Once relegated to the high seas and bustling ports, shipping containers are growing in popularity across the country for use as everything from outdoor cafés, funky office spaces, backyard farms, and more.

The normally rusted, dented relics – often banged around during their first lives as cargo containers on huge ocean-going shipping vessels – serve as relatively inexpensive ways to provide almost instant space at sites. Due to their industrial and “authentic” feel, shipping containers have become desirable retro-cool design accessories, not unlike old-fashioned Chuck Taylor Converse sneakers or Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

As a result, shipping container makers say demand is rising for the 20-foot-by-8-foot, or sometimes 40-foot-by-8-foot, containers for a wide variety of non-traditional uses.

Endless uses

“The sky’s the limit for what people have done with them,” says Brian Quick, president of Mini Warehousing Inc., a Mansfield, Mass. company, whose core business is providing temporary or permanent on-site storage units to businesses, government agencies and even some residences.

In recent years, Quick said his company has increasingly started modifying containers for a much wider variety of uses – including ice cream stands, bars, art exhibits, conference-room annexes, roof-top gardens and other purposes.

“They’re sort of cool to have,” Quick said of the surging popularity of shipping or storage containers being modified for other purposes.

Prices for containers can vary. A brand new unit can cost from $4,500 to $7,000, depending on its size and the quality desired (such as being water-tight), according to industry officials. Custom-modified container prices can range from $10,000 to $60,000, depending on a variety of factors, including how many electrical and plumbing fixtures might be needed.

For the record: Containers used to serve food and drinks are almost always new, and not previously used for either shipping or storage, for sanitary reasons.

Beer Garden View
Six storage containers make up Somerville Brewing’s beer garden

Trendy appeal

In the city of Boston, normally considered a somewhat staid and architecturally European-like city, shipping containers are now all the rage.

Mini Warehousing recently modified a container for use as an outdoor bar in back of the Cinquecento Roman Trattoria in Boston’s trendy South End neighborhood. The fire-engine red container serves as the actual bar, with taps and liquor bottles inside and with benches out front for patrons. With its folding up-and-down windows, the bar can be closed and locked tight for security reasons during non-work hours.

Mini Warehousing has also modified containers for offices, farm stands, and even for a temporary art exhibit along downtown Boston’s new Rose Kennedy Greenway.

From storage to beer garden

In nearby Somerville, Federal Realty Investment is currently building a massive new neighborhood of residences, retail stores, restaurants and offices at a formerly gritty industrial site called Assembly Square, where Ford vehicles were once manufactured and trains repaired.

Tucked across the street from a new Saks Fifth Avenue store at Assembly Square is a beer garden run by the Somerville Brewing Co. The garden is comprised of six storage containers used for a taproom, a small kitchen, an artisan’s shop, bathrooms, and general storage. The site is festooned with flowers and tables where customers can relax and enjoy the craft-brewed beer and food while scoping out the surrounding urban scene.

In a statement, Federal Realty Investment said it wanted the entire Assembly Square development to be respectful of the site’s industrial past.

“The shipping containers that we custom built for the beer garden are one great example of that homage to our roots,” said Federal Realty. “It’s fun, it’s different, and it works so well.”

Container Aviation Tower
An aviation tower built with shipping containers by Sea Box

Going civilian

Bill Begley, director of modular buildings at Sea Box Inc., a New Jersey maker and modifier of containers, said his company is getting non-traditional orders from all over the country. The modified containers are being used for pop-up restaurants and bars, portable kitchens, and exhibit and retail spaces at fairs and street venues.

“They give it that edgy and industrial look,” said Begley of the varied re-purposed containers.

Sea Box is currently bidding on a contract to modify containers for temporary retail shops on university campuses. It even recently landed a contract to provide the Federal Aviation Authority with temporary air-traffic control towers built out of modified containers, Begley said.

In the past, the US military has traditionally been Sea Box’s largest customer, using containers for everything from portable latrines to battlefield command centers to just regular storage units.

Begley said Sea Box is hoping to increase civilian sales of containers from its current 25 percent of the company’s revenues to 50 percent of the firm’s revenues.