brightly coloured shipping containers stacked on top of each other - l

Building the Future: How shipping containers could solve the housing crisis.

14 Jun 2019 | 3 min

Shipping containers. Glamorous they certainly aren't. But they could just hold the key to solving our nation's housing crisis.

They've already entered the consciousness of some Brits as part of hipster's paradise Boxpark Shoreditch, a pioneering pop-up shopping and entertainment area in achingly-cool east London. It's proven so successful that similar sites have sprung up in Brixton, Croydon and Wembley, and been mimicked around the world.

Often populated by independent traders, they offer an affordable route to the high street at a time when property prices and business rates remain challenging. And what's often true is that these shipping container units act, for the occupiers, as a stepping stone to something more permanent.

For Christchurch, in New Zealand, its popular (albeit temporary) Re:START mall helped retailers to survive while its main shopping district was rebuilt following the devastating 2011 earthquake.

While in Bristol, Pizzarova used the Cargo@Wapping Wharf development to expand their fledgling chain into the city centre. They've subsequently opened a further outlet, on Park Street – one of the city's major shopping streets.

Defeating homelessness

Homelessness is an issue played out in towns and cities across Britain, and particularly in places like Bristol – where property prices are especially high.

One project, Help Bristol's Homeless, has been turning shipping containers into small, single-occupancy units to give homeless locals a roof over their heads. Designed as temporary accommodation, these give occupants stability that can help them resolve employment issues and, ultimately, leave homelessness behind permanently.

Each HBH unit is fitted out with a simple kitchenette, sofa, small bathroom, and bedroom. Light is provided by a window in each end, and from light tunnels through the roof.

Of course, containers are also stackable, so a light tunnel isn't practical in developments where many containers are placed atop one another. And stacking may prove necessary in urban areas where building plots are in short supply.

Examples include the Wenckehof student accommodation in Amsterdam, and the conceptual 'container skyscraper' by CRG Architects. Intended to replace slum housing in developing countries, this would see containers situated around a concrete supporting structure reaching far into the sky – although this solution may only work in countries with a particularly dry climate, as we'll explain shortly.

Thinking of shipping containers as homes

There is much to be said for shipping containers as temporary housing. They are water-tight and very strong, as well as portable. Being able to move units proved valuable for Re:START in Christchurch when part of the site was relocated halfway through its seven-year lifespan. And the opportunities afforded by being able to relocate your home, belt and braces, are rarely explored in British culture.

This said, shipping containers are not without their limitations. They're undeniably small, and – being made of metal – can be both difficult to insulate and susceptible to rust, which makes our changeable (and often soggy) climate a challenge. Their flat roofs, too, can make them prone to damage by heavy snowfall.

The green angle

At a time when environmental considerations are at the front of mind for many people, the opportunity to bring an old shipping container back into use may be an appealing prospect.

Second-hand shipping containers are in plentiful supply; according to estimates, there are millions currently out-of-service around the globe.

Financing a shipping container home

Relatively speaking, the cost of a completed shipping container home is low – Help Bristol's Homeless reports costs of about £10,000 per unit.

So while one of the major difficulties for mortgage lenders is the lifespan of a shipping container – particularly in Britain, where our weather eventually rusts almost anything metal – the small sums involved could offset this risk. And while there are obviously other costs involved with setting up home in a shipping container (specifically the cost of the land on which it will sit), it's arguable that land as additional security may be added peace of mind for potential lenders.

It's arguable that mortgages on these low-cost homes could therefore be viewed in the same way as finance on cars. After all, new cars frequently exceed £10,000 in cost and, according to data from the SMMT, are scrapped at an average age of 13.9 years. And yet car finance is easy to come by.

So even with a maximum loan term well under 10 years, shipping container homes could provide an affordable alternative to rent, while helping singletons to save a deposit for something more permanent.

Will this ever come to fruition? We'll have to wait and see.

Any property used as security, including your home, may be repossessed if you do not keep up repayments on your mortgage or any other debt secured on it.

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