CORPUS Magazine

Living in a box

When accommodation becomes scarce and barely affordable in urban centers, new ideas are called for. Like those of the architect Travis Price: Using decommissioned freight containers, he has designed a residence hall for up to 24 students in the heart of Washington’s university neighborhood.


Urbanization is a megatrend that has been accompanying us for over a century and poses a growing challenge for the future. The OECD anticipates that two thirds of the world’s population will be living in metropolitan areas by 2050.

Today, cities account for only three percent of the earth’s surface, yet they consume three fourths of all resources. At the same time, urban regions are the innovative mover behind visionary projects and sustainable housing strategies. Despite the increasing shortage of open space, the task involves organizing the cohabitation of a steadily growing, heterogeneous society – from both the social and ecological viewpoints. Cargotecture is one of the forward-looking global trends in densely populated cities and involves the conversion of disused shipping containers into modern dwellings. The idea for such a project in Washington, D. C., designed to offer students personalized and inexpensive alternative housing, comes from architect Travis Price – an approach that holds much promise much for the future.

1: Creating comfortable housing in limited space – a challenge posed by the growing cities of today and tomorrow.
2: A possible solution is modular buildings of disused shipping containers.
3: In Washington, D.C., students’ accommodation consisting of 18 single apartments on three levels has been created on this principle.
4: Combined with other construction materials, decommissioned containers become modern housing.

12 meters long, 2.3 meters wide and 2.3 meters high – these are the rough inside measurements of a 40 ft. standard container, millions of which ply the world’s oceans. In Cargotecture projects, shipping containers are experiencing a “second life” as modern dwelling modules with roughly 27 m² of floor space – inclusive of variations on the modular principle. In the Washington Brookland neighborhood near the Catholic University of America, a student residence hall comprising 18 individual apartments on three levels was erected in this way in summer 2014. With the aid of thermal and acoustic insulation and an inner lining of wood, decommissioned freight containers from Baltimore’s harbor have been converted into tiny apartments espousing modern design and a go-green outlook. Potential scrap has instead become highly original housing. Plenty of daylight is provided by glass elements that combine with wood and steel as the basic material to express an exciting facet of contemporary urban architecture. The project illustrates how ecologically and economically innovative homes can be created in cities with limited vacant space. There’s no shortage of building material for similar schemes: in the USA alone, some 700,000 containers are waiting for a new lease of life.

The archeology of tomorrow is the architecture of today.

Travis Price
In the future it will not be the amount of floor space that counts, but mobility opportunities and comfort.

Ground has already been broken by urban gardening – and by the restoration economy that puts existing buildings to new uses and upgrades them ecologically. Urban planning that aims to embody current conceptions of ecology, functionalism, versa-tility and design requires suitably configured construction materials. It is no longer enough for modern acoustic and thermal insulation to just insulate, for it must also save space. Whether inspirational ideas like Cargotecture will have a broad and sustainable impact depends essentially on the development of such materials, because only they are capable of turning four walls, a floor and a ceiling of steel into a cozy and habitable home. Microhousing is a serious proposition for urban living of the future not only from the urban planner’s point of view. For infrastructure-wise as well, mini-homes promote a sustainable life-style. Any occupant of an affordable and yet centrally located apartment in the city is very likely to travel via the public transportation network, by bike or on foot. Urban agglome-rations will evidently play a key role in resource conservation in the coming decades. Innovative ideas and projects like Travis Price’s in Washington, D.C., are one avenue open to the cities of the future.


Wood and plenty of glass contrasting with steel as the core material impartwarmth and lightness to the Cargotecture building.

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