Shipping container architecture, or ‘cargotecture’, is all the rage in the architecture world at the moment – and for good reason, too.

When it comes to shipping containers, the opportunities are endless. Shipping containers can turn into homes, garages, pools, stages, pop up bars, offices, workshops – just about anything you or your client needs.

Shipping containers are far better on the environment (the first carbon-positive shipping container was recently constructed, actively reversing its own environmental footprint). Their strength and durability is insured in their structural integrity, and there is an abundance of containers available for sale Australia-wide. Using shipping containers can also eliminate hours of expensive labour as their dimensions and shape can be much easier to design alongside.

But before you buy your shipping container or agree to refit one, here are eight things you should consider before designing with shipping containers:

New VS Used

BBQ shack pop up

Shipping containers do not have a standardised labelling or categorisation as many containers are manufactured overseas and shipped here to be sold to Australians after their life at sea. That means ‘new’ may not necessarily mean new.

A new shipping container has most undoubtedly been used for at least one trip; in the industry they are called a ‘one-way shipper’ or a ‘single trip container’. These containers are generally in pristine shape aside from some scuffs and scratches.

Used shipping containers have typically been in circulation for 10 to 15 years. If you're modifying or converting your container, a little bit of rust will likely not bother you – especially if you can pick one up for as little as $1,400.

When to Buy

Christmas box

The price of shipping containers can rise and fall just like the stock market due to factors related to foreign markets. A great question to ask your shipping container supplier is how the market is currently doing, and how much the price has fluctuated in recent months.

Shipping container companies are highly competitive and will often adjust their price according to competition and demand. Look for containers on special during the end of a financial year, or down-periods like the beginning of the year for the best price.

Previous Lives of Shipping Containers

Food & Wine Festival pop up

If you are interested in modifying a shipping container, take into consideration the past life of your container. Some shipping containers are used to ship dangerous chemicals, biohazards, radioactive substances, explosives and other potentially hazardous cargo.

After 10 to 15 years of being in circulation, these materials can seep into floorboards and cover the inner and outer walls of your prospective shipping container.

If your container will be used as an office, home addition, or any other structure that your client will spend a lot of time in, be careful to purchase a shipping container that has been used for transporting mostly harmless materials, such as dry goods or food stuffs.

Delivery Considerations

Hit 107 Stage

There are a number of considerations to take into account when having your shipping container delivered.

First up, we look at the cost of delivery; a flatbed truck will be much more affordable than delivery using a tilt bed truck and trailer because of the specialised function of the latter option.

Whether by truck, crane or otherwise, you need room not only for your shipping container, but also its delivery vehicle, so be sure to ask about the space dimensions required for a smooth delivery. A crane-equipped vehicle is typically 70 feet long and cannot operate on ground that is too uneven.

Roads and pathways to your delivery site need also be clear and wide enough for each vehicle’s space requirements. Don’t get caught out and have your delivery sent back.

Structural Integrity

Living Space AU box

In order to ensure your ‘cargotecture’ is safely protected from the elements, thieves, and is in working order, it is best to verify that the shipping container is water tight, the door hinges are able to work freely, the door locking bar handles can move freely, and that the wooden floors are fairly intact and held in place with steel cross members.

Of course, you should also ensure that any rust is present is merely cosmetic and will not negatively affect the structural (and load bearing) integrity of your shipping container.

With a little maintenance such as rust removal, a fresh coat of waterproof paint, and weather sealant, you should be able ensure an extra decade or two out of your shipping container if it is stored outdoors.

Constraints on design

Dewalt promo box

Although the two ends of a container are extremely strong, its roof cannot support a lot of weight. A limit of 300 kilograms is generally recommended on the top of a container, limiting your use up there. 

Shipping containers can also be ultra-sensitive to weather, meaning they become ovens or freezers depending on the outside temperature. Be sure to incorporate insulation and ventilation into your design. 

It's also advisable not to deviate too far away from the standard 20' and 40' floor-size of each space, otherwise your costing will begin to skyrocket. 

Modification Options

Now that you’ve ensured the integrity of your container and your design requirements, what will you do with it? Regular modifications for accommodation or office spaces can include adding flooring (do you prefer timber, tiling or carpet?), adding working doors (glass sliding perhaps?), windows and easements, foundations (timber or concrete?), insulation (to keep you cool in the summer), and adding electricity and plumbing.

Feeling adventurous? Why not add a second level by stacking containers on top of one another? You could turn a second one into an in-ground pool for much less than you’d typically pay for a pool. Or you could add a deck to the exterior for added living space. The possibilities are endless.

Who Are You Dealing With?

Living Space AU box

This one is often overlooked for geographic convenience, but who you opt to purchase your shipping container from is a big deal. Have they dealt directly with an architect or engineer before? Do they truly understand your requirements from experience? Will your shipping container provide you with a site visit to ensure that you have the appropriate space and terrain for a smooth delivery?

How about the quality of your shipping container; if you are purchasing a number of them, will they be in uniform condition and specification?

Are they a middle-man, or do they handle your shipping containers themselves? There are many shipping container companies that are nothing more than a website and a desk, facilitating shipping container purchases through third parties. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s a great question to ask your supplier to discover what value they get from dealing with them over a direct seller.

Images courtesy of Port Container Services


Emma Elsworthy is a freelance writer living and working in Newcastle, NSW. She currently contributes a weekly double-page spread to the Newcastle Herald's 'Weekender' edition, where she profiles property, architects, interior designers, builders and local homeware suppliers.