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Meet the Man Who Upcycled Shipping Containers to Build a Cool College Cafe!

Meet the Man Who Upcycled Shipping Containers to Build a Cool College Cafe!

If you were to look at the structure from the top, you will see that it is shaped like an infinity symbol. And that's what the cafe is named too, to represent the infinite possibilities of shipping containers! #green #Innovation

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Every building has a story to tell. The architecture and design convey which era it was built in and the style of that particular period.

In the 21st century, architects are aspiring to be more sustainable. There are reports that attribute 25-40 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions to the construction sector. Moreover, about 50 per cent of climatic change and landfill waste comes from conventional construction techniques.

The landscape view of the cafe. The infinity symbol denotes the infinite uses of the shipping containers used to build this cafe

Ghaziabad-based architect Rahul Jain is one person who has embraced sustainability not only in his designs but also in the materials he uses. He has even designed and built an entire cafeteria using shipping containers!

The 27-year-old architect is the proprietor of Rahul Jain Design Lab (RJDL) and is responsible for designing the ‘Cafe Infinity’ located in Ghaziabad’s ITS Dental College.

When the institute approached him to build a sustainable structure, Rahul thought that it was the perfect opportunity to experiment with shipping containers.

The 19-feet structure was made by upcycling nine shipping containers and minimal Reinforced Cement Concrete (RCC). Spread across two levels, the structure occupies an area of 4,800 sq. feet and was built in about 11 months in November 2019. Apart from shipping containers, other sustainable materials were used in the interiors.

The rear view side of the cafe

“Although RCC has been one of the components most used in construction, it is not environment friendly. It is non-biodegradable, and cement particles can cause land and air pollution. In India, we don’t even have proper protective gear for construction labourers. Therefore, it can also affect their health,” explains Rahul.

Therefore, the structure only used 0.5 per cent of this component for a strong foundation, ensuring that the building was built consciously. Doing this brought down the costs by 35 per cent in comparison to a conventional structure made using RCC. Also, the use of shipping containers makes it a portable structure.

Further, from the top, the design is in the shape of an infinity symbol, as the name of the cafe suggests.

The isometric view of the cafe built using nine shipping containers

So, what is the mystery behind the name?

“The name given to the cafe is used to signify the infinite uses of shipping containers. They are not too difficult to transport, help in swift construction, and don’t lead to environmental degradation. Moreover, by upcycling them, we have also saved the carbon footprint of processing them into steel in recycling units,” he says, proudly.

A ‘Green’ architect

Becoming an architect did not involve any meticulous planning for Rahul.

Rahul, the architect of the ‘Infinity Cafe’

“I wanted to pursue a field where I could explore my creativity and architecture seemed like the best option,” recalls Rahul. He joined the Vastukala College of Architecture in New Delhi and completed his degree in 2015.

However, sometime during the course, he began to feel disconnected with the field. One thing that continually piqued his interest was curiosity about sustainable practices in architecture.

“Bio-mimicry was a fascinating topic. This technique looked at nature for inspiration in developing design solutions. That meant using more biodegradable materials along with emulating nature’s processes and ecosystems,” he says.

Through these subjects, he learnt about the use of shipping containers and biodegradable materials like bamboo.

All the interiors and furniture has also been designed by Rahul and his team

As part of a compulsory internship during his last year at college, he worked closely with Architect Hafeez Contractor, an award-winning design consultancy firm in Mumbai. Through several commercial projects here, he gained the confidence to start his design studio later in 2018.

He also took up independent projects on a contractual basis and designed a few cafes in Delhi like Cafe Sufiana and Cafe College Bistro. Working with ABES Engineering College in Ghaziabad, he looked after their interior design of reception lobbies and co-working spaces. Through their recommendation, he bagged the ITS Dental College’s cafe project.

Construction of this unique cafe

When Rahul received the brief for a cost-effective structure which was less polluting and could be constructed quickly, he presented two options.

First was the one with shipping containers and the other was an RCC structure with a sloped roof with green vegetation and exposed brickwork.

