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Prefab Pyramid

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Shipping container buildings are a blog cliché I know but this post follows on from those on microflats and microhouses because, after all, shipping containers are spatial enclosures with an integrated structure. Now you may say that shell concrete and geodesic domes are also spatial enclosures with integrated structures but these can neither be arranged compactly nor stacked – two properties that make shipping containers particularly useful for the shipping and handling of cargo. Rectangular capsules can be arranged with spatial efficiency on ship decks and, depending on port authority hardware, stacked up seven or eight high.


Onshore, they’re usually stacked up to six as this is usually as high as conventional forklifts allow. According to thefreelibrary, eighteen million ISO containers are manufactured to specifications from the International Organization for Standardization and are used worldwide to transport products on ships. Once the containers are unloaded at docks they are typically left there, since it’s expensive to ship them back to their point of launch. In 2006 alone, the U.S. acquired 7.5 million shipping containers from China and returned just 3.5 million. The leftover 9,000 ton steel containers typically get melted down, which takes 1,000 kilowatt hours of energy per pound. This is a shame.

Now that the whole world seems to depend upon shifting stuff around it, any country that’s a net importer (by volume) is going to have a surplus of these things. I’m surprised to learn that unwanted shipping containers are melted down rather than reused but, then again, not really. Over the years, many buildings have been fashioned from shipping containers but many just use them as inexpensive spatial enclosures and try their hardest to make them look like they haven’t been fashioned from shipping containers. 


Many shipping container buildings use the idea of a container as a metaphor for prefabricated construction for orthodox consumer needs. Images of buildings of this type usually feature a crane or helicopter.

You’ll find many websites, tumblr pages and blogs devoted container houses. is one of the better ones but, in general, I’m wearying of eco-smug villas on treehugger and inhabitat. I’d rather see more of what immediate uses shipping containers can be put before we all start needing and wanting one and their cost becomes prohibitive.

When several shipping containers are used as detached dwellings, their inbuilt structure is mostly redundant since most dwellings don’t have seven or eight levels. On the 8 eye-catching shipping container homes from mothernaturenetwork, this one seemed a cut above the usual eco-nomical pad on nice property.


And over in Atlanta, Runkle Consulting are doing some thoughtful things with shipping containers.


We must pause here to pay homage to the building that put container buildings on the map – The Frietag Store in Zurich by Spillman Echsle Architeken. Everything else is just imitation.

Freitag Shop Zurich by Spillmann Echsle Architects (Shipping Container Architecture) (3)

Frietag recycles the printed vinyl coverings that protect lorry loads and makes them into things like courier bags. The process is described here.


Spillman Echsle Architeken‘s latest project is this container hotel.


There seems to be a trend for “revealing the essential containerness” of containers. The Removal of Ornament, II.

“Does this advance the cause of architecture?” 

The answer depends upon whether you think this is an aesthetic or not. One could argue that the decisions made here are negative ones but still aesthetic ones – in which case we have an aesthetic of nakedness. Again. Except that this time it’s not a revisit but an independent arrival at the same conclusions eighty years later now that raw concrete and unadorned brick have become luxury materials.

The aestheticisation of reduced levels of client resources – or their unwillingness to throw them at architects – is an ongoing process of architecture. Does any architect since Edwin Lutyens have a portfolio of country houses? Is any architect still exploring new forms of carved stone ornament?

Even late 20th century architectural selling points such as “sense of space” can be read as a market appeal towards clients who can’t afford or admit they can’t afford more of the real stuff. “Blurring the distinction between inside and outside” becomes an attractive concept for people unhappy with the amount of inside space they can afford. Branching out into new markets and satisfying clients is undoubtedly a good thing, but we shouldn’t pretend that the aesthetic history of architecture is driven by aesthetic concerns. Architects constantly cultivate clients on the ever-lowering edge of affordability. Historians glamorise this by saying buildings “respond to the spirit of its time”.

So now we have containers tarted up as architecture.

It’s part of the same process. Container living has not yet become an upmarket aspiration beyond mountain cabins or ski chalets. These are not so much about architecture but, inasmuch as it is separable, articulating the possession of property and leisure time.

Shigeru Ban tried to architecturalize containers on a grand scale a few years back. His Nomadic Museum was a temporary structure to be built in more than one location to house the Ashes and Snow travelling exhibition of artworks, photographs and novel exploring the shared poetic sensibilities of human beings and animals?


Whatever your feelings on the shared poetic sensibilities of human beings and animals, and of the global need to mobilise a huge amount of resources to create a building housing an exhibition of artworks purporting to express them, Ban did stack containers in an unconventional way even if it was to make somewhat conventional walls and, by virtue of that, conventional spaces for a conventional mega-art event.


