Life in a container house
It may have taken the quakes to make us look anew at the versatility of the shipping container, but some have long recognised the big boxes' potential for more than moving goods. Ady Shannon looks at life inside a container home.
There are some who would say we have too much choice in how we live these days. Cobbling together a combination of shipping containers - end on end, upright and stacked - linked by walkways, stairways and covered courtyards, with portions cut out for doorways and windows is surely one way of limiting choice in a saturated design-and-build housing market. Or is it?
Container houses are popping up all over the country. In Christchurch, a development in the form of a dozen fully-equipped container pods is set to ease demand in the hot rental market - the ultimate condensed, self- contained living pad in a space 2.3 metres by 5.8 metres. Lego- inspired assembly, the satisfaction of recycling, speed of construction, a range of delivery options, off-site fit out and ease of installation are just a few of the advantages of using containers, according to those who supply and live in them.
Mark Bohan has been involved in overseeing container house projects since 2006 and as keen as he is to grow that side of his Containers Direct business, he admits he turns away many of the potential clients who approach him.
"I talk about 75 per cent of the people who come in out of using containers. Mostly they are deluded about the cost of using containers for building. Container houses are way above conventional houses specification wise, but price wise, they are not cheap," he says.
Bohan suggests the option is well suited to tricky hill sites. He is currently involved in a residential project on Banks Peninsula involving 17 containers on a difficult site. "You're not going to see container houses in most developments - they suit people who want something funky, cool and different."
A little bit unconventional too? In 2000, Wellington industrial designer Ross Stevens was attracted by the challenge of building on an almost vertical cliff-front site he drove past daily. Having lived in Europe, he knew what a well-constructed home felt like; not at all like the Island Bay villa he shared with his German wife, Petra.
"From a performance perspective, there is not one thing in a villa that I would keep. Windows didn't seal, the carpet moved when the wind blew through the floorboards, the hallway was the coldest part of the house, door handles jammed. The list goes on."
He bought the site that literally started 7 metres in the air, dynamited out the greywacke rock face and, to the intrigue of many, built a family home from three 40-foot refrigerated containers stacked on a steel crane platform.
Stevens is an advocate of unconventional building, favouring industrial materials and alternative methods and materials to ensure robust, light, durable, well- insulated and strong housing solutions.
"Once you get the bug for building using industrial materials, you'd never go back to using conventional," he says.
His credentials and experience were essential to the successful outcome of the construction project. Finding acceptable solutions to many of the site challenges included creating a deck from 50-millimetre steel, a feat beyond the design capability of many.
Stevens, his wife and their two children lived in the multi-level home for three years before moving to the Wairarapa, where he is creating an extensive home and workshop from recycled and reclaimed materials.
He still lives in his distinctive Wellington urban bach Tuesday to Thursday. He is enthusiastic about the home and its qualities as a superb living environment, although he admits the building process was complicated and the project was "way more difficult and radical than I thought it would be".
Consenting was complex. "There is no standard for a container; no template of things to tick off. With pragmatic arguments, I could overcome concerns."
The issue of consenting is a problem Bohan struggles with frequently. Given the success of Christchurch's Re:Start container mall it seems ironic that the Christchurch City Council consents team are particularly pedantic regarding codes of compliance. "With every new plan, they [the council] want to start again. That is a major hurdle."
Ingrid Cotton is co-director of Tauranga-based container housing company Cubular Limited. Ingrid and her husband and business partner Cameron designed the award winning Long Bay Cafe in Auckland and pride themselves on being "the go-to company for container housing in New Zealand". Since 2010 they have been designing and delivering bespoke and package container housing.
From their Tauranga factory they build and fit out containers for clients throughout the country. They offer a number of standard container house designs, and occasionally combine traditional building styles with containers in a single project. Ingrid Cotton says their clients and their projects vary.
"In Auckland we are doing a 544sqm home that is price driven in terms of time and building. In Christchurch we are doing a high- end prefabricated project."
The people who choose container houses are as varied as their concept plans. "We have done a container bach development for a remote Coromandel site. The clients were in their 70s and their extended family was all over the world. It would have been costly, time- consuming and complex to manage the project with a standard build. The appeal of containers is that we can do most of the work in our factory. We take care of the site, construction, foundations and fit out, then freight to the site. It is quick and affordable."
The building code of compliance is issued before the containers leave the factory.
When people visit their show home, Cotton says there is one recurring theme. "Visitors say they didn't understand the vast reality of two containers together. It doesn't feel small at all. It's great".
Strictly talking bang for your buck, it's unlikely a compact container house can compete price wise with a small standard brick and tile alternative, but when it comes to style, a well-designed and superbly pimped out container is funkier by far.
PROS & CONS
Structurally robust - immune to shakes, hurricanes and floods.
Quick build time - can be prefabricated off site.
Long life span.
Ideal for remote and/or difficult sites.
Structure can be moved if required.
Standard container shape defines interior space (can be overcome by joining containers).
Consenting process can be difficult (depending on council).
Don't suit everyone.
Estimate $2200-$2900 per sqm as a starting point.