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.


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.