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.
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.