Repeating the word “location” ad nauseum passes wisdom in circles, because that’s the thing that matters. A masterpiece in a subdivision isn’t worth very much. And, more to the point, an underwater office isn’t worth much either. That’s why architects and developers are working so hard to decouple questionable investments in lots that could be flooded or cracked by an earthquake or devalued by urban blight from investments in physical structures. When it comes to catastrophe, it’s good to be a moving target.

Ross Gilbert, the Managing Director for QED Property, a UK investment and development firm, thinks about this a lot. QED wants to use shipping containers to build commercial and residential properties on vacant and unused lots, as a way to construct fast, temporary development sites that can be moved around as needed. To him, that “location, location, location” refrain is about moving from one place to the next, not overcommitting to the first.

Inverse spoke to Gilbert and gleaned a bit more about how all this works.

Can you define what, in your own words, a mobile building is?

For me a mobile building — though I would use the term “portable”, as mobile here would be one on wheels, like an RV — remains a building in the traditional sense, just without a fixed location. The differentiation comes at the end of its useful life, when rather than in the traditional linear sense — where a building is reduced to a pile of rubble — a mobile building is in tact and is transported (either whole or in kit form) to its next use and so continues its use.

What kind of a purpose would a mobile building serve? For example, how might mobile buildings help in working against the effects of climate change, like rising tides or extreme weather events?

I see a mobile building still serving the purpose of a building — at the most basic level fulfilling human need of shelter — with the added benefit of flexibility that being portable or mobile provides. I love the concept of rather than “move to a new house” you simply “move your house”, this could equally apply to an office of place of businesses. I wrote about this in a past blog post.

In relation to the impacts of climate change you mention, like rising tides and extreme weather, the flexibility provided by a mobile building can surely only be an advantage. Given warning, existing buildings could be moved to higher ground or moved entirely from high risk areas. In the aftermath of a natural disaster mobile buildings quickly deployed in first and second stage response would provide essential infrastructure.

Cobblers Thumb, Brighton, UK

What are the biggest challenges behind designing a mobile building?

By far the biggest challenge, particularly here in the UK, is one of perception in a very traditional and established industry entrenched in the status quo. Memories of the post war pre-fabs or the school cabins on the football field tend to ensure industry professionals and end users keep to the status quo of traditional bricks and mortar construction. Finding the right professionals (ones with an open mindset) has been one of the hardest elements of the design process — but we are, I’m pleased to say, making progress on this front.

How did QED Property develop such a strong interest in using shipping containers? What are the advantages to such building materials?

QED has been involved in property development since the 1980’s, and has witnessed a number of time-based opportunities. Around 2010 we were involved in a masterplanning exercise that presented the opportunity for portable or mobile buildings. The conclusion of our research was that, while not perfect, shipping container buildings provided the best portable building block.

The key advantages are:

  • low cost to build and transport a block
  • speed of deployment and faster construction
  • strength, durability and re-use
  • ease of transport and deployment
  • sustainability: reduced traffic movements on site, reduced energy use due to low embodied energy and reduced waste

How could shipping container homes and offices be used as a form of mobile buildings? What would this look like, and how would this operate?

Shipping containers lend themselves very well to being used as a mobile building block as stand alone or as a part of a larger entity. A low cost global transport network provides the infrastructure to move these rigid factory prepared blocks to and from their end use. 

Cobblers Thumb, Brighton, UK

I see two main initial opportunities here: time-based opportunities, and meanwhile use.

By time-based opportunities, I mean instances where there is a time limited surge in demand. As the result of, say, a large construction project or a global event, where a mobile building could be brought in and deployed to satisfy this demand, and then removed once the surge subsides to meet the next requirement. Existing infrastructure also results in very low cost storage if not in use.

The other is meanwhile or interim use. The regeneration process takes a long time. Within these development cycles, there are constant opportunities to use a vacant brownfield site for a period of months or years, sometimes even decades. Mobile buildings enable the provision on homes, offices, and a whole host of other uses. One of the great things about shipping containers is the flexibility: mobile stages, stadiums, theaters, and sports facilities (such as cricket nets, or batting cage in the U.S., or swimming pools) are all possible and can be provided for use in the community allowing a much more organic development process of flow.

This would operate on cycles as short as one-to-three months to years, with investment ranging from high-end branded offerings to low cost DIY community developments. The beauty of a portable or mobile building is that once in existence it must be used so the opportunities for use are wide and greatly increased by its simple existence with portability the key driver.

Do mobile buildings have a strong future? Are more architects and engineers likely to pursue building them in the future?

I certainly believe mobile and portable buildings are our future. In the context of the industry here in the UK — where there is a trend of supply being unable to keep pace with demand, labor shortages, and resource constraints (materials and energy) — there is strong justification to move to a more sustainable and more secure method of procuring our built environment.

Richardsons Yard, Brighton, UK

I am certainly seeing more and more architects moving towards portable and mobile buildings. And not only that, I see developers and property investors moving in that direction too — we just need the funders to keep a pace — as they wake up to the economic benefits of mobile buildings and pre-fabrication.

Technology, especially the internet, has created an on demand almost instant world, yet the building industry is still predominately reliant on techniques that have not changed in over a hundred years! Surely that cannot last.

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