Along Bristol’s harbourside, past the M Shed museum with its 1950s quayside cranes, lies CARGO 1 and 2, a correspondingly industrial prospect.
Here, 56 converted shipping containers form Bristol’s newest food and retail spot.
In a city whose buzzwords include “upcycling” and “pop-up”, these steel boxes have become building blocks for anything from fruit and veg shops to outdoor performance spaces at The Bearpit – “think Urban Minack,” Chris Chalkley, chairman of the People's Republic of Stokes Croft, says.
Bristol is not alone.
Around the world, shipping containers are being adopted by businesses whose social or environmental values align with the repurposed aesthetic of the containers, including mobile solar grids in rural South Africa and indoor farms in Atlanta, Georgia.
But despite their industrial appearance, many of the shipping containers used on our waterfronts are as brand new as they could possibly be, having done a single journey from China to the UK with miscellaneous cargo before being repurposed.
If you bought a shipping container a decade ago, it would most likely have been second-hand, and well-travelled. Over the last ten years, however, the trade in once-shipped containers has boomed.
Sam Baggley, UK container sales and conversions manager at logistics company Pentalver, says that since new (shipped only once) containers can end up costing less than second-hand ones, 95 per cent of his customers buying a container for a modified purpose will opt for the former.
“Normally the actual modification is more expensive than the starting container, so to start with a new container with no dents or cosmetic damage is a more attractive proposition,” he says.
The increased demand for new containers and their cheap cost in recent years have been factors determining this trend.
Take CARGO 1 for instance, where 18, shipped-once containers have been picked for their structural integrity.
CARGO 1, in Bristol. Image: Anthony O'Neil.
“We wanted the best quality that we could get,” Stuart Hatton, director at Umberslade and developer of CARGO, tells me.
In fact, once-shipped containers are often made to lower specifications in the first place, explains Søren Leth Johannsen, chief commercial officer at Denmark’s Maersk Container Industry.
“So-called one-ways are built at lower standards, from thinner steel,” he says.
“They are built for just one load from China to Europe, or America, where they will then be used for an alternative use, such as storage.” On building sites, for instance.
So shipping such contain very repurpose wow. Image: Mgunn.
This reduced specification, of roughly 200kg per container, keeps the price of once-shipped containers down, and according to Sam Baggley, the average saving on a one-way container as versus a full repurposing is about £115 to £160.
Keith Dewey, creator of Zigloo Domestique, a residential development made from upcycled shipping containers in the city of Victoria, British Columbia, believes that using once-shipped containers has an impact on the environmental credentials of such projects.
Dewey cites the average 15-year lifespan of a container that is then shipped back to China, cut up, melted down, and turned into steel.
By repurposing the container before it is shipped back to China, he believes “there is a huge carbon footprint offset”. The container is used for its full 15-year lifespan and is then repurposed, cutting out the latter recycling stage.
“In the Zigloo Domestique project I estimate that we saved 70 trees’ worth of structure and finish materials by employing 8TEUs,” he says.
There are slightly more than thirty million TEU shipping containers in global circulation (TEU is the twenty-foot equivalent unit used to count containers according to length) – that’s a lot of steel to be recycled or repurposed at some stage.
Indeed, “steel is the most recycled material in the world – more than paper, plastic, aluminium and glass combined,” Jim Woods, senior director of sustainability communications at the American Iron and Steel Institute, says.
East London's Container City. Image: .Martin.
One benefit of steel is that it is continuously recyclable. Steel from a shipping container can go on to be used in a car or bridge, for example. “The continuous recyclability of steel has earned it a designation as a permanent material, which is foundational to achieving the circular economy.”
But as more and more projects opt for alternatives to steel shipping containers – such as Josh Littlejohn’s village housing the homeless population of Edinburgh, and pioneer timber technologies – such as at Dalston Lane, the largest cross laminated timber building in the world – is it time to ask whether the tide is changing?
For Mark Hogan, architect and principal at OpenScope Studio, timber is superior to steel as a material for modular building solutions.
“Timber is environmentally friendly, it sequesters carbon and is easier to insulate than the steel containers,” he says.
“In container building, the walls need to be furred out with framing to conceal building services and provide insulation, so the steel wall of the container is almost redundant.”
As new alternatives to these steel bulks are developed, it will be down to the exponents of the shipping container to convince us that once-shipped is the way to go.