Can shipping containers really help solve Australia's housing crisis?

A tower block waiting to happen? Image: Getty.

Housing affordability issues have resulted in  Australians looking for alternative ways to build accommodation more cheaply, and one recent worldwide trend has been to convert shipping containers to liveable accommodation. However, some real challenges lie behind the rosy picture of turning shipping containers into homes.

From the perspective of recycling and environmental sustainability, it is a very good initiative. Many containers are on a one-way journey, mostly originating from China (the world’s manufacturing house), to the developed nations. These containers are used just once for shipping and then end up being used – if at all – as storage or portable office spaces.

Many companies are now offering to build container homes. One can find a great variety of interesting floor plans to turn containers into housing. But the reality isn’t always as straightforward as these plans suggest. What are the main challenges to consider?

Container homes: the rosy view of the upmarket version.

Container quality and engineering sign-off

Online videos and photos emphasise the benefits of recycling containers to build accommodation. However, a number of conditions must be met to ensure the house is structurally sound.

First, if the design requires cutting through the walls to put in windows or doors, it affects the structural integrity of the container. A structural engineer will be needed to develop an engineering drawing to ensure the house will be structurally sound. There is a cost associated with this activity, as with any other type of construction such as steel-frame housing, timber-frame housing or brick-and-tile housing.

You have to work within the dimensions of a shipping container, or add to the build cost by cutting and restructuring the metal cargo box. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Further, many engineers are wary of signing off on used shipping containers, because it is more difficult to assess the structural state of these. They most often recommend using a brand-new container. This is another added cost: in Australia, the price of 12-metre cube containers starts from A$5,000, whereas a used container may cost just $1,800.

Health and safety

 

Many people are attracted by the green credentials of re-using shipping containers, but first one must ensure they’re not contaminated. Image: Inhabitat/flickr/creative commons.

Health and safety concerns arise when it cannot be ascertained what was shipped using a second-hand container. If human carcinogenic elements or harsh chemicals (which may have left invisible traces) were shipped in a container, one would not want to use that container to live in.

Ensuring this is not the case adds to the challenges of using a second-hand container. This is because tracing the cargos and journeys end-to-end across the full container lifecycle can be very difficult.

Usable space

Housing built from shipping containers is limited by their dimensions. They are roughly 2.35m wide internally and commonly come in two lengths: 6m or 12m.

 

You have to consider how to work with the space constraints of a 2.35m-wide container Image: one cool habitat/flickr/creative commons.

One also needs to take into account internal stud work to put in drywalls, which can further reduce the width. A 2.35m width is already quite small for any room other than a shower or a bathroom.

To give an idea of how small, a king-sized bed is 1.83m wide. So there will very limited room to put bed side tables or dressing table.

If two containers are cut to create a 4.7m wide room, the space becomes too big for many purposes. If you need a smaller (or more common) width, you need to build a stud wall. That is another added cost. The options for customising the container home are very limited if it is to remain affordable.


Insulation and comfort

Insulation is a very critical element of a comfortable lifestyle. The Building Code of Australia as well as the local shire or council are very conscious of insulation standards.

The shipping container is a basically a large steel box. Physics says steel will get hot in summer and cold in winter, and, to counter these natural effects, the container has to be very well insulated.

Now, the question is where to insulate: on the exterior, or the interior, or both?

Exterior insulation will be better because this will prevent the heat or cold reaching the metal and keep the internal environment comfortable. But putting external insulation on a container means having a stud wall frame or similar arrangement to hold the insulation in place, so that’s an additional building cost.

Ceramic paint insulation is another option and it does offer some degree of insulation. Note, though, that most “before and after” studies have taken a dark-coloured container (such as red, green or blue) and shown the benefit when painting it with a white ceramic paint. The reduction in temperature is partly due to using white paint.

Container housing may be a viable alternative accommodation option. But it can be hard to know whether it will be significantly cheaper than any other ways of building a home without doing considerable research into what the housing requirements and design will involve.The Conversation

Vidyasagar Potdar is senior research fellow in the School of Information Systems at Curtin University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.