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Containers hold many surprises in store

Alternative solutions to give new life to the giants of metal.

by Stefano Bevacqua
31 March 2020
4 min read
by Stefano Bevacqua
31 March 2020
4 min read

The authorship of many of the inventions we use in our daily lives is an open-and-shut case. They even take their names from their inventors. Louis de Béchamel with his sauce, so indispensable in any lasagne, the Montgolfier brothers with their hot-air balloon, and László Bíró with his ballpoint pen, are just a few famous examples. But in other cases, the inventors' identity has been a source of controversy for centuries, as with the telephone, disputed over the Atlantic by the ghosts of Antonio Meucci and Alexander Graham Bell. Finally, there are the extraordinary inventions whose authorship is not even clear. That includes those massive steel boxes known as containers, which have revolutionised the way we transport goods. It is said they were invented by Malcom McLean, that most unpredictable and eclectic of American entrepreneurs, but it seems his only real achievement was to come up with a system for speeding up and standardising stowage on ships. He did not come up with containers strictly speaking, the ones we see laid out at great ports or on the back of heavy goods vehicles.

One size fits all

So, given the uncertain parentage of containers, let us begin our history not with their inventor, but with the standard the International Organization for Standardization applied to them in 1967. At that time, there were already a lot of containers floating about, above all in the United States, but there was a problem with them: they were not all the same. Some were wider, lower and longer. The system can only work if every one of the big steel boxes is identical to the other in dimensions, doors and fittings (with the sole exception of containers for planes, which are shaped for different devices and made of light aluminium). Everyone has a code that explains everything about it, from its owner to the type of goods it can hold. They tend to be about 8 feet wide, 8.5 feet high and either 20 or 40 feet long. They weigh between 2 and 2.6 tonnes and can hold up to 28 tonnes of goods.

An alternative reuse

There are estimated to be more than 20 million containers doing the rounds in the world today. They get filled at one end of the world, stamped, transported, cleared at customs and emptied, ready to head off on another journey by lorry, train or ship, to somewhere completely different. You might say that, in terms of the circular economy, containers are a good example of constant reuse. But there are cases, by no means rare, of the circle of reuse being broken. That can be avoided by taking advantage of their most classic feature: the fact they are all the same. They are modular, like children's building blocks. Any old container can be given a new and totally different life, no longer as a huge box travelling the world, but the basic cell of a building. And that is what architects in many countries have been doing for some years now. Cannily reused, they can create hotels, public buildings and houses.

One of the biggest hotel booking websites has come up with a few projects in the name of environmental sustainability. In Nha Trang, in touristy southern Vietnam, it has set up a lively hostel with a dozen four-bed rooms.  Its hotel in Valparaiso, in Chile, is unique in having all its furniture made from recycled material. At Warnemünde, on the German Baltic coast, it has a hostel with single rooms and a sauna, and in Amsterdam it has stacked containers within the frame of a vast harbour crane, abandoned for decades, to make fancy hotel apartments. In London, meanwhile, it has built 26 living spaces, a restaurant, a winery and a sauna.

An hotel realized by unused containers in China

But there are countless examples of containers used for other social functions, aside from youth hostels and luxury hotels. In Guacara, in Venezuela, for example, containers have been used to build a cultural centre and breathe new life into a neighbourhood that would otherwise have been left to decay, with exhibition spaces, music rooms, a theatre and art workshops. Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand, is home to a centre set up by the International Sustainable Developmental Studies Institute to train young people on technology for recovery and reuse. Then there is the nursery in Ibaraki, in Japan, which reused containers destined for the scrapheap and is totally protected from earthquakes. In the northern suburbs of Peking, one gardener has put six containers together to house an eco-friendly commune. A final example of socially sustainable architecture is the 97 abandoned containers used to house staff at the heart surgery centre built by Italian doctors from the Non-governmental organization (NGO) Emergency in the Sudan.