Shipping containers: the instant building material of the moment

Retail parks, student housing, start-up offices and they're all being constructed out of former shipping containers – the latest go-to building...

April 27, 2016

Retail parks, student housing, start-up offices, even designer homes, they’re all being constructed out of former shipping containers – the latest go-to building material.

These containers are cheap and readily available but demand is being driven by more than just cost-cutting. Their use is propping up an industry still suffering the effects of chronic material shortage.

The building industry’s well-documented skills deficit has coincided with scant supply of traditional materials such as brick. Suppliers are unable to keep up with demand and solutions such as shipping containers are seen as innovative, prefab alternatives, ideal for quick construction.

“They’re the right material to meet the needs of our time, a quick construction product in a prefab market that’s bigger than many people realize,” says Helen Gough, JLL Lead Director, Buildings & Construction.

Material of our time

Because containers are decommissioned from shipping after five to ten years at sea, there’s a steady supply and they’re appearing in projects around the world.

“They are made of steel and have inherent structural strength, making them a great framework for a building,” Gough adds. “Upkeep is also easy and cheap – you just have to keep the steel painted and protected from rust.”

Of course, like many buildings, shipping containers need modernization to bring them up to speed with regulation not to mention creature comforts. Air conditioning or heating may need to be installed, for example. But their relatively portable nature means that these amenities, and even facilities such as kitchens and bathrooms, can be quickly fitted off-site before the containers are put into their specific locations.

Today’s quick-build market

Shipping containers are a fashionable example of what Gough says is a broader prefab trend. “There’s currently a demand for buildings that are modular and prefabricated that can be constructed quickly – from drive-in fast food outlets such as McDonalds to eco-hotels and to Huf Haus homes,” she says.

What started a quick fix for big cities’ housing problems has been widely adopted. For example, when 1,000 containers were used to create the village of Wenchekof in Amsterdam in 2006, the aim was to provide much-needed temporary accommodation for students. The community has become such a popular place to live, it’s now been granted permanent status.

In Bristol in the UK, boasts both an enterprise hub and retail yard at Wapping Wharf made out shipping containers while early in 2017 Sheffield also welcomed a leisure development constructed from more than 20 shipping containers.

Residential schemes are also benefiting from quick-fix container construction. “Increasingly, containers used in houses are linked together to make larger rooms. Panels are also removed to make way for some fantastic glazing, which may explain why householders have come to embrace them.”

Commercial containers

Shipping containers have captured the zeitgeist from a commercial perspective, too. They’re perfectly sized and stacked for today’s start-ups and small businesses who like to be near each other. They also tend to come with flexible short-term leases that incubator businesses seek.

For landowners and developers, containers can be brought in to provide an immediate income on what is often dead space, during a long wait for planning permission.

And in an age of place-making, containers can easily inject an instant vibe or youthful culture into a neighbourhood, building its appeal or assisting its marketing.

While they have their critics, schemes continue to spring up around the world. What started off as a novelty solution is now becoming an affordable solution to many of the challenges facing the global construction industry today.

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