University of São Paulo: Contain[IT] gives students valuable insight

On March 17, students at the University of São Paulo visited Contain[IT]’s factory to learn details on the capabilities of the container structures and their use.

Located in the metropolitan area of São Paulo, Contain[IT] turns discarded shipping containers and turns them into new spaces.  Their entire design is done in the factory rather than in the office, which allows them to experiment with solutions throughout the design process.  The company uses software to simulate air-flow and thermal resistance, and structural engineers are employed to ensure structural integrity of the containers.

Recognizing that using only environmentally friendly materials is not always feasible, practical or preferred, Contain[IT] is committed to reducing their environmental footprint through a zero waste construction process and achieving ‘sustainability’ that spans the entire life of a product – from extraction to manufacturing to use and beyond.

Arthur Norgren and Sérgio Cabral, partners at Contain[IT], spoke to the students about their work and provided valuable insight on the use of shipping containers, such as the structure, acquisition, standards, transportation, maintenance, materials, and more.  Read through the summary below.


Container Material and Structure

The containers vary from one model to another, but are typically made of Corten steel and iron components.  Beams are made of marine plywood or I-beams, and roofing is made of corrugated steel.

Their structures consist of columns and corners (where the lifting hooks are attached), with larger beams at the base, and smaller beams overhead (the roofing is not structurally sound on its own).  

Structural Integrity

Each weighing 20 tonnes, eight containers can be stacked on top of each other.  If more weight is needed, structural reinforcements are required.  

Walls of the containers can be removed, but doing so leaves the structure exposed and can decrease its integrity, requiring reinforcing.  A container can be stacked over the structure of another only if the columns of both containers are consolidated (in this case, the lower beam of the top container works as the top beam of the lower container).

Acquisition and Standards

When acquiring a container, decontamination and importation must be documented, as containers can be contaminated by previous contents, and often arrive from across the globe.  The most ideal containers for reuse are those classified as food grade transport goods, since they do not need to be decontaminated.  

The average cost to acquire a container is R$8,000 to R$10,000 (approximately $3,600 – $4,500 USD), which includes the requirements for decontamination and transportation.  Acquisition of damaged containers is usually not a good option, as the repair process can take time.

It’s worth noting that the largest source of container waste in Brazil stems from their being discarded at the end of their transport life and trade imbalances – Brazil imports more than it exports.

Transportation and Maintenance

Containers can often be damaged in their transportation and need to be handled carefully. Maintenance can be minimal if the containers are designed properly.

Thermal Comfort

Since containers are essentially metal boxes, heat transfers easily requiring thermal insulation. Materials such as NEOPOR, a cellular lightweight concrete, can be used to prevent over-heating.


A unleveled site can be quite harmful to the project, if not dealt with properly.  Contain[IT] uses hexagonal concrete pavers and wood or rubber pieces to support the concrete when the site is uneven.


A few different options exist for the coating of the containers.  Ceramic coating helps avoid heating.  For waterproofing, epoxy paint can be used, and paint used for ships work well, but is aggressive towards the environment.

Interior Materials

Sérgio advised that the students’ temporary bathroom be designed as a ‘war tank’ – it should be resistant to damage to avoid frequent maintenance.  For this, they suggested fiberglass and polycarbonate, which they used for their own bathroom project.

Sewage and Water Solutions

Several options exist for both sewage and water.  Most Contain[IT] projects are connected to both the sewage and water grid, either under the container or through the walls.  While other options can be considered, such as taking advantage of solar gain through the metallic roof or black pipes to heat the water, the weight and design of such options must be calculated carefully.

Energy Use

The containers can be outfitted with a variety of different options to decrease energy use.  For example in one of their projects, Contain[IT] added photovoltaic panels and wind turbines to the structure to raise consciousness about the use of renewable energy.  They noted that upfront costs of these systems may be higher than those provided by more common industrial sources. 

90% of their structures are ‘plug and play,’ and their use is reliant on their connection to the grid.


Contain[IT]’s work

Throughout their presentation, they showcased a few projects.  Check out their website to see a sample of their work.


Learn more about the São Paulo University’s APIS project here >

Pillars of Sustainable Education

Architecture for Humanity and Alcoa Foundation have come together to support the realization of community-based projects that explore innovations in design, materials and building systems.