Around the world, steel shipping containers are being converted into new uses far from anything as simple as holding cargo. In Toronto, a shipping container now houses a portable boutique. In China, they’re being transformed into offices and showrooms; in Columbia, they’ve become solar-powered learning labs; and in Copenhagen, they’re used as floating dorms. They’re popping up as hostels, shopping malls, coffee shops, community creative spaces, and cafes.
The upcycling of shipping containers is such a hot trend in prefab architecture, the movement even has a name: Cargotecture. As Allison Arieff explained in Sunset, “[S]hipping containers made of steel or aluminum can be used as an inexpensive, and stronger than average, building block[s]. 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 high rises to rustic cabins.”
In Minneapolis, Shane Schaaf is making his own foray into Cargotecture with BlackBox Container Studios. The owner of Earthscape Stoneworks, Schaaf just completed his first project for BlackBox: the Nordic Bungalow, made from two shipping containers. We talked with him about the appeal of steel boxes and his transformation of them into a home.
Why shipping containers?
About 10 or 12 years ago, my grandmother told me about a shipping container converted into some kind of living space in the White Mountains of Arizona, where we also have some property. Then, about seven years ago, I was working on a project in Arizona and went on a house tour that included a home built out of a shipping container. I found the application of shipping containers was pretty much well trusted by architects and designers, primarily in European countries. I figured they would be a great way to bring a solution to a lot of people’s requests for an accessory dwelling unit, remote cabin, hunting shack, or satellite cabin to an existing cabin—a situation where you need some kind of protection and living space at the same time.
What kind of containers have you used?
We specifically use new single-use shipping containers made of corten steel. The containers are shipped here full of goods, then they stay here. In the last year, our work was primarily about perfecting our modules, and understanding the ins and outs of container living. We put a lot of care into the process, to know we have most efficient system to do this.
Tell us how you convert two containers into the Nordic Bungalow.
It’s like a one-room hotel suite. The transformation was easy, because we’ve developed a system to construct them efficiently. The containers are delivered to the site, and we fasten them together with 10-ton container clamps with 1-inch industrial rubber gasket seals so they become one unit. We remove the inner connecting wall, and insulate the structure with fireproof and water-resistant materials. We then frame the inside. The ceilings and floors are reclaimed wood. The electrical system connects to a generator or solar panel set up. We put in concrete countertops and sinks, and natural stone and tile details. There’s no limit to the number of windows you can put in. When you shut it up, the structure looks like two shipping containers. It’s really secure.
You’ve been doing all the home and remodeling shows in town. What kind of interest have people shown?
They’re primarily interested in the potential for shipping containers to become cabins and accessory cabins. People want a modern and secure solution. And the containers can also double as storage for recreational vehicles while the owners are gone. They’re also tremendously strong: The shipping container is an engineered shell designed to stack on ocean ships. So they offer a way more secure solution than a wood structure, especially when it comes to falling trees or tornadoes.
by Camille Lefevre