I had the great pleasure this past weekend of being invited to a little town outside of Seattle, where I witnessed the work-in-progress prototype of Cargotecture’s Studio 320. Had I arrived by chance in the industrial neighborhood to which my directions guided me, I might not have noticed the faded yellow and orange cargo containers that sat at the back of a large, mostly vacant parking lot. They were barely discernable from the backdrop of discarded industrial material. But closer inspection revealed that something surprising was afoot. These two metal boxes are the seed of an ingenious plan by two Seattle architects to turn old shipping containers into sustainable modular dwellings.

On the spectrum of old to new ways of designing sustainably, Robert Humble and Joel Egan pretty much span the gamut with Cargotecture. They are reusing and recycling post-industrial waste, installing new, eco-friendly systems and materials, and presenting it anew for residential habitation, complete with solar panels, smart walls and rainwater collection.

Studio 320 is just one of a group of designs using cargo containers. This prototype is a scant 320-sq-ft, with a thoughtfully-packed bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and great room. The idea is to create a “box within a box” – the exterior being metal and the interior mostly plywood. I was privy this weekend to the insulation process, where they prepared to fill the space between the two boxes. The insulation was being installed by Progressive Insulation, who use a polyurethane spray foam that is non-toxic, produces no off-gasses and claims to offer energy savings over standard insulation. The process essentially turns the whole container into a thermos. Sound too hot for summer? Later in the design process, one whole wall will be turned into a sliding glass panel, and windows cut to permit true indoor-outdoor living during the warmer months.

This prototype is the forerunner of a whole colony of cargo houses called Cargotown, which is the brainchild of Humble, Egan, and a squadron of others who formed a group called Team HyBrid in 2003. Team HyBrid has proposed a multi-tiered, super-low-impact development plan for one of Seattle’s ports, which would include Cargotown, as well as community spaces and habitat restoration projects. They also designed a Mobile Triage Unit for use by Doctors Without Borders in developing countries where housing and healthcare are acutely needed.

These guys are covering all the bases, from post-industrial re-use to sustainable technology, from humanitarian aid to modern urban cool. And if that’s not enough, they plan to offer up free online DIY instructions on building a cargo dwelling yourself. Needless to say, my little field trip to their site sparked tremendous inspiration and admiration. I hope to offer you all a longer interview with these two visionary architects in the weeks to come.



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  1. Inhabitat » PREFA... June 8, 2007 at 5:25 am

    […] at Inhabitat before — from Lot-Ek’s altered and extruded prefab container houses, to Cargotecture’s Studio 320 and emergency housing. Clearly, we love the idea of using recycled industrial surplus as the […]

  2. Sarah February 8, 2006 at 4:31 am

    Hi, Loran

    You will notice that there are many links to Cargotecture’s own website in the article. If you visit that site, you’ll find all the contact info you need.

  3. Loran Parker February 8, 2006 at 3:13 am

    agian if this idea is real why is there no posted phone number or contact info?

  4. Loran Parker February 8, 2006 at 3:11 am

    would like to buy one of these, any answer as to who to get a hold of.

  5. Matt Kull January 20, 2006 at 3:29 pm

    CARGOTECTURE is an interesting concept but hardly new. People who have spent time in East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Rawanda) know that old cargo containers make great residences, shops, restaurants, and hotels. I spent time living in a Maasai village (nearly two days tavel from the nearest town) that had a coffee shop, grocery store, and food distribution center made entirely of cargo containers.

  6. angela January 16, 2006 at 6:42 pm

    we (me+2kids)love them we may just mite get the money 4 one it still long shot but we hoping without this theres NO WAY we would get the money so thank-you for the hope

  7. tom king January 5, 2006 at 8:27 pm

    what a great way to get housing and medical help to people–a container could be set up as a portable hospital–dental lab…please keep thinking

  8. The Violet December 26, 2005 at 2:49 am

    Great usage. If you don’t like them….don’t use them. I don’t like vinyl siding….so I don’t use it.

    underworldimage studio

    The Violet

  9. will foster December 25, 2005 at 6:05 pm

    have a look at our website it might interest you about the use of storage containers.

  10. James Shaw December 11, 2005 at 5:28 pm

    For anyone interested LOT-EK have produced various interesting designs for a dwelling units within shipping containers, that are well worth a look.

