Living in a steel box: are shipping containers really the future of housing?


The Wenckehof container village in Amsterdam.It takes time to adjust to living inside a steel box. Timothy Ader did not, initially, like the idea of staying at Wenckehof, a student village in Amsterdam made up of 1,000 recycled shipping containers. But three years after moving in, he has no regrets.

“My first impression of the containers was, ‘It’s ghetto stuff – I’m not living there,’” recalls the 24-year-old. “But I started visiting a friend of mine living here and started to like the place. Then I moved in and I realised how good it was. I’m really comfortable in my container and I have a lot of space of my own. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world right now.”

The Wenckehof, completed back in 2006 and formerly known as Keetwonen, remains the largest development of its kind anywhere in the world. Although it was built as a temporary housing experiment, it proved so popular with students it was given permanent status by the Amsterdam authorities in 2011. And its success has intrigued architects and housing organisations looking for low-cost solutions to housing shortages in cities around the world.

In Berlin, repurposed shipping containers have been used for student accommodation, and, more recently, to house asylum seekers. In London, Forest YMCA have begun moving young working adults struggling to pay high rents and at risk of becoming homeless into 20 “mYPad” containers in Walthamstow– though occupants can only stay for a maximum of one year.

We’re still trying to overcome the idea that a steel box is not a good place to live
Quinten de Gooijer, architect
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Forest YMCA’s 20 ‘mYPads’. Photograph: Forest YMCA
Advocates for shipping container homes say speed of installation, cost savings on materials and the capacity to re-use units in new locations make it a serious option for urban housing. The latest exhibition at The Building Centre in central London captures the trend. Designers are offering lunchtime tours of a model shipping container home, asking whether these “highly adaptable and move-able” objects might play a much bigger role in easing the housing crisis.
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So what’s it like to actually live in one? Ader says his Amsterdam container is cosy: each one has a living space, bathroom and balcony. Insulated panels and radiators help keep the place warm in winter. Privacy has not been a problem. In fact, Ader found it too quiet. He helped organise block parties and “eat with your neighbour” events to make Wenckebachweg a little livelier.

It’s also cheap. Residents here pay €450 a month (£335) and also qualify for a €140 monthly housing subsidy, making it much less expensive than the €600 a month Ader says students often pay to share a flat in central Amsterdam.

“There aren’t many disadvantages,” Ader concludes. “I myself wouldn’t want to share with my girlfriend – the container is a bit too small for that, although we do have some couples living here and they’re happy. I think this kind of housing works best for single people who need something a little bit cheaper.”

The container village in Amsterdam. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
The container village in Amsterdam. Photograph: Tempohousing
Wenckehof’s architect is Quinten de Gooijer. His company Tempohousing has also created multi-story container estates for Amsterdam’s Salvation Army and a “labour hotel” for temporary Polish workers in the city. De Gooijer concedes that so far, most clients have been looking to fulfill some short-term need. “Providing basic, simple housing – it’s true that has been our customer base,” he says. “That’s because it’s a cost-effective solution.”

“You can put all kinds of cladding around the structure, put roofs on, do a lot of different things, but it all comes at extra cost,” he adds. “We’re still trying to overcome the idea that a steel box is not a good place to live. People think bricks and mortar are eternal, but that’s not the case. Gradually the psychology is changing. I think we will see many more housing projects using containers in future.”

Architects are already dreaming big. Or more accurately, dreaming high. CRG Architects has unveiled a proposal to replace slum housing in developing countries with “container skyscrapers”: enormous towers made up of brightly-painted units stacked to look cylindrical. Another colourful design for high-rise container towers is aimed at easing pressure in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum.

Not everyone is convinced steel boxes in the sky are the future of mass housing. Mark Hogan, principal architect at San Francisco-based practice OpenScope, thinks devoting shipping containers to housing “doesn’t make any sense”. That’s mainly because cost savings begin to disappear as soon as you start playing around with containers’ basic structure, try to meld units together, or do anything fancy with stacking arrangements.

myPadsFor some people, having their own place with their own front door is a great first step
Andy Winter, BHT chief executive
The Container Skyscraper. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
The Container Skyscraper. Photograph: CRG Architects
De Gooijer of Tempohousing concedes stacking containers neatly, one on top of the other, is the only way to make it significantly cheaper than using traditional building material and construction methods. “If you treat it like Lego, you have to add expensive sub-structures to give it stability,” he says.


There remains the larger question about who, ideally, shipping container homes are supposed to be for. If projects continue to be pitched as emergency or temporary fixes, are shipping containers destined to be housing for the poor?

In Brighton, on the English south coast, developer QED struck a five-year deal with the Brighton Housing Trust (BHT) to install 36 shipping container homes on a former scrap metal yard. The cost of preparing the site and converting the old units cost QED £900,000 – around £25,000 per container. The charity now rents them out to “tenancy-ready” people stuck in hostels or sofa surfing with friends. At £650, the monthly rent is not cheap, but it is 75% of the market rate in Brighton.

After residents moved into the Richardson’s Yard site in 2013, there were complaints about anti-social behaviour and the containers being too cold in winter. But BHT chief executive Andy Winter is confident new heaters, added insulation and a lock on the front gate have all improved matters. “The feedback from the residents is that the place has worked remarkably well,” he explains.

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The Brighton Housing Trust shipping container homes. Photograph: Simon Callaghan/QED Property
Winter thinks the UK needs more temporary housing, and believes public bodies could be more creative about freeing-up land on a short-term basis. “Shipping containers could be used across the country,” he says, encouraged by the idea of starter flats for young people. “Using it for student housing would certainly free up family homes. We’re all on a housing journey. For some people, having their own place with their own front door is a great first step.

The impression that shipping containers provide only transitory, bog-standard homes frustrates many designers. Determined to prove what could be done, Canadian architect Keith Dewey used 8 shipping containers to build his own large, 3-bedroom family home in the city of Victoria in British Columbia.

Calling it the Zigloo Domestique, the house features underfloor heating and high-end lighting systems. Although the project cost $415,000 (£210,000) to build back in 2006, Dewey sold it last year for $675,000. “We were very happy there for seven years, then someone made us an offer we couldn’t refuse,” he says.
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Dewey now sells conceptual plans to other shipping container self-builders. “For the most part, people do come to me a little starry-eyed about it,” he says. “They’ve read somewhere on the internet that you can build a house for a few thousand dollars. So there’s a wake-up call when I let them know that it’s a cost-effective build, but that you may only save around 10% compared with traditional methods.”

Yet Dewey believes shipping container housing has an important role to play. “There’s longevity built into this kind of steel,” he says. “It can be used again and again. I see this as one of the first recycled solutions to housing that’s really taken the imagination by storm. It’s going to become a bigger question: how are we going to make old materials useful again?”

The advantages of shipping container housing – sustainability and cost – may well prove too good to ignore. Yet its champions could learn some lessons from the world of the self-builders. People the world over want homes which feel permanent. So containers will have to overcome the perception of being stop-gap, make-do dwellings if they are ever to become a popular solution to the housing crisis.