Meet the Sheffield social enterprise using shipping containers to tackle the housing crisis

A shipping container, repurposed as housing. Image: REACH.

A Sheffield-based social enterprise is hoping to navigate the rocky waters of the UK housing market, by creating affordable 1, 2 and 3-bedroom homes from shipping containers.

Inspired by an episode of Grand Designs, former police officer Jon Johnson set up REACH – Recycled, Environmental, Affordable Container Homes – in January 2017. Following a small grant from charity UnLtd, the social enterprise built a prototype which it is currently showing off to interested parties from around the UK. Johnson believes it can build 6,000 units a year, helping to plug the housing shortfall and creating genuinely affordable homes.

Just 1.4 per cent of homes in large developments approved by planners in Sheffield in 2016 and 2017 met the government’s affordable definition. In Manchester, it was literally none..

“We need to build the houses people want, where they want them, rather than what developers can bully through,” says Johnson. “I’ve got 40 or 50 housing reports. Are we going to keep writing reports or are we going to do something about it?”

During Johnson’s almost 30-year career in the police force, he saw first-hand the effects that insecure and poor-quality housing can have on communities in Britain. “It underpins everything in society. Everybody needs somewhere to live,” he says. “And if you haven’t got a decent place to be, that is adding to mental or health problems. You're onto a loser from the outset.”


“Decent housing is a human right like air and water,” he goes on. “It’s always been done to us by people who don’t care about standards or quality as long as they’re making money.”

Johnson used skills learnt through his furniture recycling store, Strip the Willow, to decorate the prototype, and sourced every bit of second-hand wood he used locally. The panelling used to be a counter in a local Indian takeaway, the cladding on the roof came from a local mosque. The bedroom headboard is made out of a piano, and light fittings are made out of cymbals.

Each of his eco homes will be 60 per cent recycled, built offsite in three weeks and powered by renewable energy sources. “We aim to make use of million tons of waste we put into landfill every year,” he says.

Changing the playing field

But followers of the UK housing market will be unsurprised when Johnson says there are vested interests and serious obstacles to overcome before REACH can achieve its dream of turning a cottage industry something more substantial.

“The same people will just keep profiteering out of everyone else’s misery,” he says. “We're trying to do housing the right way. It’s about people and planet, not just profit. Housing shouldn't be about giving out millions in bonuses at end of the year.”

But REACH won't be able to build any homes without land – perhaps the biggest hurdle for them to get over.

Following the Second World War, the government freed up land and built prefab housing estates around the country. Johnson believes a similarly bold approach is needed to meet the housing demands of the 21st century.

However, the publication of the social housing green paper last week made no promises to build more social housing. It “doesn’t commit a single extra penny towards building the social homes that are desperately needed,” said housing charity Shelter.

Frustration with this situation led Johnson to set up the National Federation of Affordable Building (NFAB), which brings together organisations from across the offsite construction sector who all would like to see a change in policy. “The reason we set up NFAB was because so many SMEs have had conversations with Homes England and got nowhere.”

The current Homes England system for listing land means building companies need to have a turnover of £50m before they can even be considered for public land – a bidding process that excludes all SMEs such as REACH.

REACH does have backing from the Local Government Assocation, though. It also has Sheffield City Council on board, and is hoping the council will soon be given a piece of land to build the first nine homes, freeing up funds for its first off-site factory.

It's clear that it’s going to take some forward-thinking councils for it to succeed. “We need a Dunkirk style situation with SMEs getting some innovation into the market,” Johnson says. “The issue of land and how much its worth is entirely notional. Land is expensive because people think it is.

“If Homes England can ringfence a percentage of the land they give to the big builders every year, and have that for affordable development, we won’t have a problem because the SMEs will have somewhere to access the market instead of queueing up for massively expensive land.”

At the moment, he notes, “Big builders don’t want to do things any differently because they're protectionist of their profit margins. SMEs can’t get a look in. We need to alter that playing field.”

A sustainable trend?

One popular misconception of homes made from shipping containers is that they are too cold in winter and uncomfortably hot in summer. Some critics also suggest that say the current trend for modular housing is a fad.

But Johnson says that residents will need the heating on for only two months a year: the homes are designed using ‘Passivhaus’ principles, which optimises energy efficiency through its design.

“They are light and spacious,” he says. “It’s how we use the offset of parts of the containers. They are like adult Lego. We can use architectural glass and make some fabulous buildings.

“They’re affordable but they will look like architect-designed houses.”

The one, two and three bedroom models will be sold at £35,000, £65,000 and £90,000 respectively. There is already a large waiting list of people ready to move in once they've secured some land.

