Thinking outside the box? The up-cycled architecture of building with shipping containers

Brilliant in colour and execution. SEED Library II in Alexandra Township, Johannesburg, South Africa, was assembled quickly and inexpensively from recycled shipping containers. Kids are attracted by the building's whimsical appearance. Photo courtesy Andrew Moore/flickr
Brilliant in colour and execution. SEED Library II in Alexandra Township, Johannesburg, South Africa, was assembled quickly and inexpensively from recycled shipping containers. Kids are attracted by the building’s whimsical appearance. Photo courtesy: Andrew Moore/flickr

IOA analysis in brief | A global surplus of shipping containers, those metal boxes big enough to be large rooms, coincides with a need for inexpensive solutions to Africa’s housing needs. However, imaginative architects have fashioned containers into libraries, schools and offices of remarkable utility and playful beauty.

 Key points:

  • Extending 9 metres in length, single containers can be converted into homes or stacked together to make larger structures
  • Current uses for container conversions are clinics, schools, staff housing and offices
  • Large buildings erected from containers cost 25% less than brick and mortar buildings

By re-imaging containers, affordable housing and public buildings are sprouting up in colourful, boldly-angular displays. Africa is witnessing a wave of recycling that is inspiring a new field of architecture.

Shipping containers, those 6 or 9 metre long rectangular metal boxes stacked like blocks on railway cars or on the decks of sea freighters, have been providing quick and easy solutions to a variety of building needs in Africa for 20 years. From the days when discarded containers were used as improvised housing by the poor, designs today that resemble mobile homes provide compact kitchen and bathroom facilities beside sleeping quarters. Because they are metal set beneath the African sun, the transformed boxes are equipped with air conditioning.

A global glut of shipping containers caused by a downturn in international trade has left Africa cluttered with unused freight containers. These are being put to many imaginative uses and can be seen pushed together to make schools, clinics and offices or singly as community libraries and day-care centres. Adding colourful paint jobs, interior carpeting and decoration helps make the boxes liveable. Now, the missing element has arrived that makes containers aesthetically competitive with other building materials: architectural imagination.


Instant houses to alleviate homelessness

The architects at Tsai Design in Cape Town considered the limited budget offered by two donor companies to build a school in a township slum and chose to refurbish shipping containers with bold colours, punching out rectangular windows and framing these also with bright colours. The architects cut up another container and put it back together with a glass door for a soccer pitch office, and then dropped the shell of another container at an angle over the original container: a statement of architectural deconstruction that made the unit appear loose and airy.

Johannesburg’s 4D and A Architects took the assignment to build a housing unit for the city’s New Jerusalem Children’s Home from the firm My Home in a Box, which usually erects single family home units. For the hospice to house 12 students and a housemother, the 4D and A architects also went the deconstruction route. Containers were cut up and reassembled with large round windows to make a two-storey structure with playfully jutting and brightly coloured wings. The final cost of US$ 115,000 was 25% less than a brick and mortar building, which probably would not possess the same visual flair.

Since 1994, South Africa has erected 2.6 million homes under government’s Reconstruction and Development Programme. However, the initiative is 2.3 million homes short of its goal. The proliferation of container homes built by firms has drawn notice, such as the work of Cape Town’s Berman-Kalil Housing Concepts. Painted light grey, their units resemble standard concrete bloc homes on the outside, but are attractively furnished inside. The firm’s goal is to move beyond the container as a novelty building and create an industry out of the container architecture concept. Large-scale construction is possible through uniformity of design. Container-converted ‘bachelor units’ offer a bathroom, shower, kitchenette (sink and two hotplates) and built-in cupboards, with choice of exterior design, all for US$ 7,910. A two-bedroom home has doubled the space, with extras like an oven, and sells for US$ 14,250.

Containers are used literally as building blocks, stacked atop each other or side by side as needed, allowing instant expansion of a building. The standard ISO shipping container size chosen by builders is the 6.06m length, which is 2.59m high. While cutting and fitting, architects never manipulate the shape of the container, but prefer to keep its original identity discernible. Walls are not curved, and right angles predominate. Container doors are often kept and when closed, act as burglar-proofing. While this is done to contain costs, with imagination the effect can be playful. Schools made of shipping boxes resembling Lego constructions, with each brightly-painted unit reflecting a child-friendly nature. A striking office building erected in Tanzania by the Turkish firm Karmod Prefabricated Technologies looks as if it is from the repertoire of minimalist architect Mies van der Rohe. Five boxes painted dark grey in the Van der Rohe style have had their walls removed, leaving just the end posts, and are set side by side and stacked atop each other, with the outer walls replaced with floor to ceiling glass.

Big Box is a container conversion firm working out of Cape Town and Johannesburg that builds units on site and ships them throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. The firm’s office in Pretoria is an example of a ‘modern designed living space’, with a container sloped at a 45 degree angle even functioning as a welcoming stairwell cover leading to the second floor reception area. Big Box has advanced the container renovation business from the cheap and utilitarian to a preferred way for some large companies to acquire staff housing.


Schools, clinics and farms from boxes

Because a box is a self-contained unit, and there is no getting around the essential nature of the enclosed container, the unit provides a sense of self-sufficiency. A container, after all, is meant to contain. Builders find that boxes serve single-purpose tasks well. Common usages are rural clinics and libraries.

The Mandela Day Container Library uses the annual day of commemoration for South Africa’s first president Nelson Mandela to solicit funds for container libraries. Thirty of these have been attached to small rural schools that found libraries unaffordable.

As children enjoy playing with boxes and architects seem to enjoy imaging with container boxes, the adjective playful again seems to apply itself to the designs transforming a utilitarian shipping device into a place to learn, live, study and conduct business. Given Africa’s limited financial resources and huge housing and building needs, reusable containers are a solution if made liveable via some architectural flare. A US firm will soon produce high-tech farm units from containers that contain ICT links, renewable power and micro-drip irrigation. When planted in African fields and even deserts, such containers will serve to boost food production. Arrayed with solar panels and flanked by covered growing areas, these farm boxes – like the container homes and schools assembled by innovative architects – have a futuristic look. Certainly, the proliferating reuse of containers signals a trend for the foreseeable future.