They are always 8 feet tall and 8 feet wide and 20 or 40 feet long. Millions carry the cargo that keeps the economy going. Millions more are scattered across the globe, unused.
Shipping containers symbolize our quest to buy things and the excess and waste that result. These corrugated steel boxes may also hold part of the solution.
Containers are being recycled and reinvented to serve humanity in new ways, as homes and offices, bridges and schools, even a research station in Antarctica.
Here in Tampa Bay, we use them to make bars.
In St. Petersburg, the owners of the Getaway are adding a waterfront bar and kitchen made of containers. In Tampa, Lightning fans are enjoying the NHL playoffs at Ferg's Live, a bar made of containers across from Amalie Arena.
Tampa architect Brandon Hicks, who designed the Getaway project, said they're abundant, functional and chic.
"I think the advantages are the surplus that we have on the market," he said. "It's also kind of a societal thing, a cultural thing, since we're such a consumer-based economy."
Containers are having a moment across the world.
The Salam Centre for Cardiac Surgery was made of 90 containers in Khartoum, Sudan. The Travelodge Uxbridge Central Hotel has 120 rooms on eight floors assembled from 86 containers in London. The Smoky Park Supper Club was built using 19 containers in Asheville, N.C.
Now it's Tampa Bay's turn.
Aside from Ferg's and the Getaway, the architects behind the experimental Mercado project hope one day to build a prefabricated commercial and community plaza from containers on 3.25 state acres where Interstate 275 meets Interstate 4.
Hicks, the principal architect at 12th Street Studio of Tampa, has been working on container projects for years. The Getaway is the first to actually launch.
When clients ask him about building with containers, they think it's cheap and easy. In reality, it is neither.
They can make sense, though, for the right client and the right purpose. Like any building material, Hicks said, they have strengths and weaknesses.
They're strong and cheap, costing as little as hundreds of dollars. They're portable and modular. They can be easily moved. They come in two sizes — 20-feet and 40-feet long — so they're easy to plan for. They can be repurposed for all kinds of uses. And there's plenty of them waiting to be used.
They're also confining at just 8 feet tall and wide. They trap heat and moisture. Significant alterations can weaken them. The roofs are weak. They could have been damaged or contaminated by their past cargos. They may not always be cheaper than wood-frame construction.
But containers also fit an architectural aesthetic that's having a moment of its own.
"It immediately starts to talk to that industrial and practical feel that you're kind of after from a design standpoint," Hicks said. "There's no element on a container that isn't there for a very specific form and functional standpoint."
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Containers certainly fit what the Getaway owners wanted to do.
Co-owner Scott Tashkin said they wanted to add a bar and kitchen close to where patrons lounge along the water. Building a restaurant-sized kitchen, though, would cut into the mandated number of parking spaces. The only spot they could use was a small footprint overlooking a drainage pond.
"We took an unusable space," he said, "and made it very usable."
They welded together two containers, a 40-footer and a 20-footer. They would be used to prepare food, so they had to find new ones that had never handled cargo.
They anchored them with 30-foot deep auger cast piles, concrete and steel pylons built into the ground. They had to add a watertight roof, air-conditioning, heating and power.
They cut a 14-foot hole in the side of the 40-footer for a bar, and on the other side they added a raw bar. They built a restaurant-quality kitchen in the 20-footer. The biggest challenge was squeezing a 14-foot long hood over the kitchen that left 6 ½ feet of required space.
Another issue was that building inspectors had little experience with containers.
"They don't know quite how to approach it," Hicks said. "There was a lot of paperwork on our part."
Tashkin did not disclose costs. Builder Michael Purdy, however, said it cost less than conventional construction would have. It also would have been impossible to build using conventional construction materials and methods.
The containers were painted to look like they've been sitting on a Caribbean island for 40 years. Tashkin hopes to start using them this week.
"A lot of people come up to us and say, 'We heard you can get these containers for not a lot of money and they're quick to use,' " he said, "and I'm like 'Geez, if you only knew.' "
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Architect Peter DeMaria just can't get away from containers.
He has lived near container ports in Newark, N.J., and Long Beach, Calif. The idea came to him a decade ago while he was searching for new building materials.
In 2006, he built the first two-story container home in the United States. The famous Redondo Beach House is a 3,500-square-foot steel and glass structure melding eight containers and wood-frame construction in Southern California.
He always saw containers as a way to build affordable housing across the globe. In 2008 he started Logical Homes. It offers prefabricated container homes ranging from $40,000 to $430,000.
DeMaria, though, felt that he had to convert the elites before the masses. That's what the Redondo Beach House, which he said is worth about $2 million, was built to do.
"I knew politically it would jump up and bite us," he said. "Someone will say you cannot put poor people in metal boxes. That will not fly, and I understood. So we had to wait."
Now containers are being used everywhere and for everything.
"We thought it could be a building block that could unleash some really powerful solutions," DeMaria said. "There's no end in sight."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Jamal Thalji at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.