A Short History of Shipping Container Architecture


When Malcolm McLean developed the shipping container in the 1950s, he revolutionized the transport industry. He likely did not know that he would one day revolutionize the building industry as well. Shipping containers were a game-changer; crews no longer had to load and unload each crate. They were convenient, efficient, and structurally sound. And they still are: those same qualities make shipping containers ideal building materials.

Who first looked at these corrugated steel boxes and thought, “They can be so much more; they could be houses, schools, entire cities!” We’re not sure – but the idea is not a new one. In 1987, Philip C. Clark filed for a US patent for his “method for converting one or more steel shipping containers into a habitable building.” Clark, and others who saw the potential in these massive containers, were “green” ahead of their time!

The military helped Malcolm McLean’s invention become an indispensable transport tool; during the Vietnam War, containers were used to ship supplies to troops and bases overseas. This is when the container method of shipping took root and became the standard. The military also put shipping containers on the map in terms of housing: they were often used as emergency shelters because they could be easily and quickly fortified for protection and security.

Shipping containers have been integrated into construction of commercial and residential structures in Europe and Asia for years. In crowded Amsterdam, for instance, these once-orphaned, and abundant, containers have provided much-needed low-income and student housing. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and we don’t disagree. From emergency shelters for soldiers to housing for densely populated cities, container architecture has helped fill a pressing need for affordable, sustainable structures.

Today, containers live a variety of lives:

  • In tiny Phomolong, South Africa, children have a mobile schoolhouse that is internet-enabled, technology-filled, and powered by the sun.
  • Secondary students in Streatham, London, have a modern, spacious, and bright sports hall that was built in just three days.
  • On Pier 57 in New York, high-end shops can rent out cargo containers and appeal to their trend-conscious clientele.

Necessity may have prompted the development of shipping container architecture, but innovation and creativity have taken up the baton. There is no limit, besides our imaginations, to what we can build.

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