The Evolution of Shipping Container Homes

When Malcolm McLean first created the shipping container during the 1950’s, he never envisioned that they would be used as building materials for homes. Shipping containers were a major game-changer for industry as crews did not need to load and unload every single crate. Shipping containers proved to be efficient, convenient and structurally durable. Not surprisingly, these same qualities make shipping containers the perfect building materials for homes.

Shipping Container Home Patent

In 1987, Philip C. Clark was the first to file for a U.S. patent that was a method of “converting one or more steel shipping container into a habitable building. Clark was the first visionary to see the potential of utilizing these massive containers to create homes. This concept was extremely green and way ahead of its time. Clark outlines in the patent exactly how shipping containers can be utilized as a weight-bearing foundation to create a habitable structure. He further noted that shipping containers make for an ideal modular building material. Furthermore, that reused shipping containers have the ability to make homes economical. Although it took two years for the patent to process and be granted to Clark, he was finally presented with approved patent #US4854094A.

Where Did the Idea Originate?

In the film Space Rage in 1985, shipping containers were utilized to construct multiple buildings on the production set. Going back even further into the 1970’s, United Kingdom architect, Nicholas Lacey, completed his university thesis on the topic of reusing shipping containers and transforming them into habitable dwellings. Lacey has actually gone on to create several shipping container homes with the company, Urban Space Management.

Going back even further, the first official document indicating the use of shipping containers as building materials came in 1962. The Insbrandtsen Company Inc. filed a patent called “Combination Shipping Container and Showcase,” with Christopher Betjemann as being the inventor. The patent states that shipping containers can be utilized in exhibition booths when companies are showcasing and touring with their products. Patent US3182424A was approved and presented on Tuesday, May 11th, 1965.

Why Did Shipping Container Architecture Become a Trend?

The United States imports much more than we export. Therefore, when goods are shipping into the U.S., not all shipping containers are used to export good backs. This leaves a major surplus of shipping containers. According to the United States Department of Transportation: Maritime Administration, the U.S. imported 17,541,120 TEU’s (twenty-foot equivalent unit) but only exported 11,935,906 in 2012, leaving an excess of 5.5 million shipping containers. 1 TEU is equivalent to 1 standard 20-foot shipping container.

Of course, not every shipping container is remains in the United States. It is often worthwhile to ship back the new containers for reuse but a considerable amount are left in the U.S. The standard 40-foot container weights around 8,800 pounds so melting it down would take as much energy as it takes to power one U.S. household for one year. On the other hand, the amount of energy used in converting the shipping container into a home consumes around 5-percent of the amount to melt it. Therefore, reusing them for structures is environmentally-friendly and significantly less expensive than traditional homes.

Numerous Uses

During Vietnam, containers were used to ship a variety of supplies to bases and troops overseas. This is when the use of shipping containers became mainstream. The military also utilized shipping containers with regards to housing as they were utilized as makeshift emergency shelters because they could be quickly fortified for security and protection.

Shipping containers have been used during construction of residential and commercial structures in Asia and Europe for many years. In Amsterdam, the abundant containers have been used to provide low-income housing and student housing. Therefore, from emergency shelters for soldiers during wartime to housing for densely population cities, container architecture has filled a major demand for affordable yet sustainable structures.

In Phomolong, South Africa, Children utilize shipping containers as a mobile schoolhouse that is equipped with Internet and other modern technology and even powered by the sun. Furthermore, secondary students located in Streatham, London have a spacious, modern and bright sports hall that was constructed in only three days from shipping containers. On Pier 57 in New York City, multiple high-end shops rent out cargo containers while greatly appeals to their trendy clientele.

Mainstream Usage

The numbers and reasons to use them for structures adds up. However, how did they become a mainstream trend? Although the U.S. military helped in Vietnam to transport goods and create emergency shelters, it wasn’t until 1994 when American writer Stewart Brand published, “How Buildings Learn.” In the book, he discusses how shipping containers can be converted into office space. This was the first publication that actually discussed building with shipping containers. From this point on, shipping container homes began to gain moment and the first building complete on record is The Simon’s Town High School Hostel.

Modern Shipping Container Homes

After the success of The Simon’s Town High School Hostel, Peter DeMaria, a California architect, created the first shipping container home in the United States in 2006. Titled, the Redondo Beach House, the home was officially approved from the national Uniform Building Code and finally completed in 2007. Since that time, shipping container homes have been appearing all over the world, with the most famous being:

  • Container Guest House built in 2010
  • Containers of Hope built in 2011
  • The Caterpillar House built in 2012

Although necessity originally prompted the development of the shipping container to be used as homes, creativity and innovation have taken it to the next level. Although it took a few years to catch on, like most trends, new homeowners see the merit in the environmentally-friendly construction mixed with the lower cost to build than traditional homes. Between 2005 and 2014, the number of shipping container homes has grown tremendously. 2014 was the most popular year for shipping container homes based on the latest data.

Since the emergence of the shipping container home, other amazing uses have also emerged. These include, shipping container restaurants, pools and schools. Our imaginations are the only limit to what we can build.


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