Every day in the developing world, thousands of women and children die from pregnancy- and childbirth-related complications, as well as from malnutrition, dehydration, and pneumonia, according to Containers to Clinics (C2C), a Boston-area nonprofit organization. Many of these deaths are preventable through basic, inexpensive health care, but building the necessary infrastructure—clinics, pharmacies, laboratories—is nearly impossible in remote, poverty-stricken areas. C2C is working to change that by building and deploying portable medical clinics made from repurposed shipping containers.

The ubiquitous shipping container—there are an estimated 20-plus million containers worldwide that are out of use—lends itself to sustainable, modular adaptive reuse. In 2009, C2C developed a prototype with the pro bono help of San Francisco–based architecture firm Anshen + Allen and modular builder Stack Design Build. The resulting L-shaped mobile clinic, made from two containers with footprints of 8 feet by 20 feet each, includes two exam rooms, a waiting room, diagnostic lab, and pharmacy.

“The clinics are designed as a kit of parts—so that they can be shipped in several different configurations” depending on end user needs, says Ryan Campbell, associate and senior project coordinator at Anshen + Allen who spearheaded the design effort. Sustainable features in the upcycled containers include operable doors and windows that provide natural ventilation, while solar-powered fans draw stale air through wall vents. An overarching fabric canopy shades an outdoor courtyard as well as the containers themselves, which are coated with highly reflective paint to further reduce heat gain. In each unit, an inverter stores energy for use during power outages—common in rural areas and disaster zones—and a backup generator ensures continuous operation of water pumps and lights.

While C2C relied on donated materials that were selected for their durability and cleanability in order to finish the first batch of interiors, Campbell hopes future versions will incorporate greener flooring and wallcoverings. In addition, future models may be modified to run on renewable energies such as solar or wind power. Every unit, however, will continue to have a backup generator for medical equipment and storage refrigerators.

Originally envisioned to provide primary and preventive care for women and children, the container clinic has taken new life as a resource for disaster relief. In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, the prototype was sent to Port-au-Prince, where it is being used for three years as a replacement women’s and children’s facility for the heavily damaged Grace Children’s Hospital. There, the two-room clinic will serve up to 84 patients a day, and C2C plans to send at least two more clinics to aid the country’s reconstruction efforts.