The old adage ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’ has engrained the innate desire for home ownership
into the centre of the British psyche. It has seen unsustainable developments spring up all over the country, creating hordes of identical soulless housing estates where lush green fields once were. These
developments built from generic nationwide blueprints and corporate design templates show little
appreciation of site specific design aesthetics, detailed infrastructure needs and environmental factors in
favour of a quick fix wholesale solution which, granted, is needed, however in the long term is a detrimental approach, putting profit before ethics. Hence the search for a rapid, sympathetic and cost effective
modular building system is all the more pressing.


QED Social Housing Prototype (QED Property, 2015)

The use of shipping containers as accommodation is progressively taking the world by storm, from the most basic use as storage all the way through to palatial pads, there is something for everyone. The attractiveness of these steel beauties is their ability to instantly provide accommodation on site simply by connecting the services. Shipping containers have come a long way from the days as site offices and welfare facilities, they are no longer the ‘Ugly Duckling’ they used to be perceived as, and their metamorphosis into the latest and most multifunctional modular building system is well overdue!

Shipping containers for those who haven’t been acquainted with these imposing 2.5 tonne chunks of steel (20ft Containers) were designed around their stackability for carrying loads on ships across the world’s oceans. The weight of the container and its cargo is distributed through point-loading into the corner castings so the structural stability of the unit is dependent on these four corner points. The corrugation on the side of the containers acts as support for the structure and prevents lateral twisting of the steel frame when it is loaded 8+ high on ships. Containers are an 8ft standard width but many lengths are available, 20ft and 40ft being the most widely used and therefore commonly available.

As sad as it sounds, when you work around containers, many a road-trip is spent playing the exciting game of ‘Container I Spy’!

We have seen a massive rise of individual bespoke permanent housing being constructed using containers, significantly on the TV programme, Grand Designs, architect Patrick Bradley created a draw-dropping cantilevered cruciform home overlooking fields and a stream out of four shipping containers; inspired by Falling Water, the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright designed house, on his family farm in Northern Island. The upside for Patrick Bradley after the project was completed was not only a beautiful home but the sheer volume of letters he received, not only from prospective clients but from the fairer sex - let it not be said that getting involved with containers can’t help your love life!

Grillagh Water House (Belfast Telegraph, 2015)

In this project, by stacking the containers as a cantilevered cruciform and welding them together; although very attractive, a lot of steel reinforcement work is required to redistribute the weight of the top containers through the corner castings. Therefore the danger you face when designing using containers is the conflict between design and cost as not considering the innate constraints of containers underutilises the building block increasing the build cost compared to conventional build methods and therefore negating the use of containers when budget is the driving factor over design. In this design permanency was required but containers do offer great scope as semi-permanent homes also, a design that allows for expansion and contraction of space for families, giving fluidity over the course of the building lifecycle means that you would no longer have to move house but could merely add the extra space that you require and remove it when you no longer do; a far cry from the upsizing and downsizing conundrum that many families face.

In other projects, containers are used to create the structural frame that loading is directed through, Danish architects Arcgency, uses containers as a proprietary prefabricated structure in combination with roof, floor and wall components to create a re-deployable open plan living space in their semi-permanent WFH House, by creating an open plan living ‘FLEX space’ between the containers, overcoming the dimensional restrictions of containers for modern convenience.

WFH House (Arcgency, 2012)

The modular roof and wall system used in the WFH House conceals containers behind its sleek timber cladding, allowing for a unique property with all the modern conveniences. The beauty of the design is that all serviced points e.g. kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms and utility/plant rooms remain within the containers and therefore can be fabricated and prefinished offsite; the perfect ‘plug and play’ set up once on site, allowing for ease of deployment and potential redeployment down the line.

In retrospect, containers are more flexible than their simple frame suggests, they offer extensive options for accommodation projects, whether this is as a permanent or semi-permanent structure. Into the future, the need for land will become even more of an issue and therefore the potential is huge for the rise of re-deployable homes that don’t mar the land, cater for the design conscious by embodying the 21st century zeitgeist building block – the repurposed shipping container.

Could this be the end of conventional building methods? We certainly think so!



Arcgency, (2012).WFH House. [image] Available at: [Accessed 5 Feb. 2016].

Belfast Telegraph, (2015). [image] Available at: [Accessed 5 Feb. 2016].