Building Design

3D Design Turns Shipping Containers into Lifesavers

19 Aug, 2010 By: Cyrena Respini-Irwin

With the help of the nonprofit C2C and volunteers armed with ArchiCAD, steel boxes are transformed into health-care facilities for resource-strapped communities.

Like a sculptor who eyes a rough-hewn block of stone and perceives the potential for a statue, an architect can see possibilities hidden within unlikely materials — even going so far as to envision health clinics crafted from cast-off shipping containers.

Also known as intermodal or freight containers, these large, corrugated steel boxes protect products being transported by road, rail, or sea — or all three. They're a familiar sight at shipping yards around the world; when painted bright blue or orange, the neatly stacked rectangles look like Legos on a grand scale.

But those cheerfully colored stacks may be a depressing sight for those who know why the containers pile up. Thanks to cheap production and discrepancies in the volume of goods traded between countries, containers may do nothing more than rust after being used just once. Mali Ouzts, lead designer for San Francisco architecture firm Anshen + Allen, explained that it can be less expensive for a shipping company in the United States to purchase a brand-new container from China than to recertify a used container and ship it back across the ocean — especially if it will be making the return trip empty.

That means that those stacks of out-of-work containers are growing. Fortunately, ideas on how to give them new life are also on the rise. Communities and designers are increasingly viewing containers as a valuable, low-cost building resource, and repurposing them for everything from hotels to emergency housing.

Ouzts knows about this trend firsthand; earlier this year, she helped create designs for a health clinic and a pharmacy. Anshen + Allen performed the work pro bono to support the nonprofit organization Containers to Clinics (C2C), which delivers primary health care to women and children in the developing world. Anshen + Allen's Ryan Campbell and Mike Stack first approached Elizabeth Sheehan, executive director of C2C, a little more than a year ago, Ouzts explained. The nonprofit was seeking durable, cost-efficient clinics that could be staffed by local doctors and could ease the burden on emergency care providers. Stack Design Build, a construction services provider with experience in transforming shipping containers into buildings, also partnered on the project.

Although Anshen + Allen has extensive experience with designing health-care facilities, they're usually on a much larger scale; these two structures are built from one 8 x 20-foot container each. The first building miraculously squeezes both a laboratory and a pharmacy into that minimal area, complete with refrigeration space for vaccines and other drugs that must be kept cool.

In this rendering, the roof and one wall of the combined lab and pharmacy have been removed to show the interior clearly.

The second comprises two examination rooms: one that caters to pediatric patients, and another for what Ouzts calls "worst-case scenarios," when the clinic must serve as an emergency room.

In addition to the two examination rooms, the clinic building also incorporates a sink, counter space, and storage cabinets.

The designers worked with GRAPHISOFT's ArchiCAD 3D software, evaluating multiple options to meet the restrictions imposed by both the crates themselves and their final destinations. Ouzts noted that the designers had to consider limitations they don't encounter in their regular work, such as uncertain electricity and water supplies.

"A lot of [the design decisions] have to do with the environment it will be in — these are hot, muggy climates," said Ouzts. Although the walls are insulated and painted white, the metal absorbs heat from the sun, and good ventilation — in the form of both windows and wall vents  — is essential.

The cost of materials wasn't a primary concern, as many were donated for this project, but the designers were careful to only incorporate easy-to-clean surfaces, such as stainless-steel countertops. In addition, Ouzts explained, they chose "colors light enough that when you're inside a very small space, it doesn't feel so small."

In addition, "security was a huge issue," said Ouzts. The door and pharmacy dispensary window were located in a false wall behind a metal swing door; at night, the outer door can be locked over the openings to prevent access to the building.

Once C2C had defined its needs, it took two Anshen + Allen designers only a few weeks to develop the prototype design. According to Ouzts, the project was completed in one-third the time that it would have required if the designers had relied on 2D software instead of 3D. In addition to material, profile, window, and rendering tools in ArchiCAD, Anshen + Allen also used ArtLantis to produce renderings.

Shipping giant Maersk transported the first clinic buildings to Haiti, which has been in desperate need of hospital resources since it was rocked by an earthquake at the beginning of the year. Anshen + Allen is continuing to support the project, using its knowledge of the marketplace to connect C2C with suppliers. Its designs will be used around the world, Ouzts reported, and surely there is a tremendous need for mother-and-child health care globally. "Prenatal care and [appropriate health care] in the first three years of your life can really set you up healthwise," Ouzts said approvingly.

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