According to UN Habitat‘s 2016 report, in 2010, up to 980 million urban households lacked decent housing, and another 600 million are projected to lack decent housing in the coming 13 years. In order for the world to reach 2025 with appropriate housing for everyone, the world needs one billion new homes, which are projected to cost an estimated $650 billion per year, or a staggering total of US$9-11 trillion. We speak to cargotecture companies in Cairo and Seoul to discuss their vision of the revolutionary new industry and its potential to improve housing conditions in different cities.

Container architecture – a type of architecture that repurposes shipping containers – has found novel applications in cities around the world as they are increasingly used to build homes, gallery spaces, urban farms, shops, or even malls. Ukraine’s Seventh-Kilometer Market, which was originally created as a flea market and relocated to the seventh kilometer of the Odessa-Ovidiopol highway in 1989, is made up largely of shipping containers left over from bankrupt German shipping companies. Because of its reliance on pre-existing structures and re-use of them – not to mention its small footprint and modularity – container architecture has the potential to address some of the biggest challenges of our cities today.

“We believe container architecture can solve housing problems for millennials all around the world,” Jiwon Baik, CEO and founder of Seoul-based cargotecture company Urbantainer tells progrss. “We see how millennials are struggling with housing, especially [in] mega cities in Asia such as Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai. I think there [are not many] differences in housing problems for [younger generations] when you compare these cities with New York or Silicon Valley,” he continues. According to him, this rationale justifies the company’s choice to focus on developing three solutions: relocatable building, pre-fab construction methods and modular design. “We believe these three solutions will enable mass production…in a factory ultimately, so that container modular architecture can be a new alternative for housing problem[s], especially [when coupled with an] innovative approach to property finance and fast design and construction.”

Meanwhile in Cairo, Qubix co-founder Youssef Farrag tells progrss that it’s going to take more than one entity or solution to solve the housing problem in the Egyptian capital – a city that shelters a metropolitan population of 20.5 million people. “This [is] a problem that has been getting worse by the day for the past four to five decades, and no feasible long-term solution has been employed as of yet. We do believe, however, that we can play a significant role in solving the housing problem in Cairo, mainly due to three of the many advantages of container architecture, those being, cost-efficiency, fast construction time, and zero on-site construction,” Farrag says. Qubix previously built a house out of two 20-feet containers in Beni Sueif, a city located about 115 kilometers (71 miles) south of the capital. He notes that, in order for the solution to be most effectively employed, infrastructural elements like power, water and sewage must be in place. Alternatively, he explains that Qubix’s units can be solar-powered.

According to Farrag, the company’s many different audiences have been very receptive to the concept of cargotecture, and this positive feedback continues to grow as they roll out each project. “Our audience is both individuals and companies. That’s what’s so great about our product, it is so adaptable that everyone is able to find a customized use of the containers either for their personal use or for commercial use in the case of companies, who find it to be cost- and time- efficient, as well as a unique selling point to offer their clients as a product or experience.”

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Ukraine’s Seventh-Kilometer Market is largely made up of shipping containers. Photo by Andrew Alborno, HotSpot Media.

Although cargotecture in Asia is still in a nascent stage, companies like Urbantainer are making ripples. Designed by Urbantainer, cultural space Platoon Kunsthalle was Asia’s first container architecture project and it was sensational when it was completed in 2009. “We were spotted [by] major media and swept all the architecture awards. Although the building was considered unique [for its] fresh approach in the architecture industry, it wasn’t enough to change public’s perception, because the purpose of building was an art hall supporting only subculture…People’s perceptions with container building in Korea was mostly negative…People think of a container as temporary space for poor people – [an] easily burnable and illegal building,” Mr. Jiwon explains.

Succeeding Ukraine’s 170-hectare open-air market, the world’s largest container shopping mall found its home in Seoul. “Common Ground” was completed in 2015 after 18 months of planning and six months of construction. In its first year, the mall received over three million visitors. Thanks to Common Ground, “now people think of [cargotecture] as brilliantly innovative and ‘hot’ trendy building [material] that can be a new alternative to traditional architecture. We hope the same paradigm shift happens in the [United States], once we complete [our] art shopping mall project in Miami,” Mr. Jiwon elaborates.

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Common Ground. Urbantainer.

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Common Ground. Urbantainer.

