Using Shipping Containers to Think Outside the Box

Using Shipping Containers to Think Outside the Box

By Matthew Lutz, Associate Professor of Architecture

When an 18-wheeler hauling a 45-foot-long intercontinental shipping container passes you on the highway, do you think, traffic? Or, like a recent class of NU architecture students, do you see a potential healthcare clinic or farm store in Afghanistan?

These ubiquitous steel boxes were the starting point for 15 juniors in the architecture program to create community resource buildings for use in Kabul Province, Afghanistan.

During Fall 2015 semester, I teamed up with fellow Prof. Stephen Kredell to challenge students in our Architectural Design class to convert abandoned Conex boxes into health care clinics, cold storage facilities, public restrooms, and agricultural retail centers. The program for this semester-long project was sparked by idea proposed by Dr. Michael Krause ’64, an alumnus and founding partner of the DVA Consortium, an architectural, engineering and management firm based in Washington, D.C.

Krause, an entrepreneur, scholar, and retired colonel in the U.S. Army, participated as a guest critic during the design project. “This type of innovation is essential to building a stronger Afghanistan citizen,” he said. “The Conex conversion project is viable from a number of perspectives: health and wellness; farm produce cool storage; vocational training and educational facilities; community/village centric capabilities; plus, much needed sanitation facilities.” Joining Krause as returning critics for the student design challenge were architect Daniel Johnson of Watershed Studio and NU School of Architecture and Art Professor Eleanor D’Aponte.

The project was grounded in reality by working closely with representatives of the Bayat Foundation. The nonprofit organization serves the poorest and most vulnerable Afghan citizens by providing food, clothing, maternity wellness, education, and essential care for new-born babies. The foundation is no stranger to the art of making buildings out of old Conex containers. It’s founder, Ehsan Bayat, who also established the Afghan Wireless Telecommunications Company, built an eight-story hotel in Kabul City for his employees almost entirely from 45′ long Conex containers. Known as “the Corporate,” the facility looks like any other modern hotel inside and out, belying it’s unusual construction method. Conex containers are ultra-strong, arrive at construction sites watertight, and stack easily, making construction quick. The fact that Conex containers are readily available in Afghanistan is an added boon.

To spark the project, the Bayat Foundation provided Norwich students and faculty with a property in Kabul owned by the foundation and earmarked for a future Conex-based healthcare facility. The site, approximately three miles from Bagram Air Force Base, is a walled compound near the perimeter of the town of Bagram and home to a water-bottling facility. Throughout the semester, Norwich students studied Afghani culture and building practices and were able to videoconference with representatives of the Bayat Foundation living in Kabul. Using information provided through these Q&A sessions, our students were able get a real sense of the texture and flavor of the area surrounding the site. In addition to the daunting challenge of learning the mechanics and nuances of converting Conex boxes into habitable spaces in the span of a single course, students also dove into learning about modern Afghan civilization and culture. “Norwich students really became immersed in the cultural aspect of what they were creating within the Conex conversion facilities,” Krause says. “Their use of defined space, wash and prayer facilities, gender awareness and job creation really stood out in my mind.”

Third-year Architecture major Jocelyn Noyes says, “I found the experience to be both enlightening and rewarding, because we learned a lot about a culture that we previously did not have an understanding of.”

“It also allowed us to look for a solution to a problem that was larger than the design itself by prompting us to address needs and culture of the Afghani people.”

Projects in the design studio included campus-like plans with center courtyards to low-rise, self-contained buildings with large center atriums. Each project integrated a women’s health care facility, an agricultural cold storage facility, an educational facility, and public restroom facilities. This already complex program was compounded by concerns for security, traffic congestion, and cost.

Norwich faculty and students are working to continue the dialogue with the Bayat Foundation in anticipation of making a second, more detailed pass at the Conex-conversion design for the Bagram site. The next iteration would likely include physical mock-ups and testing of insulation, cladding, and mechanical systems.