Mobile, versatile and potentially carbon neutral, shipping containers are finding their footings as the starting point for new homes
M ick Wright asks me not to give the exact location of his double-storey shipping-container home because of the “paparazzi”. That’s what he calls the gawkers who pull up outside to take pictures. “I’ve had to lock the gates,” he says.
In fact you’d have to be quite the shipping container boffin to identify them in some of the elaborate homes that they’re being fashioned into these days.
Market Watch projects the use of shipping containers in homes will have a global compound annual growth rate of 6.5% from 2019 to 2025. In Australia, Facebook groups such as Aussie Shipping Container Homes and Shipping Container Homes Australia have sprung up, serving as wells of shared information.
In her report A New Kind of Cocoon: Mapping the Home of Tomorrow, futurist and trend-spotter Faith Popcorn identifies a kind of dwelling that’s small, part-time and transient, reflecting our digital nomadism. But while single-unit shipping containers can serve as tiny homes, movable from one site to another, many builders are thinking more ambitiously.
Wright got the idea for his home from watching Grand Designs. “I thought, that’s pretty cool,” he says, “and then about four years ago I had a bad leg injury in a crane accident, which made me think ‘You’re only here once,’ so I decided to try and build one myself. I drew some sketches and made a cardboard model.”
Three years of weekend building with his father and he has a five-bedroom house outside Geelong.
Wright hired a private surveyor because he was worried Geelong council might view his plans with suspicion. He brought an engineer on board and contracted various tradespeople. He took a welding course and his father took care of the timber work. Inside, like a normal house, it has timber walls to hold plaster.
“Wherever you cut a window out you have to build a steel frame for it, because once you cut the walls they fall apart like paper bags,” he says. Similarly, even though shipping containers are designed to be stacked, once you cut holes for windows and doors you need extra struts if you want a second floor.
He didn’t paint the outside because he likes the look of containers: “The shipping numbers are still on them. A lot of people clad the outside, but if you’re going to do that you should have just built a house.” His containers were new and cost $6,000 each, but he reckons they’ve gone up substantially since then. The roof is a 150ml sandwich panel, which cost him $40,000.
“Without counting labour I’m at a touch over $300,000 on this house,” he says. “With labour it would have been at least $450,000. I’m sure it’s still cheaper than a new build, but not substantially. Two or three containers on a bush block would be more economical and you could do so much with them. But once you start stepping into nine shipping containers it starts to get pretty expensive.”
Over in Castlemaine, Victoria, Louise Moysey is adamant that in her case a new build would have been far cheaper. “People said you’re mad, it’s going to cost a lot – you’re much better to get a prefab house. But it wasn’t about money,” she says.
Moysey studied design at RMIT and started a building business with her husband Ross, Moysey and Daughters. Her shipping-container home is the 27th house she’s built or adapted for herself, and by far the most solid. You feel as though you could batten down the hatches and weather a storm.
“There’s some feeling of emotional safety in here,” she agrees.
She enjoys the idea of being the next port of call for the containers, and there are nautical touches here and there – a tow rope, shells, an anchor. “I love the fact that they’ve been off and had a life. I’ve lived on boats and I love looking out on the ocean.”
Similarly she’s given a second life to the finishings. The huge kitchen bench is a piece of timber from a drapery workroom and the side is smoothed from where workers once leaned against it. The floor of the main room is from a bowling alley, and elsewhere there are pieces of a basketball court and remnants of the container’s original floor. Dividing walls, made out of old doors, are slideable, so that rooms can be cordoned off or made open-plan.
Moysey kept the industrial look of the containers, though she painted over their bright colours. She picked out the high-cube containers herself, walking around the yard of Lockbox in Melbourne, avoiding any that had dings, rust or had transported chemicals. Once she’d transported them to her property, she in-filled between them and floated a skillion roof on top like a parasol, since a shipping container is like a steel hot box. She dropped all the ceilings 250mm to put in as much insulation as she could.
It’s convenient that containers only need small concrete pads to sit the corner points on, but to meet the building regulations Moysey had to raise the containers 400mm off the ground to allow airflow under the building. A nine-kilowatt solar system on the roof powers the heat pump for her hot water. She’s got a split system, but has barely used it because the bank of louvres on the north side of the house can be opened up, so at night she can put the fans on and suck cooler air in.
Her one concession to buying something fully formed was the backyard pool. But, of course, it’s built into a shipping container.
As for commercial ventures, retail has caught on fast: there’s the double-decker shipping-container pop-up mall Boxpark, in London’s Shoreditch, and Pop Brixton south of the river. Re:START Container mall was built in Christchurch after the earthquake of 2011, and survived for seven years by becoming a tourist attraction. Closer to home there’s Eat Street Market in Brisbane. Then there’s budget accommodation: as far back as 2010, Canberra’s Australian National University opened a residential block made from shipping containers.
In Victoria, until May, shipping containers repurposed as luxury eco-pod hotel rooms are doing the rounds of vineyards as Wine Down Pop Up. They’re the project of Toly Mezhov and Irene Polo, working as Contained, and have a bathroom, timber flooring and bedrooms that can be extended when the container is dropped into location. Mezhov likes the way shipping containers are versatile and easy to move around. Plus people tend to be fascinated by them.
“We started going down the path of container homes,” he says, “but realised that it’s not that affordable as yet, because by the time you start working on something bespoke the price point is not dissimilar to building a home in situ, so we switched up our model and went down the path of pop-up restaurants, bars and hotel rooms.”
Mezhov says that the reduction of embodied carbon in this kind of build, combined with using off-grid infrastructure, results in dwellings that are effectively carbon neutral. They’ve collaborated with Black Stump Technologies, which has another container holding a solar power generator, so the hotel is off-grid.
They serve as a nice taster for those tempted to take the plunge. Until building solutions for working with steel containers become more accessible to the general public, the reality of shipping-container homes may realistically be limited to environmental enthusiasts intent on recycling.
Although Lego fetishists may also be tempted.