My main objection is the use of customised 10-foot containers to frame a welcoming architectural portal with which to frenzify the queueing punters. The inner ends of these 10′ containers rest on places with no couplings to couple them. How are they supported?  Buro Happold were the engineers. In 2005, Nomadic Museum received a commendation for its structural achievement.


There are occasional forays like this into the architectural media consciousness. There are also occasional novelty hotels and Spillman Echsle Architekten’s boarding house is moving this category closer to mainstream acceptance.


Still, most shipping container buildings are confined to projects at the you-have-no-choice end of the housing market. We know who they are.

1) Students. This is Keetwonen student housing in The Netherlands.


This next image is the one you usually get shown. It’s prefabricated, did you know?


Students seem to have quite a happy life there.

2) Construction workers. The other group without choice when it comes to housing is construction workers and their reality is not so glamorous. Over at there is mock-shock horror as it reports shipping-containers-used-for-employee-housing-in-dubai-desert. 


In the world of green architecture and affordable housing, shipping container homes are often considered to be practical, cost-effective and even environmentally-friendly. In Dubai, however, the prospect seems a bit dubious. Gulf News reported today on a contracting firm in Dubai that has built housing for workers out of shipping containers, which can become unbearably hot in desert environments if they aren’t properly insulated. On the other hand, the containers probably didn’t cost that much, can be easily relocated to the next job, they can withstand sand storms, and the contracting firm says that the containers have sufficient insulation against the scorching desert sun.

Their outrage seems to be driven by containers being useful instead of cool. The UAE is desert and it is hot but there is also a long history of prefabricated housing for workers in the construction and oil industries. That of the oil workers is longer, but not by much. The housing looks like this. This is the good stuff. These guys need a good night’s sleep as they need to be alert on the job. This example is from AMB.

oil worker housing

I only show this as a reference. It’s not containers, but it may as well be. Without getting all urban about it, let’s consider the space between the buildings. It’s not there to create a sense of place for no-one will claim it by enclosing or cultivating it, hanging out on it or even appreciating it. And nor is it there because of benefits such as natural ventilation or daylighting although placing the buildings closer together might lessen solar gain. The space between the buildings is there because a crane has to travel along and place the buildings there. Plug-in city.


In recent posts, I’ve become less shy about mentioning my back catalogue but here’s one of my better ideas. It’s an unconventional way of stacking shipping containers to create better housing for construction workers.

On land, there’s no requirement for containers to occupy ship deck area as efficiently as possible so there is no need for them to be coupled densely in standard formation. First, let’s take a closer look at that standard corner coupling. Once the vertical face is used to lock in place a container vertically adjacent, that face can’t be used again.


The inside surfaces of the containers enclose internal space and these spaces will be what they will be, divided into two rooms for either two or four beds. Remember, we’re not talking about microflats now, we’re talking about places for people to sleep.

The external end surfaces of the containers define vertical shafts for ladders and landings. The external top and bottom surfaces define sheltered outdoor space. The entire structure provides a variety of spaces and degrees of sunlight and shade at ground level. All of these additional spaces are brought into being by the method of stacking and cost nothing apart from the cost of accessing them.


Stacking containers this way is the sole architectural idea. This proposal uses all of the container surfaces, both inside and out, to enclose spaces of different types and using only one type of container and minimal modifications. The vertical cores also mean that all container rooftops other than the topmost can be used for other purposes such as recreation perhaps or laundry drying (producing an evaporative cooling benefit btw). It is also possible to travel diagonally up and down through the structure although I don’t know what advantage this would have. Nevertheless, possibilities for external spaces and linking them exist for whatever purposes they can be put to.


I like the idea of things building upon other things to make something more meaningful but every monument, including the Pyramids, is also a monument to the people who built it. Whatever dignity and amenity these prefab pyramids might offer construction workers is a small acknowledgement of that.



  • Enjoyed the post. I´m writing from Prague, Czech Republic, where I´ve lived in panelstory buildings — prefabricated buildings that form ramparts along the periphery of the city. A fifth of the Czech population live in these: some deficient, others decadent, some monumental, and others of an intimate scale akin to container buildings.
    The film “Panelstory” (Věra Chytilová, 1979) can be found on YouTube for those studying the subject.

    • Thanks Soc-cc, It’s got nothing to do with panelstory but you might like this if you haven’t seen it already. It’s the most complicated functioning Rube Goldberg machine I’ve ever seen. Legendary. Graham