Has the ship finally come in for container housing? Visit a metal model home.
In 1964, Geoff Fulton installed a collapsible caravan into the roof of a Mercedes Benz in Germany and began travelling the world. By the time Russian authorities confiscated the vehicle three-and-a-half years later, the young man had learnt a lesson in scale. “I proved to myself that you don’t need a lot of space to live in.”
Now, four decades on, Mr Fulton and his partner Carla Salomon-Kerkering want to pass that message onto the public at large. Sitting in the lounge of their ‘Small is Smart’ display house – a pint-sized but fully equipped dwelling built from a single recycled shipping container – the couple is adamant that bigger doesn’t mean better. “Why do we need more?” Mr Fulton asks. “The main reason is because we’re used to it, or because we don’t want people to think that we’re living in a little house.”
At just 12 metres long, 2.4 metres wide and 2.7 metres high, the home can be easily packed onto a truck. And as befits its modest dimensions, it is super cheap and eco-friendly – both traits in high demand thanks to global eco and economic woes. “If it’s owner built, we anticipate it will cost about $30,000,” Mr Fulton says. A fully pre-made, basic model is likely to come in at about $50,000.
“Our aim is to show people that living in a container isn’t slum dwelling. Nor does it have to look like an ugly tin box,” he says, nodding towards the sleek interior fit-out. The prototype is complete with a lounge room, kitchen, bathroom, double fold-out bed and space for a washing machine and dryer. Given its size and form, the biggest drawbacks appear to be lack of storage space and natural light.
Ms Salomon-Kerkering – a garrulous German interior architect who first met Mr Fulton on his epic voyage in the 60s – says that with attention to detail and deft use of colour, small can seem spacious. The interior walls, ceiling and floor of the Small is Smart house are all dark grey. “Everything in life is about illusions,” she says. “When you have the same colour all the way around, you lose your dimensions. If you had a different coloured floor it would look narrow because you see exactly where the wall starts.”
Carefully placed mirrors in the lounge area and bathroom also help maintain the deception. “If I’m sitting here and I have the illusion that the room is double the size, I’m happy,” she says. Among other clever design elements, the dwelling has an all-white kitchen to enhance light gain, as well as varied ceiling heights to de-box the interior.
There are over seventeen million shipping containers around the globe and, although still structurally sound, most fall into disuse after their stint at sea. According to Mr Fulton, salvaging this resource slashes the carbon footprint of the Small is Smart home. “The main structure has already been recycled and at the end of its life, can be recycled again.”
Also, by combining effective insulation and shading with a smart ventilation system that prevents heat exchange and humidity, Ms Salomon-Kerkering believes that the freight container home won’t need artificial cooling. “Air conditioning is the past, not the future. It is not necessary,” she says.
The designers, from Torquay, envisage all manner of uses for the Small is Smart house, including holiday homes, granny flats, student accommodation and retirement villages, as well as worker, social and emergency housing.
“It’s ideal for bush holiday facilities. You can leave the big steel doors on and shut them. If a fire goes through, there’s not much risk of it going up,” Mr Fulton says. “First home buyers could also get in for next to nothing and then expand the house as they need more space, without having to move out. They can just add containers.”
Although the petite prototype was only recently completed, Mr Fulton says it has generated a lot of interest. “We’ve had Toorak ladies say ‘I could live in this. In fact, if I can’t get the kids out of my house, I’ll put one of these in the backyard and I’ll live in it,’” he says. “What better recommendation could you ask for?”
Home steel home: cheap and solid
“There’s no doubt that modular and container housing will catch on big time,” says Brian Haratsis, managing director of property industry consultants MacroPlan. “There are a growing number of people looking for a low-cost housing alternative. A lot of people these days would rather spend their money on travel; they’re mobile contractors or Internet bloggers or whoever they are, and they just want somewhere that they can afford.”
Mr Haratsis predicts that the initial demand for low-cost housing will come from retirees who find themselves short on superannuation and decide to sell their family homes. “The peak year for the number of retiring baby boomers is 2015. With the global financial crisis impacts on super, between now and 2025 will be the crunch years for housing in Australia.”
With those downsizing baby boomers in mind, Geoff Fulton has begun planning a large ‘Small is Smart’ retirement village at Leopold, just outside Geelong. But he’s not the only one getting ship shape. Architect Matthew Grace recently designed ‘resPOD’, a series of plans for container homes.
Using between one and six crates, resPODs range in cost from about $70,000 to $185,000, depending on size. “The concept was about taking the architectural level of detail into a small package and making it affordable for the majority of people,” Mr Grace says. “(Using shipping containers) was a way of utilising an existing waste resource and trying to minimise the environmental impact from the ground up. There’s been lots and lots of interest.”
The outlook for shipping crates as disaster relief is not so promising. In 1999, prominent Melbourne architect Sean Godsell designed ‘Future Shack’, a prototype for emergency housing made from a recycled shipping container, but despite worldwide acclaim, it hasn’t gone into widespread use.
Founding Director of Architects Without Frontiers and RMIT design lecturer, Dr Esther Charlesworth says that while container housing may be a good idea for a bush-block weekender, a granny flat or an extension, it’s unlikely to provide appropriate relief or social housing. “Architects quite often assume that they can produce the universal solution. I’d argue that with social housing, container homes can become problematic in terms of social stigmatisation of the occupants but also because of the harsh climatic conditions in monsoonal or arid zones.”
In any case, Dr Charlesworth says that in many disaster situations, such as post-tsunami Sri Lanka, locals can build homes at a much lower cost than imported options. “And once you start to literally ship in an object, you’re losing a whole lot of local future employment and training opportunities that come through housing construction.”