Cargo containers certainly achieve the “cool-factor”, but at a cost. No doubt that rapid installation is most effective when the structure arrives ready to the site, but the process of creating and designing shipping containers can impact the bottom-line, the environment, and the people they serve.

Cargo containers that seem to be the newest fad in building homes, apartments, parks and even coffee shops, as demonstrated by the short-lived roll-out of Starbucks concepts, are often very over-designed and cost-prohibitive to retrofit. The process of refurbishing cargo containers can create an exorbitant amount of waste from rust removal with floors and paints selected for international travel that include toxic elements. Container-based construction provides strict limitations for internal width and the corrugated walls are hard to insulate and often have to be replaced with structural beams when removed.

Container developments are praised for their green and LEED certified features, although the process of making the containers environmentally friendly is not truly green. The average container eventually produces nearly a thousand pounds of hazardous waste before it can be used as a structure.

The attraction to shipping containers is the handling system, the infrastructure of ships, trains, cranes and trucks that move them around and can do so at a fraction of the cost of break-bulk shipping. The transportation of these Lego-like units is what globalized their use.

The community public embraced Starbuck’s modern modular construction and innovative store types, receiving local and national media coverage. No question that this was a cool idea that provided re-locatable stores for the world’s largest coffee chain, but in many areas, it is cheaper and more efficient to build a similarly scaled structure using wood framing. Shipping containers make sense where resources are scarce, containers are in abundance, and where people are in need of immediate shelter such as, developing nations and disaster relief. While there are certainly beautiful and innovative examples of architecture using cargo containers, it is typically not the best method of design and construction.