container summer residence great for nature lovers
container summer residence   great for nature lovers container summer residence   great for nature lovers
sep 05, 2011

container summer residence great for nature lovers

DIY project of designboom  – container office in sardinia image © designboom




for some time designboom has been planning to transfer our office during the summertime months from the bustling city of milan to the seasides of sardinia (sardegna), an island off the western coast of italy. after all these years of publishing articles on exciting experimental and sustainable architecture, we’ve undertaken our own DIY shipping container home project, featuring adaptable living and work spaces. we wanted to share our experience as a starting point for readers who might be interested in creating similar structures of their own! there is a high demand for summer residences on sardinia, and in order to stop over-development of its coastal line and countryside, the government has adopted extremely rigid criteria for building permits. receiving construction permission is a long and difficult process, but one means of getting around the waiting period is the use of temporary and modular structures for housing. we envisioned a low impact dwelling, which could be placed on our ground without any planning permission, and ultimately integrated into a traditional permanent edifice once the proper legal permissions have been obtained.


the area features an outdoor kitchen and dining area, covered with a straw canopy, adjacent to two live-work container spaces. these are arranged such that their external doors may be opened out from the container and latched together, creating a wall that protects the dining area from excess wind. all spaces feature opening or sliding glass doors installed within the container frame. a separate shipping container serves as the bathroom, which has been fitted with a functioning toilet and shower.

container summer residence   great for nature lovers great for nature lovers, the boxes make use of the hill itself, expanding interior space beyond the containers image © designboom



in general it is a good thing to recycle materials that otherwise have no further use for their intended purpose. cargo shipping containers are used only 20 years for its original purpose, nowadays their life-span is even shorter. reason is that many asian economies have an export-oriented development strategy and we (europeans) are buying so much merchandise from these countries, primarily china. the imbalances in commercial relations (we export less) determine a situation where it’s too expensive to ship empty containers back to the their origin (it’s cheaper to buy new containers). the result is an extremely high surplus of empty, used shipping containers in europe’s ports… they represent a stockpile of ready-made building units.

container summer residence   great for nature lovers we placed two of the three containers at a 90 degree angle. sizes are 20ft (6.1 m) x 8 (2.43 m) x 8 feet (2.43 m). image © designboom



the containers, properly called inter-modal steel building units (ISBUs) are manufactured to international standards, easy to transport, and readily available. constructed out of heavy-gauge corten steel, used for ocean shipping, water and flood proof, resistant to humidity and saltwater, fire proof, designed to carry everything. they offer tremendous sustainability and strength. the cargo containers come in two main standardized sizes, 40 ft (12.19 m) x 8 (2.43 m) x 8 feet (2.43 m) and 20 ft (6.1 m) x 8 (2.43 m) x 8 feet (2.43 m).

container summer residence   great for nature lovers image © designboom



the price for containers themselves as well as all additional expenses is influenced by many factors (and your geographic location). we bought 3 bright orange, used containers. on sardinia, they were a bit more expensive, but usually used containers are within the range of 2,000 to 3,500 USD, in addition to transport costs and site preparation, which must be accessible by heavy trucks and a crane.

container summer residence   great for nature lovers two courtyards, designboom’s own folding table developed in 2001 image © designboom



a container construction does not necessarily produce cost savings compared to a traditional permanent building, but if you opt to build the home yourself (either completely or partially, performing the painting or flooring by yourself), the cost of the total project drops significantly. as mentioned before, with this structure we tried to be the least invasive possible and avoided building a concrete block foundation. the containers were simply crane-lifted one by one onto the natural stone pavement, and are thus completely removable.

container summer residence   great for nature lovers a simple cane roof for some shade, outdoor flooring uses only original stone from the site image © designboom



non-standard security sliding door frames were measured and cut prior to delivery. unfortunately these sliding glass doors needed a few adjustments to be set into the openings. without a special permission, creating a concrete floor was not an option (this kind of intervention generally does not comply with the planning and building regulations in many regions, including those in sardinia). therefore, we had only a few inches depth of gravel placed where the front and rear ends of the container rest. as a result, the containers are not perfectly horizontal and not perfectly level, but this does not cause any problems for living and working. for the outdoor flooring we used only original stone from the site, placed on sand and mortal – no concrete.

container summer residence   great for nature lovers image © designboom

container summer residence   great for nature lovers image © designboom

container summer residence   great for nature lovers image © designboom

container summer residence   great for nature lovers image © designboom

container summer residence   great for nature lovers image © designboom

container summer residence   great for nature lovers satellite connection image © designboom

container summer residence   great for nature lovers the designboom office interior of one of our shipping containers with the corrugated steel frame image © designboom container summer residence   great for nature lovers birgit shows the idea of the two closed courtyards – on windy days we simply close the steel doors of the two containers image © designboom



the plan was to place two containers at an angle of 90 degrees and at the right distance, that the doors at 45 degrees touch. in this way, we simply close the steel doors of the two containers to protect us from the mistral wind.

