For years, designers have used old shipping containers to construct new single- and multi-family housing. Now, perhaps as a sign of our cost-conscious and eco-minded times, unrelated architects on opposite coasts are expanding this concept to another building type: commercial offices.
Distill Studio designed The Box Office for Providence, Rhode Island. Click on the slide show icon to see renderings, photos, and drawings.
HyBrid Architecture designed c3600 for Seattle. Click on the slide show icon to view renderings, photos, and drawings.
Next month in Providence, Rhode Island, on-site assembly is slated to begin on a project by Distill Studio. Dubbed the Box Office, the project takes 32 cargo containers—most of which measure 40 feet long by 8 feet wide and 9.5 feet high—and combines them into a 10,000-square-foot office building located in a gentrifying neighborhood on the city’s west side. Rather than disassemble the corrugated steel boxes, or disguise them with a new skin, principal Joe Haskett, a registered architect, treated them as discrete structural units—stacking and cantilevering the blocks to create a rectangular, three-story complex. “It’s an Adolf Loos-ian approach: don’t adorn it if you don’t need it,” he says. “It also makes a statement about being frugal.”
Cargo containers remain water-tight during ocean voyages, Haskett adds, but they require interior modifications to become habitable. These include spraying walls with a 2.5-inch layer of foam and, leaving a half-inch plenum, installing batt insulation finished with sheetrock. Other enhancements, such as high-performance windows and air-to-air heat pumps, mean Box Office will consume 25 percent less energy than a traditional building, according to Haskett.
Developer Peter Gill Case, of Truth Box, Inc., hopes to achieve further reductions by offering financial incentives to tenants, and sharing energy usage data among the tenants. “Knowing how others perform spurs competition,” says Case, who, like Haskett, will occupy a suite when the project opens in 2010. “It becomes an energy smack down.”
Likewise, c3600, a Seattle project by HyBrid Architecture, aims to be an exemplar by incorporating a green roof and walls, above-ground water retention, and myriad other sustainable features. Even with these sometimes pricey systems, constructing the 7,200-square-foot commercial showroom and offices will cost 20 to 40 percent less than a conventional project, says principal Joel Egan.
Cargo containers account for the savings. Crews hoisted into place all 12 boxes in just four hours on June 18. “That’s one advantage of doing modular construction: speed of assembly,” Egan observes. His design overcomes a disadvantage of containers, their limited width, by stacking boxes into columns of three, leaving two 20-foot gaps between stacks and enclosing those areas with glass cladding and a SIP roof supported by open-web steel trusses. The gaps, or spines, will contain showrooms and offices; the pods will house service elements such as restrooms and kitchenettes.  
Although HyBrid trademarked the term “cargotecture” for the concept, principal Robert Humble, AIA, admits that the Container City office and multifamily complexes, in London, as well as Shigeru Ban’s Nomadic Museum, which has been traveling the globe since 2005, inspired him.
Similarly, HyBrid is designing cargotecture—such as modular retail strip in Westport, Washington—that is intended to be mobile. The mini shopping mall, which contains a common service core onto which developers can add or subtract prefab pods, can be constructed on empty lots that await permanent development. They can be moved to another parcel once they’re no longer needed. “We believe there’s a better use for vacant properties than parking lots,” Humble says.