container yes, container no…

After reading this article about what is wrong with shipping container housing, I was torn.

I completely agree that shipping containers aren’t a magical solution to new cheap building – all the arguments about the real cost of using and adapting shipping containers are very clear and accurate. And I am always suspicious of one-size-fits all solutions in design and construction – most particularly when they come from great visionaries fixing other people’s problems. Every building meant for permanent habitation has a roof and a floor and walls, but the site, the density, the people inside, their dreams and functional needs are always specific. Architects bring much to the table in solving particular housing problems, but they aren’t much good without partners – clients, planners, funders, builders, community organisations.
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As Mark Hogan so clearly states : « housing is not usually a technology problem ». I would probably take out the « usually » myself – technology can be a factor in inadequate housing and in solving housing problems, but access to housing passes though the realms of finance, politics and social infrastructure long before beams get sized.
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But back to shipping containers. I think Hogan’s article cites several things which make containers less-than-ideal for housing. In fact, many of those things led us to use shipping containers in the Mira Bay house as the small rooms, with living and dining housed in a wood structure.

In the case of low-cost housing, the future residents often have a lot on their minds already, so experimental construction must be brought to the table with a grain of salt. Even two grains. Never mind the symbolic value of putting people away in industrial storage boxes.
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In fact it is symbolic value that gives me pause in my rush to list off all the reasons not to build out of shipping containers : people are inspired by shipping container buildings. Something about the lego-like quality of these big boxes leads people to dream about building something themselves. The containers come in a size people can relate to, a set of modules they can arrange and rearrange into interesting shapes. Something about shipping containers turns all of us into architects. There aren’t so very many things in the world of design that engage the general public to think about space in a creative and engaged way. Architecture has to work, but it also has to make us dream.
And if shipping containers make people dream, perhaps they are the beginning of a bigger conversation about all the different pieces we can stack around us to build our world.
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