At present, “I don’t think it’s a trend,” Johnson admits. But “it will take over the market if it's done right. The tech has now caught up and modular housing can be controlled a lot more intelligently in the factory. It cuts down on construction costs, waste and theft of materials from sites. It makes the whole process of housebuilding a lot more efficient.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to get housing moving in the right direction and get sustainability on the agenda,” he concludes. “That’s not going to happen if we leave it to the big builders.”

Thomas Barrett is the editor of New Start magazine, where this story first appeared. He tweets as @tbarrettwrites.

All images courtesy of the author/REACH.

 
 
 
 

There is one good thing to be said for the Beeching Axe

The Alban Way, near Hatfield. Image: Claude Lynch.

In the early 1960s, Harold Macmillan’s government commissioned a report intended to modernise Britain’s railway system, and to make it profitable for the first time in ages. Victorian “railway mania” had generated some of the most impressive railway routes in Europe, but it had come at a cost: early investment in railway infrastructure had grown and grown, even in areas where it was economically unsustainable. The changing transport habits of the post-war period proved the final straw: by 1963, fully half the train stations in the UK only brought in 2 per cent of the revenue, with many routes running almost empty trains at a heavy loss.

This problem, outlined by the report, was not controversial; indeed, it was factual. But it was the solution, proposed by the now infamous Dr Beeching, that proved so radical: closing almost half of the United Kingdom’s railway infrastructure for good. The “Beeching Axe” has been loathed by public transport pundits ever since, with the likes of Lord Andrew Adonis urging for it to be reversed, condemned and, I presume, consigned to the dustbin of history. We’re still dealing with the repercussions of the today.

But the public perception of the Beeching Axe is incomplete. For one, it was written at a time when car ownership was skyrocketing and replacing travel on the railways. Beeching’s recommendations came not only from his presumed visceral hatred for public transport, but also the time in which he was writing.

Moreover, the railway lines that have been reopened since Beeching are those that have seen substantial housing development in the interim. We demonise Beeching because we now understand just how important rail travel is for a sustainable public transport network – but he couldn’t have known the in-and-outs of harmful nitrous oxides or the horrors of the motorway box.

In any case, there were some lines axed by Beeching that are hardly worth resuscitating: railways easily substituted by bus, railways that were single track requiring widening, or railways that have simply deteriorated too much and face costs too high to be worth rejuvenating.

But it’d be a total misstep to write these disused railways off and sell the land back. After all, even if they can’t carry trains, they can still carry people; and what a great windfall that turned out to be. Because we got to replace our extra railway lines with the best cycle paths in the country bar none.

Labelled as “rail trails”, many disused railway lines across the country later became public rights of way. And with sleepers and rails removed, the paths are often extremely straight and have shallow gradients, making them perfect for leisurely cycles or even commutes.


In Hertfordshire, for example, rail trails run between St. Albans and Hatfield, Rickmansworth and Watford, and Harpenden and Hemel Hempstead. They’ve all got fashionable nicknames and, in places, the former infrastructure remains as a homage to the era of railway mania – platforms turned to flower gardens and so forth. Other routes are more bucolic, such as Cornwall’s Camel Trail or the Downs Link between Surrey and Sussex.

All this may sound idyllic, but what are the tangible benefits of these rail trails, as opposed to returning them to their original use? For one, they’re far cheaper than railway infrastructure, both to build and maintain. They also offer easy, direct routes between town centres in parts of the country where segregated cycle paths are otherwise rare (essentially, anywhere outside London). This encourages novices to give cycling a go in a welcoming, safe environment, and encourages commuters to try cycling to work. Moreover, and perhaps most obviously, rail trails provide easy access to a green spaces within urban areas that are quiet, pollution-free and welcome to all.

But there’s still work to be done – many potential “rail trails” are in the administrative doldrums despite the relative ease of their creation. In my home county of Suffolk, there’s a rail trail that runs halfway between Ipswich and Hadleigh, but it abruptly ends: one can only presume that farmers bought up the disused railway land.

Meanwhile, there are council areas where building new cycle infrastructure simply isn’t a priority; road building still holds the sway. Before we can build more rail trails, people need convincing of their benefits. Of course, that’s simply done; just point to the nearest one and give it a go. After all, they’re ubiquitous in some pockets of the UK.

There shouldn’t be a single disused railway line left in this country when the cycle paths they could become provide such an excellent blueprint for new cycling infrastructure. They’re not just a swan song to Victorian railway innovation; rail trails are our chance to approach cycling today with the same zeal and enthusiasm as we did with trains in the age of railway mania. The best is yet to come, and, oddly, it’s all thanks to the venerable Dr. Beeching.