  11. Ryan Iwanicha December 2, 2005 at 4:46 am

    I love the idea… Infact its almost exactly like one of my own. When at Cal Poly’s Architecture Finals I was inspired by a project a student had. The idea was none other than to build a simple home out of storage containers. I did some research and found that people in many parts of the world actually use them for housing. I started to play with things a little on formZ and came up with a final design I thought suitable for use one day. My brother informed me about the two architects using the idea and I had to check it out. I think it’s a great project and an even better idea and I’d love to see the photos of the finished project…

  12. Name Withheld November 26, 2005 at 4:24 am

    As a Seattle Longshoreman, I am intimately familiar with intermodal shipping containers used for their intended purpose. While a container may occasionally be repurposed as a makeshift tool-shed on the docks, I remain skeptical that this idea could be extended to human shelter without serious drawbacks. Most importantly, a container’s past as a tool of heavy industry makes the possibility of toxic biological and/or chemical contamination a very real and frightening risk to the well-being of the container?s new inhabitants. Please take care when working with used containers. They are often used to transport some nasty stuff.

  13. P. Vale November 24, 2005 at 9:58 pm

    OK ppl,
    I’m in South Dakota, working my ass off for a sub-standard wage, have a piece of land, and about $20,000 to build something on it. If shipping containers are such a bad idea, got any better ones? I think the idea is novel, and do-able. The only thing I might do in this climate, is not to bury them, but cut out the side of a hill, and shelter them from the North wind. Your site really doesn’t give a lot of details, such as what R-value the sprayed-in insulation gives you. I am interested very much and very open-minded about alternative shelters such as this.

  14. Jim Wack November 23, 2005 at 4:37 pm

    I believe these containers can and do make effective basic building blocks for a variety of permanent buildings, including residential housing, emergency shelters, storage buildings, etc. I’m interested in the outcome of your concept for an entire community or neighborhood of these units. Have you or others developed standardized structural guidlines with regard to stacking, acceptable opening sizes and placement, roof bearing, etc.? I have been sketching a variety of building concepts using these units, but need to further investigate how to transfer structural loads when removing large sections of the corrugated sidewalls, or setting trusses on top. Thanks.

  15. Joel Egan November 20, 2005 at 7:40 am

    As the Joel Egan who is building Cargotecture Studio 320, I appreciate the feedback from everyone here.

    Here is my extended response to your welcome comments:

    Our art-and-architecture team HyBrid has not only created a concept for our cargotecture, we are Building it.

    (It is important to note that we remove the adjacent long walls to create spaces which break out of the shipping module; this provides spatial opportunity but is a building system challenge.)

    As others have said here, it is creative housing with minimal care and it reuses something in surplus. It is also a new Liberty Ship filled with its new cargo of ideas.

    Our team has spent several years researching the way to do this environmentally, modularly, and in a high-tech way. We call this green/mod/tech (see our slideshow link at the end of this post.)

    The HyBrid concept of green/mod/tech lends itself to use in both high design and humanistic design…we simply cannot limit ourselves to the compartment of one or the other, as the ideals are a panopoly of common sense that spans many human needs.

    From our research we have found that emergency shelters are a good idea, but one that the charity community is sometimes hesitant about. Also, refrigerated containers are a bad idea because they often smell like fish, the insulation still off-gasses, and the retired ones are super-damaged from a life on the road. Other good concepts mentioned are a phone services container, which is part of our plan for a services “out-box,” which is a small service companion to house solar panels & equipment, maintenance tools for the green machine septic, satellite components, and general shed storage.

    In response to the fast critics’ determination that we use the containers because they exist, I would say ‘of course’. But that is truly a fraction of the appeal: Once built, cargotecture can return to the seas, traveling intact to anywhere on the globe, where they can remain off-the-grid.

    People have emotional reactions to the cargo container. We see it as a symbol of interconnectedness in our new global age, which I define as the ability to wake up in the morning and communicate directly with one of six billion other people.

    To infuse sustainability on this ready-made platform for export to humanity is an incredible opportunity for us. To take advantage of high-tech, in terms of human interconnection and complex sustainability machines like solar panels, to appeal to the natural human interest for affordable, durably modern design…well, all these things are responsible, and never arbitrary or ‘crafty’.

    When the fast critics say, “people have been thinking about this stuff for years, therefore it’s passe”, as I have heard for a while, I want to ask, “how often have you seen a version of green/mod/tech cargotecture built?”. I feel that the world still waiting for an affordable off-the-grid contemporary globetrotter…and will be waiting for another six weeks or so.

