Like any good entrepreneur, Frederik Noltenius Busck had big ambitions for his new start-up in Copenhagen, Denmark. He wanted to solve big problems and make the world a better place

But his search for a lofty business idea that could transform society took a surprising turn that led him toward the lowliest and humblest building block of the global economy: the shipping container.

Next year, Busck and his company CPH Containers will complete the first of what is expected to be many villages of college student housing in Copenhagen built entirely from shipping containers. Busck says their merits are numerous, from cost to flexibility. But most important, the villages can be placed temporarily on unused land, then disassembled, relocated and used again and again as needed.

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Student housing build from a recycled shipping container. (Photo: CPH Village)

“That was a revelation for us,” he said. “We could start thinking about housing and city development in a whole new way.”

Busck and his firm are just a small part of what has become a growing global industry that has discovered countless alternative ways to reuse shipping containers. Cafes, art installations, buildings, tourist attractions, housing, military bunkers and even strawberry farms.

After decades of serving as the invisible workhorses of global trade, these metal boxes are being hailed for their flexibility, their eco-friendliness, and, yes, even their design aesthetic.

Suddenly, shipping containers are sexy.

“We are always surprised at the uses people are finding for them,” said Patrick Hicks, who plans this week to announce the creation of The Container Traders and Innovators Association, the first industry trade group for secondhand containers. “We think the possibilities are limitless.”

Indeed, Google caused a stir several years ago when it secretly began constructing a floating showroom for its gadgets on a barge in the San Francisco Bay using containers. A Swiss Architecture Firm last year used 50 shipping containers to build a replica of Stonehenge called Steelhenge at a Geneva art festival. A sportswear brand called NEEDS&WANTS built a small store in a shipping container and then hid it in a Toronto park — creating a challenge for customers to find it.

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Steelhenge (Photo: Bureau A)

Containers’ surge in popularity is an outgrowth of the way the massively complex global trade industry has evolved. Decades ago, the introduction of standardized shipping containers revolutionized global trade. Goods could be stuffed into these boxes and easily moved from trains to cargo ships to the backs of long-haul trucks.

However, just as much of the world’s manufacturing has gravitated to China, so too has the building of shipping containers. An estimated 90 percent of all shipping containers are built there. Because of trade imbalances, a large portion of the 30 million shipping containers in use inevitably end up in ports where they stack up as more come in than go out.

With the prices of new shipping containers falling, and an incentive for shipping companies and ports to sell used ones rather than having them sit unused for months, the world now has an abundance of a low-cost asset that is surprisingly adaptable.

Those factors caught the eye of two young entrepreneurs in Paris, who started a company called Agricool. Both the sons of farmers, they are transforming shipping containers into self-contained farming units to grow strawberries. By installing the right lighting, climate control and filtering systems, they hope people will be able to place these “Cooltainers” in urban areas to produce fresh, low-cost food.

They bought a few shipping containers that had been retired from a port in Dunkirk and hope to have the next version of the prototype ready by the end of this year.

“The best way to have a good strawberry,” said co-founder Guillaume Fourdinier in one interview, “is to reduce the distance between the place it is grown and the consumer.”

Meanwhile, Spanish architect Carlos R. Gomez and his China-based firm CRG Architecture Consultants have proposed using containers on an even grander scale. Targeting India’s Mumbai, where there is a surging need for more affordable housing, the firm has proposed building two spiraling apartment towers using about 2,500 shipping containers.

View the gallery to see all the creative ways to recycle containers:

The project is still in the early stages and looking for government support and investors. Gomez said the project would pose some immense engineering challenges. But using shipping containers would reduce building time and cost, “making the project more affordable for some economically less advantaged people,” Gomez said.

While people from just about every corner of the shipping industry agree that alternative use of containers is growing, there are no data documenting the trend. In part, that’s because the secondhand industry has grown increasingly complex.

People can buy containers from ports and shipping companies, or from a wide array of brokers and dealers with varying reputations. Hicks said he was inspired to start a container association to get better data on the industry, but also to help set standards and best practices because too often people don’t understand what they’re getting into.

Clement Gillet, founder of B3 Ecodesign in Rennes, France, echoes that sentiment. B3 operates a factory that transforms shipping containers into houses using an assembly process to drive efficiency and lower costs. The company has churned out 400 houses already and is looking for investors to scale the factory and massively increase the output.

Gillet argues that such mass production is better because there are too many pitfalls. Newcomers often don’t understand the physics, such as which walls or parts can be refused without compromising the structural support. And when the structures are being assembled, it can be complicated to figure how to incorporate infrastructure like plumbing and wiring.

“It can look very easy to transform containers into a house,” he said. “But it’s not. Many people doing it on their own will make many mistakes.”

As containers grow in popularity, people are starting to look beyond the used containers sitting on docks. Many of the largest container manufacturers have created divisions that build containers specifically for alternative uses, allowing customers to special order custom containers for specific projects.

For example, China International Marine Containers, or CIMC, manufacturers about 50 percent of the world’s shipping containers. But in its most recent annual report, the company noted demand is soft for new containers, and average prices are falling. To combat that, the company has started its own modular building division, which designs and constructs large-scale buildings and office parks using its own shipping containers.

When building the Downtown Container Park in Las Vegas, organizers eventually decided to use a mix of old and new containers, according to spokeswoman Maria Phelan.

The park was conceived as part of a larger program called Downtown Project, a massive renewal effort launched by Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, who invested $350 million of his own money. In addition to infusing the city with new entrepreneurial companies, Hsieh wanted to create a large park for families.

Initially, the idea was to take a handful of used shipping containers, turn them into cafes or restaurants, and put them on the edges of the park to generate some income for maintaining that space. But Phelan said as Hsieh and his group learned more about the containers, they grew more ambitious.

The result: Today Downtown Container Park is a sprawling wonderland of retail stores, boutiques, cafes and restaurants of 84 shipping containers built with an open space in the middle for kids to play. Phelan said the group purchased 43 shipping containers from the Port of Long Beach. A Nevada company called Xtreme built 41 “Cubest,” which are modular units inspired by container design.

The Downtown Container Park has been a big attraction with, with 3 million visitors in three years.

Of course, Vegas being in the desert, the project presented some climate challenges. Figuring out insulation and air conditioning was complex, Phelan said. And along the exterior are signs reminding visitors not to touch the metal containers, which can become extremely hot.

But all those issues were minor, Phelan said, compared with the design flexibility and the sustainability aspect.

“It’s certainly not as simple as plopping down a few containers,” Phelan said. “It was a little bit more expensive than anyone thought it would be. But it was certainly well worth it. And we like the idea that it’s all kind of reusable. If one day, there’s no need for Container Park, they can be taken apart and used by someone else.”