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The Sinister Brutalism of Shipping Container Architecture (nytimes.com)
56 points by zem 66 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments



I have been following a youtube couple building a shipping container home. It isn't as simple or cheap as you think. You need to deal with rust, sealing floors that have chemicals, cutting out windows, etc... I wonder if they can do that only because they live somewhere with no building regulations.

In contrast to that, our local school additions were a snap. They were prefabs that just needed to be dropped onto slabs.

I think there is a definite hipster trendiness to some uses of containers. It's the typical hype, trough cycle where it's being used in novel ways but also not so good effective ways in other cases.

https://youtu.be/i8qtI15Ntws


>It isn't as simple or cheap as you think. You need to deal with rust, sealing floors that have chemicals, cutting out windows, etc...

And once you're done with that you run into humidity and ventilation issues. There's a reason people generally only use them for storage containers. If you want a building you can occupy there's cheaper and easier ways to do it.


What would be cheaper and easier?


Prefab, modular housing.


AS I recall the paint used on a shipping container is toxic and difficult to remove to make it habitable.


Also, shipping containers are like a soda can, they're built to be very strong, with as little material as possible. If you cut a hole in the side, it dramatically weakens it, so you need a lot of structural reinforcement.


I believe most of the structural strength of a container is in the box frame rather than the skin.


Headline should have been "The sinister brutalism of shipping container architecture". I mean come on. Know your audience.


Agreed. Belatedly changed.


I didn't even realise it was going to be about Edinburgh or Fringe when I read the title, but the first thing that came to mind was the hostel there charging up to 25£ per night to sleep in a shipping container. I just arrived here but don't think I could've handled it when the weather wasn't perfect, especially at 45AUD per night.


OK, maybe shipping containers aren't exactly the modular cheap things we can transform into living spaces...but to imagine it creating a dystopia?


There's a video series of a guy who tried to do this in California in the middle of a desert and his cost went north of $100k. (Paperwork alone was $25k IIRC).

Watching that series reminds you of what a huge bureaucratic nightmare looks like.

Search for "Modern home project" on YouTube.


I almost started a tiny home business. However, during market research, I discovered the biggest problem with tiny homes is zoning laws. That really threw a monkey wrench into my plans.

Have been considering what it would take to get zoning laws preventing tiny homes changed in less popular locales.


You'd probably have better luck subverting existing regulatory infrastructure that closely matches your use-case.

Instead of tiny homes, try thinking within the regulatory box of "classifies as an RV or towed camper". That might allow you to bypass some of the other limitations you were facing.


Exactly. There was a Kirsten Dirksen video showing some cabins built on a piece of property that was zoned (I think) for mobile homes. Voila', they welded some big wheels on the bottom of the structures.

They still seemed poorly laid out with crummy bathrooms (in this case, no piped water and a terlet that was basically an indoor plastic porta-potty) but I did admire the law-skirting.

There can also be avoidance of property taxes in some states I believe.


There are definitely places where this works, which is what I think in part lead to the building of most tiny homes on a wheeled, towable chassis. Of course, that limits you though into building that class of tiny home, and I personally feel that smaller but more permanent tiny homes with a foundation/slab are still a very economical, usable and viable solution.

You're right though, I think the key to making this work without trying to get laws changed is finding the right combination of laws and solution/use case that remains within the regulations. This is definitely doable in certain locales and not in others. If I'm really going to make what I wanted to do work, I will have to find the right balance of factors.

I was so surprised when I started reading zoning rules for plots of land that I was looking at to build a tiny house - some had minimum home size requirements, others had explicitly outlawed the use of any such wheeled dwelling precisely to prevent people from doing what you said. Some of the larger plots of land that were quite inexpensive required a 2,000sqft and up dwelling to be built if they were purchased and used for residential purposes!


Around here, you would try and classify your tiny dwelling as "transportable".

This means having it sitting on, rather than attached to, the ground, and having some "skids" on the piles.


Reminds me of the Tesla tent assembly line.


> Have been considering what it would take to get zoning laws preventing tiny homes changed in less popular locales.

Statewide legislation is probably the way to go. Doing it city by city is a huge slog, and I don't think anything's likely to happen nationwide for a while (but who knows).

Network with like-minded people:

* YIMBY groups in your area

* Strong Towns: https://www.strongtowns.org/


+ Example of such a statewide legislation:

https://www.curbed.com/2019/7/1/20677502/oregon-yimby-single...


I pushed hard for that one... we turned up 5 YIMBYs in our not-so-big town on a Friday morning to talk with our state representative, and had a lot of people put in calls to our state senator - both Republicans who ended up voting in favor.


Around here remodeling projects have less regulation than building a new home. You'll often see a house torn down except for one wall, then a new house is built incorporating that wall. That way it is classified as a "remodel".


I love edge cases like these. I wonder if there's a collection of them somewhere.



I do like Oregon! Thanks for sharing this link, this is good to know.


If it's the house I was watching, the amount of house infrastructure within the house cracked me up. A house in a house, full slab, plus the inevitable California fire suppression system. It wasn't even that cool looking.

But...I really liked the idea of the above ground septic drain field.


For those wondering, here's the first part of the series https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QA5fh29rhLs


I guess it must be because houses are so expensive so people go "what's another $25k?" and costs are allowed to drift upwards? Really crazy that it's that bad.


Yeah, when you look at how slums are usually built, it's hard not seeing containers making things any worse.

Drop a bunch of old containers into a tent city and all of a sudden it's much harder for the authorities to bulldoze.


To be clear: you're suggesting this is an improvement -- bulldozer-proof slums afford utility to the residents?

(I'd tend to agree.)


