"Stackable, adaptable and abundant — shipping containers are the Lego blocks of the creative architect's toybox and can be transformed into schools, hotels and homes."

By Lily Crossley-Baxter

Permanence is not a quality often associated with the buildings of Japan, but the growing trend of using some of the most temporary structures available is taking this to a whole new level. 

The versatility of the simple shipping container is its strongest element, allowing it to be reborn as a myriad of creations when used by the architecture community.

Stacked in incredible quantities in dockyards across the world, storage containers offer solutions to a surprising array of design issues and provide a whole raft of benefits. With a little creativity, they can be transformed into high-class hotels or emergency accommodation, art galleries or offices — creating unique spaces with the most basic of structures. While they have long been used abroad, they are slowly gaining recognition in Japan and appearing more frequently as an alternative building block. 

Their popularity may seem unusual given their image: small, cramped, and designed for long sea journeys rather than people, but their versatility and simplicity allow them to be transformed into spacious living areas. As literal building blocks, they can be used to create simple structures with a never-ending option for expansion. While they have been adopted across the world for decades, Japan is slowly following — with architects embracing their qualities and exploiting their versatility.

In Saitama, containers were used to renovate a local kindergarten by the Youji no Shiro and Hibinosekkei architects. With a keen desire to reflect the legacy of the school, which had served the community for 50 years, they focused on the environment and reusing materials. The containers center around a courtyard with covered terraces and include a large 364 sq m hall which can be used for sports and meetings. While the black steel is quite harsh, the building has been softened with wooden interiors and green spaces which create a natural, welcoming environment. See photos of the shipping container kindergarten

This recognition of the storage containers as an environmentally-friendly option is key. With millions littering dockyards across the globe, their re-use reduces the stacks of rusting metal, but also reduces the amount of production required by using old materials instead of producing new ones. Their ease of shipping also makes them efficient for transport across the globe, making the most of their design and meaning large quantities can be moved with minimum impact. 

The containers are also a cost-effective way to create a temporary structure as there is no need for foundations or groundwork — a simple frame will do. While struggling to secure a lease for a small property, Daiken-Met Architects in Gifu negotiated a lease on the basis that the structure they created would be temporary. Shipping containers met their needs perfectly, and an office with terraces-space and living quarters was created from seven containers supported by a steel frame. 

The custom-built frame and containers were combined to create 111 sq m of usable space from 50 sq m of ground space, and can easily be taken down and re-designed when needed. Located in Gifu which suffers from decreasing population and increased vacant land, the Sugoroku Office by Daiken-met Architects is a great solution as a portable office allows for growth in the future. 

Back in 2009, Yasutaka Yoshimura Architects created a unique hotel on the Yokohama Bay, transforming 31 unappealing containers into a stylish series of mini-apartments. Using containers pre-assembled in Thailand and shipped over, the cost benefits were a strong factor, but the Bayside Marina Hotel looks anything but cheap. By embracing the minimalist appeal of the container’s shape, the designers created a modern space by going back to basics, as simplicity is the new luxe. 

Three years later, when the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami resulted in hundreds of thousands of people losing their homes, the architects realised the storage containers could be the answer. With the knowledge gained from the hotel development, the Yasutaka Yoshimura team devised a plan to source and assemble containers in Thailand and ship them to areas in Tohoku, creating the Ex-Container Project. The final designs allowed for 20 ft x 20 ft containers to be stacked to form houses, with kitchens, bedrooms and living spaces, either single or two-story.

As containers cannot be used as permanent buildings under Japanese law, the structures were designed to be used for two years before being dismantled and moved or converted into permanent residences. While a temporary single-story unit would cost approximately USD 36,000 and a two-story was USD 48,000, the cost for a permanent structure was estimated at around USD 60,000. The opportunity to convert the properties was highly cost-effective when compared to building new structures and involved a larger design with an interval between two containers. 

As they were easy to source, cheap to adapt and easily shipped — they provided a speedy answer when paired with the knowledge of the architects. Their appeal was also noticed by leading architect Shigeru Ban, who has worked extensively on emergency and temporary housing. In Ongawa, a town which lost 2,800 of its 4,500 homes, Ban created a community of three-story apartments centering around a community space and market. Using an alternating pattern to allow for outdoor space, the complex was highly praised for its display of permanence, an important factor for those living there. 

The versatility of the simple shipping container is its strongest element, allowing it to be reborn as a myriad of creations when used by the architecture community. With a growing interest in re-usable materials, the future of Japanese design will be sure to feature more humble shipping containers, although they may be unrecognisable. 

By Lily Crossley-Baxter