Finance Property Shipping containers: The new affordable housing?
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Shipping containers: The new affordable housing?

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First shipping containers transported goods on a ship, then they turned into bars and arts venues and now, well, you can live in one.

Thousands of shipping containers are cluttering Australia’s ports – with conversions an environmentally-friendly way to re-use them as a potentially cheaper alternative to traditional housing.

The process can be cheaper than building a house from scratch, and is as versatile design-wise as your imagination can go.

So don’t automatically think dull grey or white boxes: There’s more to container living for people looking for an affordable way into the housing market.

Design a home

Don’t hold back when it comes to designing a container home. Container architecture specialists Fulton + Salomon founder Carla Kerkering says one of their first commissions, an elaborate Tasmanian home using 12 shipping containers, was set to be on Grand Designs.

“It would have been really good, but we couldn’t build it; we even had some filming done then [they] decided they’d rather have a divorce,” she says.

The norm, however, is the backyard granny flat or temporary industry housing, with a more recent expansion into bigger houses, particularly in rural areas.

Sydney-based Container Build Australia CEO Jamie Van Tongeren says the company last year started building three- to five-bedroom homes.

“We can do a five bedroom, two bathroom home and for the same price you might get a really base model traditionally-built three bedroom home,” Mr Van Tongeren says.

He says Container Build Australia’s homes cost $700 per square metre, no matter the location, compared to construction costs of up to $3000 per square metre in some cities.

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How to get one

Building a shipping container home involves the same process as a conventional home.

You decide what kind of home you want to commission, the architect/builder draws up plans and you sign a contract.

Both Fulton + Saloman and Container Build Australia take care of local government planning approval, which – despite initial client concern – they say has not been an issue.

Container Build Australia manufactures its homes in Australia, while the others manufacture in China and import the container homes, which are then delivered to your address and finished.

Fulton + Salomon’s Ms Kerkering says an even more affordable option for a young couple is to buy the plans and build it themselves.

“We had one young couple with two children and the man could weld, so they are doing the do-it-yourself option of owner-builder.”

Who’s buying in

Container Build Australia’s Mr Van Tongeren says all sorts of people are interested, including local and international clients, as the homes are cheaper and quicker to build.

Approximately 20 per cent of his business comes from first-home buyers and he says it’s a great way to get into the housing market.

“It’s partly first-home buyers realising that they can actually build a big house without spending the big money.”

Fulton + Salomon’s Ms Kerkering says she has two types of clients.

“One is the one who is thinking out of the square who wants something different, then are the people who have a very low budget, but they have to be, of course, a bit adventurous too, so they come to us.”

Where do they fit

Rural and suburban areas are a popular fit for container homes due to the available land. It’s also a quick fix, with conventional homes taking up to 18 months to build in remote areas.

Container Homes Designer Domain CEO Samuel Halsa says his clients want houses in a range of locations.

People who live in areas where it can take too long to get a house, like mining companies, caravan parks, granny flats, people who want an extension on their homes and young people who can’t afford to build a traditional home,” Mr Hasla says.

“We are getting enquiries from a lot of young people are looking at using land at the back of their parents home, or if their friend has a farm, renting land from people and the beauty of this is that you can add on as you need – like lego.”

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The future of container architecture

For the future of container architecture, Europe has some of the answers. Containers are increasingly used as housing as well as for pop-up ventures like hotels at festivals.

Container Build Australia’s Mr Van Tongeren says the company has had a tenfold increase in business over the past year with “a big future” for this type of development.

The company has built mobile coffee shops for Brisbane, a smoking room for an oil rig in Karratha and recently a sound-proof music recording studio.

“If anyone can think of it, we can build it,” Mr Van Tongeren says.

“The sound proof studio was a completely new project with double glazed windows. We had to do two weeks’ of research, get new suppliers and it was so successful the Australian Defence Force, which we also work for, are looking at possibly buying a whole bunch now.

“They are talking about using them for when the men are sleeping in the field, so a bomb can go off and they can stay asleep.”

At Fulton + Salomon, Ms Kerkering has plans for a budget retirement village with both traditional and shipping container housing.

She says containers are also appropriate for affordable student housing and sees it as part of the future of that industry.

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