Most people take for granted the reality of shipping containers. Yes, you still see them lined up in ports, but it’s easy to forget that nearly any consumer product you use has probably been moved by shipping containers.
You just need to go back a few decades to discover a time when there were no freight containers and no intermodal transport networks. The more recent history gives us an example of innovators who have discovered the opportunity to construct housing and other facilities with shipping containers.
Even if you’re not a history buff, there’s helpful material to discover here how economic demands have driven the scale, shape, and abundance of containers that you’re able to use today.
Here we will discuss how shipping was achieved before containers were introduced, how and who invented shipping containers, how they have influenced globalization, and how they have rapidly increased in prominence as building components.
World Before the Shipping Container
Mankind has traveled across the sea for millennia, bringing not just bread, cotton, treasure, and commodities, the likes of which their own country has never seen before. Only think about the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the British more recently.
How have they been transporting their goods around the world? They were simply exported to other nations, but without any standardization, it was a long and difficult operation.
Towards the latter part of the second industrial revolution (the early 1900s), this lack of standardization was becoming a real issue, especially considering how prevalent trains had now become. Transferring cargo from ships to trains was extremely slow and caused major delays and blockages within many ports. Larger ships would take around a week to unload then reload (Levinson, 2006: The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger).
Towards the latter part of the second industrial revolution (the early 1900s), this lack of standardization became a real problem, particularly given how widespread trains had become. Transferring freight from ships to trains was painfully slow and caused massive disruptions and blockades in many ports. Larger ships will take over a week to unload and then refill (Levinson, 2006: The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger).
This was the only means of transporting goods, and this method remained unchanged for decades.
Malcolm McLean’s Incredible Vision
There was a tremendous need for a standardized mode of transport, but to do this, a whole host of industries required alignments, such as ships, trains, trucks, and port terminals. As you can guess, a lot of effort and convincing will be required to make such a feat feasible.
Many people around the world know the name of Henry Ford, but Malcolm McLean is not recognized at all. In just a few minutes, you can understand why he was such a valuable contributor to the universe.
Malcolm McLean was born in 1914 and grew up on a farm in North Carolina. Since leaving school in 1931, he worked for a few years to raise enough money to buy a second-hand tractor. He started his transport company in 1934. McLean quickly scaled up his transport company and had five vehicles beneath him.
During the routine shipping of cotton balls from North Carolina to New Jersey in 1937, McLean observed dockworkers loading and unloading freight, which lasted hours and hours. He was contemplating what a waste of time and money it was.
From 1937 to the beginning of 1950, McLean concentrated on his transport company, which had more than 1,750 trucks and 37 terminals. In reality, it was the fifth-largest truck transport company in all of America.
It was during this time frame that many weight limits and levies on road transport were imposed. It was not unusual for McLean’s drivers to be fined for heavy loads of freight.
McLean was now searching for a more reliable way to carry the freight of his customers, and he was reminded of his experience in New Jersey back in 1937. This was why he got the concept of making a standard-size trailer that could be loaded into a ship not in one or two volumes, like his cars, but hundreds. He planned to revolutionize his transport business by replacing most of his vehicles and using vessels to transport goods to geographically positioned trucking hubs.
This will mean that trucks would only be used for brief, intrastate deliveries, avoiding the weight limits and levy charges that have recently been imposed.
Intermodal transport is shifting from idea to reality
McLean, convinced by his dream of creating a generic shipping trailer or crate, sold his trucking company. In 1955, he borrowed $42 million from a bank. He used $7 million of this loan to buy Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company, an established shipping company. Pan-Atlantic also had docking privileges in many of the eastern port cities that McLean was targeting. Shortly after purchasing them, the business was called SeaLand Industries.
Ideal X left New Jersey on April 26, 1956, bound for Houston. The popularity of his concept was reinforced by the company’s instructions to carry merchandise back to New Jersey before the ship was even docked in Houston. This was partly attributed to the fact that McLean was able to deliver a 25% discount on the price of traditional freight transport at the time. And, since the crates were lockable, the items were prevented from being robbed during transport.
