Container shipping

Page 6 – Afterlife of shipping containers

Exposed to harsh sea conditions and handling, containers have a limited life with shipping companies and box leasing firms. Every year about a million leave the transport sector. Some are lost at sea (either with their ships or by being swept overboard, to become a hazard to navigation) and others are written off in handling accidents. Some very badly damaged or corroded boxes are scrapped, but most pass into the hands of a new industry that has arisen to modify them for other uses, or sell or lease them. The term ‘container architecture’ was coined to cover this expanding field.

What are they used for? Just about everything. Containers serve as sleep-outs, garden sheds, workshops, artists’ studios, outdoor storage facilities, sales offices, ticket offices, cafes, site offices, portable toilets and shower blocks. A British country house used refrigerated containers to kill bugs that were infesting antique carpets. Container hotels can be found in London and container student dormitories in Amsterdam. Over the last 20 years Safmarine Container Lines has donated more than 8000 redundant containers through its  ‘Containers-in-the-Community’ programme for use as houses, hostels, restaurants, schools, pharmacies, shops and healthcare centres.

Closer to home, in 2009 the New Zealand government began converting containers into prison cells: Unit 11, the first 60-bed container unit, opened a year later at Rimutaka Prison. After the 22 February 2011 Canterbury earthquake, the authorities placed walls of containers behind houses to protect them from rock falls; elsewhere, they were scattered through city streets, protecting roads from dangerously damaged buildings and providing safe spaces for recovery workers. Westpac Bank converted a container into a ‘money box’ for use at the city’s damaged shopping centres. A shipping container was used to seal off the Pike River coal mine following the fatal explosions in November 2010.

In Whanganui, a local company erected walls of containers around the Masters Games venue to reduce sound levels for local residents. In Wellington, the company atelierworkshop markets the Port-a-Bach, containers converted into luxurious holiday homes. Wellington suburb Happy Valley boasts a much-photographed family home made from shipping containers.

Container stories

Can you tell us about other examples of how people have used shipping containers? Please contribute your stories below, or email your images to [email protected]

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'Afterlife of shipping containers', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 28-Sep-2021

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