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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

 
 
 
 

Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.


What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.