London has really got on board with the potential for container architecture – that is, creating new structures from disused shipping containers. We explore the many ways they have been put to use around the capital…

shipping containers alternative London

Image credit: blake.thornberry

Since their invention in the 1950s, the shipping container has become one of the symbols of an increasingly globalised economy. But shipping containers are increasingly re-used in architectural projects around the world too (they even have their own coffee table worthy book).

Why? Well, for a start many of these containers are left abandoned after their use – it often works out cheaper to buy new containers than pay to have them shipped back to their source – so this is a way of recycling materials that would otherwise go to waste. As the containers are made to survive life at sea, these containers are very robust, making them suited to creating sturdy new structures. They also allow for a degree of flexibility, which means that, perhaps, they are the perfect material to employ London’s current enthusiasm for pop-ups.

They’ve certainly been embraced by Londoners: they’re becoming a central part of the city, whether at work, rest or play.


boxpark shoreditch shipping container shops

Image credit: La Citta Vita

Perhaps the project that made people most aware of the potential of shipping containers was the ‘pop up shopping mall’, BoxPark which opened in 2011. Housing a mix of designed-focused shops, it’s allowed these brands to get a foothold into the prime location near Shoreditch High Street station without having to undertake a huge building project. It has had a much greater community-minded impact too – read our post here for more. It’s interesting to speculate as to how the concept might work elsewhere: earlier this month it was revealed Croydon will also get its own BoxPark.

The flexibility of the format was also embraced for Watford’s new market, made from 42 shipping containers to “turn the site into a landmark location”. You can find out more about how it was built here.


container offices

Image credit: The Estate Office Shoreditch

The size of these units also suggests themselves to low cost offices and studios. The picture above shows Containerville: 30 shipping containers made into workspaces situated right by the Regent’s Canal in east London – and close to the tech cluster around the Silicon Roundabout, making them a desirable space for start-ups.

Down in south London, meanwhile, Pop Brixton aims to offer a new community campus for startups and small businesses, with studios and workshops available within refurbished shipping containers. The project – due to open its doors later this spring – has a lifespan of three years at the site, after which it plans on popping up elsewhere.

Nearby, Artworks in Elephant and Castle is “renting refurbished shipping containers to selected retailers, artisans and creative startups in order to create an innovative business community.” This is a slightly different prospect as, alongside the business, there’s a cafe and library, making it into more of a public area and a definite bid at regeneration for this area. Again, it’s a temporary affair, running for just under five years.


Container city Trinity Buoy Wharf London

Image credit: Antony***

Perhaps unsurprisingly in a city such as London where the availability of affordable housing is a major issue, architects have also been exploring the possibilities of containers. We mentioned Container City in Trinity Buoy Wharf in our round-up of eco homes in London.

MYPads, meanwhile, were created in order to help young people leaving supported accommodation who can’t afford the typical London deposits needed to rent a flat of their own. Developed by Forest YMCA with part funding from the Greater London Authority, these containerised units have been converted into homes across two sites in Waltham Forest that YMCA residents can rent at a rate of 30% of minimum wage. 


London Olympics shipping container

Image credit: Duncan Rawlinson

The containers have also been employed to create educational spaces. Among the many projects listed on the Container City site is Clipper House, repurposed from the Olympic Site at Stratford as accommodation for The Prince’s Drawing School and the University of East London among others at Trinity Buoy Wharf (it’s pictured above in its Olympic incarnation).

Containers provided additional classroom space at Shooter’s Hill Campus as well.  These developments emphasise another of the advantages of using containers – the speed with which buildings can be constructed. It took just two days for each of the projects on this site.


Perhaps not as immediately obvious as some of the other projects, but Travelodge have used shipping containers as the basis of construction of a number of their hotels, starting in Uxbridge in 2008 and moving onto sites in Warminster in Dorset and Heathrow. The latter project made use of 181 containers, but from the outside – and inside – appears to look little different to a standard construction Travelodge. But the advantages for the company are clear: it was estimated that the Uxbridge build saved more than half a million pounds and ten weeks of construction.


shipping container restaurant alternative London

Image credit: Simon Gibson

You’ve worked and rested – now containers are also coming into play. The adventurous temporary constructions that can be created using containers lend themselves to create fantastical theatrical settings such as The Electric Hotel, which toured to Norwich, Bristol and Brighton as well as London in 2010. Last year, a little-used spot on the Greenwich Pennisula was transformed using shipping containers to create an immersive experience for an other-worldly performance of The Boy Who Climbed Out of His Face.

Further along the river, Mexican street food chain Wahaca created a colourful branch amidst the concrete of the South Bank. You can find out more about the build here.

Such projects only look set to increase over the coming years, so watch this space. To find out more about eco projects in the capital, why not take one of Insider London’s cutting-edge green walking tours? Our tech city tour will fill you in on the latest London innovations too.