container summer residence   great for nature lovers image © designboom

container summer residence   great for nature lovers image © designboom

container summer residence   great for nature lovers image © designboom

container summer residence   great for nature lovers image © designboom

container summer residence   great for nature lovers a few of the team (jenny, anita, lauren, shuhei and andrea) have a second breakfast break (anita took an open-air shower) image © designboom



container-built homes are popping up in urban planning sessions and university housing discussions worldwide. many are the possibilities, from a museum project to a pop-up shopping center made of hundreds of them. the designboom team took about 30 days to build this new environment of single holiday home offices.

container summer residence   great for nature lovers image © designboom

container summer residence   great for nature lovers wildflowers on the site image © designboom



working in untouched nature is very beautiful.

container summer residence   great for nature lovers image © designboom

container summer residence   great for nature lovers image © designboom container summer residence   great for nature lovers this was the starting point. on top of the hill, the containers were placed right next to each other with a 90 degree angle image © designboom



the containers have been transformed to living spaces all directly on site.

container summer residence   great for nature lovers lots of finishing work to do image © designboom



we cut openings into the outer walls for a set of extra doors, for better ventilation and circulation.

container summer residence   great for nature lovers cutting the sidewalls for extra doors image © designboom



the biggest concern for this kind of project is insulation.


sardinia has a typical mediterranean climate. during the year there are approximately 300 days of sunshine, the average temperature is between 11 to 17 °C (52 to 63 °F), but in summer the extreme temperature fluctuations and lack of water make it a ‘desert environment’. from an LA-based friend (hello michael), we’ve heard that ceramic coatings will work under these conditions and on such structures. we’ve painted the corrugated-steel exterior with SUPERTHERM ®, a ceramic coating that insulates the structure to reduce heating and cooling loads. the product has been developed in part after the ceramic tiles the NASA uses on the space shuttle. SUPERTHERM ® ceramic coating is a paint mixed with 4 ceramic compounds for application via spray or roller to exterior and interior surfaces. ceramic coatings are measured by their emissivity – it measures both the ability to reflect heat and the amount of heat that is loaded onto a surface.

container summer residence   great for nature lovers here we are mixing color pigments into the SUPERTHERM® ceramic paint to obtain the ‘right kind of green hue’ image © designboom



the white ceramic paint is very effective, but we were forced to hide the containers, blending them perfectly into the surrounding nature. unfortunately mixing the white base with dark color pigments (green)  reduces the product’s efficiency of about 50%. nonetheless, although we installed air conditioning, we have never used it thanks to the SUPERTHERM® insulation. if anything, the paint works almost too well, making the containers feel almost like refrigerators at night!

container summer residence   great for nature lovers yeah, great color image © designboom

container summer residence   great for nature lovers interior details before covering the walls with water-based paint we needed to get rid of a lot of rusty surfaces image © designboom

container summer residence   great for nature lovers image © designboom



painting the corrugated surfaces took a long time.

container summer residence   great for nature lovers rivets image © designboom



inside the containers we painted the walls with water-based sky-blue color and we’ve installed a dark plywood floor over the existing teak sub-floor.

container summer residence   great for nature lovers simple book shelves are attached with rivets to the thin walls, the brackets are not very stable, slightly bending, but it worked out OK. image © designboom



all work was D-I-Y, except the plumbing connection and the electrical installation, which have been done by local professionals.

container summer residence   great for nature lovers exterior view of bathroom. please note the door with identity tag – ‘approved for transport under customs seal …’ image © designboom



according to the tags on the doors, a sort of identity card, the three containers come from china, thailand and india.

container summer residence   great for nature lovers image © designboom



the third container, has a fully equipped bathroom, with shower box, washing machine, sink and composting toilet. you don’t find images of the interior, because we have not completely finished it yet. summer is ending and we’re leaving for milan now.  there is still lots to do – for next year. what about piling containers for a fantastic sea view from the second floor?

  • designboom rocks

    jane says:
  • You lucky, lucky bastards!!!!!

    mawdster says:
  • I just love everything about this. The ultimate in DIY and I’m loving the use of the ceramic coating – something I’ll definitely be looking into. Does it really work as well as it says on the tin? Can’t see the price anywhere – maybe a problem?

    Best wishes,


    Julian Cassell says:
  • nice idea. Not sure how much heat those containers will retain after sundown.. ill take the hammock. Outside 🙂

    Pg says:
  • to julian,
    the climate here is hot and dry and often a bit windy. the paint is better than we thought,
    by day we have never used aircon and by night we use blankets!
    the cost of the SUPERTHERM is about 25% higher than rust preventive paint.

    birgit db says:
  • Hi Birgit db,

    Thanks for the follow up. I’ll add Supertherm to my list of paints to look into.



