Students Transform Shipping Container into Sustainable Exhibition Space

Posted: January 25, 2010 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: January 22, 2010 at 3:42 pm

By Catherine Ferraro

Professor Tom Ashcraft, left, helps Daniel Dean and other students lay down a floor in the shipping container that was made from a recycled pallet. Photo by Evan Cantwell

It’s hard to believe that a dark, windowless steel box can be transformed into a comfortable living environment or a stylish artistic space.

Yet, all across the world, from Auckland, New Zealand, to Barcelona, Spain, to Austin, Texas, architectural companies and designers are using shipping containers to create innovative homes, office buildings, restaurants and other structures.

And close to home, students in Mason’s School of Art have been working on a similar innovative project for the past year; they have converted a used shipping container into a prototype for a zero-carbon mobile exhibition gallery and community space. The shipping container formally opened in December 2009 and sits in the courtyard behind the Art and Design Building on Mason’s Fairfax Campus.

Keeping Sustainability in Mind

The idea for the ContainerSpace project began last year when Tom Ashcraft, associate director and associate professor of sculpture in the School of Art, sought out a shipping container for his own artistic purposes.

Interested in projects that focus on sustainability, Ashcraft felt that a shipping container would provide his students with a unique opportunity to think about art in a nontraditional manner.

In addition, Mason was beginning to take a more active role in this growing issue with the newly formed Office of Sustainability and President Alan Merten’s signing of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.

“The ContainerSpace project forces students to think about what the presence of the shipping container represents and how its use has dramatically changed global economics throughout the years,” says Ashcraft.

“When the project is complete, the shipping container will challenge norms of the traditional gallery space with elements of sustainability, mobility and access.”

Ashcraft extended the challenge to students in the School of Art. Daniel Dean, Thomas Nutt, Ellyce Morgan and Blake Turner took up the challenge and brainstormed how to transform the abandoned shipping container into a versatile space that would ultimately serve other Mason students and expand the reach of the School of Art in the Washington, D.C., area. Most important, they wanted to maintain the integrity of the object and not disguise it as anything other than a shipping container.

Understanding the Importance of the Shipping Container

ContainerSpace's skylights were placed at angles corresponding to the degrees of the Tropic of Cancer and Capricorn. A solar panel to supply electricity to the container sits on the roof. Creative Services photo

“One of our main goals was to transform the shipping container into a modular and adaptable space that would function outside the expected norms of art gallery spaces,” says Dean, who led the planning process with Nutt.

“By working within the constraints of its architecture, we hope to highlight for students the possibilities for creative exhibition opportunities. What we have created is a stand-alone, student-managed exhibition space.”

Another advantage of the project was the opportunity for students to create one of the first spaces on campus that aligns with Mason’s commitment to zero emissions. By using recycled materials to reduce costs and eliminate waste, students investigated and utilized several innovative, small-scale sustainable building practices.

In addition, the project allowed partnerships and collaborations to form, both on and off campus. Some of the Mason offices and departments that donated their time, expertise and resources were the Office of Sustainability, Office of Facilities Management, Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. Several contracting and construction companies also assisted.

Finally, the ContainerSpace project allowed the students to delve into the history of the container as a global and cultural object. The students uncovered several interesting facts about the object based on a metal plate found on the container.

The 31-year-old container was manufactured in China, covered in primers from a company in Korea and inspected and approved for its international standards by a company in France.

According to Ashcraft, considering the history of the shipping container is important because of its links to the rise of globalization.

“In the 1950s and ‘60s when the shipping container was first introduced, its presence radically changed the future of global economics,” says Ashcraft.

“The shipping container changed everything about the movement of goods, including how boats were made and the use of shipping lanes and harbors. Having this object on a college campus tells a lot about its point of entry and the role it has played in economic globalization.”

Restoring the Container Responsibly

The finished ContainerSpace glows with energy-efficient LED lighting during an evening opening reception. Photo courtesy of Yassine el Mansouri

After conducting thorough research and learning about the rich history of the shipping container, the students got to work on its restoration, while keeping recycling and sustainability in mind.

Because most of these types of containers were made in North Korea or China where there historically have been few regulations on what kinds of chemicals can be used inside containers, the students first ripped out all of the original wood and rusty bolts inside. Then the students repurposed used shipping pallets to replace the deteriorated floor.

For the container’s interior walls, the students chose a paint containing zero volatile organic compounds (VOC), which may harm the environment. The blue-hued, bright white paint with a satin finish maximizes the spread of light throughout the interior.

In addition, the students installed custom skylights made from several pieces of recycled frosted glass, which were placed at angles corresponding to the degrees of the Tropic of Cancer and Capricorn.

The students also applied for and received a $2,500 grant from the Office of Sustainability for a solar-based electrical system. The students developed a plan for both human-powered electrical turbines and solar panels to power low-voltage, homemade LED gallery-style lighting.

“As we complete the ContainerSpace project, we hope students use this as an opportunity to create new and innovative ways of utilizing a nontraditional object,” says Dean.

“In addition, we hope this project will serve as a model for the development and implementation of renewable energy technology for the larger community and expand the dialogue surrounding contemporary art.”

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