Shipping containers: could they tackle the housing crisis for a growing population?

Container city

Image: Container City™

Why not live in a shipping container? (photo: Container City)

With bricks and mortar proving environmentally unsustainable, a dearth of affordable housing available, and charity Shelter maintaining that homelessness persists, could shipping containers be a solution?

If the UN’s estimates are right, by 2050, the global population will have ballooned to nine billion. With the same amount of land but more people on a planet that can support a maximum of billion at current rates of consumption, according to independent scientist James Lovelock, how are we to sustainably accommodate the new additions? The latest idea is shipping containers. New houses require substantial time, land and resources and are proving too expensive for the current market. In addition, a new-build two-bedroom house produces around 80 tonnes of carbon dioxide during the building process. If you consider that 117,700 new houses were built in the last 12 months alone, it adds up to a shocking 89 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Between 2009 and 2010, less than four per cent of house buyers were first-timers. A combination of high deposits and a volatile employment markets, have left younger buyers unable to afford their own home.  Those that do manage to fly the nest end up renting. Of the 21.6 million households in England, one million social sector homes are rented by young singltons, with another 1.1 million in the private sector. With UK homeless charity Shelter predicting that as many as 35,000 people could be homeless by Christmas, an eco-friendly solution to the housing problem urgently needs to be found. Shipping containers might seem an unlikely option, but given the right architect, they can be transformed into cosy homes that cost a fraction of the price of your traditional two-up two-down. As a net importer, the UK has a stockpile of the steel structures. Cheap to buy and easy to acquire, the units are widely available and generate a fraction of the emissions of traditional buildings as they are essentially pre-assembled building blocks. What’s more, they require far fewer raw materials.

Shipping container conversion has been around for more than 20 years and Urban Space Management (USM) has been leading the way. Architect, Eric Reynolds has commissioned projects ranging from sports halls to cinemas, school buildings to doctors’ surgeries with a total of 60 projects have been completed to date. ‘Although the benefits of the system are more apparent on bigger builds,’ says the USM’s Sarah Hewson, ‘More and more people are purchasing containers and converting them into holiday homes or small businesses.  Bespoke services are even available so you can customise your container and pimp it out with all the latest gadgets.’

In 2001, USM successfully finished their first residential project in the London Docklands. Taking just four days to install, the result is astonishing. At four stories high, the container city is a pleasure to behold. 15 live-work units have been playfully painted and customised with porthole windows in homage to their former use.  Pre-designed to interlock, units can be stacked and connected just like Lego, allowing for future expansion. Strong and durable the build should last as long as any other provided with the correct maintenance and care and, created with over 80 per cent recycled material, it really is green living.


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