Ticky Tacky Boxes

Photo: Hamish Reid.

Containers, skyscrapers, and Stewart Brand.

I read Stewart Brand’s “How Buildings Learn” a decade or two ago now, and while I’m a fan of most of the ideas in that book, one thing always struck me as weirdly off: his advocacy of shipping containers as the basis for modular home and office construction.

I know from first-hand experience that while containers can be strong, durable, and stackable, and they’re ubiquitous (especially here where I live in Industrial East Oakland), in their natural state they’re also cramped, noisy, dark, dirty, hot as hell in summer, and cold as hell in winter. They’re just not made to be lived in — you have to do extensive (read: expensive) work on them to stop inhabitants from feeling that they’re in, well, a narrow, airless, windowless metal shipping container with doors that only lock from the outside.

You’ve got to cut through (non-flat) steel walls to put in windows (and maybe doors). That’s a lot harder than putting windows or doors into a wood frame house — it requires some semi-skilled metalwork. And if you want to join containers together horizontally or vertically with through-access, you’ve got more metalwork.

And once you’ve finished that, each container is still effectively a narrow tunnel with a low ceiling. You want insulation and false floors and a ceiling (all that plumbing and wiring has to go somewhere)? If you’ve started with a standard 40' (12m) container, you’ve got a maximum of 7'9" (2.4m) to play with vertically, and slightly-less horizontally — before adding interior insulation or ceilings or flooring. In my experience, most people perceive a ceiling that low and space that narrow as cramped for anything other than a small bedroom or maybe a bathroom. It might make some people feel cozy; it will probably make others feel oppressed. Yes, the plus-size high-cube container will give you one foot (30cm) more headroom, but those are non-standard in UnAmerica, and not that common here either.

And containers rust, too, without adequate maintenance. And unless you start with a new container, you’re probably going to have to do a lot of cleaning and / or toxic chemical remediation. Which sort of negates one of the supposed advantages of containers as housing — the ability to get used containers cheaply.

All of that said, containers might be a good temporary construction solution for the homeless (temporary or not), or as nice second homes for the well-off slumming it in supposedly eco-friendly housing for their summer vacations; and they do make wonderful hipster lifestyle accessories. After all, almost any home is better than being homeless, right? (Not always, no). And who doesn’t want to live in the ultimate lifestyle accessory house? (Me). But it seemed a pretty limited market to me, and I thought Brand was just being typically provocative and contrarian, and left it at that. Even in Oakland I didn’t expect to see too many non-hipster container homes sprout up, and I haven’t.

And then a few days ago I stumbled across this from mid-2015:

It’s an award-winning proposal to stack containers into highrises. I hadn’t thought of that — mostly because it doesn’t really work without a lot of expensive structural and service helper elements. Plus it has all the issues described above, magnified by scale. But it’s a serious proposal, and I started thinking, well, why not? Have I missed the point completely?

Probably, but maybe not. A bit more browsing led me to this:

Yes, it says everything I just said, and more, but the author of that piece is at least a real architect. The money shot for me — which says it all — is this paragraph:

What you get with a container is cheap structure, if you can use the box-basically as-is. As soon as you remove anything (including the ends) you need to hire welders and buy steel. Architecture is more than structure though and structure on its own is not particularly expensive- especially when you are building a space as small as a shipping container, so the savings here are minimal. Relatively untrained people can build a room that size of simple wood framing in a day without needing to rent a crane or learning how to weld for about the same cost (or less) than buying a used container.

It still seems to me, though, that (stripped of all the hype and lifestyle-accessory bullshit) they could still be reasonable temporary housing, and I know they can make OK offices (they can’t be any worse than some of the offices I’ve worked in over the years). But are they any better for housing than the whole Tiny House thing? (They can’t be much worse — there’s a reason “A Room Of One’s Own” is a classic).

I still don’t expect to see containers-as-homes sprouting up all over Oakland, but as an example of the worst you can do, they’re probably a good spur to innovation.