Thinking Inside the Box

As we pursue our fortunes in the Chinese market, one of the questions that always pops into my head is, “How do we get the exhibits there?” The easiest answer is air freight, but while that is the fastest and smoothest route, it’s also the most expensive. The other option is ocean freight, which is markedly cheaper, but also much slower. Shipping schedules are set months in advance, and if your company is running late, they will sail without your load.

Before you try to wrap your head around how we get massive ground forms into a semi, let me reveal a little of the magic behind the curtain. Each structure is built knowing that we will be cutting it into chunks. Chunks that can fit through a double door, ideally. The exhibit is a 3D puzzle that comes together amazingly well. So, we know how to fit an exhibit into limited shipping spaces. Packing a shipping container for an ocean transit isn’t too different from packing a short semi-trailer. You don’t want to waste any space, and you want the weight to be well distributed, since the entire container will be moved by some sort of suspension system in the port.

If you don’t live near a port, you might not know that the vast majority of ocean freight is carried within shipping containers. They show up a lot in thrillers on TV whenever there are dark deeds happening in a port, often stacked three to four high. These corrugated steel boxes come in several sizes, but the most common are the 20’ and 40’ lengths. Most of them are made in China, which makes sense, considering how huge the Chinese export market is. The economics of international freight often makes it more expensive to ship an empty container back to China to reuse it than it is to buy a new container in China. This leads to massive numbers of empty shipping containers accumulating in ports where freight came ashore.

More than ten years ago, architects began using empty shipping containers as building elements, since they have standard dimensions and construction. They have been turned into houses, hotels, emergency housing, exhibition spaces, stores, and buildings on military bases. A secondary market has appeared that pre-fits the new containers as various building elements, which avoids some troubling challenges with using old containers. Since the real containers have to be resistant to the elements (including salt water) and insect attack, they are manufactured with tough coatings on the steel and powerful pesticides in the wooden interior floors. No one wants these chemicals in their work or living spaces, so the containers need a bit of work to make them safe to use.

An art center in Seoul, South Korea.

A store in Zurich, Switzerland, for Freitag, a company that makes bags from old truck tarps.

The ‘greenness’ of using shipping containers, either new or old, in architecture will be debated as the trend grows. Keep your eyes open when in cities with major ports and you might spot one of these boxy creations. Have you been inside a shipping container building?