    Julian Cassell says:
  • Ceramic paint is not an insulator. It may work in outer space where temperature differences are measured in thousands of degrees, but it has no value on earth. It reflects heat no better than any other light-colored surface. Of course they don’t use AC – the average high is 63 degrees F! And of course they need blankets at night, since it goes down to 52 F and they have no insulation. Ceramic paint has been tested and shown to have no insulating value in both Florida and Alaska. You can read a real expert and find links to these tests here:

    Gibsonarchitect says:
  • to gibsonarchitect, I understand your concern, but things are different, when observed from a different point of view. first, I don’t have any business relationship with the producer of that paint. second, I thought so too (it will not work), because we also have read all those tests before buying SUPERTHERM. we have decided to test it on our containers, only because a friend (again, hello michael) insisted that it IS a great product.
    third, we were in sardinia from july to beginning of september, it really gets hot here.
    this year average temperature by day was 36 degrees celsius (97 degrees fahrenheit) and by night 22 degrees celsius (72 degrees fahrenheit).
    and four, we bought 3 containers – 2 of them we painted with SUPERTHERM, we finished the paint and could not buy it on this island, so we used normal paint for the third container. the exposure to wind and sun has been the same for all three, all three had the same amount of doors for ventilation, but the ‘normal’ one which we used as bathroom, has been terribly hot by day and by night. this research might be too spontaneous and empirical, but this was what we have experienced so far.
    I am just curious what will happen with condensation in autumn.

    birgit db says:
  • If you put up another 10 containers, we can come visiting you.

    Jan-E.. says:
  • wonderful project, a case of engineering in its truest sense and art combine to make the world just a bit better. I would love to find out how much your property cost and how to go about buying some.


    zippyflounder says:
  • Great to see faces of your team. Congratulations from Playa del Carmen to you all.

    Alfonso says:
  • Superthem is not an insulator- sorry to report: on GBA
    Perhap your so cold because deserts are cold at night and you have no insulation.
    Other wise nice clean and simple design especially the sliding doors.

    Andrew Michler says:
  • Ooopsie, didn’t see Gibsonarchitect and the follow up comment, lesson learned.

    I think in general the radiant barrier industry is usually suspect in their claims. Products often do not perform well and quickly degrade (dust, installation issues, etc.) and money saved on “thermal” paints and reflective barriers could be used for quality insulation materials which are carefully applied.

    Andrew Michler says:
  • [url=]Air control carriers[/url] would look great in these.

    defense says:
  • @birgit db: really nice project.
    1. What is the rough cost of this summer residence until now?
    2. The interior of containers was unpainted? It seems so, apparently. What about the concerns expressed in this ArchDaily article?
    “However, there are a lot of downsides to building with cargo containers. For instance, the coatings used to make the containers durable for ocean transport also happen to contain a number of harmful chemicals, such as chromate, phosphorous, and lead-based paints. Moreover, wood floors that line the majority of shipping container buildings are infused with hazardous chemical pesticides like arsenic and chromium to keep pests away.”

    Massimo A. says:
  • to massimo A.
    these are important points that you bring up.

    1) a pure discussion of cost is difficult. in our process, the most expensive elements
    were running electricity or water to the property, which we do not consider specifically
    a part of our container project insofar as we plan one day to build a residence here.
    we talked a bit in the article about the cost of the containers themselves,
    and any further fittings depend very much on user choice. our costs were at times higher
    because we preferred to use locally sourced materials rather than have them
    transported to the island, but of course this is a very specific case given our location.

    — ever considered the paint of your cars, which many people more or less live in? —
    containers surely are not THE solution to a more ‘healthy’ lifestyle, and it is unfortunate
    that much of the media today treats them in this way. they are what they are:
    painted metal storage boxes. for us they offered a solution to temporary housing,
    and with a little common sense and some hard work, we made modifications
    for more comfortable and sound living.

    where this concern is of greatest relevance (interiors), we did in fact take all the paint
    and any rust off and repainted all surfaces with water-based paint.
    on the outside we just got rid of ‘loose’ surface and painted over the old layer.

    the original floors are quite far into their life cycle and even if they were treated with pesticides,
    by now there should be little remaining of the harmful chemicals; but we nonetheless
    sealed over them and lay down new wooden flooring.

    we hope this addresses some of your concerns!

    birgit db says:
  • @birgit db:
    My intent was not to dismiss shipping container architecture as inherently unsafe but, on the contrary, I was just curious about how to create, with containers, a relatively healty environment as dwelling (temporary or permanent).
    Indoor air quality (IAQ) is a relatively recent topic here in Italy and there is no awareness about the problem in the public opinion (most homes are surely insufficiently ventilated in cold months, especially after installing insulated glazing).
    I guess that less effort and energy is required to assure a discrete IAQ in a new container house that in our old buildings, where little or no consideration was given to IAQ.
    Until now my understanding is confirmed by what you wrote: for a decent IAQ is sufficient to remove paint and repaint with a safe product, at least internally, remove or seal the floor and assure a good areation, which in case of yours summer residence is given by opening doors and windows (house furnishings built without harmfull substances can help also).
    Thanks again.

