Casa Oruga or the Caterpillar House is an architect’s bold experiment involving crane-lifting old grungy shipping containers on top of undulating slopes in the backyard of the Andes Mountains. An unlikely combination is every sense of the word. However, by applying an invigorating, refreshing and ecologically-friendly approach to modern architectural design, the humble prefabricated container house exudes no less than geometric grandeur and elegance in both proportion and form. Designed and built by architect, Sebastián Irarrázaval, associate architect, Erick Caro and structural engineer, Pedro Bartolomé, Casa Oruga is home to an art collector and his family in a new suburban residential area, located in the outskirts of Santiago, Chile.
The container house is almost entirely constructed out of second hand shipping containers. Five 40 “standard containers, six 20“ standard containers and one 40“ open top container for the swimming pool make up the total site area of 900 metres square. Other materials include concrete retaining walls for structural support, gypsum board for the interior wallboards and ceilings and timber wood for exterior cladding. True to their humble origins, old shipping containers make ecologically-friendly materials for modern living as they are abundant in supply and relatively inexpensive. Made from materials that are structurally sound, highly durable, low maintenance and resistant to fires and elements of weather, container houses withstand wear and tear through the passage of time.
Located at the backyard of the Andes Mountains, the house is designed to be subservient to the landform’s natural line of slope. The challenge is to manoeuvre the inclination such that it becomes continuous with the floor of the house, and flows along as a passageway, thus allowing a smooth transition from the exterior spaces to interior spaces with gradually changing orientations. In order to anchor the house into the sloping landscape, modular sections of the prefabricated house, resembling gigantic steel cut-outs from the containers are assembled onsite at different heights.
Built up against the mountainside, the house required concrete retaining walls to stabilize the respective modular sections at the desired elevation, in order to create a horizontal plane for the public areas of the house. Following which, the modular sections were mounted and assembled on the top, sloping upwards towards the rear boundary and then connecting to the private areas of the house. A semi-basement is set into the slope to achieve a split floorplan and several small sets of stairs between levels within the interiors.
As an alternative to the use of partitions walls, changes in levels that add to the appeal of defining different areas within the interiors, necessitated by the shape of containers. Without relying on mechanical cooling, special design features involving both the exterior façade and interior structure, were devised for improving air flow and enhancing natural lighting throughout the living quarters. The ventilated timber façade used to wrap the containers, simultaneously allow for the circulation of air into its interior spaces.

The living quarters are organized along stripes and interstitial spaces are kept among them. The use of interstitial spaces increases the perimeter of the house and optimizes the air flow and natural light rays illuminating the spaces from at least two opposite sides. The windows and doors aligned along axes that cut the stripes, ease the air movement as well as to create visual integration among the containers laid in an elongated fashion. Furthermore, the iconic end windows along the elevated plane serve as lightwells to draw natural light into the heart of the house. At the other far end, window walls along the horizontal plane open the interiors to the unencumbered scenery of the larger surrounding landscape, induces a sense of boundless and limitless energy within the living quarters, infusing the interior and exterior as one.
A far cry from makeshift container buildings, the once grungy shipping containers are transformed into sleek and modern living quarters, complete with sustainable design features. Embracing a form-follows-function design philosophy, the prefabricated house now stand proud against the background of the magnificent Andes mountains, aesthetically rivalling the best of modern architecture, similar in feel to homes manufactured on-site.