A Short History of Shipping Container Architecture (and Everything Else You Wanted to Know)


In this article we will explore:

A Short History of Shipping Container Architecture

What is Shipping Container Architecture?

Shipping Container Building Codes

4 Shipping Container Architecture Trends

How are Shipping Containers Changing Urban Development?

Examples of Shipping Container Architecture

Why Use Shipping Container Architecture?

Feel free to skip ahead to topics that interest you.

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.

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 the 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.

We’re not sure who first looked at these corrugated steel boxes and thought, “They can be so much more; they could be houses, schools, entire cities!”– 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!

What is Shipping Container Architecture?

Shipping container architecture is a style of architecture that utilizes shipping containers for structural components. Shipping Container Architects leverage a huge number of these structures, that are too expensive to ship back empty to their countries of origin, to build sustainable, modular structures for commercial and residential buildings.

Here is a quick hit-list:

Pre-fab – The idea of creating residential or commercial structures out of pre-fabricated pieces isn’t new. Historically, pre-fabricated building has been associated with poorer quality and, therefore, carried less caché. In recent years, facilitated by a desire to keep costs low and to reduce carbon footprint, the movement is gaining momentum.  Now, in locations from teeming Hong Kong, population 7 million, to tiny Hillsview, South Dakota, population 3, shipping container architecture has become the epitome of “New, Now, Next.”

Cost Benefits – There is a surplus of decommissioned shipping containers available for sale in the USA today, keeping the cost of purchase relatively low even as demand climbs. Even factoring in the work required to transform a shipping container from a steel box to a stylized, reliable, human-centric building, shipping containers can be less time-consuming and labor-intensive than other forms of building/architecture.

Aesthetic – The increased prominence of shipping container architecture can be linked to the growing popularity of the industrial aesthetic in architecture and design. For example, a condominium or office space retrofitted out of an old factory can fetch a greater purchase or rental price thanks to old wooden beams and exposed brick. This aesthetics combined with the inherent strength and durability of the shipping container structure, increase the popular appeal of buildings created from shipping containers.

Sagamore Shipping Container Bar

Sustainability – Because the foundation of shipping container architecture is the repurposing of existing material, it is, by nature, a sustainable alternative. This is especially true considering the reduction in carbon footprint from avoiding the melting down/destruction of these large shipping containers.

Popular Uses – Often used for permanent structures like retail shopping malls and residential homes shipping containers are also used extensively for events, exhibits and trade show displays. Because of its inherent versatility and portability, shipping container architecture addresses many criteria, but the most important is the offering of unique, environmentally sustainable solutions for many space and housing challenges.

Shipping Container Building Codes

Shipping containers have to meet rigorous international standards in order to carry their cargo across the world. Heights, widths, lengths, weight loads, and materials are all highly regulated. But when a shipping container meets the end of it is shipping life and gets modified other uses, these specifications no longer apply.

Realizing the implications of container modification as it relates to architecture, municipalities across America are now adopting these specifications into their building codes and creating new standards for other architecture firms and engineers.

As soon as a container is cut, it no longer falls under the International Organization for Standards (ISO) specs. This was a problem for building inspectors who had no formal standards to adhere to for shipping container structures.

How is a door put into a shipping container? How is a window installed? These are just some of the questions that our specs answer. Covering everything from transportation, railings, and ramps, and even fire safety measures, we’re standardizing every aspect of shipping container modification and installation.

By developing engineer-stamped specifications for each deployment, we’re setting a standard that can be incorporated into actual building codes. As a result, we’re helping cities, counties, and states understand how safe shipping container modification looks and functions in buildings, pop-up shops, experiential marketing venues, and trade show booths.

This means that more designers and builders in countries around the world can learn and apply the rules of safe shipping container architecture. As passionate leaders in our industry, we’re excited and proud to see this trend grow.


Setting High Standards

It is important to note that these are not just Boxman Studios’ specs. Engineer approval means that our specs have been rigorously tested and proven to the highest standard in the field. For instance, we incorporate building codes from California, which exceeds anything else in the United States. Our fire code, railings, and upper deck codes are just some examples.

By adopting the highest standards in the country, we’re raising the bar for others in the shipping container architecture field. Anyone with a blow torch can modify a shipping container. The question is – can they do it to a stamped-engineered spec? We’re putting those specifications into place so that anyone interested in shipping container architecture can have confidence in the safety and quality of their investment.

Ten years ago, there were no standards to regulate modified shipping containers. Boxman Studios is changing this by writing the engineer-approved, general specifications for each shipping container architecture deployment we undertake.

4 Shipping Container Architecture Trends

  1. Smaller Units.

Like with most things in life, bigger isn’t necessarily better. In fact, customers commonly request smaller containers; 10-foot or 12-foot units that they can tow with a pickup instead of a flatbed.

  1. Boxman Studios Purpose-Built Containers.

We have started building our own shipping containers rather than just retrofitting decommissioned units. Why? Our purpose-built containers give us more control over the structural integrity of the containers we create right from the start. With decommissioned containers, they have to be reinforced every time we cut them. Every cut loses some of the structural integrity and you have to put that back into the structure to ensure that the container is safe. Plus, purpose-built containers enable us to make material choices that are lighter, stronger, while also adhering to our rigid safety standards.