    Massimo A. says:
  • On the insulation front, you need to think of it like a timber frame house. ie. There is an external weather proof layer and and internal vapour barrier. Shipping container skins are waterproof, thus if you insulate the inside with a foil backed insulation, moisture inside the structure cannot condensate between the insulation and the container. If for space or aesthetic purposes, the container was clad, insulation could be on the outside and work perfectly well.

    Andrew Tetlow says:
  • andrew,
    I think the question of insulation and vapour barriers is being a bit over simplified. It is quite a lot different than timber frame construction and doesn’t work in quite the same way particularly if the external surface becomes overheated.

    graham stead says:
  • Hi Graham,
    Please can you elaborate on your comments?
    This is all getting a bit elaborate for what was an off the cuff analogy but
    as I see it, if you see the timber frame as the container, then it seems pretty similar to me. External water proof layer, internal vapour barrier, lightweight structure with potential to overheat if not carefully designed. Alternatively, for a clad shipping container with external insulation the container acts as the vapour barrier, with an internal decorative lining. External finish with a rain screen or system of choice.

    Andrew Tetlow says:
  • Hi Andrew

    No problem. In reverse order the external insulation is what I would consider the right method for the reasons you have stated. However I would not be comfortable using the container as the waterproofing outer skin and then lining internally as you have described unless you could create a ventilated cavity which is easy enough.

    Traditionally people have taken containers and similar units, cut out some openings for windows, stuck some insulation and finishes on the inside and they have been sufficient for the required purpose which is usually short term occupation where they have replaced Portakabin type units. Any defects which occur are accepted. I think that for long term, quality usage, a more cautious approach is required.

    Although you have said that it is like ‘timber frame’ you have not made it clear how the components fit together except that the steel of the container replaces ‘timber frame’ element but it is on the outside of the construction also acting as the waterproofing component. This is a little difficult to understand.

    To me the description is more like composite steel cladding panel construction albeit in this case with the panels being structural. However steel panel construction is either composite with bonded insulation following the profile of the sheet or made up on site which should then be vented due to the voids, even though the lining panels act as a vapour check.
    The steel of a container is generally profiled which, with post applied insulation, will leave substantial unventilated voids. The relatively heavy gauge steel could be subject to extremes of temperature which in turn could cause problems with thermal movement and conducted heat particularly with regard to fixings and adhesives leading to opening of joints in the insulation and finishes. The cavity can become ultra hot with no method of cooling (think of dogs in cars).

    The internal vapour barrier is always a problem because as soon as it is punctured in any way it ceases to become a vapour barrier and becomes a vapour check. It will still stop condensation generally but will not necessarily stop the movement of moist air in and out of a cavity through the holes, particularly where air in the cavity could become pressurised through heat build up. In a timber frame construction this goes unnoticed as the cavity has a breather membrane and is ventilated. I have yet to see a site applied vapour barrier system which has not been damaged, punctured either through bad handling or for services, or joints stuck (if at all) with crumpled tape or not fully adhered. In practice moist air will get into the voids and could condense on the back of the steel wall of the container in cold weather and theoretically on the back of the internal vapour barrier in very hot weather where the temperatures are reversed. The condensate could damage the insulation, fixings, and finishes.

    Hope this helps.

    Graham Stead says:
  • wonderful project, lucky db-team to have such great bosses 🙂 and very interesting thread! whatever the outcome (of the thread) may be, birgit, please, reserve us a container for next summer 🙂 saludos from barranquilla!

    sebastian antepostnow says:
  • Congrats on your summer resort! Nice to see some familiar faces still going strong 🙂
    Hope to see you again in Tokyo soon!

  • IMO, the paint may have worked as it did, not because it insulates heat, but reflects sunlight. Since light cannot get in contact with the walls, the walls cannot heat up, which in turn keeps the air inside from heating up during the day. The air inside stays as cool as it is in the surrounding (windy) environment.

    And since it is not an insulator, the air at night is cooler as it is supposed to be in a desert environment.

    So it keeps the walls from heating up during the day, but does not protect against dropping temperatures.

    ece says:
  • Looking at this pictures gives you this fantastic feeling of holidays memories you will never forget!

    olive says:
  • I think this is one of the best container housing articles. Lots of photos, and it seems you kept the budget down to earth, and didnt start som ultra minimalistic expensive crap, which is nice but most of us cant afford!!!!

    Christian MO says:

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