Standardization of container
At this time, McLean used 35-foot containers, different from the 20-and 40-foot containers that we see today.
However, there was also a lack of standardization on the dimensions of the container and the corner fittings. This uniformity was required so that the containers could be stacked efficiently. Besides, trains, trucks, and other transport equipment needed a standard container size such that each mode of transport could be constructed to a single size.
January 1968: ISO 668 defines terms, measurements, and scores.
July 1968: ISO 790 defines how containers can be identified (Replaced by ISO 6346).
As a part of these requirements, we now have 20-foot and 40-foot shipping containers, along with a few other smaller containers. In particular, 20-foot containers, called the Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit (TEU), became the industry standard for freight volume reference.
The Benefits of Shipping Container
It took just ten years for the first overseas voyage by a container ship. In April 1966, SeaLand’s Fairland sailed from the United States to the Netherlands with 236 containers on board.
From here, container shipping saw a major expansion, and in 1968, container ships had the ability to hold about 1,000 TEUs, which at the time was extremely high. By 1970, SeaLand Industries had 36 cargo ships, twenty-seven thousand containers, and more than 30 ports in America.
Many now argue that containers have been the single biggest engine of globalization in the last sixty years.
Ship freight costs have fallen by more than 90%.
In 1956, the freight cost $5.86 per tonne to load, although now it just costs around $0.16 per tonne.
Some 1% of the countries had container ports in 1966, but this increased to 90% by 1983.
Malcolm McLean was awarded “Man of the Century” by the International Maritime Hall of Fame.
Pre-containers, the freight could be loaded at around 1.3 tonnes per hour. By 1970, this amounted to more than 30 tonnes per hour.
In 2011, US shipping ports got $1.73 trillion worth of merchandise.
Approximately 90% of an imported object has been shipped inside a package.
There are over 20 million shipping containers in the country, making more than 200 million trips a year.
A sweater will fly 3,000 miles to 2.5 cents by boat.
More than 6,000 container vessels are currently in operation.
As of 2019, the biggest container ships in the world are the MSC Gülsün Class with a TEU of 23,756.
Class of MSC Gulsun Ships
Any incredible details and figures on the MSC Gülsün class
The BBC Box was a fascinating experiment in the spread of container shipment. BBC, the British Broadcasting Company, used GPS technologies to map a single container during its monthly journey around the globe in September 2008. Altogether, it toured Europe, Asia, North and South America.
The pushback against the spread of shipping to containers
Despite the incredible advantages of the containerized shipping, not everyone was pleased about it, and attempts were made to slow its dissemination across the world.
Traditionally, the loading phase took several port staff to manually carry all the merchandise. However, in the case of containers, these jobs were no longer allowed, which sparked an uproar at the dockside unions. In the early 1970s, many union employees went on strike, upsetting the transport industry and the massive proliferation of shipping containers.
However, owing to the vast financial benefits in containerized transportation, these union employees have been paid for severance contracts and the growth of shipping containers has continued to rise.
Why has the construction of shipping containers been a trend?
We’re going to discuss some of the first people to come up with the concept of using containers for building in a minute. First of all, we ought to learn about whether it was indeed a concept worth considering.
In certain western nations, like the United States, we buy a lot more than we export. When goods are exported to the world, we do not use a shipping container to export our goods back. This suggests that there is a glut of shipping containers.
Just how much of a surplus?
Well according to the US Department of Transportation: Maritime Administration, in 2012 the US imported 17,541,120 TEU’s, yet only exported 11,935,906 (Source).
A TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) is a unit of measurement. One TEU is equivalent to one standard 20-foot shipping container.
This means there was a surplus of the equivalent of more than 5 million 20-foot shipping containers. Now clearly not every shipping container is left in the US. It would be worthwhile to move new containers back to Asia to use again, but a considerable number of containers are left in the US.
