Does shipping container architecture make sense? Sometimes.
There is no vaccine that prevents COVID19; nobody knows when or if there will be one. But if there is one thing we have learned from the pandemic, it’s that we should plan ahead. And that’s what one of our favorite firms, Waugh Thistleton Architects, is doing with their plan for an Offsite Mobile Vaccination Solution, addressing the question: “How does the UK immunise 66m people as quickly as possible?
The mass vaccination of all UK citizens is an anticipated event that the government and the NHS should be planning for now. We cannot use our schools and sports centres as vaccination centres, as these will soon be needed to regain some semblance of normal life; and the logistics of disinfecting these spaces and preventing the spread of disease during the process would be complicated and potentially detract from the critical task at hand.
I was really surprised to see that their proposal involved fitting out shipping containers. I know Waugh Thistleton for their expertise in wood construction; why wouldn’t they do what Tye Farrow did, and build on what they know best, which is mass timber? What do they know about shipping containers? Don’t they know that they are designed for freight, not people? Then I read:
With this in mind we started to sketch out a mobile vaccine centre. One that could be both installed and transported in a very short space of time. During this process, we sought advice from experts: a Consultant Immunologist, an ex-director of Portakabin, and some contacts from our Shoreditch Boxpark project.
I have met Andrew Waugh and Anthony Thistleton a number of times, but had completely forgotten that they designed Boxpark. I even wrote about it in 2011. TreeHugger’s Bonnie Alter went to visit it the moment it opened it opened. On my next visit to London, I made a pilgrimage.
Bonnie is my sister, and we grew up around shipping containers as our father Gabriel was a pioneer in the industry; he is standing in front of containers and handling equipment his company made, sometime in the early seventies. I normally am pretty critical of what architects try to do with containers, and tend to write these posts demonstrating my self-described superior knowledge. (I learned something from dad.) Except Waugh Thistleton knows shipping containers, too, having built such an important project using them. So they will know as well as I do the pluses and minuses of shipping container architecture. So let’s look at this project:
Shipping containers are designed to move.
This is their greatest virtue, and there is a huge infrastructure of trucks, trains and cranes to make this quick and cheap. So that rendering at the start of the post with all those NHS boxes going down the road is not so crazy. It’s also not unrealistic to drop them on a parking lot for 12 weeks and then take them away.
Shipping containers are designed for freight.
This is their greatest flaw. They are eight feet wide outside, about 7′-4″ inside once they are insulated a bit and lined with an interior finish. This is particularly bad when you are trying to keep six feet apart, and why they show that traffic flow going from one end, with registration, through vaccination and then recovery, then out a new door added at the front end of the container. I am assuming that the staff are inoculated and immune or dressed in PPE, so they can walk back and forth and can be within six feet of the patient.
Another non-optimal aspect is the lack of windows, nothing to look at while you are recuperating. This is in fact another demonstration of how Waugh Thistleton understands shipping containers. The walls are corrugated steel, a monocoque construction where the wall holds up the roof with no other structure. Cutting holes for windows is expensive and compromises the strength of the box; if you are planning to move it a lot or reuse it after for other purposes, this can be a problem. There is nothing structural about the roof though, so cutting a few skylights into it is not a big problem.
If one was designing a building for this function, it would not necessarily be this shape or size. But as Waugh Thistleton note,
Shipping containers are the perfect structure for this use. We have a stockpile of them in this country. They are incredibly efficient, robust structures and designed for transportation. Their linear form suits the through-put nature of the process.
And it’s fast and flexible, the greatest advantage of shipping containers. As we said, they are designed to move.
Over twelve weeks, these shipping containers could be mobilised throughout the country in car parks and other public areas, staffed by NHS staff working in shifts to vaccinate the entire population of the UK. This solution does not rely on public mobility; the vaccination units can be delivered into the heart of villages and remote communities, or in clusters spread through towns and cities, vaccinating the local population before moving on.
There are still some questions and issues to be resolved; there is no explanation of how the water, waste, and power is dealt with. I have asked and will update the post when I get the answer, but there are many options from the RV industry or the refrigerated container world that can be applied.
My final question is, does it pass Kate Wagner’s PR-chitecture test, where “architecture and design content that has been dreamed up from scratch to look good on Instagram feeds or, more simply, for clicks.” Here, I believe the answer is unequivocally yes. There is nothing fancy or Instagram worthy here, just plain old shipping containers on the outside, kind of ordinary off-the-shelf stuff on the inside. They are using their expertise to come up with a straightforward design. They are giving it away. Last word to Waugh Thistleton:
Our team at Waugh Thistleton have come up with this idea, but it is not a proprietary solution. Our goal is to work with industry to get these manufactured and ready for deployment for when the vaccine arrives and to share our expertise and experience with other countries to provide a global solution.
Good for them. And in this case, shipping containers make sense.
Does shipping container architecture make sense? Sometimes.