioner, the public was told what living in a shipping container is really like for many of the 124,000 children across the UK who now live in temporary accommodation. The Commissioner’s Office heard that the containers became unbearably hot or cold, that they were not properly designed for families – and that councils are planning to deploy more of them, because they’re cheap.
This has always been the true appeal of the container. A second-hand 40ft box in good condition can be bought for around £1,500, offering a pre-built, stackable structure with more than 28 square metres of internal space. The Architects’ and Builders’ Price Book puts the build cost for standard housing in the UK at around £1,500 for a single square metre. However much architects enthuse on the aesthetics and adaptability of the container, its modular nature, and the efficiency of repurposing them, the bottom line is that few can ignore a building solution that is 30 times cheaper than the benchmark. The brutal logic of cheap space is reflected in the fact that while the UK stacks them up as flats, shipping containers are used elsewhere in the world as temporary prisons.
And still the idea that metal boxes are fit for human habitation grows – the world’s tallest container building received planning permission from a London council last month – as architects and developers style them into stores, dwellings and offices. In doing so, they legitimise crowding human beings into containers that were never designed to be homes.