JOHN DALY: Redefining the concept of ‘home’ could help tackle the housing crisis

With the housing crisis in Ireland and elsewhere across western society set to remain one of the major social issues of the early 21st century, the time to redefine the meaning of ‘home’ is clearly at hand. 

In Ireland, where the cost of buying a reasonable house is already beyond the reach of many, viewing the problem from a different angle is clearly long overdue.

Since the late 1990s, the transformation of shipping containers into a variety of accommodation options has gone from quirky and eccentric into a viable source of alternative low-cost housing.

Particularly popular in Australia and the USA where ingenious use of space that embraces the minimalist theme has underpinned their popularity, shipping container homes have seen a resurgence in demand due to a combination of cutting-edge design, creative architecture and a growing curiosity about their comparatively inexpensive benefits.

With an estimated 30 million unused shipping containers all around the world, a serviceable unit can be bought for €2,000, measuring 2.4m wide, 2.6m high, and either 6m or 12m long.

High-cube containers with increased ceiling height are priced up to €3,000. As the aesthetic advantages and financial rewards of converting these former goods transportation units into housing projects became better understood, a new world of ‘cargotecture’ emerged to cater for the growing demand.

Project Ripple, a 2014 social housing project constructed from a 3.7sq m container was built on the grounds of Dublin’s Irish Museum of Modern Art over three days.

The project tasked itself with delivering a low-cost housing model, and saw its innovative end product resulting from the voluntary contributions of 65 professionals and trades people.

Believed to be Ireland’s first building-compliant container house, the Ripple container home was granted planning permission by Longford County Council, and donated to St Vincent de Paul where it is utilised as an emergency housing unit for those needing short-term occupancy. While the prototype cost about €50,000, a more modest unit could be constructed for under €30,000.

“You can definitely be much more value-engineered and more cost-effective than what we’ve done,” said architect Derek Trenaman of Ceardean Architects. The unit benefits from micro-heat recovery units, back boilers, solar panels, and hot-water heating.

“It can sleep six, but it would be more suitable for a mother and two children,” he said. Carol Tallon, founding member of Ripple Project, says a low-cost model of ‘sustainable housing’ was inevitable after the property market crash, and shipping containers were one potential solution.

“People are choosing to live in a different way, and innovation within the property market in Ireland has not kept pace. People are moving away from the notions of permanency or lifetime debt, and in a more mobile society, there is a need for flexible approaches to home ownership,” she said. Since the completion of Project Ripple, a number of similar container projects have begun.

“Containers make an ideal structure for self-builders due to their ridged frame, manageable size and versatility,” she says.

The lack of suitable student accommodation in Dublin, Cork and Limerick has been a gathering issue in recent years, with the Third-Level sector facing a continuation of the crisis once again this autumn. The Higher Education Authority has not ruled out the possibility of considering container housing as a possible solution, as has already been successfully employed in Amsterdam, Berlin and Stockholm.

In Glasgow, a seven-storey development on the banks of the River Clyde is transforming a former industrial site into a readymade student village, with 500 metal containers stacked together and capable of accommodating over 700 people. Easy to insulate and providing inexpensive living space consisting of a sitting room, bedroom, kitchenette and a bathroom, the project is due for completion ahead of the new student intake next September.

“The building will provide a uniquely modern environment for students in Glasgow, constructed to the highest standard and incorporating the latest sustainable materials and design,” says Donald MacDonald, managing director, Ogilvie Construction.

In 2008, the Travelodge hotel chain opened a hotel in London’s Uxbridge constructed entirely from prefabricated shipping containers. The completed design used 86 containers of various sizes which were retrofitted into bedrooms and bolted together onsite.

Paul Harvey, director of property development for Travelodge, said: “The containers are fitted out to include everything we offer in the rooms at a traditionally built hotel. You simply won’t be able to tell the difference.”

While a traditional 100-bed hotel cost the firm £5m to build at the time, the new design came in at £4.5m, with construction reduced from 40 weeks to 30. A year later, the company opened a 307-room Heathrow Airport Travelodge, again built from high strength steel containers manufactured by CIMC, the world’s largest producer.

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