Shipping container architecture delivers relief in Japan

Summary:Designed by Shigeru Ban Architects, multi-level temporary housing constructed from steel containers is a huge step in rebuilding the Japanese citizens' lives.

Shigeru Ban Architects have launched Phase Two of their ongoing Disaster Relief Projects for victims of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan this spring. Using existing shipping containers of 20 foot lengths, the design is meant to resolve the difficulty of building suitable housing on the damaged terrain.

The architects recognized that a larger number of shelters, as well as larger spaces, were needed to allow communities to recover. To maximize the buildable area, the shipping containers will be stacked up to three stories high. Each shipping container comprises a living unit, and each unit alternates with an open space to provide private outdoor area as well as an attractive checkerboard elevation. A prototype was built and opened in July.

The architects chose to use shipping containers for the following reasons:
1. To shorten the construction period by using a material already available
2. To use a unit that allows a three story high structure, in narrow sites or sloped sites
3. To provide open spaces between living units for privacy and enjoyable living
4. To take advantage of inherent seismic performance
5. To build structures that are strong and flexible enough to be used as a permanent apartment

Interest in shipping container architecture has grown in tandem to the modular building movement. Besides the strength of the steel, the containers are widely available and relatively low in cost.  The pre-manufactured containers are also inherently modular, standardized, and prefabricated. There are many examples of beautiful container buildings beyond the original container office built by Stewart Brand.

Shigeru Ban is an architect known for his innovative and ecological applications of materials in architecture.  His Phase One of the Disaster Relief Projects incorporated cardboard tubing and paper or mosquito netting panels to create very simple, easily constructed partitions.  The system was an elegant and sensitive response to protecting the mental health and dignity of the victims by providing privacy. Ban's later phases are meant to rebuild the community as a whole by providing spaces for everyday life to return and grow.

Images: Shigeru Ban Architects

This post was originally published on

Topics: Innovation


Contributing Editor Sun Joo Kim is an architect and creative consultant based in Boston. Her projects include design and master planning of museums, public institutions, hospitals, and university buildings across the U.S. She holds a degree from Carnegie Mellon University and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council. Follow he... Full Bio

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