Oh yes, certainly, thought that was clear.


Christchurch utilised shipping containers for rockfall/ruin collapse protection, (and with modifications of course) temporary offices and accommodation after the 2011 earthquake.

They really filled a gap.



The Sinister Brutality of New York Times Articles on Hacker News


Watched a youtube video of a very capable builder creating a container "home" in Yucca Valley. Total joke.


Was I the only one who nodded in agreement thinking about Docker orchestration woes when reading the title? >:)


Shipping, Container and Architecture are all prominent Software terminology.

In fact, any HN reader who didn't think that should be perma banned ;)


and Brutalist design!


I came here to say the same :) And yes, i insist - it can become a huge unforseen and brutal clusterfuck to manage containers :)


Guilty as charged! :)


So an academic doesn't like reusing industrial machinery for living in. Does he also hate rowhomes? Tokyo apartments? College dorm rooms? A Manhattan studio? There are many places in the world where you get a drab, rectangular living space, with less room than a shipping container, yet people are thankful for it.

Shipping containers may be the answer to what I consider a plague on the average American: minimum-sized homes. You can't live in a tiny home in America, because all homes are regulated to be a minimum size, rooted to a concrete slab, with a bevy of other regulations. So you have to choose between throwing your money away on renting, or buying an overpriced, unnecessarily large home.

A shipping container is small, incredibly strong, and unlikely to fly away under strong winds. They're also modular, which makes them adaptable. And they can be stacked, creating multiple floors without any extra engineering. You could easily expand your home's footprint whenever you could afford it!

For people who just want affordable housing, they're kind of amazing. Who cares if they don't look pretty? Build a facade! We did it in the 1950's with formstone, when people thought brick looked cheap and ugly. Maybe the editor can slap some fake bricks on the outside of the container and call it retro-modern.


> So an academic doesn't like reusing industrial machinery for living in. Does he also hate rowhomes? Tokyo apartments? College dorm rooms? A Manhattan studio?

This isn't an academic's whim. Shipping containers are not designed or adequate for residential use. This does not change if you enumerate other examples of awful living conditions.


Nothing about a shipping container is particularly inadequate for residential use. It's an empty box, exactly like the empty shell of a stick-built American house. You wouldn't live inside a stick frame house just because it has four sides, you have to keep building onto and into it until it's done.


Wood and metal have very different properties with regards to insulation, weather, what it feels like to sit/lean on them, the psychological effects of being in a room made of one for an extended period of time, etc ...

Plus I would wonder what, if any coatings were on the shipping containers, and if they were toxic, and do they degrade over time.

Plus wood is significantly easier to work with.


I'll also throw in the fact that even for some reason you wanted metal, we've also solved the 'make a metal building wherever you want it' fairly well too. It is designed for adding doors, windows, comes in a kit form, and also breathes and can be insulated to have pleasant thermal properties. Even just in $/sqft having rechecked on this idea the price was never so much better than other kinds of buildings that are more suited to be in livable spaces.

Really what I would have wanted to see is people handling disposal of containers and then using the broken down materials to build a structure and/or just being smarter about reclaiming the material, but I haven't seen that come up in passively looking into it.


I think the issue is that people don't trust themselves to build a wooden box with adequate structural integrity.

Shipping containers on the other hand are cheap, easily available and proven.


> I think the issue is that people don't trust themselves to build a wooden box with adequate structural integrity.

Why is that a concern? There are plenty of people who are more than capable of designing and constructing buildings. Even if you need to pay for their expertise, their work costs a fraction of the total building cost.


Exactly like, except for the lack of windows and insulation? Obviously those can be added, but it takes a plasma torch, not a hammer and a saw, unlike traditional building materials.


Also, shipping containers have a lot in common with soda cans: they have been engineered to have adequate physical characteristics within the very constrained parameters they are expected to operate under, and once they are outside that box, well, they're as fragile as soda cans.

For instance, if you try to stack your shipping containers any way but "directly square on top of each other, bordered by other shipping containers", you need to start over from scratch. All of those fancy stacks with one container crossing or bridging another come with lots of additional structural engineering to create the impression of whimsy. Or if you cut a big hole in one side of a shipping container to create a nice big picture window, whoops, you've destroyed the integrity of the container. Or you try to stack too much weight in the center of the top of the container, and no, that doesn't work either because the weight is supposed to be transmitted through the corners and sides.


You can both insulate shipping containers and cut windows into them.


> You can both insulate shipping containers and cut windows into them.

You can do that to anything, even cardboard boxes taken out of the dumpster. That doesn't mean they are adequate living spaces.


You don't need a plasma cutter. If you're patient and noise-tolerant, an angle grinder, reciprocating saw, or even a circular saw (with proper blades) will do the job.

If you do want to use a plasma cutter (which I admit would be a more pleasant way of doing the job), you can rent a good one for a couple of hundred bucks a week, or buy a crap one at Lowes or Home Depot for $200-300.


I prefer to think of it as “carbon sequestering” rather than “stick built.”


> And they can be stacked, creating multiple floors without any extra engineering.

Unless you want windows, or a staircase between your floors... Now you're cutting holes in the thing and you've lost your stackability guarantee. Better call the engineer after all.


You are missing the fact that shipping containers are built for shipping and are reusable. They are not things that we have a surplus of and are abandoned, with no use. If you want to use a container that is not adequate for shipping to live in, you are crazy. If you take a good one out of the shipping pool, this means a brand new one will be built as replacement. At no point in a shipping container life it is good for the environment.

Arguing that shipping containers are the solution for the housing problem is like arguing frozen steaks are the best way to get a patient temperature down.




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