America’s Top 10 Uses for Shipping Containers
If you buy a shipping container, what interesting uses can you find for it?
Designed to be stacked on cargo ships, shipping containers are built to be weatherproof and last for years of transoceanic trips.
The most common sizes of intermodal containers are 20 foot and 40 foot long. They’re available in two height options: 8 foot, 6 inch tall are “standard” and “high cube” are 9 foot 6 inches tall. The high cube units are becoming far more common, as the standards are slowly phased out.
Eco Friendly – used containers are recycled.
Can be the center of a unique design with a cool, industrial aesthetic.
A cost effective solution for a small business.
Let’s take a look at theTop 10 uses for shipping containers in North America.
1. International Cargo Shipping
As you are reading this, there is a very good chance that the computer or phone that you are using, the clothes that you are wearing and the coffee you are enjoying was transported to your city in a shipping container.
Most of the consumer goods in the world are shipped from manufacturing centers to consumer markets in Conex boxes or intermodal containers. An intermodal container is a large metal shipping container, designed and built for global, intermodal freight transport. The intermodal part of the name means that the container can be transported along a supply chain using different modes of transport – from ship to rail to truck – without having to unload and reload the cargo inside.
Since widespread adoption in the mid-20th century, containerized shipping revolutionized international trade by a standardizing the method of international freight transportation, making it safe and efficient to transport goods overseas to foreign markets.
According to Statistica.com, by 2019, global container transport volume reached approximately 802 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs). Measured by value, sea freight container trade accounts for approximately 60 percent of all global sea borne trade, estimated at 12 trillion U.S. dollars in 2017.
There are more Conex containers coming into the USA than there are units being refilled and exported. This imbalance leads to a surplus of empty shipping containers in the USA because shipping companies are not going to pay to return an empty cargo container to its country of origin. Exporters have found that it is more economical to keep building brand new containers, than it is to ship back the empty boxes.
This surplus supply of shipping containers around US ports leads entrepreneurs, out of the box thinkers and environmentally conscious people to look at creative ways to repurpose these empty shipping containers.
2) Home and Business Storage
Given that shipping containers are originally designed to safely store and ship many different types of goods in a secure, watertight unit, it is little surprise that many Americans buy used shipping containers to use as self storage for both home and business.
In the USA, self storage statistics report that nearly 10% of American households require extra storage space and they spend an average monthly cost of $87.89 for a self-storage unit.
Residential self storage
A majority of the people who purchase an empty Conex container are using it to store furniture and other household possessions that take up too much space in their homes. People who are moving, remodeling their homes, or needing extra, temporary space for household goods during construction or moving periods.
Long-term storage of personal belongings, car storage during the winters or storm seasons are also common uses for shipping container self storage.
Shipping container storage sheds can provide secure storage space for overflowing garages or basements. Additionally, home based business owners (such as online sellers who store and ship products through websites like EBay, Gumtree and Craigslist) need extra, storage space to warehouse their inventory.
Construction equipment and materials storage
Building contractors often employ used cargo containers on construction sites for a weatherproof and secure place to store equipment, tools and valuable building materials. During demolition of an old building, the waste materials are often put into shipping containers for easy disposal.
Many of these types of businesses employ shipping container storage in their operations.
Disaster Relief Organizations
Oil Field Operators
3. Shipping Container Restaurants
A popular trend in cities all over the USA are food trucks where independent food vendors pop-up in different locations serving hungry crowds that follow them on social media to find out where and when.
Following this concept of mobile, compact kitchens are a growing number of eateries that are popping up inside converted shipping containers.
In addition to the great food being served, many consumers like seeing things being reused, recycled, and adapted to new uses. A new shipping container restaurant can generate considerable local and online buzz, and often attract business just based off of the unique appearance and cool factor.
Often the container food vendors will prepare food in a galley-like kitchen housed in the container for to-go orders and also offer outdoors seating areas for customers. In several US cities, developers have assembled several of these container restaurants together into an outdoor food and entertainment complex.
Aprisa Mexican cuisine in Portland is a great example of a restaurant making use of shipping containers in its design.
Owner Kirk Lance cites lowered start up costs for his container and the additional considerations of sustainability and recycling and portability coming together to make the decision to build a restaurant in a shipping container.
