Cargotecture – The Architecture of Shipping Containers

Cargotecture is the use of shipping containers for creating fully functional buildings whether they are for a business or for a home. This form of shipping-container architecture involves the conversion of decommissioned intermodal containers into habitable spaces, and it might hold the key to the future of sustainable homes. As opposed to traditional brick and cement, shipping containers allay cost and availability concerns and boast an eco-friendly edge. The sturdy structural framework offers protection and poses no restriction on further design and customization. There is a wide range of projects that can be built, from low-cost housing to vacation homes.

The term Cargotecture was coined in 2003 and it is used to describe a building that is either partially or fully constructed using recycled ISO shipping containers. This is a great way to utilize thousands of containers that would otherwise be sent for scrap.  These containers can be relocated, are secure and versatile, and can be extremely useful in situations where buildings are needed quickly because the basic structure is already in existence.  The container can be placed in a location and then the interior can be modified, with the electrical wiring and plumbing being outfitted afterward.

Advantages of Cargotecture


The shape of shipping containers makes them ideal for repurposing into buildings. Compared to building a similar structure with brick and mortar, on average, a cargotecture can be 30 percent cheaper. However, the savings will depend on the location and what type of home you are building.

Structural stability

Since steel containers are designed to carry tons of merchandise across rough ocean tides, they are “virtually indestructible.” Earthquakes and hurricanes are no match for cargotecture, which make containers an excellent choice for building a home in areas prone to natural disasters.

Construction speed

A traditional housing structure can take months to build, but with cargotecture, all you need is about two to three weeks since they are basically prefabricated. Not to mention, modifications can be made quickly off-site.

You can also customize a layout by stacking the containers for multiple floors and splicing them together for a larger space.

However, there is a lot of modification required when you use cargotecture. Depending on the design, you may need to add steel reinforcement. Heating and cooling can also be a major issue, so you definitely need to have a temperature control strategy in mind.

Recycling materials

When recycled shipping containers are used in cargotecture, it can be extremely eco-friendly. Repurposing the containers instead of scrapping and melting them can save a lot of energy and carbon emissions while preventing the use of traditional materials.

Disadvantages of Cargotecture

The green myth

The downside with cargotecture is that sometimes it’s not as green as you would believe. Some people are using brand new containers instead of recycling old ones, and this completely defeats the purpose of cargotecture.

And, to make a container habitable, there is a lot of energy required because of the modifications like sandblasting and cutting openings. Plus, the amount of fossil fuels needed to move the building makes cargotecture’s ecological footprint larger than you might think.

Health hazards

Obviously, when shipping containers are made, human habitation was not a factor in their design or construction. Many shipping containers have lead-based paints on the walls and chemicals like arsenic in the floors. You must deal with these issues before moving into a cargotecture home.

Temperature control

Modifications need to be made when you use cargotecture, and one of the biggest concerns is insulation and heat control. Large steel boxes are really good at absorbing and transmitting heat and cold. This ultimately means controlling the temperature inside your cargotecture home can be a challenge.

Building codes

With cargotecture still being relatively new, it has caused some issues with local building codes. When you build small structures and don’t use traditional building materials, you should always check to see if they meet local regulations.

Examples of  Cargotecture

  1. Caterpillar House / Sebastián Irarrázaval

2. Grillagh Water House / Patrick Bradley Architects

3. Incubo House / María José Trejos

The future of cargotecture as a sustainable housing solution seems bright. Changing perceptions have meant that what was once considered housing for the poor and homeless, has now become a brilliantly innovative and ‘hot’ trendy building material that can serve as a new alternative to traditional architecture. 

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