5 Cutting Edge Uses For Shipping Containers

With millions of shipping containers both in service and out, there's no doubt you've seen them in one place or another whether it be piled high on trains and ships, or sitting outside businesses and homes. But these containers are far more than just vessels for moving goods from one place to another; they have the ability to transform into remarkable structures with extraordinary uses.

Since buying shipping containers doesn't break the bank, innovative thinkers around the world have found ways to utilize these metal boxes in ways their creators might never have expected. Here are just five alternative ways shipping containers have been used globally.

Portable Business

Starting a business is expensive, and entrepreneurs everywhere are constantly looking for creative ways to cut costs. Enter shipping containers. Thanks to their low cost, business owners can funnel money away from traditional buildings and toward the quality of the business itself. Shipping containers have lent themselves well to two business types in particular: fast food and pop-up shops. These pint-sized facilities are easy to position in highly populated urban areas opening up a whole new world of opportunities.

A fantastic replacement for both vendor carts and food trucks, shipping containers work as complete restaurants in a self-contained storage unit. They can be opened to the public during operating hours, then securely locked up at closing time. They're perfect for vendors who travel to festivals and other events as they can be stored at little-to-no cost during the off season.

Pop-up shops have also found shipping containers to be endlessly useful. These self-contained retail stores aren't full-time operations; instead they offer seasonal items like Halloween costumes or fireworks for the fourth.

Shipping container businesses don't have to be portable. Some companies including Taco Bell and Starbucks just to name a couple, have started using multiple shipping containers to create permanent restaurants with a creative flair.


With hundreds of thousands of shipping containers sitting idle in port cities, it was only a matter of time before architects recognized their potential. While shipping containers have traditionally been used for single-family homes, more and more cities are employing them for use in apartment buildings and student housing:

  • Washington DC boasts a four-story, 24-unit shipping-container complex, called SeaUA, built as shared housing for students.
  • Vancouver, British Columbia, has a 12-unit apartment complex (Oneesan) designed to house members of a women's advocacy organization.
  • An Amsterdam container complex named Keetwonen is considered the largest student housing project in the world with a dozen buildings.
  • Phoenix, Arizona is now home to an 8-unit apartment complex known as The Containers on Grand.

Since shipping containers only need insulation, wiring, plumbing, windows, and drywall to bring them up to code, they're a fantastic medium for creating affordable housing.

Mobile Medical Centers

Medical care can be hard to come by in developing countries or disaster zones where brick-and-mortar hospitals have been damaged. Organizations such as Clinic in a Can have been retrofitting shipping containers with medical equipment and sending them around the world to be used as mobile medical clinics in countries in desperate need of better access to healthcare.


Urban farmers rejoice! Shipping container based farming systems are appearing left and right, making small-scale farming competitive in an industrial farm economy. Growing in a shipping container allows farmers to control light and water exactly, and grow more plants per square foot than a traditional plot. This means farmers can deliver a consistent product, year round and in any location.

Data Centers

While using a shipping container for storage isn't exactly innovative, Sun Microsystems did it in an entirely new fashion. They packed 20ft containers with servers and network equipment to provide advanced computing power anywhere it may be needed. They called it Project Blackbox.

As many as 250 servers were densely packed into shipping containers surrounded by a state-of-the-art water cooling system. This allowed Sun to to provide instant computing power or create an alternative for data center expansion where space was in short supply. What's more, these data centers were 20% more energy efficient, took up a third of the space, and came in at a fifth of the cost of traditional data centers. Unfortunately, the Blackbox was pulled from the product catalog when Oracle took over Sun Microsystems in 2010. Though no containers are stocked, Oracle will build to order if a customer requests one.

The abundance and affordability of shipping containers during the last decade has made them attractive to architects, artists, and designers worldwide. As space and natural resources decline, it will be interesting to see what creative new uses emerge for these ubiquitous metal boxes.