A History of Shipping Container Architecture

Although shipping container architecture and repurposing has exploded in recent years, the concept is not new.  Almost immediately after containers were first developed in North America in 1956 by Malcolm McLean, the value in their structure was utilized for much more than the efficiency of ocean freight transportation, for which they were developed.

The Europeans had been using variations of shipping containers long before the modern standard container we see today had been developed.  But the invention really took off when the military began using them during the Vietnam war.  Not only for  shipping supplies but also as emergency shelters for soldiers in the field, as well as offices and medical units.  They have been continually used by the military, more recently, in the Gulf War where they are used as makeshift shelters because it was found that combined with the stacking of sandbags against them, they are strong enough to withstand RPG strikes.

In 1962 Insbrandtsen Company filed a patent to use containers as exhibition booths for travelling businesses. Christopher Betjemann was the inventor of the patent which was granted in 1965.
In 1962 Insbrandtsen Company filed a patent to use containers as exhibition booths for travelling businesses. Christopher Betjemann was the inventor of the patent which was granted in 1965.

Nicholas Lacey of the UK wrote a university thesis on reusing containers to make habitable dwellings in 1970 and 17 years later in 1987 Philip Clark filed the first patent in the U.S. to make “one or more steel shipping containers into a habitable building”.  It appears Clark did not make use of this patent himself, however it did set off a chain of similar thinking in the U.S.

Perhaps influenced by military use as well, since 2002 medical clinics in shipping containers have been shipped out to help 3rd world countries such as Haiti and Sierra Leone in association with “Clinic in a Can” and other organizations.

Shipping container architecture is nothing new to the rest of the world, mainly Asia and Europe.  The biggest European shopping centre in Odessa, Ukraine is made out of shipping containers, as are many other major shopping centres around the world including the Cashel Mall in Christchurch, New Zealand (rebuilt with containers after being destroyed by earthquake in 2011) and the Dordoy Bazaar in Bishek, Kyrgyzstan.

Currently in North America, Tesla Motors Inc. is touring the U.S.A. in a mobile showroom built from containers and in Canada, a Days Inn comprised of 120 containers opened last year in Sioux Lookout, Ontario.

Container structures and architectural masterpieces containing them are popping up everywhere.  The architectural world has turned a new page, coming into the age of repurposing materials and structures and tiny homes in particular, of which the features of shipping containers are perfect for.  Given their increasing accessibility, inexpensive cost and the excess of containers sitting in shipyards all over the world, I feel as though we have yet to see the best of this movement.


A History of Shipping Container Architecture

Used Shipping Containers: Things to Consider

Currently there is an excess amount of unused shipping containers sitting in harbours all around the world.  Couple that with the new trend of resourcefully building tiny homes using typically unconventional house-building materials and voila! Shipping container homes everywhere.  (Read “A History of Shipping Container Architecture” here.)FullSizeRender-2Obviously, if they’re good for building homes, they are good for building lots of other structures as well.  In the Netherlands they use them to build bus stations, people all over the world have converted them into shops and offices, Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park has adopted 2 containers as their new washroom facilities (http://www.wolfromeng.com/Projects/Play-Work/Assiniboine-Park-Washrooms.html) and obviously they can be used for storage.

If you have use for a shipping container, here are some things to consider before you buy:

    • Depending on your plans, the look of the container might be important to you.  One thing I was surprised to learn was that shipping containers have hardwood flooring.  If your intent is to build a summer/lake house or you live somewhere where you don’t need insulated floors, you could easily clean up the hardwood and it would look awesome! If this is the case you would need to carefully inspect the floor of the container before you buy to look for dings from cargo or forklifts. But like bonus! Free hardwood floor!


    • Don’t buy anything you haven’t seen in person. Always schedule time to go check out the container.  When viewing it make sure your salesperson can guarantee the unit is watertight and look for signs of water inside.  This might be scary but go inside the container and have someone fully close the doors so you can look for light, if you see light holes the container is not watertight and you don’t want it.


    • These containers are built to have a 20 year life aboard freight ships on the rolling sea, when stationary they are considered to have what is called an “infinite life span”.  My point is that they’re freaking tough and they don’t have to be shiny and new to be a good deal.  Rust, dings and dents on a container are perfectly okay as long as they don’t compromise the stability and structure of the unit.  However, deep corrosion, warped frames and extensive patchwork is not okay.


    • The other considerable thing about containers is that they’re heavy.  Very heavy.  Because of this and therefor the labour and machinery involved, depending on where you live, the delivery might be more expensive than the container itself.  (If the same company you bought from is doing your delivery, always try to haggle a deal, you will always do better than the initial rate.)


  • Most used containers you will see have loads of stickers and logos on them, as well as serial numbers. By doing some research you can find out what the container was used to ship.  This could also aid in your decision to buy or pass on the container.
    I found out that one of my containers used to be the property of Hyundai, I can deduce that it was probably used to move cars or car parts.  However, you probably wouldn’t want to buy one used to ship chemicals, for example. Remnants of the container’s past could pose a health hazard as they may not be cleaned before being put on the market.
    A friend of mine was all set up to buy a container she found online, but upon viewing it she had a sense (of the olfactic kind) the unit was very obviously used to move fish.  Needless to say she passed on the fishy container.

Now that container architecture is so popular, so are container sales businesses. And some, like the containers themselves, are better than others.  Like buying/selling anything you just have to use your common sense, do lots of research and know what to ask and look for.

Used Shipping Containers: Things to Consider

Re-entering the Nest

I thought this would be an appropriate opening post for S&S because this is how my tiny-home journey began.

The first container being dropped off.
The first container being dropped off.  July 2015

It started when I was living on the Canadian west coast.  I read a book by Dee Williams, called “The Big Tiny”, which follows the real life process of building a tiny garden shed sized house on a trailer.  Not long after finishing it I became more or less utterly obsessed with the concept of building my own tiny living quarters.  I’m talking book-buying, pinterest-boarding, floorplan-drawing, budget-drafting obsessed.  I loved the idea of building a home that would complement my life and not drain my bank account.  Small enough to be managable, highly functional and so damn cute.  I knew a tiny-home was for me.

My mother, who lives in Manitoba and who I talked to on the phone often, had noticed my new obsession and coincidentally had also been looking for a way to get me to move home since I had left, 2 years prior.  She saw the opportunity and capitalized by buying 2 40x8x9 seacans, generously providing me with land and challenging me to build a home.  A challenge I gladly accepted.  A bribe, some may say.

Along with all the bribery came the fact that I’d be moving back in with my parents for the duration of the build.  Which was less than ideal, but part of the package and more than anything, just my own psychological hurtle that I’d have to get over.

As a person who’s been single, independent, severely OCD and living on their own for a long time, the adjustment was rough and the living hasn’t always been easy… But the payoff has been extraordinary.  One of the best things being that I was able to put what would be rent money into the build.  Another, that I’m now living at the source of the best shepherd’s pie I’ve ever met.  Not to mention the hard work and time my family has also donated to the project (possibly because they want me out of their house faster).

Check out the latest build update here.

Re-entering the Nest