Containing a Health Crisis in Sri Lanka

When trucking company owner Malcolm McLean invented the shipping container in the 1930’s, he probably had no idea that he had also provided the world with a source of inexpensive, rugged, and easily adapted housing. Seventy years later, most shipping container architecture has coalesced into two ghettoes: the more refined pre-fab houses, gallery pieces, and theoretical studies constructed and conducted by firms such as Lo/Tek and MVRDV; and the abandoned, jerry-rigged containers squatted and claimed as home by refugees and others in the developing world.

But now, trying to bridge this divide of container uses and building quality is Team HyBrid. The Seattle-based firm, in partnership with non-government organizations (NGOs) Asiana Education Development (AED) and Doctors of the World (DoW), is transforming shipping containers into well-designed, long-term-use health clinics in Sri Lanka.

The partnership arose to solve a problem: the lack of permanent structures in Sri Lanka was thwarting AED’s work in the country. “Asiana works in guerrilla territory,” says Team HyBrid architect Robert Humble. “There are no existing buildings there that can be adapted to become schools—and there is no labor to build them.”

But as Team HyBrid began to modify the containers into classrooms, the tsunami struck South Asia. The school work was put aside for the moment, with the Team instead turning to designing mobile medical stations for the aid workers. The Team’s plan was after the crisis, these stations could have yet another life: as facilities serving the long-term health needs of Sri Lankans—including those in remote villages.

The mobile triage stations comprise a 28-foot hinged canopy, cut out of the side of a standard 40-foot shipping container. Patients are interviewed in the front section and treated in the back. Also located at the rear end of the containers are a kitchenette and bathroom, as well as storage space for a generator. There also are places for freshwater and wastewater. The units are so self-contained that “the end user could be off the grid,” says Humble.

One challenge of designing the units, which cost about $10,000 each to make, was to prevent vapor infiltration, which could cause the containers to rust. Team HyBrid’s solution was to build an insulated, glazed box-within-a-box inside the cargo container, using glass and panelized insulation for the walls and foam block for the floor.

Team Hybrid will outfit the aid stations with medical supplies and ship them to Sri Lanka, where they should be up and running by April; DoW will relocate the containers every three to four months. The NGO will also provide feedback on future aid station designs.

Team HyBrid believes that shipping containers are only a first step toward a truly nomadic architecture, one in which homes and materials are re-sited and re-used in different places around the globe. “We hope a piece of ‘cargotecture’ starts as a high-end home in an urban development and then it becomes a cabin,” says Humble. “Fifty years later, it could be moved to the developing world.”

Categories: Cities