Containers of Hope – Benjamin Garcia Saxe Architecture.
In 1958, Malcom McLean was awarded a patent for a steel container that was tough, versatile, easy to manufacture and modular. These simple standardised containers, drastically changed how the world transported goods.
It also stirred the creativity of builders and designers to create a similar type of building – tough, versatile, easy to build, modular and cheap. And, almost every month, journalists, or authors of opinion pieces, (particularly those quoted on social media) who may be frustrated with the rising cost and risks of owning a home in South Africa, publish articles proclaiming that “your next home could be a container home!”
In light of this phenomenon, I want to consider the shipping container as a building element and consider whether it makes sense to build this way, and why.
Shipping containers come in a variety of sizes, but are most commonly, 2.4m wide, 2.7m tall and either 6m or 12m long.
A 40-foot container (12.2m) gives you about 29m2 of floor space. This means that, after drywall and the mandatory insulation has been installed on the inside, about 27m2 of floor space is left. This remaining floor space is, overall, not too bad for a small, 1 bedroom flat with a small lounge, kitchen, and bathroom.
The drywall and insulation on the inside reduces the 2.4m wide spaces to about 2.2m, which may be acceptable for a bachelor flat, but not for a 3-bedroom home. A 2.2m wide dining room will be a bit tight for a family of 4 or 5. With a low enough cost, however, you will find more than enough people willing to live in a space that size.
It is however also possible to merge multiple containers together in a way that creates much larger spaces. There are many creative layouts that “break the box” in both the literal in figurative sense. These layouts create very versatile shapes and spaces using containers. Many designs only use the containers as a part of the total structure, and supplement them with traditional building methods. If these methods are used, it would technically be possible to build a hotel-sized building with containers.
Containers are made from thick all metal construction. Their function and purpose require the durable metal to be designed to rust without causing any structural weakness and they are almost 100% recyclable.
However, dangerous chemicals are sometimes used for pest retardant in the wood lining the floors. Lead based paints are also often used since container manufacturers show scant regard for the safety of the containers for human habitation.
Climate control is also a concern. As you can imagine, a steel box in the hot summer sun or freezing winters could be worse than camping outside. Thick insulation is needed all around the structure. The insulation can either be installed inside the container and covered with drywall – resulting in a loss of floor space – or outside the container, which then needs additional cladding
Containers are tough and can be stacked up to 7 loaded containers high. Their strength comes from 2 primary components, the corrugated steel walls and the 4 corner posts. Removing too much from the wall panels will have a negative effect on the structure. But you can fully remove the container doors to create beautiful open spaces. Overall, these things are tough, and will handle most minor modifications. You can remove an entire side wall, but this will require additional engineering.
A used 12m long shipping container sitting at a dock can go for anything between R20 000 to R30 000, depending on its condition. The initial structure is therefore cheap – costing around R700 – R1000 a square meter.
However, the initial structure will have to be fitted out before it can become a liveable space. This includes all the things an average home will require such as electricity, plumbing, ceilings ext. If the containers do not have to be built or cut extensively, it can be fitted out at the builder’s yard and dropped into place where needed. However, the cost of transport will also need to be included. Depending on where you live, this may end up costing as much, or more, than the container itself.
If you need to wildly modify your container with large cut outs, and welding, the cost will slowly rocket up.
In south Africa a comfortable Container house can costs anywhere between R200 000.00 to R400 000.00 for 27m2 of kitted out floor space. A container home can therefore cost the same, or more, than an equivalent building in traditional brick and mortar, and far more than a steel or timber frame building.
As with all buildings in South Africa, an architect will need to submit plans to the local municipality and the structure will still have to comply to the National Building Standards. This may be a little more complicated than would be the case with traditional buildings. Building regulators will have to be satisfied that these non-traditional structures have the same or better fire, insulating and structural performance than what is required.
A way to skip past this process is to ensure they are not fixed structures since temporary movable structures do not need to comply to the Building regulations. This will require the container building not to be built into the ground, and not to have any municipal water or electricity connected.
Where does this leave us?
If container homes are not cheaper – as so often quoted – and comes with a few additional limitations, why is the idea still floating out there?
Well, there are certain circumstances where habitable containers do make sense. The biggest advantage of these container homes are their mobility and strength. And being tougher than any caravan you can buy, you have a mobile home that can withstand anything.
You may argue that requiring a truck to move is a huge limitation. However, because it can’t just be hitch behind a twin-cab and moved to a beach front for a weekend, it is less likely that your home could be stolen when you’re out, which is a huge advantage.
If you need mobility and strength there are few things that will beat a container, kitted out with all your luxuries. However, not much beats the current traditional building methods when it comes to cost and flexibility. Even without considering containers, there is a vast variety of construction methods as it stands.
Of course, if you love the aesthetics or idea of up-cycling (the new hip word for reuse) you still have great options open to you.