Self-contained solutions

by Andy Bryenton

As a crunch in the building trade and housing leads to people wanting to innovate, and rethink the concept of a traditional home, ideas such as tiny houses and off-the-grid movable structures have become increasingly popular. Above all others, though, the option of using shipping containers as the building blocks of homes has really taken off.

On the surface, it looks like a fantastic idea. First floated in the 1950s, and revitalised by programmes such as Amazing Spaces, the container concept spans everything from isolated cabins to home extensions added on to 100-year-old villas.

The advantages are clear; containers are tough, durable and made to survive the lashing seas and rain of ocean transport, keeping what’s inside dry. Most come with a sturdy wooden floor in place, and can be easily modified with ranch sliders and prefab aluminium window sections — all that’s needed is an angle grinder. Containers are easy to shift, too, as there is a whole infrastructure dedicated to getting them from place to place, including specialised trucks and forklifts. Smaller units can be handled by the biggest tractors or excavators fitted with chains.

However, building a container extension or full container home can require more architectural know-how and council red tape than some expect.

Placing a container on wooden supports to use as a shed or uninhabitable structure, with no reticulated water and wastewater, for example, is a simple matter. Making that big 12-metre box of steel into a light, airy space with multiple rooms, a deck, bathroom, kitchen and more involves specialist skills. The cost savings may not be in materials tech, as timber and ply may prove cheaper. The advantages come in compact, solid, secure ‘Lego blocks’, which can be placed in a modular and innovative way to make all kinds of designs. It all depends on what you want out of your build.

The best place to start is to find a local builder or architect with experience in turning containers into living spaces. Costs for the container itself begin at just $3,000, but fit-out to make it into a home, like those seen on television, could easily top 10 times this figure, or even run to $100,000 for a luxury build using the latest decor.