How 'used' really are the trendy repurposed shipping containers we find in cities like Bristol?

These shipping containers at Copper King's Distillery in the US may or may not be made from shipped-once containers. Image: CMYK4317/crative commons.

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.

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Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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