Is “Cargotecture” Greenwash?

It’s certainly all the rage, at least in design circles, and some very interesting things are being done with shipping container reuse. Much of it was fomented by the uber-cool firm LOT-EK. But lately we’re seeing buildings in China using the containers. Problem is: one of the main rationales for reusing shipping containers is, um, reusing them. The containers are most often used to ship – literally — boatloads of goods from China to the US. But since there is far less shipping back to China, the containers tend to amass here instead of being sent back empty.

So finding new uses for them here can make sense. But building with them in China? Presumably those are virgin containers, having not yet been vessels for the overseas shipment for the “consumption of mass quantities.” (For you younger readers, that’s a reference to the Coneheads from early Saturday Night Live.)

Playz Shanghai

Tony’s Farm hotel and office in Shanghai © Playz Architects/ Bartosz Kolonko

We’ve recently seen two shipping container based projects in China. First, Treehugger posted this Shanghai building for Tony’s Farm, an organic food producer. Then, Inhabitat wrote about a LOT-EK building that is a shopping and “living center” in Beijing.  The latter design at least uses the containers in a mostly intact form, unlike the Shanghai building where, as Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter remarks (in response to a comment I posted), “many of these boxes have little more than their corners castings and a frame, and since containers are monocoque construction, without the corrugated walls the frames are not very strong, so I would not be surprised if these were custom made to order and never were full containers in the first place.”

LOTEK Beijing

Sanlitun South in Beijing by LOT-EK

So is this greenwashing? I’m not quite sure. I’m really hesitant to criticize LOT-EK, whose work I admire. Their application of the containers at least seems more off-the-shelf, lending it more credibility than the Shanghai project by Playz Architects.

And then there’s a related question that I’ve been posing for a while. Even if the containers have been used for shipping, is this actually recycling at all? I say no; it’s reuse. I’ll expand on this (perhaps nitpicking) distinction in an upcoming post, but the gist is that much of what commonly gets called “upcycled” is, in my opinion, mislabeled.

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