Shipping Container Chassis

  1. Fold-Down Walls.

This has long been a standard feature for our shipping containers, especially those that deploy at trade shows and experiential marketing events. The walls of the container fold down to expand floor space and create an open feel. This is an example, too, of knowing when low-tech is better. Boxman Studios uses a simple pulley and winch system over a high-tech hydraulic system to fold down a container’s walls.


3 Ways Shipping Container Displays Can Make Trade Shows Easy

  1. Gullwing Awnings.

Most shipping container experiences use fold-up awnings that come out of the wall and angle towards the floor. The Boxman Studios’ signature gullwing awnings are different. Imagine a gull lifting its wings to ride on the wind: our awnings, which are uplifted, evoke the same sense of height and expansion. In addition to the open feel, our unique awnings extend the experience beyond the shipping container itself.

How are Shipping Containers Changing Urban Development?

As commercial neighborhoods like shopping districts, industrial parks, and mixed-use developments continue to grow, they each pass through distinct phases. Generally, building density and land value increase over time, while the consumer demographic shifts to reflect a neighborhood’s offering.

Assembly Row Shipping Containers

Within a city, the arrival of a new business or population might drive fallow parcels of land into renewal. Meanwhile, a city’s lateral expansion will push its edges onto vacant, underdeveloped lands. City planners, real estate developers, business owners and commercial prospectors consider demographic shifts and economic trends of a growing city when they look to place new projects. Increasingly, these stakeholders are exploring shipping container architecture’s role in the forms of temporary offices, restaurants, and shops can play to fast-track development in a growing neighborhood. For example, Chick-fil-A uses this mobile pop-up restaurant during their brick-and-mortar restaurant renovations, to keep their employees and customers returning while the QSR was closed for construction.


Mobile Kitchen Design

Mobile shipping container architecture is altering the urban development process by bringing prefabricated, versatile buildings into the equation. The mobility of a repurposed shipping container is one of its greatest assets, freeing a business from the land on which it sits. Business owners benefit from the opportunity to pilot their concept or product in a new neighborhood, without committing to a building purchase or renovation.

Win-Win Solutions

Landowners, on the other hand, can lease vacant property to established retail and restaurant tenants, operating out of shipping containers, who have minimal infrastructure requirements. That business’s presence can pull traffic into the area and encourage further development. Take a look at one such project: Cut-Splice Salon in Boston.

Cut-Splice in Boston


By working together to mobilize this concept, city planners, developers and business owners can facilitate urban renewal with shipping container retail and hospitality, diversifying underdeveloped areas and pulling in business.


Modular Construction with Shipping Containers

When considering the differences in kinetic architecture and conventional modular construction practices, we’re often asked, “What do you offer outside of a trendy look?” While wow-factor is definitely a benefit of working with shipping containers for kinetic architecture, it’s far from the only perk. Forgive us for our bias, and read through our list of offerings that will make kinetic architecture a much better construction option for hospitality, retail, food service, and marketing.

Relocation Flexibility

While kinetic architecture isn’t always a shipping container, all our modular projects are built with the shipping container in mind. ISO shipping containers can be moved over land and sea, using both forklifts and cranes.  Our projects are built for mobility and are extremely durable even under the rigors of transportation. Regardless of shipping method, the integrity of our product, finishes, furniture, and fixtures remain intact during the logistics process. So, they arrive completely turnkey and ready to go!


Boxman Studios

Finding Efficiencies

Modular construction is essentially an exoskeleton that contains walls, HVAC, lighting, electronics, plumbing, and appliances. When you utilize kinetic architecture as the foundation for your modular building, the “box” makes updating internal components easy and affordable. Modular container elements are sturdier and more flexible without compromising the integrity of the entire structure.

Finding Value in Transportation Costs

Kinetic architecture is considerably more efficient and cost-effective to transport than oversized modular buildings. If you’ve seen flatbeds carting large buildings with the bold letters “wide load,” you know what we’re talking about. This is not the most cost-efficient method of delivering modular buildings. Kinetic architecture is built in a way that does not require any special permitting from the DOT or incur any extra costs because of the load size or logistical requirements.





Examples of Shipping Container Architecture

Not sure what you’re looking for? Here are some examples of shipping container architecture.

Stand-Out Designs: Facebook

Facebook RNC

Commonly referred to as ‘industrial chic,’ the container aesthetic is a growing trend in event marketing, food service, and retail. And, no other container event got more air-time or hype than Facebook’s 13 container structure at the 2016 National Convention in Cleveland. The massive structure housed experiences including Facebook Live broadcast studio, Oculus VR experience, Photo ops, and media events.

In the end, the structure provided open, flowing spaces with unassuming materials including wood, glass, steel, textiles, and concrete. Like a Swiss army knife, space became a powerful tool for the Facebook Elections team providing secure meeting rooms, public gathering areas, and places to inspire spontaneous collaboration between delegates, professionals, and media attendees.

