Does the sight of absurd architectural projects containing shipping containers make you cringe? Do you break into a cold sweat merely at the thought of people living in steel boxes that are as prone to overheating as a car parked under a high-noon July sun? Have you seen one too many a design project that stacks containers as though they were Jenga blocks? Have you had it with rusty containers from which string lights emanate and overpriced beer is served?
You are not alone. Many people, including many architects (yes, architects are people too), abhor shipping containers, instantly dismissing any project that contains them for seemingly no reason other than that: containing them. This is entirely understandable, of course, as containers were never designed for human occupation. Indeed, the shipping container sums up everything that is wrong with contemporary society, as this internationally standardized logistics device is what enables a global economy based on the gluttonous over-consumption of disposable products that are designed in California, made in China, shipped through Singapore, sold around the world in minimalist flagship stores, and then dumped in Ghana after only a year or two. Architectural shipping container projects have come to be labelled everything from “inhumane” to “macho tech bro architecture” by experts in these matters. You know these kinds of projects are definitely not having their best moment when a Guardian editor headlines an early story about the subject of this post “Sardine tins for the poor“.
Well, here goes a serious review about these very sardine tins: APROP (Allotjaments de proximitat, or “accommodation of proximity”), recently completed in the middle of Barcelona’s historic Gothic Quarter, is a prefabricated housing project incorporating 16 used shipping containers. But before you start rolling your eyeballs into the upper reaches of your eye sockets while imagining the worst, please stay calm and read on. This is not your typical, attention-grabbing container architecture project, but an experimental prototype that could potentially have a broader impact on housing affordability. It deserves to be studied carefully.
Firstly, containers are nowhere to be seen in this building, as they are buried deep within layers of thermal insulation and finishing materials both inside and out, where there’s even a double-skin facade. So what, you might be asking, is the point of using containers if you can’t see them? Good question. We’ll get to aesthetic issues later, after more pressing performance-related questions of affordability, expediency, and sustainability.
Barcelona has a serious problem: housing is highly overpriced, affordable only to expats or those who come from what are euphemistically referred to in Catalonia as famílies de bé or “good families”, which is to say ones with spare cash to stash in Andorran banks. Ever since it became absurdly more profitable for landlords to rent flats to tourists rather than locals via platforms such as AirBnB, the price of rental housing has gone through the roof (though this is hopefully now reverting). The result? Increasing numbers of evicted persons for whom some sort of emergency accommodation needs to be built as quickly and as economically as possible by a city council left cash-strapped by the last economic crisis.
The architects of this prototype, Straddle 3 (working together with Jon Begiristain and Yaiza Terré), were commissioned by Barcelona City Council after collaborating on an ambitious affordable housing research initiative, ATRI, involving architects, academics, and housing rights activists. Straddle 3 is a collective who have been tinkering for many years with low-cost “tactical” architecture, gaining experience in building projects characterized by the reuse of industrial and commercial byproducts. Shipping containers that are no longer seaworthy and have therefore been retired from circulation are dirt cheap as they are considered scrap metal, apt for little more than melting down and recycling. It’s always much better, of course, to reuse something before recycling it, so it makes sense to find architectural uses for these boxes other than storage sheds for gardens or construction sites. But are they appropriate to live or work in? Not ideally, perhaps, but then we inhabit a world that is increasingly far from being ideal. It has to be remembered that in this case, the dwellings are actually temporary shelters: the intended use here is to provide an emergency home for no more than five years; hopefully long enough to get one’s life back on track.
One of the smartest things about this building, which greatly helped to reduce costs, is the fact that containers are not only designed to be prefabricated dwelling units, but also the bulk of the building’s very structural system. Containers can withstand stacking up to 9 units high when loaded, and unlike many other architectural projects in which they are supported by some sort of structural frame, this one takes full advantage of the significant structural capacity of these modules (don’t worry: the retired containers selected to be used here were inspected for structural soundness). In this case, a self-supporting cluster of containers four wide by four tall is elevated above the ground plane by one-story high steel “pilotis” in order to create a more open and transparent ground floor communal area.
Three dwellings occupy each residential floor of which one –the corner unit– is a larger double-container two-bedroom apartment while the other two are single-module one-bedroom units. The site of the project is an empty urban corner lot located within earshot of Las Ramblas where a decrepit building was torn down about a decade ago and used in the interim as a tiny, tactical “pocket park”. The reason this building has a double facade is that the city of Barcelona’s urbanism bylaws for this dense historical district require building volumes to extend exactly to front- and side- property lines, leaving a margin of extra space between the container cluster and the rather irregularly shaped Medieval plot of land.
The building’s ground floor contains an entrance lobby leading to the dwellings above and a generously glazed storefront corner with space for commercial or institutional activity. On the upper floors, a stair and elevator tower open onto an outdoor gallery access deck facing a lightwell that is shared with an adjacent building. This covered outdoor deck, wider than required by the Spanish building code, allows a sliver of “in-between” space to be appropriated by dwellers for growing plants or sitting outside. Indeed, the apartments’ entrance doors are glass, enabling their least private space, the living room, to receive some natural light and permit summer cross-ventilation. A communal roof garden is also provided for the residents.
The dwelling units themselves are of course the architecture that is most constricted by the dimensions of shipping containers, and so this is where scrutiny must be directed. The two-bedroom dwellings made out of two containers are not a problem at all: considering that this is affordable housing, they are very generously laid out. It is the single-container dwelling that pushes the limits of livability with its interior width of only 2.2 meters. This is certainly too narrow for a dwelling, not only functionally but especially psychologically, and could only be permitted by code because of the temporary nature of the accommodation. All bedrooms are 2.2 m narrow, but tiny bedrooms are actually quite typical in many traditional Spanish dwellings.
What makes this container architecture successful is precisely the fact that containers are nowhere to be seen. Architectural moralists who believe that the structure of a building should always be visible will undoubtedly be disappointed by this project, but that is in turn what makes this project ethical. If these containers had been left visible on the exterior, not only would they overheat in Barcelona’s steamy summers, but the inhabitants would be stigmatized as second-class citizens. The architectural normalcy achieved here is actually what is needed: does architecture always need to be “disruptive”, attention-grabbing and obnoxious? The point is that old containers, more than a tiresome aesthetic cliché, can be used to make architecture circular in the “cyclical”, cradle-to-cradle sense of the word, placing the question of eco-efficiency above that of style; ethics over aesthetics. APROP cost little to build, was completed in only months, and in the process emitted much less CO2 than a concrete, steel or masonry equivalent. The building even looks intriguing to boot. In the event that it needs to be removed, it can be dismantled the same way it was assembled and rebuilt again elsewhere. Circular architecture has never appeared so square.