One of the more reliable tropes of classic cyberpunk literature was the use of shipping containers as residences. Neal Stephenson used it in one of his novels, and William Gibson used it twice -- once in a novel, and again in a script he wrote for The X-Files. In cyberpunk lore, the shipping-container-cum-home was emblematic of both the "street finds it own uses for things" attitude and the life on the edge situation of the characters. As with many science fiction ideas, reality eventually caught up with the writers' imaginations, but perhaps not in the way they had anticipated.
Sunday's New York Times had a great short article about the increasingly commonplace use of shipping containers as residential and commercial building modules in South Africa (and, apparently, elsewhere in the developing world). The article includes a set of photos illustrating the ways in which standard shipping containers get used. The 20-foot-long containers are ideal replacements for the trash-bag-roof shanties which dot the landscape of developing world urban areas.
Shipping containers, which must survive harsh conditions during their travels, lose their seaworthiness in 5-10 years, after which they're typically sold for scrap. The article notes that Safmarine, a major global shipping concern, actually gives away old containers to schools and charities -- 7,000 of them since 1991.
"The street finds its own uses for things." All too true -- especially when the street is a dusty road on the outskirts of Soweto.
Right near where I lived in Singapore, just off of Serangoon road near Little India, they were building a new extension to the MRT, the city state's wonderful metro system. Anyway, I was shocked to discover that the stacks of shipping containers on site had human occupants, mainly hundreds of Bangledeshi men, imported by the boat loads to do unwanted yucky jobs like construction.
A good deal less gritty, but similar economics: the (historically cash-strapped) Brooklyn paddling club I belong to uses shipping containers for boat storage. Not the most sightly structures, but they've been painted and maintained over the years, and certainly have done the job at a very low cost.
The land the club uses is leased from the Parks Department, which is demanding that we get rid of the containers as part of a major upgrade of our grounds and facilities.
You don't need to go all the way to the third world for this. The folks at the Shipyard in Berkeley use stacked shipping containers as their artist studios. (And because the city yanked their electricity, they use their own generator running on biodiesel.) These are no pottery-and-paints studios, either: they build big fire-art, kinetic metal viciousness, and other miscellany, much of which can be seen at Burning Man.
I was just at the Cooper-Hewit in NYC this past weekend. Saw the "Future Shack"
Shipping containers, as housing for refugees. The result of a competition of these guys:
There were some other cool, reuse type strucutures in the competition, one of shipping palettes
Check out these people too: Starfish Initiative who send shipping containers full of educational equipment over to developing countries......