Modular Means Adaptable: Hyundai College Game Day

Hyundai Field House

Designed with participation in mind, the best example of truly modular experiences is our 4-year tour with Hyundai’s College Game Day. The tours were made up of two activations working in tandem and individually comprised of 3 different container designs. The modular experience allowed Hyundai’s event team to shape and reshape the layout of their event based on the market, landscape, and interactive elements of each different game day event.

Made for Mobility: Fresh Box at UNM

UNM Mobility

Kinetic Architecture doesn’t have to be a repurposed shipping container, but it is designed and built with the principals of logistics in mind. A perfect example of a build designed around the need for mobility is Fresh Box at the University of New Mexico. UNM isn’t planning on picking up the recently installed unit, but they needed it to be built off-site to prevent disrupting students during the construction process. We specifically designed this unit to be durable enough to travel from North Carolina to New Mexico, and squeeze into the designated area, with little room for error. This project is a testament to our logistics team’s total involvement in our engineering process, and their precision of execution on-site.


Why Use Shipping Container Architecture?

Clients looking for shipping container architecture want something different. They don’t want tents. They don’t want to rent someone’s empty retail space. They have unique desires that only shipping container architecture can address.

Here is some priorities shipping container architecture clients have in common:

  1. Desire For Unique Design

Shipping container architecture has a unique, appealing style, often described as “industrial chic.”

As familiar and iconic objects, shipping containers mean something to people. There’s a reason people are attracted to projects designed from shipping containers. Generations have grown up seeing shipping containers on trains and in freight yards, in urban and rural settings.  They’re woven into the narrative of industrialization and global commerce.

  1. Affinity For Modularity

The shipping container’s shape is an important aspect of its modularity. It’s an excellent, human-scale space that can be stacked, hacked and configured in many ways.

A visitor can take in the expanse of the whole building from the outside. The size and shape are familiar, and the product or brand modification draws people in. A shipping container with raised, cut-away sides, for instance, compels visitors to explore the space.  Shipping containers attract people and draw them inside to interact with the environment.

  1. Agendas That Requires Flexibility

We take into consideration that there may be a need to move or change the retail, restaurant, or community space at some point (even if it is a permanent structure). Boxman’s units are built to be portable and moved easily without sacrificing the unit’s structural integrity, finishes (internally and externally), and equipment. Rather than having to construct a new building, units can be moved from one site to another.

  1. Eye For Value

A shipping container building’s unique features create unparalleled value for the right client. A business owner seeking mobility and modularity will quickly benefit from a repurposed shipping container unit, as operation and transportation become more efficient.

For brands that benefit from a wow-factor – such as experiential marketers, trade show representatives and retailers – shipping container buildings add great value, drawing in crowds.

As recycled items, shipping container architecture units deliver inherent value to brand, through their look, feel and sustainability.

  1. Need for Speed… to Market

Boxman Studio’s build timeframes allow for construction to be completed 30%-50% faster when compared to traditional stick-built construction. These projects are built to necessary building codes at the same (if not better) quality without sacrificing build times. This is made possible with the utilization of Boxman’s modular construction process that allows for floors, walls, ceilings, electrical, and plumbing to be installed simultaneously.

  1. Tax Benefits

By utilizing Boxman Studios’ product, our clients can receive tax benefits. Based on IRS Publication 946, container structures are categorized as 7-year tax life property. Specifically, the code states, “Any property that does not have a class life and has not been designated by law as being in any other class.” This means that modular units are not called out in the IRS Publication 946, therefore it defaults to a 7-year property, which allows you depreciate the units over a 7-year tax life. Commercial traditional stick-built construction in IRS Publication 4562 is classified as nonresidential real property, which has a depreciation period of 39 years.

  1. Brand Alignment

Our projects are aesthetically versatile and offer flexible modular layouts. They can be constructed to have the appearance of a modular unit, traditional stick build construction, or a combination of both. To achieve this range of designs and styles, we employ both de-commissioned (used) shipping containers that are modified and structurally reinforced or purpose-built structures that are erected from shipping container parts, to fit certain specifications.

Our job is to translate the developer and tenant’s vision into a customized structure that maintains the highest safety standards, moves easily from our facility to sites across the state or the country, aligns with the budget, and delivers a unique and immersive brand experience for a tenant’s clientele.

  1. Finding the Higher and Better Use with Market Testing

Is there another way to look at nonperforming assets to generate revenue? Vacancies and stagnant properties are a huge burden on a developer’s portfolio. To determine the highest and best use of a property, developers must conduct property, constraint and market analysis. For burgeoning and underutilized property, we can offer a quick justification, market validation, and potential revenue centers in the form of temporary or semi-permanent construction.

These units are extremely flexible. They can be moved at will, tie into municipality power and water, or run off generator and water tanks. If the developer cannot validate a market for the property, mobility is a huge benefit. Instead of investing in a permanent property, developers can make cautious, informed decisions based on real data.

Want to know more about shipping container architecture? Download our “Beginner’s Guide to Building with Shipping Containers” below.