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Shipping container office design

From the Ocean to the Office: Shipping Containers in Office Design

Posted October 9, 2019 By Jessica Glazer

When Chip von Weise and his team designed the Chicago office space for the game company Cards Against Humanity, it made sense to do something a little out of the ordinary. 

For the uninitiated, Cards Against Humanity calls its product “a party game for horrible people,” where the phrases on each card seems more offensive than the last, and that’s the point. That means that the physical space where these warped minds are coming up with phrases has to foster creativity, fun and openness. 

So, when someone suggested using shipping containers in the office space, the team got excited. Then they took it to the next level and decided to use one of the actual shipping containers that transported their cards from China to the U.S. 

The shipping container before heading to the Cards’ office.

Here’s how it worked: a logistics company tracked the red Hyundai steel container as it made its way across the Pacific Ocean to California, then across to Chicago by rail. One of the architects at von Weise Associates met it at the yard and tagged it and two other nearby containers. Then, a steel fabricator picked the heavy structures up from the yard, took them to the shop and cut them open. This is when the real work began. The kind of additional work and effort that might make you think twice about doing the same thing for your office. 

“For the right client and the right building and circumstances? Yeah, it’s fun,” von Weise said. “But it’s not very cost effective.” 

Shipping containers can be eco-friendly. By some estimates there are 17 million of them worldwide—and only 6 million of those are in use. You’d be recycling to use one in home or office architecture. And shipping container tiny homes have a smaller footprint than larger ones. 

But if you have an office space that you’re looking to do something interesting with, things aren’t quite out-of-the-box easy. 

These metal rectangles aren’t built for human habitation, for example. There’s no space in the walls for electrical wiring, heating and cooling. You have to build a lot of that on top of the roof or build compartments in the walls to hide the wiring. 

“You end up building a lot inside the shipping container,” von Weise explained. 

Once you’re done with that work, you have to get the container to your office space. You can transport the shipping containers on a flatbed truck—that’s what they’re built for. Then you need forklifts to drive the containers into the actual office. As you might of guessed, they’re too big to fit in most office building elevators. 

interior photography, architectural photography of Cards Against Humanity taken at Cards Against Humanity Office on February 04, 2015.

“It’s logistically impossible to put a shipping container on the fifth floor,” von Weise said. And don’t forget that most floors are not meant to bear the weight of a huge steel box. Or three, in Cards’ case.  

At the Cards Against Humanity office, the first floor is a former car repair shop, so this wasn’t an issue. And they have concrete floors so the forklift could drive over them easily without concern for damage. 

For some offices, this might have been a puzzle not worth trying to fit together. But for Cards, it was a success—and a fun one to work on for von Weise and his team. It even earned them a design award in excellence. 

If you’re still attached to this idea but want to find an easier way to go about it—and maybe your office is on the fifth floor—consider using corrugated metal that looks like the walls of the containers. You’ll get that industrial-chic feel, but not have to worry about getting that hulking steel up into your space. 


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