Containers are made to be at sea, stacked above each other and next to each other – they are built to survive high waves, currents, and heavy rains intact. “This gives you an idea of how structurally strong containers are,” Farrag says. “Our process includes further reinforcing that structure from the interior and exterior level, ensuring the structural integrity of the product as well as its safety,” he continues.

According to the founders of both companies, cargotecture is resilient: “We [have already] gone through safety checks with authorities in Korea, with all the permit [processes] regarding structural stability, fire fighting, typhoons, and earthquake resistance,” Mr. Jiwon says.

In spite of their resilience, building with shipping containers does not come without its challenges. For example, the containers are built out of metal, which is a good conductor of heat, creating a huge temperature disadvantage. “So far, we don’t have any problems with the existing heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems for traditional building. We are trying to study and research HVAC systems [for] container architecture [in] different weather conditions such as tropical weather in Miami and accumulating know-how,” Mr. Jiwon clarifies.

Back in Cairo, Farrag explains that this question has been the cargotecture company’s biggest issue as far as consumer education is concerned. “A very important part of our production process is the insulation of the container on the interior level. We use a mixture of Rock Wool, Glass Wool and other materials that give our containers a higher r-factor than red bricks and cement, meaning their insulation is more effective,” he explains.

Consumers have also expressed their reservations about the sturdiness of the containers’ roofs. “If you look at the roof of a shipping container, you can say it seems weak. But once you look at the overall structure of container, it bears approximately 300 tons vertically without any kind of reinforcement,” Mr. Jiwon says. “We are now working on standardization of architectural containers based on the standard of shipping containers. We expect to set the standard for structural stability of architectural containers in the near future.”

Farrag explains that, when Qubix builds a roof for their clients, which is something they have done several times and have gained experience in by now, they do not simply use the containers tops: “We construct an elevated flooring structure out of steel that ensures the roof is strong and sturdy, and does not create an echo of footsteps for anyone below,” Farrag says.

Other concerns about re-purposing shipping containers for cargotecture is that these structures are usually coated with saltwater-resistant paints and sealants that are often very toxic. The Qubix founder explains that his company uses automotive paint on the insides of the containers, which he claims has the highest level of endurance and offers the best finish. The company also uses solvents to create an anti-rust protective layer against humidity on the exterior of the container.

But challenges loom large for cargotecture companies looking to repurpose shipping containers, as ISO-certified containers have toxins in the paint and on their steel boards. “This problem led us to develop [our own] architectural shipping containers, and we use urethane paint on [weathered] steel. It’s fairly difficult to peel off paint from the steel surface and there is no research data for painting over to cover it. That’s why we prefer to use architectural [containers that] we develop or to customize ISO containers without toxins,” Mr. Jiwon explains.

The architects behind Urbantainer use various types of containers categorized by purpose, scale and budget; and while repurposing shipping containers works in some cases, in others, they find it more efficient to use their own container module. “Residential spaces of small scale can be easily built with shipping containers, yet we still have to add steel reinforcement. In the case of [large] scale buildings, it costs more to use shipping containers, because there [are] additional modifications, reinforcements, and removal of toxins. So currently we [use] the architectural container module we developed,” he adds.

In Cairo, Farrag tells us that all their containers are thoroughly cleaned on the interior and exterior, before receiving two layers of non-toxic Epoxy paint to protect the container, as well as two layers of non-toxic and high quality paint, ensuring that their products are safe for use. “We are very picky with the containers we use, the first criteria for selection is the container’s structure – the four pillars and chassis must be intact and without any dents,” he explains. “The corrugated steel must not be contaminated with rust either, and we make sure that the containers we use never carried any toxic chemicals or waste. We look for containers that have transported machinery, textiles and food amongst other non-harmful commodities.”

Farrag explains that, in some cases, Qubix acquires containers from shipping companies that retire fleets of hundreds of containers that are deemed to be past their shipping life cycle every year. In other cases, shipping containers coming from China – where the majority of the world’s shipping containers are produced – often remain in Egypt and are not exported, since it is cheaper for the company to sell the used container and buy a new one in China than it is to ship the empty container back to be reused.

To conclude, container architecture looks like one ideal solution for providing affordable shelter for 100 million homeless people and 65.6 million refugees in the world. Not only that, but it would also be an economical solution for merchants suffering from rising rent rates.

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