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Contain yourself


Vincent Duteurtre, architect and director of the buildings of the city of Le Havre, introduces PEN to the benefits of transforming ship containers into functional spaces
The port of Le Havre, France, is pioneering the use of maritime containers for construction. On 30 August 2010, the city inaugurated the A Docks residence, wherein dozens of containers were stacked and transformed into studio apartments for the city’s students, reflecting the port’s maritime and industrial heritage. This re-imagining of the use of shipping containers has also been extended to the cultural sector, with ‘le Tetris’, a colourful live music venue incorporating the containers in similar way, opening in the port in September 2013.

Vincent Duteurtre is the Le Havre-based architect and co-designer behind le Tetris. PEN caught up with him in Brussels to discuss the inspirations driving the ideas, the benefits gained for the city, and the challenges involved in using containers as functional living spaces.

How did the idea of using containers in construction and architecture come about?

Student housing was the first such initiative implemented in Le Havre. The project was managed by the Regional Center for University and School Works (CROUS), whose main task is to build and manage student housing. Alberto Cattani, the architect of the project, agreed with the CROUS to propose a new type of student residence made using maritime containers. The interest and difficulty of using the containers lay within the standardisation of their dimensions, representing a fixed dimensional constraint that we had to deal with, but this module also allowed us to consider production modes of rational and efficient construction. It is about reducing the cost of construction on the one hand and, on the other, reducing the manufacturing time. When a building is prefabricated, its in situ installation can be done quite quickly, which represents both a technical and a financial interest.

Le Havre is one of the largest commercial harbours in Europe and the leading French port in terms of shipping container traffic. These metal boxes are therefore fully part of our urban landscape. Every day, citizens see huge ships upon which are stacked thousands of coloured containers. You can see them on the port, of course, and also at the beach. After unloading, the containers are placed on the gigantic platforms of the commercial port, following a method of organisation and a scale that is comparable to a real city. So there was a sort of game as we aimed at importing this type of construction into the urban area of Le Havre. The A Docks residence, located on the border of the southern districts of Le Havre and the active port, introduces a poetic dialogue between the city and its port.

The second major container-based project in Le Havre is the le Tetris concert hall, which was built by Papa’s Production. The context is very different. The concert room is located in a former military fort in the centre of Le Havre – a monumental construction of brick from the mid-19th Century which served to defend the city. The site lost its military vocation in the 1970s and was ceded to the city of Le Havre. Various cultural activities have taken place there since then: the municipal archives, the reserves of the Museum of Natural History, and many cultural associations inspired by the visual arts, music, dance, etc.

However, for nearly 40 years, the site had never really changed its physiognomy in relation to its original vocation, maintaining its rather austere image. As part of the le Tetris concert hall project we wanted a building that was very powerful from an architectural point of view in order to contrast with the military identity of the fort and to mark the shift of the site towards a cultural, more lively, more free direction. From this point of view, the maritime container seemed interesting since it was anachronistic in a former military location. We have thus created a cubic composition of containers stacked in the style of the fort while respecting the original plan of the site. The contrast between the city’s history, the port and the underground cultural dynamics of Le Havre is borne out by the artists who now invest in the site.

© Philippe Bréard

What have the projects afforded when it comes to sustainability in the city? Is there evidence of better energy efficiency, for example?

The construction system of the two projects is quite different, which is important to note. For the student residence, the designers used a metal structure of beams and posts in which the containers are connected, although independently of each other. This option was chosen for aesthetic reasons as well as for technical reasons relating to fire safety. On the boats, the containers are stacked on top of each other on seven levels. Designed to carry goods, they are able to withstand very high overloads to the order of 30 tonnes each, or 180 tonnes for the lowest once they are stacked. Nevertheless, if the metal of which they are made is subjected to fire, it loses its resistance and the stack can collapse like a castle of cards. In order to alleviate this fragility in the event of a fire, Cattani wished to make a structure that is independent of the containers and fire-resistant, guaranteeing the stability of the whole.

At le Tetris, we took another aesthetic option, that of the actual stacking of boxes, as on container terminals or ships. It was therefore necessary to find a technical solution which would guarantee the stability of the premises in case of fire. Several reinforcement solutions have been studied and tested with specialised consulting firms such as the Centre Technique Industriel de la Construction Métallique (CTICM). The final solution in achieving this, which was validated by the control offices, was to cast concrete inside the corner posts of each container as the fire resistance of concrete is much more effective than that of metal. The two Le Havre projects are therefore on distinct constructive systems that demonstrate all the potentialities of the container in adapting to the constraints of construction.

The shipping container comes from the world of logistics. It is a metal box, optimised in its design to be durable, sustainable, lightweight and economically valuable. For the architects, these characteristics make it an interesting building material that can also be recycled from the maritime world and into the urban world. The walls of the containers are made of very thin but ribbed metal sheets, increasing their robustness, and they are protected by a high quality paint capable of withstanding the aggressive marine atmosphere. On the boats, the containers are mishandled, subjected to waves and sprays, and manipulated by cranes and gantries. Imported into an urban environment, the containers are less likely to be treated in such a way, and so are able to withstand a dozen years without maintenance or problems.

On energy performance, a sea container is not interesting in its raw form. It is a non-insulated metal case, very prone to the greenhouse effect. To use it in construction, it is therefore necessary to isolate it: either from the outside by adding a finishing material that protects the maritime aesthetics of the container, or from the inside with all the conventional insulation solutions, but losing precious centimetres in the overall volume of the container. It is not an efficient process, but it can be easily adapted by working on the walls.

