Here's One Way to Reuse Old Oil Tankers: Turn Them Into Small Cities

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

Oil tankers are the skyscraper-sized neurons that power the global economy’s nervous system, so it’s not often that we imagine a future without them. But a group of architects is doing just that — and proposing a way to reuse them as infrastructure.

Right now, decommissioned oil tankers are scrapped, often in ship graveyards in developing countries where poor workers take on the extraordinarily dangerous job of tearing apart the ships by hand, dealing with toxic chemicals and remaining oil, all in order to sell the scrap metals off for a small profit.

It’s a practice that the shipping industry — and governments — are trying to stop, but figuring out what to do with the decommissioned tankers isn’t easy, either.

Here's One Way to Reuse Old Oil Tankers: Turn Them Into Small Cities

Here's One Way to Reuse Old Oil Tankers: Turn Them Into Small Cities

A ship breaking yard in Mumbai, India. AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool.

So there’s no good answer for what to do with these hulking giants. Even if they’re repurposed, the task of cleaning and renovating them in a way that doesn’t spew oil and chemicals is tough, too.

Still, it’s interesting to imagine how the shell of a mega-tanker could be reused instead of scrapped. A group of Dutch designers named Chris Collaris, Ruben Esser, Sander Bakker and Patrick van der Gronde do just that in a project called Black Gold — a totally conceptual proposal to take an abandoned mega tanker and reuse it as a public building.

Eventually “oversupply in crude oil and oil tanker ships [and] changing transportation systems as future transatlantic pipe connections” will make more tankers irrelevant, they write. So what’s to be done with the old ships? Collaris proposes removing the internal structure of the tanker and replace it with conventional floorplates. Since these tankers have massive beds, it would be fairly easy to install ad hoc structure inside the steel shell:

Here's One Way to Reuse Old Oil Tankers: Turn Them Into Small Cities

Here's One Way to Reuse Old Oil Tankers: Turn Them Into Small Cities

A wide open rectangle cut through the ship’s sides would create air flow and an airplane hangar-style interior, where sunshine and wind pass freely.

Here's One Way to Reuse Old Oil Tankers: Turn Them Into Small Cities

Here's One Way to Reuse Old Oil Tankers: Turn Them Into Small Cities

A winding pedestrian walkway would connect the entrance to the coastline. Inside, you might find a commercial plaza:

Here's One Way to Reuse Old Oil Tankers: Turn Them Into Small Cities

Or maybe a sculpture garden:

Here's One Way to Reuse Old Oil Tankers: Turn Them Into Small Cities

While the top of the ship could be used for farming or recreation.

Here's One Way to Reuse Old Oil Tankers: Turn Them Into Small Cities

Here's One Way to Reuse Old Oil Tankers: Turn Them Into Small Cities

The architects propose the idea as a cultural centre in one of the countries on the Persian Gulf, since so much of the world’s oil originates there. That seems totally myopic and besides the point, since the rest of the world is engaged in consuming that oil—not to mention producing their own.

Still, it’s an interesting idea, echoed not that long ago by a US politician who proposed using two decommissioned aircraft carriers to form a bridge across the Puget Sound:

Here's One Way to Reuse Old Oil Tankers: Turn Them Into Small Cities

Oil tankers—not to mention aircraft carriers—are hugely heavy and often polluted infrastructure. Could cleaning them out and repurposing them as buildings offset the social and environmental costs of scrapping?

All images courtesy of Chris Collaris, Ruben Esser, Sander Bakker and Patrick van der Gronde.