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Shipping containers for a sustainable habitat perspective

  • G. Abrasheva (a1), D. Senk (a1) and R. Häußling (a2)


Shipping containers have many names: cargo containers, sea cans, metal boxes, freight containers. Originally they were constructed, as the name reveals, “to contain” and store items and mainly to transport goods. Freight containers are built to strict international quality standards, to survive harsh treatment and a violent life in the marine environment 1. The main technical details regarding containers were specified in an ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standard in January 1968 2. The history of the shipping container starts like any other invention with a simple thought. It takes Malcom McLean, father of the shipping container, over 20 years to realize his revolutionary idea for the shipping industry and create a closed transport chain of universal freight container for ships, trucks and trains 3. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that shipping containers have laid the foundation for globalization and changed the world. Over 95% of the worldwide trade affairs are winded up in containers. Today, international freight transportation is no longer conceivable without containerization. There are approx. 28 million containers circulating the globe. In the last couple of years up to 3 billion TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit) shipping containers were produced annually, mainly in Asia 4. Most of the freight containers are made out of COR-TEN-Steel, which ensures strong carrying and loading capacity and supports withstanding deformations or corrosion. Once they have served their purpose, shipping containers are being recycled as scrap. Another possibility is to be used in the architecture as spatial modules. A container’s life is ca.12 years and every year up to 1.5 billion TEU are considered disused. The continued availability of shipping containers as a building block is thus assured. Therefore, the construction business with containers has a great potential regarding sustainability. In the last 15 years shipping container construction has become popular for not only living spaces and homes, but for offices, studios, schools – the variety of uses is huge. Containers offer suitable solutions for a wide range of uses. The increasing interest in these “icons of globalization” can be explained with the fact, that they are relatively inexpensive, structurally sound and in abundant supply 6. Using old freight containers could be seen as an environmental protection strategy and also as a redesign of technical artefacts. Building with shipping containers is a new more affordable method of construction and design. Due to metamorphose in functionality and meaning of containers – from a cargo box into a habitable space – we realize how big the technical range of diversity is. Technique reaches and changes the “Social” through design. The imprecise term design, which has become a vogue term nowadays, is the interface between technique, body, mind and communication 5. Designed objects are always also symbolic objects for different milieus; design has an effect on awareness raising, thus on environmental awareness. An ongoing project at RWTH Aachen University gives attention exactly to those disused shipping containers, their eventuality and boundary as environmental protection strategies in the living area, as well as to the well-known cleavage between environmental awareness and environmental behaviour. The project focuses on the living situation in Germany and its potential for such new and innovative living concepts.



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[1] P. Sawyers, Intermodal shipping containers small steel buildings, Library of Congress, U.S. 2008, published by Paul Sawyers, P. 9
[2], called on 03.03.2012
[3] H. Slawik, Container Atlas, A practical guide to container architecture, Berlin, 2010
[4] Das Container-Kompendium : Fragen und Antworten zu Containern, Containermarkt und Containern als Kapitalanlage; Buss Capital Hamburg,
[5] Projects utilizing shipping containers until 2006 :
[6] R. Häußling, Zum Design(begriff) der Netzwerkgesellschaft, Design als zentrales Element der Identitätsformation in Netzwerken, in : Rationale Soziologie, 2010
[7] M. Levinson, The Box, How shipping container made the world smaller and the world economy bigger, Princeton University Press, 2006
[8] D. Baecker, Wozu Systeme?, Kadamos, Berlin 2002
[9] Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und Reaktorsicherheit, Umweltbewusstsein in Deutschland 2010, Ergebnisse einer repräsentativen Bevölkerungsumfrage, 2010
[10] Wippermann, Carsten; Flaig, Bretold Bodo; Calmbach, Marc; Sinus Sociovision GmbH; Kleinhückelkotten, Silke; ECOLOG-Institut für sozial-ökologische Forschung und Bildung GmbH : Umweltbewusstsein und Umweltverhalten der sozialen Milieus in Deutschland, Umweltbundesamt, 2009
[11] Senk, Dieter (Editor), 24. Aachener Stahlkolloquium Metallurgie, Rohstoffe-Werkstoffe-Gesellschaft, 17-18 September, 2009
[12] On-going projects utilizing shipping containers :


Shipping containers for a sustainable habitat perspective

  • G. Abrasheva (a1), D. Senk (a1) and R. Häußling (a2)


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