Historical Facts and Future Visions of Shipping Containers in the USA

Shipping containers didn’t exist in the USA until the mid-1950s. The first metal container was designed by a man named Malcom McLean in 1956.  It was designed out of frustration Malcom encountered in his trucking business when he would need to move his goods from the yard to the trucks, to the trains, then eventually to the ship. There needed to be an easier way to transport the goods, and thus the shipping container idea was born.

The structure of a metal container is truly astounding. There is a post on each corner that holds the weight of the container on top and the corrugated sides, ends and doors make it even stronger while giving it a very robust look.   These containers can be stacked 6 high, and if supported and secured properly, can be stacked even higher.  The strength is equally as impressive, as they are stronger than concrete, wood and even regular steel buildings.  They can withstand natural disasters such as tornados, cyclones and earthquakes, and keep the contents inside rodent and moisture free. It is quite impressive!

Today you can see these storage containers painted in bright colors with snappy logos and designs painted across the sides.

There are 530 million containers worldwide, which is a great testament to Malcom McLean. At any given time, there are 17 million of them in circulation throughout the world. Two hundred million trips per year are taken between America and Europe, as well as other ports around the globe. This staggering number is no surprise since 95% of the worlds goods are delivered by sea. This makes the needs for storage containers extremely important.  These containers are filled at their original location, moved by truck to the ports, then loaded on the ships to be transported via sea.

The costs of a new shipping container is between $2000-$3000, which makes them too expensive to throw out.  Since the USA imports much more than exports, there is an overload of empty containers.  Even if those empties are filled and returned to their original destination, there wouldn’t be enough goods from the US to send 100% of them back.  In fact, only half of the empties can be filled and returned, the other half sit idle in shipyards. Therefore the number of empty containers increases each year.

In the USA, it has been proposed that a percentage of the empty shipping containers can be used for other purposes, such as housing, offices, schools, storage and entertainment.  In fact, many designers have embraced the idea and a new term has surfaced, called “containertecture.”  Creative and skilled architects have designed some of the most impressive structures solely with empty storage containers.  Other structures have been built with these containers and incorporated with other design elements, such as balconies, and overhangs.

One smart idea includes creating basic living structures inexpensively to help the homeless get off the streets.  With the number of empty containers there are sitting idle around the US, if we were to utilize all of them, we could have enough to bring almost all the homeless people off the streets and give them a secure place to call their own.

Another type of structure these containers can be used for are restaurants, bars and local concert venues.  Many BIG brand businesses, such as Starbucks and Chick Fila, have built the most impressive, trendy, hip looking structures in popular cities like Las Vegas, San Francisco and London. “The shipping container could be the 21st century’s brick,” says Allison Arieff, a New York Times architecture and design blogger, and author of Prefab (Gibbs Smith), one of the first consumer-oriented books on the subject.  “It appears to be this endless possibility-laden building material.”  She says these containers have been used for “many cool commercial purposes.”

The giant coffee company, Starbucks, has some amazing looking structures that offer drive thru and walk-up service.  “They’ve made some effort to be architecturally distinctive, to feel more like an independent café,” Arieff says.  Not to mention these structures can be put together in a relatively short amount of time, cutting labor costs that would be much higher without using storage containers.

There are warehouses in the US that attract sightseers on a regular basis who want to see how beautiful a structure made from storage containers can really be.   An architect who designed a dozen offices and studios recycling 32 empty storage containers, has created quite a masterpiece unlike anything ever seen before.  The building has a solar array and consumes a fraction of energy that a normal building complex would consume. Arieff says, “There is a playful sense about it.”

To see some of these structures you can find them in big cities such as Las Vegas, San Francisco, Ashville, Denver, and even structures internationally in London and New Zealand.

Little by little, these empty unused storage containers will find new life when they are recycled and used for residential and commercial purposes.  One day, hopefully soon, there will no longer be idle containers clogging up ports and taking up space.