The entrance of the cafe. The windows are attached to the kitchen and there is a staircase on the right

The college authorities went ahead with the shipping containers which were sourced from a warehouse in Dadri.

Nine shipping containers of 40ft X 9.5ft X 8ft were used, priced at Rs 2.5 lakh each. They weighed about 3,750 kg and could endure a weight of about 27,600 kg each!

Rahul used other green building materials instead of conventional ones. For example, when they were developing the roof, he went with a checkered steel and iron plate that could be welded on to the structure. But, they realised that it would first make the structure too heavy, and secondly, add to the cost.

Hence, Rahul opted for cement fiber boards made from recycled materials like cellulose fibres, mixed with a bit of cement and sand.

Also, for insulating the building, they opted for Rock wool instead of Glass wool fibres.

To undertstand the size of furniture required and the way they are to be placed, Rahul and his small team created mock-ups in small corridors of the campus.

“Glass wool fibres are made using melted glass which is spun into a sort of flexible mat or fine fibres. This material, however, is harmful because it can get into the respiratory system of the person who is working with it. Also, during its production, the pollutant emissions are high, and they’re also not cost-effective,” he says.

Rock wool insulation, on the other hand, comprises basalt rock and recycled slag. Basalt rock is of volcanic origin and is abundantly available on earth while slag is a by-product attributed to the steel and copper industries. This insulation component prevents heat gain in the summers and keeps the interiors cool.

To retain the temperature of the interiors, Rahul used tinted windows, which also provide a sense of privacy.

The Louvers arrangement of the doors of the shipping container. This arrangement allows light to come in without letting in any heat

Since the structure was a part of a dental college with students and teachers, Rahul thought it best to include two courtyards for both groups. So, one shipping container serves as the kitchen, while two are used for a sitting lounge, which can be used to host events within the campus.

Interestingly, one of the shipping containers has been transformed to build a staircase right at the entrance.

“These shipping containers are extremely narrow structures. So, we needed to make maximum use of the small space. If you look at the shipping container with the staircases, we have divided it into two parts–the tiled half for walking and the other staircase made of plywood, which serves as a sitting area,” he says.

The view of the staircase. The left part made using tiles is for the purpose of walking up while, the wooden section is seating purpose

They have also reused the shutters (or doors) to keep the space cool.

“We used the doors and arranged them in the Louver structural technique, where the doors are arranged parallelly in the South-West direction. This helps in letting light in without the structure becoming hot,” he says.

Overcoming challenges to make clients happy

Innovating and constructing a unique structure is not a piece of cake.

The exterior view of the staircase which is built by arranging the shipping container in an incline.

“Since using shipping containers to construct a structure is not common, finding trained workers was difficult. Hence, we took help from AB Sea Containers. They are contractors who specialise in construction activities that involve shipping containers and helped bring our designs to life,” he says.

Another challenge was the restrictive space. For this, they found small corridors within the pre-existing structures on the campus. Here, they would create mock-ups to understand the furniture they would make, along with how they would place it.

This attention to detail resulted in delighted clients.

The view of the courtyard in the cafe

Sohil Chaddha, the Vice Chairman of ITS, was pleased and proud of the unique cafe located on their campus. Additionally, he was also impressed by the quick construction and the cost-effectiveness.

“We wanted a green structure, and Rahul delivered to our requirements. A conventional building would have been much more expensive, taken a lot of time, and would have also generated a lot of carbon footprint from the use of cement, and bricks, etc. This building addresses these concerns and reflects our values. It can also be easily moved around the campus,” he smiles.

Sohil now hopes to work with Rahul on more such projects in the future.

A seating lounge inside the cafe

So, what else is Rahul looking forward to?

Now that he has had experience with shipping containers, he wants to use them in more projects. He has also gotten a lot of inquiries about the cafe. Rahul hopes to take on a few of these projects once the COVID-19 lockdown normalises.

“I want to experiment and challenge myself with architectural design. Through my design studio, I want to work with different materials and innovate in sustainable design solutions. I am going to explore shipping containers further so that people can realise their infinite possibilities,” he signs off.

(Edited by Shruti Singhal)

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