Shipping Containers
June 12, 2008, 2:37 pm
Filed under: Architecture, Design, Industrial Architecture

Shipping containers, also referred to as “isotainers”, were originally invented in the 1990’s to help architects achieve greater levels of design fetish. While their primary function is typically seen in overly-complicated forms of residential architecture, additional applications in the commercial and institutional sectors help reinforce the illusion of simplicity and the deception of cost ineffectiveness. Whether applied to altruistic housing for the worlds impoverished or a high-end gallery in Zurich, shipping container architecture upholds the most important principle of good design: a sexy finished photo.

Recently, however, we’ve noticed an innovative use of shipping containers here in Seattle. Forward thinking companies like A.P. Moller-Maersk and Hapag-Lloyd are experimenting with the steel boxes by loading them with manufactured goods and shipping them to foreign sea-ports. That’s right, actually loading the steel boxes onto boats, trains, and trucks and transporting them to different places in the world. This evolution of shipping containers is fascinating to us and today’s post covers some of the details of this pioneering effort to use common architectural objects in new and interesting ways.

There are an estimated 18 million containers in the world, as Wired magazine puts it “enough shipping containers exist on the planet to build an 8-foot-high wall around the equator – twice”. The containers are built in 5 standard lengths the most common being 40’ long by 8’ wide by 8’-6” tall. With a volume of 2,385 cubic feet, the maximum load for a 40’ container is about 58,800 lbs (this excludes the weight of the container itself which is about 8,300 lbs).

The containers allow for a number of customizations including temperature control, ventilation, tank containers for liquids, rolling floors for heavy cargo, units which open on the sides, and collapsible units.

It is speculated that container shipping is twenty times faster than pre-container shipping methods lending to reductions in waste and cost. A large facility, like the port of Singapore, moves over twenty-thousand 40’ container equivalencies on an average day.

With the demand to move an increasing volume of containers and to keep ships on their schedules (set by ocean tides) the horizontal transportation methods of truck and train are critical. A variety of trailer beds have been designed to accommodate the range of container sizes, double loaded train cars allow for a greater number of containers per train and faster loading/unloading.

Transferring the containers between modes of transportation and stacking the containers for storage has also developed its own species of machines. This equipment includes:

Gantry Crane or Ship-to-Shore Crane

Straddle Carriers

Rubber Tired Gantry Cranes (RTG’s)

Rail Mounted Gantry Cranes (RMG’s)

Forklift Trucks

Reach Stackers and specialized Stackers for Empty Containers.

There are also some interesting hybrid machines like truck mounted container lifts

The largest container ship in the world is the Emma Maersk at 1,300 feet long. With a crew of 13 it has the capacity to carry approximately 5,500 40’ long containers, on average about $300 million worth of cargo.

Although containers are staggered in height to keep the boxes from shifting during shipping, an estimated 10,000 containers are lost at sea each year. Wikipedia states that “Containers lost at sea do not necessarily sink, but seldom float very high out of the water, making them a shipping hazard that is difficult to detect.”

A used 40’ long shipping container can be purchased for $1500 to $2500, find them on ebay.

Several shipping companies allow guests to travel with them from port to port. For more information get your hands on a book called Travel by Cargo Ship.

Another good book about shipping containers and the shipping industry is
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

For more web-based information on shipping containers go to wikipedia

Wired magazine also has a good article


4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Hi, I work for Hybrid Architects ( and this past weekend we just installed two 24′ prefabbed shipping containers in a backyard in Portland to act as a workshop. We call it the “mantainer”. We included a couple sliding glass doors and a green roof. It was quite an ordeal craning the containers over the house on busy Fremont Street. Pictures to come tomorrow.

Comment by Nick W

“were originally invented in the 1990’s” ?!! Not really. The standard 20/40 containers were invented in the 70’s

Comment by Dnee

great photos!!

Comment by mike roloff

Dnee – our apologies, our dry sense of humor and facetious nature got the best of us on this one. The first couple of paragraphs are to be taken with an enormous grain of salt. We just got so tired of hearing about shipping containers used as architecture that we couldn’t help but poke a little fun.

Comment by buildllc

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