Whitaker studio

When you think of shipping containers, you might be more quick to picture industrial shipyards than home improvement projects. Even so, these long steel boxes seem to keep popping up as part of new architectural and sustainable housing projects all over the world.

This naturally begs the question: who on earth would want to live in a steel container? Surely we have all seen used them as cramped offices on construction sites, but what could possess someone to want to move into one permanently? The truth is that ‘cargotecture’ homes actually have a great deal to offer potential homemakers, whether they are building on a budget or looking to design something bold and impressive.

An important thing to realise right from the start is that cargotecture homes are not merely shipping containers with furniture thrown inside; in fact, they can be designed with any number of home comforts built in. Wisconsin based MODS International recently made the news when it started selling steel container homes on Amazon. Rather than being industrial cages or glorified static caravans, however, these units come with full fixtures, appliances, air conditioning, insulation and hookups ready to be connected to water, plumbing and electrical utilities. In short, they seem to offer everything that a homeowner might need, short of land to place them on.

Google shipping

From a structural standpoint too, steel shipping containers are ideal for creating new homes. They are engineered, first and foremost, to be strong and durable, with a design that is relatively simple to alter and make additions to. Most cargotecture companies can customise a shipping container in just a few weeks before delivering it and finishing the assembly on site. Best of all, as the containers are virtually self supporting, they can usually be installed with little to no foundations.

Even in terms of planning shipping containers offer a number of key advantages. As cargotecture homes are not typically classed as permanent structures, they can usually be placed and connected to utilities without the need for planning permission. They are also an excellent choice for creating eco friendly homes as not only do they repurpose valuable steel but they also cut down on the need for less sustainable materials like cement.

The growth of cargotecture is making it much harder to take shipping containers at face value. There are so many high-profile examples out there that the perks of utilising containers in construction are hard to deny, let alone ignore. To show just what the gutsy metal boxes are capable of, here are some of our favourite cargotecture projects, designed and built with steel shipping containers!


The Devil’s Corner, Cumulus Studio, Tasmania

Sitting in one of Tasmania’s largest vineyards, the Devil’s Corner Cellar Door and Lookout are excellent practical examples of the benefits of building with shipping containers. The timber cladding of the tower gives way to an unapologetically industrial interior, letting tourists appreciate the components that make up the structure.

Working with shipping containers offered a number of key advantages for this project. While the containers offered in-built structural integrity, their modular shape also serves the aesthetic purpose of providing perfectly framed views of the surrounding landscape. 

Cumulus studio

Crucially, the shape of the containers also made them easy to transport, allowing the designers to assemble most of the building in segments offsite before craning them into place. For such a remote location, this was a huge benefit. 

The project won a number of prizes in the 2016 Tasmanian Architecture Awards and was recognised at the 2016 National Architecture Awards with a National Commendation for Commercial Architecture. Reviewing his visit to Devil’s Corner on Google, Alex Passmore said it was worth stopping there just for the “super sweeping views” from the tower.

Cumulu Studios said: “The three distinct spaces reference different and unique views of the site – firstly the SKY, then the HORIZON and lastly the TOWER which winds its way upward providing views to each of the compass points before culminating in an elevated and expansive view of the bay.”

Cumulus Studio

Picture Credit: Tanja Milbourne


Urban Rigger, Big, Denmark

One of the most obvious benefits of re-using shipping containers is their wide availability. Used all over the world, the containers are cheap and easy to get ahold of. Unfortunately, once they reach the end of their working life they are often melted down or simply left abandoned.

Danish architecture company Big recognised the potential that such a resource could offer as a means of solving the growing issue of student housing in Europe. According to the Danish Construction Association, 130,000 more homes will be required by 2020 in Denmark alone due to increasing urbanisation, as well as a growing and ageing population. 

This was what led to the creation of ‘Urban Rigger’: a floating structure capable of utilising empty space in the harbours, rivers and canals of major European cities. Not only does this offer a solution to the lack of land for building new student housing, it also presents a far more economical alternative to expensive brick and mortar residences. 

You see, unlike a number of cargotecture companies, Urban Rigger did not utilise new shipping containers - all of the boxes used to build the project are well used!

Urban Rigger

These are not your typical low class student digs, either: the property includes three individual student residences, a courtyard, kayak landing, bathing platform, BBQ area and a communal roof terrace. There is even an underwater pontoon (basement) with its own fully automated laundry.

“Bjarke Ingels designed URBAN RIGGER using the additional building principles for connectivity and has thus achieved unprecedented flexibility in the floating elements, so that the concept can easily be assembled in floating apartment blocks of varying size as needed and desired,” says Urbanrigger.com “We offer the patented Urban Rigger concept in all ports, river and canal intensive cities worldwide.”

The CO2-neutral property also makes use of a number of recently developed sustainable materials and technologies. The upper containers are fitted with solar panels, while energy saving pumps provide heating, circulation, drinking water and waste management. The property also utilises seawater for hydro-source heating, keeping residents comfortably warm all year round.

Speaking from my own experience, there are certainly worse student residences out there!

Urban Rigger

Image Credit: Urban Rigger/ Laurent de Carniere


Copia Cabins, Lucas Steyn, South Africa

Sometimes the best thing about an incredible building is how it can inspire others. This was just what happened with Lucas Steyn, the owner of Copia Cabins, when he first saw how shipping containers were being utilised in property design.

