The Reinvention of the Shipping Container

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Shipping containers are important for the industry. It has been estimated that, at any given moment, there are 24 million containers that are empty and have been retired. More and more people and companies are finding new and interesting ways to use these containers. If you are asking, “are there shipping containers near me?” the answer is probably yes and there are a lot of things you can do with them. CNN looked at the evolution of the shipping container uses in the United States and around the globe.

Malcolm McLean was delivering some cotton in 1937 when he had an idea. At the time people loaded the cotton onto boats by hand. McLean saw this was a slow process and standing there, in Hoboken, New Jersey, he vowed to improve the way this was handled.

It took him 20 years but McLean developed a metal container that could be moved directly from a truck to a ship. That meant the cotton could be packaged into a shipping container at the site where it was harvested. The New York Times dubbed his invention “trailer vans” and they were off to the races in 1956. His invention changed the way the shipping industry moved goods. Later, it would do more than that.

In the 1960s people starting asking “are there shipping containers near me?” for a new host of reasons. These steel boxes are easy to move, sturdy, and affordable. That was the decade when they began to be used at trade shows as display booths. The use for these containers changed again in the late 1980s when people saw they could be used to make affordable housing. In 1994, Stuart Brand, known most for his affiliation to the magazine, the Whole Earth Catalog, wrote “How Buildings Learn” about different uses for storage containers.

Adam Kalkin is considered to be the father of “cargotecture,” which is architecture using cargo containers. He is an American architect who has used shipping containers to build orphanages in South Africa and luxury homes in the United States. One of his works is often cited as one of the most elegant uses of containers being made into other things. In 2003, he built his “12 Container House.” This is an iconic use of the storage containers for housing.

A lot has changed since the early days of cargotecture. More and more people are asking “are there shipping containers near me?” because the variety of homes and the styles in which they can be built has grown dramatically since the first homes were built. There are some that are on the lower end of the price spectrum. There are shipping containers that are made into eco-friendly homes. In fact, Amazon sells these kinds of homes for about $23,000.

Then there are people who want to have homes, made from shipping containers, that blow people away. Just outside of the Joshua Tree National Park in California, a 2,100 square foot home will be built this year. This will feature a series of shipping containers that seem to bust out from a single point.

Architects like to ask, “are there shipping containers near me?” because using them as the substrate for buildings is a challenge. London architect, James Whitaker, says he likes taking the modules and seeing what kind of space he can make with them.

More and more organizations are looking to buy shipping containers for a number of other reasons. They work well for temporary housing for students, emergency housing, school classrooms, pop up stores, office space, swimming pools, and greenhouses. Around the planet, they have been made into hospitals, art museums, and playgrounds. The number of things they can be used for is pretty much endless. PayPal founder, Peter Thiel has even talked about putting shipping containers together to form floating cities and communities that would be their own countries.

A lot has changed in the world since Malcolm McLean pondered the best way to move cotton in Hoboken, New Jersey. The chances are good that he never expected people to ask “are there shipping containers near me?” nor did he probably think that his invention would be used for the number of things we use them for today.

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