in Greener Homes on 15 August 2010
Existing structures can become affordable, eco-friendly homes.
FOR people searching for low-cost housing, there’s one modern pursuit akin to alchemy: transforming steel shipping containers into homes.
There are over seventeen million containers around the world, many of which languish in ports with nothing to do but rust, while yet more are fabricated and sent to sea.
“China is the major exporting nation in the world,” says architect Matthew Grace. “The containers sit at wharves because it’s not economically viable to send them back empty.”
Overseas, the crates have been successfully stacked into student housing and temporary accommodation. There have been eye-catching projects in London, including the Container City apartments and a 120-room Travelodge hotel.
To date, few similar developments have landed in Australia, but Mr Grace’s resPOD designs might change that. The dwellings, which comprise up to four containers, cost between about $30,000 and $185,000, fitted out. He has set up a factory in Benalla, and the first orders for family homes will soon be delivered to Hurstbridge and Wandin North.
“It’s not about living in a shipping container, but rather, using the steel structure of the container in lieu of a standard timber frame,” Mr Grace says. “It’s a sustainable kind of architecture, and it’s cheaper to build.”
If you’re trawling for crate ideas, try the Fabprefab website. It has a page devoted to container housing projects, together with links to technical resources and books.
However, bear in mind that a recycled building frame alone doesn’t equate to a sustainable home. To set sail for the highest possible star rating, the dwelling must also be well oriented and insulated.
And shipping containers aren’t the only structures waiting to be re-enrolled. When Abbie Heathcote travelled to Melbourne from her home in Castlemaine, she always noticed a playground of disused portable classrooms by the freeway.
“I wanted to build something fairly quickly and I didn’t have a lot of money,” she says. “I like recycling and I’d often thought it was a shame to waste those classrooms.”
So Ms Heathcote, an artist and writer, bought one for $3000 and spent just 13 weeks converting it into a home, with the help of a builder. (See a detailed article about her home in ReNew magazine, Issue 112.)
“The classroom has solid metal bearers and the roof and external cladding were fine. But the floor wasn’t structurally sound so we had to put joists on top of it and install a new one,” she says.
They insulated the floor, walls and ceiling and added internal walls. Ms Heathcote hunted down fittings and furnishings at garage sales, and cut costs by doing much of the work herself. “I did all the light labour: tiling, plastering, floor finishing and fiddle-diddling around,” she says.
She oriented the dwelling to the sun, and removed one of the windows to the south. “I can’t bear to live in houses without windows to the north,” she says. “During the day the slightest bit of sun warms the whole place up.”
The old schoolroom now comprises two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living and dining area and a bathroom and laundry. Ms Heathcote also constructed a broad verandah and enclosed an extra room – making it about 80 square metres in total.
Altogether, the project has cost just over $50,000. “My friends have been amazed at how attractive it is,” she says. “It’s extremely pleasant and comfortable to live in.”