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by Timothy Hoelzle

How many times have we heard the phrase “think outside the box”? In the past decade, it has taken on a whole new meaning.

Shipping containers can be found around the globe serving a variety of unconventional functions such as classrooms, homes, offices, recreational spaces, and even cities! There is an excess of empty shipping containers worldwide as it’s cheaper to manufacture new containers than ship them back to be reused. This surplus has led to some very unique opportunities and innovative solutions repurposing shipping containers.

Residential and office spaces are a favorite application of revitalized shipping containers. A London based company, Urban Space Management, created Container City™, a multi-use space at the Trinity Buoy Wharf. Residential uses range from prefabricated homes to luxurious desert escapes. Adam Kalkin conceived the Quik House a unique prefabricated kit house. With three bedrooms and 1.5 baths it’s spacious and is ready in only three months! Adding solar and wind energy or a greenroof makes this 75% recycled house even more eco-friendly. But don’t wait too long to order yours, there is a six month waiting list! Ecotechbuild constructed a luxury eco-home in the Mojave Desert, complete with a solar home shading system, water conservation system, and a living roof to absorb the desert heat. Shipping container hotels can be found across the globe. Travelodge opened Europe’s first shipping container hotel in 2008 and Snoozebox, a portable container hotel, is accommodating some of the 2012 Olympic personnel.

Even multi-national businesses have embraced the sustainable designs. Puma City designed by Lot-Ek Architecture, is a portable, 11,000 square foot, tri-level retail and event space constructed out of 24 shipping containers. Starbucks has also joined the sustainable design movement converting four containers previously used to ship tea and coffee into a full service drive-thru coffee shop in Tukwila, Washington. Italian coffee giant, Illy, teamed with Adam Kalkin to create a shipping container café that transforms from a container into a luxurious, portable café in just 90 seconds. Sun Microsystems’ Project Blackbox, a portable datacenter, provides an innovative solution to data needs across the world and beyond.

Incorporating shipping vessels into public and recreational spaces has been a major success. Artist Gregory Colbert developed The Nomadic Museum, a traveling museum constructed out of 156 shipping containers that can be transported and assembled in ports around the world (See number 7 of the Top 10 Cool Uses for Shipping Containers).

Shipping container pools have arisen on both sides of the country. The Brooklyn Bridge Pop-Up Pool and Beach opened in July 2012, giving New Yorkers a fun and unique way to beat the scorching summer heat. Taxi, a mixed-use, sustainable community in Denver and home to Great Ecology’s Denver office, just opened their community pool, made out of two steel shipping containers joined end-to-end. Complete with a locker room (also made from a repurposed shipping container), the pool is perfect for a quick afternoon escape.

From commercial retailers to tech companies the possibilities are endless, especially as shipping containers are an affordable and versatile building material. Tsai Design Studios in Cape Town, South Africa created a classroom providing an easy solution to construction on a limited budget.

With all of the intriguing and creative uses for neglected shipping containers developed over the past decade, I’m excited to watch this field grow. Finding ways to repurpose abandoned materials is an important area of focus to provide efficient, flexible, and affordable infrastructure. And, as we see, can be a great platform for innovation and creativity!