“Copia was an idea that started 3 years ago while scrolling around on a popular social website when I came across a picture of a used shipping container that someone had converted into an amazing living space,” writes Lucas. “I was amazed at what they had achieved and I became obsessed with used container conversions and the endless possibilities all while doing my little bit to recycle.”

The result of his obsession was a beautiful holiday cabin that offers all the comforts of a brick and mortar property. Looking at the first ‘Copia Cabin’, the bare black steel of the container might make you feel uncertain about just how homely such a building could possibly be.

Copia Cabin

Once inside, however, this doubt vanishes. The interior of the Copia Cabin has a crisp and comfortable contemporary design. An open-plan living area gives the property a surprisingly spacious feel, while the excellent choice of colour, metal accents and accessories makes the place seem more like a miniature apartment than a former shipping container. If you are looking for signs of overbearing industry, you will not find them here!

Nor is there any shortage of home comforts, despite the property being off the grid. Solar panels provide electricity, an indoor fireplace supplies the building with heat and guests can even enjoy a dip in a wood fired hot tub.

Writing about her stay in the first Copia Cabin, fashion and fine art photographer Sarah Le Sueur praised the work that went into the property.

“Every minor design detail from the decor items to the crockery and cutlery has been beautifully curated to ensure that the cabin truly does ooze luxury.”

Since completing the first cabin, Lucas has already built a second and has plans for several more. While he admits that the initial project took a great deal of “blood, sweat and tears”, he has no doubt demonstrated just how attractive a cargotecture home can be, even in a small package.

Copia Cabin

Image credit: Sarah Silva & Bradyn Hopking


Joshua Tree Residence, Whitaker Studio, USA

If we had to choose just one property to show to people who stick their noses up at cargotecture, the Joshua Tree Residence would undoubtedly be it.

While construction on the building is not set to begin until next year, the design alone makes an incredible impression. Whitaker Studio envisioned a structure with an exoskeleton of shipping containers, all painted white and set at angles that give the appearance of a desert flower in full bloom.

“Earlier this year my client in LA had some friends visiting and, having a little time to spare, they all went on a road trip to visit the client’s plot of land in Joshua Tree,” said designer James Whitaker. “One of the friends said, “you know what would look great here?”, before opening her laptop to show everyone a picture she’d seen on the internet. The picture was of an office that I’d designed several years ago but had never been built, so the next time the client was in London he got in touch and asked to meet up.”

Joshua Tree Residence Whitaker Studios

The comparison with one of the native desert plants is particularly apt given how the property will take advantage of its environment. The location itself was chosen for a naturally formed gully which will provide the residence with shelter and privacy, while the angles of each container will create perfectly framed views from almost anywhere in the house.

Once finished, the building will contain a living room, kitchen, dining area, three bedrooms, a garage and a wooden deck merged with the hillside. Electricity will, as you might expect, be generated via solar power.

What really stands out about this building is its sheer fancy. Whitaker admitted that the filmmaker who commissioned the property is a “dream client” for his background in “nurturing creative projects to fruition”.

The Joshua Tree Residence simply blows misconceptions about cargotecture right out of the water, giving us a taste of what can be done once you start thinking outside the box (so to speak).

Joshua Tree Residence Whitaker Studios

Image Credit: Whitaker Studio


Zigloo Domestique, Zigloo, Canada

If you want to demonstrate the potential value of something like cargotecture, it is important to apply it to everyday life as well as more artistic buildings. The Zigloo Domestique is one such project, answering the question of what it would look like if a cargotecture home suddenly appeared in a typical suburban neighbourhood.

“The concept is to fit shipping containers onto a small urban lot with a rational efficient plan,” wrote Zigloo creator Keith Dewey on the Zigloo website. “Priority is given to simplifying the interior space while honing the design approach to create a new aesthetic … residustrial style. The harmonizing of residential and industrial styles to create a cohesive living space.”

This ‘residustrial’ character is achieved through a number of design elements. While the shipping containers are not hidden, the property’s exterior is painted in a way that softens the visual impact of the steel. It further distances itself from a solely industrial aesthetic with an attractive curved roof, making the property seem more at home in a neighbourhood of standard houses.

Zigloo Domestique

Sustainability, too, is at the heart of the Zigloo Domestique. The eight 20-foot shipping containers used in its construction were bought at scrap value, with the frames forming the structure of the building and the tops repurposed as perimeter fencing. 

According to Dewey, the purpose of the project was to “entice people to think differently about the way we live and to demonstrate that living sustainably doesn’t mean ‘living without’.”

Indeed, the Zigloo Domestique offers three bedrooms and two bathrooms over three floors, in addition to a mechanical room and an open plan living space on the main floor. The property enjoys a full range of home appliances, ample space and even more luxurious features like underfloor heating. Certainly, no home comforts were left out of the Zigloo Domestique.

The first Zigloo project has proved popular, leading to a number of new projects being commissioned not just in Canada but also abroad. 

It naturally begs the question: who wouldn’t want to live in a steel container?

Zigloo Domestique

Image credit: Nik West (photography)