“Here is what is happening: The U.S. is importing so many things, and exporting very little,” says Lance. “We have these shipping containers being left in droves, and we are just stacking them up. They are becoming industrial waste.” says Kirk.
The container restaurant space is compact with a total square footage under 370 sq feet, which lowers the cost of heating and cooling a small space. This saves utility expenses for a small business like Aprisa. Great locations for shipping container food and beverage vendors are parking lots of big box stores, gas stations or on vacant, undeveloped lots along high-traffic routes.
4. Shipping Container Pop Up Retail Stores
What is a “pop up” store? A pop up is a physical store location with a temporary life span.
Typically, shops open up in a vacant space in areas with walk-by traffic, like indoor or outdoor malls and busy city streets.
Shipping container shops are especially suited to seasonal types of sales. For example a boutique selling Christmas decorations or gifts; a fireworks shop on major holidays; a bicycle repair, rental or repair shop located beside a summer cycling path; or a Halloween costume store that opens during the month of October and closes after the 31st.
Pop Up shops also provide the advantage of getting media coverage when their unusual store appears somewhere in the city.
For new businesses, this free advertising can be an incredible way to promote their brand to the public.
It’s not only the tiny small boutique type shop that opens for business in a repurposed Conex container. Online-centered businesses sometimes open them to promote the online business and create a real life presence to meet customers face to face.
Established bricks and mortar businesses can open a temporary store for an event at a different location.
In Oakland, the MacArthur Annex is a shipping container project of 33 repurposed cargo containers transformed into retail spaces.
The spaces are home to an array of diverse, independent tenants like a vintage record shop, an apothecary selling a line of handmade and organic products, office spaces, and artist work studios.
There is also a restaurant and beer garden to grab a bite after you get your tarot cards read at another of the stalls.
5. Shipping Container Bars
What could be cooler than enjoying a craft beer or a cocktail in a shipping container bar? Raising a cheers in a funky, Instagrammable bar is a lot of fun and a great way for the bar to advertise their brand on social media.
Most often the bar itself is only a service area with a few stools at the bar with open outdoor seating area for customers. They are usually located in a group along side other container food service vendors in a food and beverage container complex.
There are many unique cargo container bars throughout the USA. Studio One Eleven out of California is behind a project that sees a number of shipping containers being converted into food and beverage vendors halls throughout several locations in Southern California.
A variety of small-scale, independent food venues, breweries, gardens, kids playgrounds and entertainment spaces – all made out of repurposed Conex boxes.
In Torrance, CA, SteelCraft food complex hosts a a family-run craft brewery that combines with local eateries in a communal food and beverage space in Long Beach. Smog City Brewing is the craft brewer that is creating and serving exceptional beers out of a shipping container bar. Smog City Brewing’s taproom at SteelCraft boasts 20 taps of draft beer that can be enjoyed by the glass or taken home in a “growler”.
A Quebec, Canada based developer Loki Box Design, introduced the idea for mobile Pop Up bars that are available to rent.
Companies holding a corporate function, conference, entertainment event organizers, tradeshows, festivals or even private parties can have a fully equipped mobile bar delivered to their event space.
The mobile pop up bars come in various sizes, all using eco-friendly building materials and recycled and reworked shipping containers.
6. Shipping Container Brewery and Distilleries
Have you ever enjoyed a refreshing craft brew pint that was brewed in a steel shipping container? A huge trend in the food and beverage sector, there are over 8,000+ micro-breweries operating in the U.S.
The start up costs in starting a craft brewery or distillery leads out of the box thinkers to look at building their brewing operations in converted shipping containers.
A cargo container space, construction and layout is very well suited for this type of operation. One small craft brewer in Philippines explained that it was a cost effective way to maintain the weather proof conditions for his brewing equipment. Turning Wheels Brewing used a second container for their tasting room / container, across the outdoor dining area from the brew house.
The Rockwell Beer Co. is a brewery and restaurant in St. Louis that built its brewing facility and tap room out of repurposed cargo containers for a unique and modern feeling brew pub. Rockwell Beer Co. lives on a once vacant lot that was formerly the site of a machine shop. The brewing facility itself, the warehouse and bottling area, the tasting area and retail store are all housed inside converted Conex containers.
