The evolution of the shipping container

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By Cate Hull
First a little history.

For centuries, shipping with ocean freight was fraught with risk as break-bulk cargo was often poorly secured and featured a hodgepodge of sizes and methods to secure loads.

Delays, pilfering, damage, and loss were commonplace.

Then, in 1937, Malcom McClean, a small trucker, conceived the concept of the modern intermodal shipping container.

In 1950 the U.S. Army used his patented containers for movement of supplies in the Korean War, the first use of a modern container for ocean freight.

In 1955 McClean purchased a steamship and a railroad terminal company. He formed Sea-Land Service and experimented with container design.

By 2013, 90 percent of global trade was seaborne, shipped in 700 million containers every year.

And now the modern shipping container is being reinvented as an architectural element.

• In the U.S., Florida-based Farm Stores is rolling out compact, drive-through convenience stores built from shipping containers. Farm Stores says recycling shipping containers this way is about 40 percent cheaper than building a store from the ground up.
• In Reno, Nevada, a new duplex apartment building using shipping containers will open in mid-July. Twisted Metal Works produces the repurposed shipping containers. Shipping containers, which can be bought new for $5,000 to $6,000, provide a common, standard base to work with and can be built to be tough and watertight.
• In Cardiff, Wales, the city council is considering a proposal from Meanwhile Creative to develop an office building using 48 shipping container units.

The company, which operates flexible office space in Cardiff, Bristol, and Manchester, also wants to install external walkways and stairs, and shared communal terraces as part of the shipping container development.

The repurposing of shipping containers for quick to build housing is also helping communities respond to needs for low-income and temporary housing.

London’s Hope Gardens, in the borough of Ealing, is a last-resort temporary housing facility for people facing homelessness.

Not that shipping container architecture is limited to low-income applications. Containerwerk, founded two years ago in Stuttgart, is making container architecture fashionable.

Containerwerk displayed at Milan’s Design Week this month and is introducing new concepts to the market.

For Milan, the company created an installation on Via Tortona comprising two storeys of stacked shipping containers.

“We are in Milan to show what you can do with containers,” said Michael Haiser, managing director.

The company uses an industrial process, invented by Containerwerk co-founder Ivan Mallinowski, to line the steel boxes with a layer of foam insulation. The start-up claims its process is much faster and more efficient than traditional methods of insulating containers.

“Insulation is the big problem with building houses with containers,” said Mallinowski.

“If you look at the physics of a container, it is made from steel and steel is a very good heat conductor. We build a special type of insulation. It’s a monolithic insulation, made by an industrial process and surrounds the whole container inside without any heat bridges.”

Mallinowski says that building with shipping containers is also a sustainable construction method.
“The biggest advantage is sustainability, because we only use used containers,” he says. “A lot of containers come from China to Europe. If we don’t use them, they are thrown away.”
Cate Hull is the CEO of FreightExchange, a freight and logistics company based in Sydney.