    By the way, people have been building shelter into cargo containers since MacLean introduced them in the 50’s- that is no more new then just thinking about it, or drawing them in design competitions. To the Fast Critic, congratulations on just thinking about cargo container architecture, or sketching their infinite possibilities, but just because you haven’t followed through to building and inhabiting this idea does not mean the concept is passe; it’s just been unrealized for a while because it takes time to develop and detail a building system from scratch.

    The fact is that it is taking a tremendous amount of effort and resources to do it right the first time, but once it’s done right, it’s done. And then we’ll share with you how we did it.

    I appreciate all further feedback here and I look forward to reaching you the reader through Sarah’s next article. In the mean time please learn our team philosophy at our slideshow

    All the best,

    Joel Egan

  16. loulak November 18, 2005 at 8:38 pm

    This idea HAS been around for a decade yes, I worked on a competition entry for radon prevention many moons ago utilizing shipping containers, recycled telephone poles and courtyard arrangements. If our concerns and focus extend beyond ‘high fallooting design’ include the environment, waste, and the less fortunate, this one is a no-brainer. Perhaps some pro-active thinking would be to work out a way TO modify them easily. I do believe the refrigeration containers come insulated. The idea keeps coming around because it IS a good one, and shouldn’t be overlooked especially as they are EASILY adaptable as shelter and for some SHELTER=HOME.

  17. DUCK November 18, 2005 at 3:20 am

    I’ve got to agree with the last post above me; these should make pretty effective emergency shelters. The problem is they seem naturally suited to climates where heating is the main concern: its a whole lot easier to heat a metal box than to cool it, and natural disasters are a much bigger problem in warmer regions. (Avalanches don’t disposition that many people) I wouldn’t even bother installing an inverter in such a shelter though, as it would only encourage power sucking, and the temporary inhabitants may destroy the electrical system out of ignorance (plus ac will electrocute you much more easily). All you need is the LED lights (non white if you want super-effiecent :) ) a small dc powered radio with emergency station reception, and possibly some form of outbound communication support like a dc cellular phone charger or, even better, a land line to a phone service container brought with the cargo-community. (a basic phone would be installed in each container or in public phone crates)

  18. richard attenborough November 18, 2005 at 12:25 am

    I think the best use of these would be as emergency shelters. How many people running from Katrina could have used one of these as a metal “tent”. Add a small solar panel on top, a deep cycle battery, a cheap inverter and some LED lighting and you have a livible, nearly indestructable room. Offset the boxes from each other and you could string canvas between them to provide additional room. If we have them and they are not being used, then lets use em!

  19. inox November 17, 2005 at 5:36 am

    i love this idea
    think about it ppl, we ship these things everywere and their are stock piles of them just sitting taking up space.
    we take those stockpiles and divide them out we could provide cheap and effective housing for millions of the homeless all over the world.

    personally i like them and think that their could be infinate creative uses for them like housind becuase they are metal they will last forever with minimal care, never be bothered by harmful insects eating the wood, and can have ac, power, heating and insulation installed cheaply and effectivly.

  20. James Bucknam November 16, 2005 at 5:57 pm

    If I see another shipping container used for habitation, I’m going to puke. This idea has been around for more than a decade, and it’s still not a good one.

  21. Darren November 15, 2005 at 10:49 pm

    Great post. There are some less elaborate cargo dwellings in the SF Bay Area, at an artist studio and live/work compound called the Shipyard.

    From the site: “The Shipyard is a collaborative build space for large-scale mechanical, kinetic and electronic artwork. With 27 shipping containers arrayed around the perimenter of a 11,000 sq ft outdoor lot, the Shipyard provides a flexible space to create ambitious large-scale art and technology projects- projects that are often difficult to realize in typical indoor warehouse spaces.” The site also has some measured drawings.

  22. Serge de Gheldere November 15, 2005 at 9:14 pm

    I think it’s cute. I also think it’s a really bad idea. Why use containers ? Because they exist ? There must be better uses for post consumer containers than trying to make housing of them. Containers for housing purposes are heavy; of akward proportions; not insulated; high in energy density; hard to modify and to work with; non breathable; not nicely wearing…

    Hmmm… as much as I like so many of the fab prefab concept presented here, I think this one does only reinforce the idea of sustainable product design as being crafty and not ready for mainstream adoption.


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