What Johnny Mnemonic got right about 2021: we keep trying to build housing out of old shipping containers.

Internet 2021 from Johnny Mnemonic

From a global pandemic to information overload to out-of-control drug prices, 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic made a lot of bold predictions about 2021 that landed a bit too hard. Among the hits that landed hardest? The rise of containerized housing and a chaotic kludge of weird construction welded together in a way that doesn’t exactly scream stability and permanence.

The year is 2021. Can we put to rest the idea that a shipping container home is anything but an aesthetic choice?

Shipping containers, one of the most ubiquitous manufactured objects on the planet, have attained a near mythical utility status. Like pallets (which share many of the same issues), containers are seen as an object that can fill any need. If it can handle the ocean, it can handle just about anything, right?

Shipping containers are built to do two things really well: stack 9 deep on a container ship to transit the ocean and standardize the equipment needed to move them around a port and onto transport.

And, to be honest, they don’t really stack all that great. In just the first 21 days of the 21st year of the 21st century, there have been too major container loss incidents at sea. The Maersk Essen lost 750 containers overboard while transiting the North Pacific. The Evergreen Ever Liberal lost 36 containers in bad weather en route to Los Angeles. The last time we ran the numbers, seven years ago, the average number of containers lost at sea each year was 546 excluding major disasters (incidents where the vessel itself is lost). We’re already well past that annual average and January isn’t even over.

In ocean research, there’s been a strong push towards the containerized lab: a workspace built inside a container or to container specifications that can be loaded and unloaded from a research vessel with ease. This makes perfect sense for marine science. These labs can be shipped anywhere. Every port has the equipment to move them. And they allow research programs to minimize costs by using a flexible system that fits one most modern ships. Even the US Navy briefly experimented with containerized combat configurations for its Littoral Combat Ship, though the results were poor.

I’ve worked in various flavors of containerized ocean labs my entire career, and while they are all serviceable for life at sea, they are not something I’d ever want to live in.

So why are containers a poor building choice for homes? Container manufacturers don’t waste materials. Every part of a container has a purpose, and removing any part of it compromises its structural integrity. Carve out holes for windows and doors? Now you have to add steel reinforcement. Stack them in a cool cantilever design? Containers aren’t built to stack any way but straight, better add more steel. Want to make a double wide because 8-foot wide living spaces aren’t really all that great? At that point, you’re not making a container house, you’re making a house that looks like a container.

(An aside: I am not immune to the hype. For several years me and my family did quite a bit of research into buying a nearby piece of land and building a container home, but ultimately concluded that it was not a good choice for us.)

Actual architects who know far more about designing a structure for humans to live in than me have already weighed in in far more detail:

So containers aren’t nearly as durable as you might think. They have about a 25 year lifespan, during which they will get progressively weaker. They are expensive to heat and cool in all but the most ideal climates. And when it comes to recycling, there is enough steel in a 20-foot container to frame 7 20-foot-container-sized rooms with steel studs and conventional building materials.

In a pinch, a container can be perfectly fine for a temporary structure. Are there cases where discarded containers provide a viable option for people who are housing insecure? Sure, but opportunistic housing is a tool of last resort, not a plan. Can you use them for emergency housing? Absolutely! But emergency housing isn’t the same thing as long-term housing. Are there places where the climate is just right that a container can be relatively comfortable? Probably. Is there any circumstances where plans for long-term housing should include structures with a 25-year life cycle? I doubt it.

Containers are more expensive than you think, incredibly energy inefficient, structurally weak as soon as you deviate from the standard stack, have a relatively short lifecycle relative to a conventional home, and are potentially toxic. At the end of the day, you’re better off loading a container with flat-packed pre-fabricated structures and shipping multiple homes in a TEU or two.

Even Ready Player One eschewed the container trope to go with the equally uncomfortable-looking RV stack.

Cyberpunk loves it some dystopian container cities precisely because they’re a grim image of an industrialized future where human needs are secondary to The Corporation. The container home is a symbol of society failing its people, not an aspiration. If we’re really going to draw from the future of Johnny Mnemonic, lets have fewer containers and more cyborg dolphin brain hackers.

Jones the Cyborg Navy Dolphin from Johnny Mnemonic.

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One comment

  1. WIll Thomas · January 28, 2021

    Doesn’t the 25-year life span of containers assume they’re used as containers–banged around, loaded on ships to cross oceans in storms–not set on a stable foundation and painted from time to time?

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