The thought of using shipping containers as building blocks excites the child in me, it brings back nostalgic memories of sitting with my brother and creating poorly designed, unstable Lego towers. Before shortly knocking his down.
Fortunately the people who build with these once revolutionary steel boxes have more qualifications than my ten-year-old self and are transforming the way in which we utilise the byproducts of a globalized planet.
Who’d have thought? Something as simple as a rectangular steel box could have so many further applications from simply carrying cargo across our seas and oceans. Their modular design makes them ideal for speedy construction and their rigid bodies offer developers a versatile solution for a range of applications. From enterprise hubs, bars and street food markets and school gymnasiums to swimming pools, bridges and even a virtual reality suite which lets you feel as if you are driving a Jeep Cherokee. There is no end to their use.
Now you can even pay to spend an evening in one, like in these portable hotels by Snoozebox. With companies now making these industrial icons liveable, the question we should be asking ourselves is how we can apply this in a way that provides social benefits too . Projects such as Keetwonen in Amsterdam have transformed containers into student accommodation, and East London YMCA use them as housing for the homeless. The below picture is of Richardsons Yard in Brighton, a social housing project ran by the Brighton Housing Trust which opened at the start of 2014. The site houses some of Brighton’s homeless community, and has been deemed an ‘overwhelming success.’
This sector has been slow in growth, and this is down to the UK’s tight construction regulations on residential buildings which are particularly stringent compared to the rest of Europe and much of the world. We are now beginning to see some companies satisfying these strict guidelines and moving forward with construction. The company CargoTek, who were partners in the Richardsons Yard project, have only been around three years, but are now able to boast a diverse range of shipping container projects throughout the world. I spoke to Ben Treleaven, one of CargoTek’s directors, who couldn’t speak highly enough of the benefits of container home conversions: “Shipping containers are a fantastic solution to the housing crisis in the UK, particularly for social and affordable housing.”
One advantage to using shipping containers is that the homes can be constructed off-site in a dedicated factory. The containers, which are already designed for transport, can be taken wherever they’re needed up and down the country. When looking to build on brownfield sites, this can be invaluable as it means there is less impact on the site prior to delivery. One of the biggest barriers to construction on these sites is the need for them to be surveyed and reclaimed up to a certain standard, with off-site construction, the process of preparing the site can be made a lot easier.
Anybody who wants to use a container as a home has to get approval for permanent deployment, this means the home would be in place for a minimum of two years. Getting this then leads to obtaining planning permission. But it’s not as simple as getting permission and dropping the crate on the ground, there is a checklist of things the home must have before it can be deemed liveable. “Shipping containers are a fantastic solution to the housing crisis in the UK, particularly for social and affordable housing.”Thermal value, glazing, pressure testing, ventilation and lighting all need to be ticked before the container becomes a home. It’s these tight regulations that have delayed the shipping container revolution, but now with CargoTek having recently got approval for long term deployment, we can hope to see a faster uptake in this approach as more and more containers pop up.
CargoTek currently have plans to put 34 container homes into the South East of UK. They will be built in Cornwall and deployed on-site. Once deployed they will go on a brownfield site to be used as social housing for five years. Depending on what deal is agreed, the containers could then go anywhere. They could even be shipped to places such as South America if need be, that’s the great thing about these homes, they’re a perfect mix of both mobile and static.
Converting these steel crates isn’t always as cost effective an option as people believe: “It’s a bit of a misconception that it’s cheap to do things out of shipping containers. People think they can get one off eBay for £1,000 that’s sitting at the end of someone’s garden and it will be easy to convert it. But there’s still a lot of labour and design involved in it. To get it to a regulatory standard there’s a lot of work involved.” Ben explained. The base cost of a container home is roughly £20,000, however that would be a very basic setup and the cost would inevitably go up as extras were added.
So whilst uptake is slow on this type of housing, it seems people are finally beginning to consider them as an option, not only for individuals who want something a bit different, but also as a means of social housing for the more vulnerable in our society. Luckily for us though, we shouldn’t run out of stock anytime soon, as it is actually cheaper for countries like China to leave the containers here and construct new ones than to ship them back.