Shipping containers versus modules: what’s the difference?

9th August 2021
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Shipping containers versus modules: what’s the difference?

Now we all know what a shipping container looks like. Once their role in logistics and transportation has been completed they can be reused in a variety of sectors. Offering a quicker, cheaper and lightweight solution to traditional building, they’ve evolved into alternative housing, trendy bars, office blocks, restaurant and bars, and retail space. But where do they sit in comparison to modules?

Shipping containers, though they may save you money and offer a sustainable option, are quite small. To combat this you can always stack them on top of one another creatively to create a bigger building, but ultimately, you can’t be as flexible with a shipping container. But it does demonstrate how old, industrial materials can be repurposed and have a new life. 

With modules and creating modular buildings, you can be a lot more flexible. A modular building can be as small or as big as you want it to be. Most companies offer both bespoke and pre-designed options too. But there could be a higher cost involved up front, overall it’s much more affordable over the long-term compared with traditional methods. Especially if you factor in  other significant cost-savings with energy. 

Now while a shipping container is a sustainable option in that it repurposes old materials, they aren’t by nature built to be energy-efficient or well-insulated. In fact several councils have reported recently that families housed in them temporarily end up boiling in summer and freezing in winter. Shipping containers generally require on-site modifications to be energy-efficient. 

Modules, or modular buildings, can be built with sustainable materials and designed from the outset to be energy efficient through air tightness, air source heat pumps and solar power. With this, they can also half energy bills for the occupant once built due to the way they are built. 

Shipping containers, while they may be a cost-effective and innovative solution, they simply don’t work all the time. They are adapted rather than built. This means that they’re missing a lot of the structural elements and fixtures of a traditional building. So while it may seem like the cheaper option, renovating to turn it into a functional building may be a lot more expensive in the long run. Though it has worked, and continues to work, for a lot of our clients particularly. 

Needing to utilise space in their beer garden, The Driftwood Spars came to ISO Spaces. We designed and manufactured a converted container cafe dubbed ‘The Crib Shack’. Inspired by the container bar we created for Fevertree, this project was built using a 20ft high cube shipping container and came complete with an integrated, fold-down roof terrace with removable stairs. A container here worked perfectly and fitted in with the rest of the bar’s space. 

The largest temporary accommodation of its kind in the UK, Meath Court in Acton’s Hope Gardens provides emergency accommodation for families and was built entirely from converted shipping containers – just in time for Christmas. 

Now on the other side of the coin, Greenfarm in Cardiff provides an extension to an existing hostel. Utilising an existing car park we provided eight two-bed temporary accommodation units for people in need. This moved away from shipping containers and meant we were able to be more flexible with the design. They have more of a modern finish and are a good contrast to the existing building. 

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