A priori, it is therefore not the most satisfactory mode in terms of ecology. The speed of execution and the low cost of construction are nevertheless a form of efficiency that can have a positive environmental impact. The constructions are in fact produced with a more rigorous methodology, as are the quantities of materials used, making the energy balance of each construction more favourable.

Are shipping containers the accommodation of the future, and could they be used in solving housing crises, homelessness, etc.?

I do not think the container is a solution that can be applied en masse. On the other hand, in some cases of emergency or constrained budgets, this type of construction can be suitable. In addition, the module of the container has the capacity to adapt to diverse uses.

For example, in the concert hall, we have attached several containers and then cut out their side walls in order to create sufficiently large spaces. In this case, the basic module adapts to the programme, but induces overcharges and adaptation delays that make the constructive principle more complex and less competitive. It nevertheless can be made to be preserved by aesthetic choice and, on the balance sheet, the cost of this type of construction remains equivalent to traditional buildings.

For temporary, festive or relocation construction, the use of the container can be relevant; on the basis of a standardised module, it is indeed possible to quickly produce, to embark and arrange the containers on a boat, and to equip a city with a massive housing need in a limited time. This can therefore be an extremely useful solution in the context of large-scale emergency relocations.

The use of the container in housing actually originated in China in the 1990s and was exported to Europe some 20 years ago – initially to the UK and the Netherlands and more recently to France. Many companies have embarked on this alternative over the past five years, some in Le Havre. They can produce locally but can also export their knowhow, some of which has even come about as a result of natural disasters.

Is building in this way, then, both a sound and economically viable investment?

Yes, as long as the container is not transformed too much or used in a rather crude manner. To take the example of a single-family house: using four containers of 40 feet each would acquire a living space of 100m² for a total cost of about €150,000, which is very competitive. With containers, you can also make appendices at home, such as terraces, balconies, awnings or swimming pools.

What is needed to increase the profitability of these projects, however, is to move from the experimental to the industrialised stage; the greater the number of projects in the series, the better the profitability for the company and the final customer. The projects in Le Havre have paved the way for other applications which will necessarily be more profitable than the first operations.

As an architect I have realised a restaurant project on the beach of Le Havre which must be dismantled at the end of the season and for which modular container construction has found its full meaning and profitability. Nearby, a rescue centre is being built from white containers with a terrace and a look-out point intended for the monitoring of swimmers. These are small applications and the demountable features are perfectly suited to container construction, carried out at low cost and with contemporary aesthetics that have acquired the support of the population.

How does converting containers into accommodation compare with newly built traditional housing?

In terms of individual housing, I think there is a great interest in using the container in economic, aesthetic and architectural terms, in comparison to the architecturally poor single-family dwellings.

On the other hand, container construction is constrained by its standardised dimensions, which make it impossible to consider all shapes for constructions. Also, in order to meet the new thermal standards, we are obliged to have very large insulation thicknesses which limit the versatility of the containers.

In what way does the project engage with other cities?

The A Docks residence and le Tetris projects have had important media spin-offs because of their avant-garde character in France. These are sites widely visited by lovers of architecture who come to discover the City of Le Havre.

Moreover, the professional architects, engineers and builders who intervened on these projects had the opportunity to put their knowhow into practice in other operations. One that I can mention is the pedestrian facilities along the Seine and set up in 2013 by the City of Paris, with small playgrounds, exhibition spaces, restaurants and guinguettes in containers. Personally, I have been regularly asked to think about projects in containers, both for the constructive and economic interest of the system and for the contemporary and fashionable image it carries (hangar projects, housing, event kiosks, urban sculptures, etc.).

Could an entire neighbourhood, or even a city, be established using containers only?

That could really be possible. We must recall the experience of the 1960s and 1970s when the principles of the industrialisation of housing construction were pushed too far. Without going back to those extremes, which have impoverished the architectural and urban design of this period, we could consider returning to processes close to industrialisation but on a smaller scale.

With the economic crisis and the need to rationalise construction costs, the container can be an interesting alternative. About 80% of future dwellings can be produced in a factory using an industrialised process. They would then be taken to the site, laid upon the foundations and connected to networks that have been prepared beforehand. Once out of the factories, the dwellings could be operational within a few days.

Is Le Havre a champion city of such functional constructions?

Yes, and for several reasons. First, because Le Havre is a commercial port built according to the projects of major planners targeting the performance of the port, and second, because of the intervention of the architect Auguste Perret, who rebuilt Le Havre city centre in the 1950s. Perret worked in the spirit of rationalisation in the city and concrete building systems, and introduced the principle of prefabrication in construction. The inscription of Le Havre on the World Heritage List in 2005 enshrines its exemplary function of architecture to the French.

More than anywhere else there is a legitimacy for container-building in Le Havre – a sort of affiliation between city planning, the port, industry, and the rationality of container construction.

Do you plan to use containers for other purposes in the next few years?

Why not on temporary constructions, around leisure or events? We have, for example, considered the construction of hangars for a sports event. With two walls of containers stacked on three levels and covered with a light metal frame, we could also get a low-cost boat hangar built very quickly. For this type of temporary project, it is even possible to use second-hand containers that can be put back into the shipping system after the event.

As part of its 500th anniversary, the City of Le Havre and its local partners will be organising numerous cultural and leisure initiatives in 2017 around the theme ‘Un été au Havre’ (‘A summer in Le Havre’). As an identity element of the city, the container will be honoured through the work of Vincent Ganivet, who will raise a large parabolic arch made of multi-coloured containers positioned between the city and the port as a symbol – an urban artwork – along the monumental axis of the Rue de Paris.


Vincent Duteurtre

Architect, Director of the Buildings of the City of Le Havre and co-designer of Le Tetris Concert Hall

This article will appear in Pan European Networks: Smart Cities 1, which will be published in May 2017.