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January 24, 2018

What do Containers and Houses have in common?

I’m an architect, so I know all too well that your mind is probably going straight to “how can containers be used as houses?” but that’s not what this post is about. It’s about efficiency of space.

Before containers, before the ISO decided how big and long they should be, and before cranes replaced longshoreman who used to put bags of coffee over their backs and carry it from the ship to the shore, the method of packing a ship was to just throw everything in the hull and fill up the space and then set sail.

While this packing and unpacking method is very, very inefficient, and a lot slower than cranes and containers, the use of space was actually pretty good. Every corner was occupied by something that needed to get shipped.

With containers, you really only have two sizes: 12,2m x 2,44m x 2,6m or the half size, 6,06m x 2,44m x 2,6m. That’s basically it. They are standard so that they fit in the rails of all ships and the clasps of all cranes, which makes sense, but how much space is wasted with this method? What if I was shipping statue giraffes across the ocean in a container. A rough estimate would say that only about 40% of the space inside the container would be occupied. The rest would just be air.

If containers could adjust, concertina style (vertically and horizontally), we would have a lot less air in containers, and would therefore be able to fit a whole lot more containers on a ship and a truck.

I know that one of the advantages of having a standard size is simplicity of packing, but there are already algorithms that track each container’s owner and where it should be placed on the ship so that it can be off-loaded in the right location. All it would take is another layer on that algorithm to determine how best to place these containers on the ship to maximize the space they have availible.

Now, that means the ability to ship more goods on the same size or smaller vessels and a significant amount of fuel/money/waste saved.

So what do houses have to do with this?

Well, it’s pretty much the same thing. Let’s say I live in a 2 bedroom apartment that is 100m² with my wife. At any one time, we’re occupying no more than 10m² collectively. Take into account some peripheral space to avoid claustrophobia, and you can argue that at any given time, we’re using 20% of our house. That means that I’m paying for 80% that I’m not using. Not the same 80% all the time, but at any given time, 80% of my house is unused and being paid for.

Imagine if, like the containers proposed above, our houses could adapt only to what we needed at the time. Bathing? You only need a bathroom. Cooking? You only need a kitchen. I don’t think it’s too far off that houses could move and adapt around the people that are using them at that current point in time, just like containers could adapt to what’s inside of them. It just seems like a more efficient use of space.

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