Kentucky Copper & Kings Brandy Distillery uses recycled Conex Boxes in their distillery
The Copper & Kings brandy distillery in Butchertown, Louisville, is one of the first local businesses to look at using used cargo containers converted into buildings. The distillery also houses a retail shop and visitors center outside of the distillery.
The philosophy of sustainability is behind why Copper & Kings decided to build in shipping containers on the distillery grounds.
Wood salvaged from the distillery construction has been used to build furniture used in the buildings.
7. Shipping Container Cafés and Coffee Sales
A coffee shop is a small business ideally suited to shipping container reuse and there are many unique cafes serving lattes and cappuccinos to go out of renovated shipping containers.
A small coffee shop operation doesn’t need a lot of square footage to brew coffee and sell drinks and snacks, roast beans on site and sell roasted beans by the pound. The setup is basic: counter space and service window, back-end storage space, and perhaps a few tables and chairs placed outside the container cafe for customers. You will find container coffee shops in the corner of the parking lots of gas stations, big box stores, supermarkets or convenience store at the intersection of a high traffic area with a colorful, eye catching sign that advertises the cafe to passing drivers.
Coffee mega-brand Starbucks has experimented in some markets with stores in shipping containers.
Check out Café Bustelo, a shipping container coffee shop in the Houston neighborhood of Montrose.
It’s difficult to miss the big yellow can housing the sea container coffee shop which serves serve Latin coffee drinks like cafe con leche or a cafecito (a sweetened espresso) or a party-sized espresso. Café Bustelo also has an outdoor patio on top of the container with eye catching yellow umbrellas.
8. Shipping Container Offices
Some businesses are looking at their office space in a new way – as opposed to the bland, unifrom cubicle farms that have been the norm in the corporate world. Converting steel shipping containers into stylish, functional office space is a new trend for companies looking to make the work environment more aesthetically pleasing and modern looking.
In addition to looking smart, the shipping container offices can provide some level of privacy and noise insulation for knowledge workers who require a quiet work environment to focus. One Asian BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) brought several shipping containers in the warehouse sized space to create pods for IT workers and housing for the servers.
In an effort to supplement their existing office space, some companies have looked to outfit workers with additional office space in shipping containers.
Connex is a new Dallas based shipping container office complex.
The Connex Office Park – a three-story assembly of Conex containers made into office space in Texas. The Connex container office park was built out of 40 renovated sea containers with enough space for 30 offices and other small businesses. The 160 sq.ft. offices are designed for a single occupant, with some flexibility for additional people if configured accordingly.
9. Shipping Container Swimming Pool
Who originally came up with the idea for making a swimming pool out of a shipping container? This might be the least likely shipping container use on our list!
In fact, using a shipping container is a very efficient way to create a swimming pool as shipping container pools are entirely above-ground pools, no excavation work is necessary on the property. Some work is required to ready the container for swimmers such as cutting a hole in the side for a glass wall, but the results look ultra cool.
Some companies have come up with the idea of selling a container pool as a complete kit. The kit includes filtration system, lighting, and simply needs to be connected to an electrical supply and filled with water.
The 20ft and 40ft (8 foot depth) shipping container swimming pools can be transported to the property and dropped into place.
A British company is offering Aquaflex-lined pools outfitted with filters, heat pumps, underwater lights and ladders as standard setup.
10. Garden Containers
The reuse of old shipping containers is linked with the philosophy of being environmentally friendly – instead of being melted down – the old cargo boxes are “upcycled” into a way to produce healthy food for the community.
Several companies are transforming the empty steel containers into indoor farms or greenhouses that grow a surprising variety of flowers, fruits, vegetables and herbs in urban settings.
The Growtainer™ company calls them the ‘portable production facility of the future’ that has a fully functional “greenhouse” built inside the steel Conex container.
Another company – Crop Box – is using their container grow spaces to cultivate a variety of crops with a surprising yield.
Each CropBox unit can fit 2800 planting spots within its 320 square feet. The “Farm in a Box” boasts that it can produce an “acre’s worth of crops” inside the outfitted shipping container grow room.
Each container garden is outfitted with all of the necessary hydroponic components: reservoir, pump, controls, grow lights, planting racks, a heating and ventilation system.
Techies will be interested to know the CropBox garden is monitored and networked so that the operations can be viewed and managed from a your mobile device, with a complete log of records for analyzing the garden’s performance.