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Let's Talk: Shipping Containers

Shipping containers have been used in cities worldwide to create unique, flexible retail environments—a new model of development that provides an interesting compromise between temporary and permanent.  We chatted with plexus r+d President and architect Jordan Williams about how the planned shipping container for the Yumbii restaurant will be a special addition to Midtown’s retail landscape.

Jordan, tell us about the shipping container trend in retail environments and what makes them work so well?

Shipping containers are just now hitting the radar in Atlanta, but have been an increasingly popular component of architectural design and construction across the globe for the past two decades.  The use of containers in architectural design is growing because it strikes a chord with several of the dominant themes that frame design and development in contemporary culture. 

First, the use of containers appeals strongly to the green movement, as it involves the re-use of structures that are either underutilized or completely abandoned.  Repurposing a resource that would otherwise be discarded and likely affect the environment in an adverse manner is a great design strategy that demonstrates respect for resources and the natural environment.

Shipping containers also have an affinity with the pop-up mania that is currently sweeping the nation.  The phenomenon of temporary events that are programmed to activate underutilized public and private spaces is a natural format for exploring the use of shipping containers because they provide a structure that dynamically balances temporariness and permanence.  The natural strength and durability of a shipping container provides security and protection from the elements, while the inherent movability endows architecture with the potential for flexibility and adaptation.  This duality makes shipping containers an excellent solution for programs and events that are ‘ex-temporary,’ i.e., temporary but intended to be installed for an extended period of time.

If utilized properly, shipping containers are also a great asset for the ‘do it yourself’ crowd, and a powerful tool to be leveraged in the wake of the recent economic downturn.  The cost of strategically outfitting a container for a given use, such as a restaurant or retail space, is a fraction of the expense associated with a traditional ‘brick and mortar’ structure.  The lower cost of construction creates opportunities for start-up ventures that have limited financial resources, but an abundance of creativity. 

These characteristics make the use of shipping containers an exciting trend that will not just endure, but evolve as creative designers and business people continue to invent new programs and design solutions.

What’s your favorite example of one?

I appreciate projects that demonstrate a thoughtful use of shipping containers, reflecting an understanding of their inherent strengths and limitations. 

Both La Boite and Terroir are examples of projects that have utilized shipping containers in clever ways, allowing challenging sites to be developed into dynamic events with an economy of resources.  Neither project is overly heroic, but still presents a dynamic and engaging experience for diners.

What types of businesses work well in retrofitted shipping containers?


Obviously, the food stand is a great example of a business that works well in a shipping container.  This is a natural fit because the service components of the business can be efficiently organized within the container while the public component of the business can be externalized, or pushed out into the space of the city.  There are many benefits of this dynamic, including the minimization of costs for the business owner and the activation of the urban environment. 

Retail is another great programmatic for shipping containers.  I think artisans looking for a compact and relatively inexpensive display space to show and sell their goods would be able to achieve their goals through the utilization of shipping containers.  I am excited about the potential of projects that involve a single business utilizing a shipping container, but I get really energized by the prospect of developing a system of containers that begin to create their own urban condition.  So, while the single artisan in a container sounds cool, a market comprised of a dozen or more containers creating their own spatial event is truly inspiring.  Likewise, a single food stand is interesting, but a food court comprised of containers that define a collective space and create a powerful urban experience is awesome.

How do you think this idea will be received in Atlanta?

I think the use of shipping containers will be met with excitement and overall acceptance in Atlanta.  I believe that the first shipping container projects, such as the Yumbii food stand, will prove to doubters that these utilitarian objects can be transformed into dynamic and aesthetically pleasing structures that will charge the urban spaces they are placed within. 

There is a common criticism of certain high-design buildings, suggesting they focus too much energy on their internal conditions and, consequently, neglect their contribution to the urban fabric of the city.  In the case of the shipping container, the limited interior space forces an externalization of the building program, leading to exciting projects that creatively consider the urban spaces surrounding the container.  In this case, necessity will certainly be the mother of urban invention.

 

Tell us about the project planned by Yumbii for Midtown.

The Yumbii project to be located at Dewberry’s property near the intersection of Peachtree & 10th Streets is an exciting example that demonstrates how the shipping container is a flexible design solution that meets the needs of a wide range of project stakeholders.  In this case, Dewberry Capital, a major developer in the southeastern United States, and Yumbii, the upstart company responsible for pioneering food trucks in Atlanta, came together to explore a project that allows each organization to achieve important goals.  Dewberry was searching for a way to temporarily activate underutilized parcels of land along the Peachtree Street urban corridor, until such time that market conditions warrant larger, more permanent development.  Yumbii was interested in exploring how they could allow their mobile food concept to evolve, but maintain is cool urban vibe.  The two organizations came to the mutual agreement that a shipping container food stand would provide each with a cost effective solution that allows for the temporary development of an exciting urban event.  This strategy is a win-win for the development team, and provides midtown residents and workers with a dynamic new addition to the Peachtree Street corridor that will improve the quality of urban life in the area.  Even more exciting is the notion that this concept is scalable, and can be utilized as a strategy for filling voids in the urban fabric anywhere in the city.  plexus r+d is thrilled to be working with Dewberry and Yumbii because it allows us to leverage our creative abilities and the 10 years of research we have conducted on the use of shipping containers in architectural design.

 

How much does a container cost and what does it take to fix one up?

Shipping containers come in a number of sizes and can be purchased new or used, so the prices can vary dramatically.  A used container can be purchased for as little as $1,000.00.  If one is looking for the patina that comes with a used container, the process of selecting the right color and tarnish can be exciting.  It’s a little like shopping for a quality used car or vintage clothing.  In addition to the price of the container, you need to budget the cost of transportation to the final location. 

Jordan Williams is President of plexus r+d, inc. Established in 1999, plexus r+d is an internationally acclaimed design studio focusing on the development of innovative interior and architectural environments that distinguish our clients and enhance their success.  Our work includes architectural design, interior design, graphic design, competitions, installations, lectures and teaching.  Our projects range from large scale mixed-use facilities to intimate interior spaces and we have worked on projects across the globe.

Tags: Development, Midtown ATL, Restaurants, Urban Design, Pop-Up Shops, Retail

Posted: April 9, 2013

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