When most people think of shipping containers, they picture them loaded onto large cargo ships transporting consumer goods. However they are also becoming more commonly used in the construction industry as a low cost, convenient alternative to traditional building materials. Also known as steel intermodal containers, shipping containers are durable, strong and weatherproof. It is these properties that make them viable alternatives to bricks and mortar.

Intermodal containers have been used for more than just transporting goods for some time. For example, they are used in the self storage industry as storage spaces because they are secure and can be stacked on top of each other. There is now a growing trend to use them in construction too because containers are relatively low cost and there is a large amount of stock available worldwide. They can be easily transported, if you have suitable lorries and lifting equipment. They are built to standard measurements and sizes and therefore can be combined into larger, modular constructions.

An example of this is in London, UK where a shopping centre made completely of shipping containers was opened in 2011. Boxpark Mall consists of over sixty shipping containers. The stores within the shopping centre are made up of between one and three containers and provide tenants with low cost, long leases. The use of shipping containers meant that construction time was dramatically reduced. The containers could be fitted out with electrics, furnishings, partition walls, heating and windows before arriving on site and were then slotted into place.

Another example of a container-based building in the UK is the Portishead Quays shipping container hotel in Somerset. The restaurant, hotel and pub are built from traditional materials and the hotel rooms are made entirely of shipping containers. The use of shipping containers is particularly apt and provides an architectural theme because the hotel is close to the coast. The use of containers hints at their traditional use on cargo ships and echoes Bristol's past as a bustling trading port. New rooms can be easily added if there is a demand for them by fitting new containers onto the building.

Shipping container architecture is not just limited to the UK and some of the most ambitious projects can be found overseas. The biggest container city is in Keetwonen, Amsterdam. It is a student housing village built from shipping container conversions and has proved to be spacious, quiet and offers students good value for money. This is quite the opposite of many peoples' preconceptions.

Not all shipping container conversions are large scale projects. Containers can be great value permanent or temporary building solutions because they last so long and are sometimes used as an alternative to portable cabins. Popular modifications include electrics, windows, doors, plumbing, shelving and insulation. They can be connected to create custom size buildings with multi-levels joined by internal or external staircases. Side doors or curtains, roller shutters, ramps, generators and humidity controls can also be fitted.

There are some disadvantages to using containers in the construction however. Heavy lifting equipment is required to transport and move them into place and this can be expensive initially. Steel containers conduct heat more than traditional building materials and therefore may not suitable where there will be large temperature changes and can need more insulation than other constructions.

Despite these drawbacks, they will remain a viable alternative and will be used more commonly in construction as builders look to reduce costs and overheads.

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