The Cargotecture movement

Upcycled shipping containers are the new trend in prefab architecture. Take a peek at 8 of the West's most innovative applications

Architectural innovation

Photo by Jack Parsons Photography

Architectural innovation

Architect Paul Rudolph once called the mobile home the 20th century brick; the shipping container may well be taking its place in the twenty-first. Like heavy Legos, shipping containers made of steel or aluminum can be used as an inexpensive, and stronger than average, building block. Resistant to such forces as hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes, containers are naturally suited to such humanitarian projects as post-disaster housing and community centers but their versatility has also captured the imagination of designers and architects worldwide who’ve used them for everything from highrises to rustic cabins. In fact, there are enough cool container structures around to constitute a movement: some call it Cargotecture.

Boucher Grygier residence

Photo courtesy of Leger Wanaselja Architecture

Boucher Grygier Residence

Leger Wanaselia Architecture
Berkeley, CA

“There is so much high-quality waste in our society.” says Cate Leger, principal of Leger Wanaselja Architects, a firm which has long been fascinated with reuse. “Shipping containers are an excellent example.“ Using them as a building material is a cost effective way to build a house with a very low environmental footprint—this light-filled residence in Berkeley, CA is one great example.

Seatrain house

Photo courtesy of Office of Mobile Design

Seatrain House

Office of Mobile Design
Los Angeles, CA

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, right? That’s what designer Jennifer Siegal did when a client asked her to build on the site of a former junkyard in downtown Los Angeles. Where most would have carted everything away, Siegal salvaged containers and other materials from the site, then integrated them seamlessly into this bold, modern home.

c320 Studio

Photo by Lara Swimmer

c320 Studio

HyBrid Architecture
Aberdeen, WA

HyBrid Architecture has a crush on the container, using it for everything from backyard studios to Cargotown, a design scheme they’ve proposed for Seattle’s new waterfront. The c320 Studio was commissioned in 2005 by the owner of an organic farm in the Pacific Northwest. HyBrid designed this 320-square-foot retreat for the property’s most scenic corner, providing a sort of escape without leaving town. The architects thought the installation would take about ten hours, says HyBrid principal Robert Humble, but “it actually took about three hours, and then everyone had lunch and enjoyed the new home around us!”

Green Roof Shelters

Photo by Lisa Lee Benjamin

Green Roof Shelters

Lisa Lee Benjamin & John Little (Urban Hedgerow)

A collaboration between San Francisco’s Lisa Lee Benjamin and “a team of inventive, kooky Brits,” Green Roof Shelters explores what is possible to create from our existing resources. This prototype is one of a planned series of designed habitats made expressly for insects and birds.

Siegal Residence

Photo by Marvin Rand

Siegal Residence

Office of Mobile Design
Venice, CA

It’s fitting that the author of Mobile and More Mobile would embrace trailers and shipping containers in her work. Designer Jennifer Siegal, well-known for her inventive prefab and portable structures, craned a drop-frame trailer into her Venice backyard to create this beautiful backyard addition. ”Their mass production quality,” she explains, “can easily be customized to endless situations.”

Boy Scout Cabin

Photo courtesy of Gensler

Boy Scout Cabin

Gensler Architects
Catalina Island, CA

As reliable as a troop of Boy Scouts, shipping containers were the perfect building block for the eco-cabins Gensler designed for them. As architect Richard Hammond explains, “What we liked about containers we kept, what we didn’t like we changed.” Cheap, readily available and incredibly sustainable, Gensler’s cabins lay lightly on the land and are a fun and comfy teaching tool for the scouts they stylishly shelter.

Tim Palen Studio at Shadow Mountain

Photo by Jack Parsons Photography

Tim Palen Studio at Shadow Mountain

Eco Tech
Joshua Tree, CA

A proponent of green design since the early days of the solar movement, architect Walter Scott Perry has always incorporated the idea of reusing and repurposing materials into his design philosophy. The container, says Perry, “represents a great opportunity to create sustainable, low-cost and aesthetically attractive housing that can be shipped easily and quickly anywhere in the world.” This dramatic residence in Joshua Tree, the first repurposed container home permitted and built in the Mojave Desert, is one great example.

BL Office

Photo courtesy of building Lab

building Lab Office

building Lab inc
Oakland, CA

Stephen Shoup’s sleek backyard office is all about reuse. In addition to the metal shipping container that once sat at the Port of Oakland, the resourceful architect also used a discarded freezer, a door acquired from a salvage yard, and made a window from a former sliding door. The interior embraces sustainability as well with such green features interior walls clad with reclaimed fir and a rooftop solar hot-water system to heat the space.

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