- Project plans
- Project activities
- Legislation and standards
- Industry context
Last edited 09 Jan 2020
Shipping containers in construction
The containers, sometimes called shipping containers or ISO containers, can carry virtually any product, from furniture to cladding systems, and from steel beams to kitchen utensils. They can be loaded onto trucks, wagons, trains and ships for transport over long distances and can be easily transferred between the various transport modes. All handling is mechanised by fork-lift trucks and cranes.
The current system originated in the aftermath of WW2. The modern container used almost universally today was designed in 1956 by Malcolm Maclean, an American truck businessman. The consequences of this innovation proved to be dramatic on a global scale. Use of the container eliminated the manual sorting involved with most shipments, many dock workers globally were made redundant, while the need for warehousing was vastly reduced.
Containerisation has significantly lowered freight charges and reduced port-handling costs. Today, around 90% of non-bulk cargo is transported on container ships. Containers which can be transported safely, efficiently and more securely over long sea voyages have therefore greatly reduced the cost of international trade, have transformed global logistics and have proved crucial to fuelling the post-WW2 boom. It is said that every manufactured item that is used by consumers spends some time in a container.
- 20ft (6.1m) external length (ext. height = 2.59m; ext. width = 2.44m)
- 40ft (12.2m) external length (ext. height = 2.59m; ext. width = 2.44m)
- An empty 20ft standard container weighs 2,160kg (40ft = 3,750kg).
 Getting bigger
Recent years have seen the introduction of slightly larger sizes: 20ft high cube and 40ft high cube shipping containers which are becoming more popular. They are both 2.9m high and have the same width as the standard units.
The 20ft standard size has become the standard measure not only of containers but also of ships’ cargo capacities. These are cited mostly in the number of twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), or twenty-foot containers that can be carried. In 1968, the first TEU containership (the Japan-registered de Hakone Maru) could carry 752 TEU containers.
 Other uses for containers
In recent years, containers have been used either as single or multiple units to create micro homes and other accommodation. The continuous welded steel sides and top can provide a waterproof structure. They can also be converted to provide new offices, classrooms, mini-restaurants and food stalls, workshops and self-storage units.
Much of this is facilitated by the structural strength and free-standing properties of a shipping container. This allows them to be stacked one on top of another and serviced by added external staircases and landings.
However, it is questionable whether this is a good use of a product that is not intended for habitation. Container units require considerable adaptation to be suitable for occupation, including the installation of windows and doors, ventilation, insulation and so on. Modular buildings which are designed specifically to be occupied might provide a more suitable (although less fashionable) alternative.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Building of the week series.
- Container City
- Hex House project.
- La Hospederia del Errante.
- Modular buildings.
- Plug-In to Housing.
- Unusual building design of the week.
- Urban Rigger.
 External references
- Top 26 innovative uses for shipping containers (Marine Insight)
Featured articles and news
ECA backs call for a rolling programme of rail electrification.
What does 'curtilage' mean and why does it matter?
Our duty to prevent harm and protect each other.
A quality perspective.
If buildings were people, they would be just starting to walk on two legs.
Air filtration and clean air standards.
The Dukes of Normandy and the second world war.
Conserving structures in historic designed landscapes.
Online platform to showcase acoustic solutions.
The drivers of value and how it is measured.
Do you know your Ionic from your Doric?