You see them sitting lonely in corners of carparks, dotted around deserted scrubland, behind heras fencing on building sites, in back yards and even driveways. They have become the all-purpose storage containers for our times: whatever is excess, left-over or being saved for the future can be housed here, albeit temporarily. Their weather-worn and colourful facades belie nothing of what cargo they hold or what seas they have crossed.
Landlocked shipping containers: a strange phenomenon of our times. They are, as one of the people I work with at The Ecology Centre put it, ‘really just big rusty boxes’, both in the public’s perception of them and in the actual state that those that convert them often find them. The Ecology Centre is converting a number of old shipping containers into The Tool Shed (a space where volunteers refurbish old hand tools to then send on to craftspeople in Africa). The container conversions have been and continue to be carried out over the last year or so that the centre has owned its site. The labourers have been a large number of people – some with professional building trades or skills in carpentry or welding, others without. Together, they have placed the basic rectangular, corrugated metal forms of the containers in a staggered line and joined them together. The containers now house fascinating objects in various stages of refurbishment, with many stories of their own to tell, and they face into a triangular courtyard-to-be that sits between them and the Passive building also being built on site.
They arrived on site after being chosen by Alison the Ecology Centre’s Development Manager, who describes (marvelling, but with some sense of the strangeness of the activity) how one is encouraged at the container depot in Cumbernauld to get a few containers down from huge stacks in order to be able to ‘have a look’ before purchasing. The quote sheet she received for her purchase speaks of containers approximately 10 years old or approximately 15-20 years old, and reading this makes me suddenly aware of just how frequently these containers have been packed and unpacked for ocean-going. Delivered on site, these old mariners at first only provide functional inhospitable spaces – depressing to inhabit – suitable for containment and transport, but little else. Slowly, they are transformed: the volunteers at The Tool Shed decide on a layout; a wooden frame is fitted within the interior; holes are punched through for windows and larger ones cut in the side walls for where the three will be connected together; welding makes sure they are structurally sound and weather proof still; reclaimed doors and windows are fitted; ventilation fans are installed and electricity cables are laid; insulation is pumped in and OSB, painted white, is raised so as to line the space inside. Colourful signs, the shapes of unusual tools and groaning shelves now adorn the interior.
To recycle, suggests the anthropologist David Graeber, is to try to impose a circular, equilibrium model on a system that is, at least in energy terms, far from an equilibrium (2012). His point carries some weight when thinking of the re-use and repurposing of reclaimed materials: the effort required to do so is great and the energy expended is often not done so in a scientifically ‘efficient’ manner. In their previous lives, things that are turned-material through practices and processes of re-use, have gained surfaces that are characterful and beaten, edges that are dented, shapes that are misshapen (or at least ill-fitting to the perfect squared edges of the new). To work with these thing-materials, whether they be offcuts of wood or old shipping containers, is to be flexible, to work around and with these characteristics, to gently coax back into usefulness the stuff that has been discarded. As the sociologist Richard Sennett describes when referring to craftsmanship, what is required is an ability and desire to work with resistance and ambiguity. Good luck, then, that The Ecology Centre – run with a ‘make do and mend’ ethic at its heart – has so many refurbishers and craftspeople to hand.
But, of course, containers have seldom been discarded. Their use and re-use make up hugely profitable global chains of business, and this is another way in which Graeber is right when he highlights the way in which commercial transactions allow for or are part of the circulation of stuff: producer to consumer and back out again to be resold, reconsumed… The shipping container is particularly telling of this: as a thing it can speak (through its identification plaques and import certificates, through its scratches, bumps and its insignia) to the movements upon which our lives, and often our livelihoods, are based. These are movements which range from the very localised (such as the container used to house an overflow of the domestic garage contents) to the global (such as the trade and transport of stuff from Seoul – where at least one of the Ecology Centre’s containers was registered – to the UK).
In architecture, shipping containers seem to have become quite the fashion of late. They have become so, it seems, because of a characteristic not exclusive to architectural re-use: that is, the way that they offer cost-effective and instantaneous security and protection against the elements. With their repetitive form of box held together with welds and rivets, a wooden floor and two enormous doors at one end, they offer not only a perfectly neutral container for raw materials and goods ranging from vacuum cleaners to plastic toys, but also a relatively blank canvas for reinvention and repurposing once their seafaring days are over. For the Ecology Centre, and for other small-scale self-build or eco-builds I know in Scotland, the container offers a relatively cheap way to gain instant structure and shelter which can then be augmented and adapted in time. For those ecologically-minded, however, the attraction must surely also lie in the ability to re-purpose something which is ubiquitous (seventeen million worldwide according to a quick internet search), and in the way that their refurbishing can be understood as a complete and canny subversion of these steely representatives of globalization and mass consumerism.
Dr Rachel Harkness is a Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. Her research is about the relationships, skills and materials involved in eco-building in Scotland, and she is currently working with The Ecology Centre, Kinghorn, Fife and with the Craigmillar Eco-Housing Cooperative, Edinburgh, following their architectural projects and ambitions. (Please note that the opinions expressed in this post are the author’s own and not necessarily the same as those held by the people and organisations she works with).