This trend has been occurring for many years and we have taken a snapshot of some recent data from the Maritime Administration of the US Department of Transportation:
How Many Shipping Containers Are There
Since we have such a big surplus of shipping containers in the US, could we not just recycle them?
The short answer is that it’s usually not very efficient to melt them down and make them into other steel products. For more information, read our in-depth article about the Sustainability of Containers.
Alternative Uses for Shipping Containers
If we look for the first official record of a shipping container home, we find a man named Phillip Clark. On Monday, November 23, 1987, Clark filed a patent called the “Method for converting one or more steel shipping containers into a habitable building”.
Within the patent, Clark outlines how shipping containers can be sited on a weight-bearing foundation to create a habitable building. He claimed that shipping containers make the perfect modular building material. He also commented that reused shipping containers can be used to make homes economically.
It took two years for the patent to be granted. On Tuesday, August 8, 1989, Clark was presented with his approved patent #US4854094A.
So where did Phillip Clark get his idea? Was he the first person ever to think that shipping containers could be used to build homes?
Far from it. Just two years before Clark’s patent was filed, shipping containers made their way onto the big screen. In 1985, in the film Space Rage, shipping containers were used to make numerous buildings on the production set.
We can go further back than that, to the 1970s, where UK architect Nicholas Lacey wrote his university thesis on the concept of reusing shipping containers and turning them into habitable dwellings.
He has since gone on to construct several of these shipping container buildings with Urban Space Management.
We can still find earlier examples of shipping containers being used as buildings, starting back in 1962.
On Friday, October 12, 1962, Insbrandtsen Company Inc. filed a patent titled “Combination shipping container and showcase”. Within this patent, Christopher Betjemann was listed as the inventor and it states that shipping containers can be used as an exhibition booth when companies are touring and showcasing their products.
In 1994, Stewart Brand, an American writer, published a book titled “How Buildings Learn”. In it, Brand goes on to write ideas about how to convert shipping containers into office space. This was the first publication that mentions building with shipping containers.
From here, shipping container homes started to gain momentum and the first completed build we could find on record was the “The Simon’s Town High School Hostel”.
The project was conceived when Safmarine donated forty used shipping containers to Simon’s Town High School. The school wanted to use the containers to build a hostel that was capable of housing 120 people at any given time. The project cost a total of $227,000 and was ready for its first guests on November 30, 1998.
21st Century Shipping Container Homes
In 2006, Peter DeMaria a Californian architect designed the first shipping container home in the US.
Known as the Redondo Beach House, the home was approved under the national Uniform Building Code (One of the predecessors of the IBC) and was completed in 2007. This was the first real shipping container home.
Since then we’ve seen shipping container homes popping up all over the world! Some of the more famous ones include:
Container Guest House (2010)
This home was designed by Poteet Architects of Texas. It is constructed from a used, 40-foot shipping container that provides around 320 square feet of living space.
Container Guest House
Image Courtesy of Poteet Architects
Containers of Hope (2011)
Renowned for its incredible cost savings, Containers of Hope was built in Costa Rica for around $40,000. The home was built using multiple shipping containers and is passively cooled with a sloped roof.
Containers of Hope
The Caterpillar House (2012)
This home was designed by Sebastián Irarrázaval and was built in Chile. In total the home used 12 containers and is 3,800 square feet. It was built on a hillside just outside of Santiago where the owners get some incredible views!
The popularity of shipping container homes continues to rise and there appears to be no stopping these sustainable, affordable homes.
As shipping container home popularity continues to grow, we have seen many other amazing uses of shipping containers including restaurants, offices, and schools. Take a look at some of the other Shipping Container Case Studies for more cool examples.
It’s an interesting story that brought us these ubiquitous, nondescript boxes. Who knew that what we are now using to construct homes changed the world so much.
It’s unlikely that Malcolm McLean and his contemporaries could have foreseen the drastic changes they would cause in the world, nor the incredible examples of architecture that would result from their cargo-focused innovation.