Containing homelessness

Converted shipping container homes: a good way to contain the problem of homelessness?

by Sian 28 October 2014
  • Vertical Camp; Photography by Laurent Garbit / Malka Architecture 2014 Click image to expand

    Vertical Camp; Photography by Laurent Garbit / Malka Architecture 2014

  • Vertical Camp; Photography by Laurent Garbit / Malka Architecture 2014 Click image to expand

    Vertical Camp; Photography by Laurent Garbit / Malka Architecture 2014

  • Home behind an advertising hoarding; Courtesy of Design Develop, Slovakia Click image to expand

    Home behind an advertising hoarding; Courtesy of Design Develop, Slovakia

  • Inside of a home behind an advertising hoarding; Courtesy of Design Develop, Slovakia Click image to expand

    Inside of a home behind an advertising hoarding; Courtesy of Design Develop, Slovakia

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    As the world's architects and developers search for alternative solutions to the spiralling problem of homelessness, WAN gets an update on how residents are settling into their converted shipping container homes in an inspirational new UK scheme...

    The last estimate of the number of homeless people worldwide was published by the United Nations in 2005. Its research suggested the alarming figure of 100 million. Yet many argue that the true figure is far higher - perhaps even double that - as the UN report only considered those with no homes at all, and not those camping out in tents, vehicles, or abandoned buildings, or those forced to trudge from sofa to sofa to survive.

    As the global population grows, austerity bites, brutal wars rage, and climate becomes more extreme, the problem is escalating fast. A recent study by the Norwegian Refugee Council found that in 2013, some 22 million people were displaced by natural disasters alone - twice as many as in the 1970s.

    However, also existing in the world are an estimated 30 million or so redundant shipping containers. In recent years, some architects have been reincarnating them as residential and office accommodation, attracted by their convenient modular structure, durability, relatively low cost, and ease of transportation to site by ship, truck or rail.

    Others have been marrying the problem of homelessness with this glut of disused containers to create safe, robust shelter in conflict or disaster zones, and to get people off the streets in our towns and cities.

    Satisfaction almost guaranteed...
    One such scheme is to be found in Brighton, on the UK's south coast. Last year, housing association, Brighton Housing Trust and developer, QED Property, teamed up to convert 36 converted shipping container units into homes for the city's homeless.

    Designed by QED's in-house team in collaboration with WCEC Architecture, the new homes, set within two blocks, are situated at Richardson's Yard, a former scrap metal yard in the city centre, on a five-year term.

    WAN spoke to Ross Gilbert, director of QED, to get an update on how residents are finding container living almost a year after the first occupants moved in. "Generally things are very positive. The scheme has been well-received within the local community and satisfaction amongst residents is high," he said.

    This is borne out by a satisfaction survey conducted by Juliet Amoruso, a social geographer at the University of Sussex, which reports that 94% of residents said the accommodation was ‘better or much better than where they lived before'. The survey also found that residents most liked "having their own kitchen (87%), front door (81%) and shower/toilet (81%)'.

    Encouraging statistics indeed, yet there's more to a real home than simply a roof over your head and a key to the door. We asked Ross if any community activities were developing at Richardson's Yard: "Yes, a food growing initiative is well under way and will continue into 2016. In September, we held the first pick-and-eat event, which was attended by 11 residents who clearly enjoyed the chance to gather in a different social situation.

    "The menu included Spanish omelette using potatoes and herbs grown on site, blueberry pancakes - imported blueberries, but there are young blueberry bushes on site - and a selection of pestos from herbs grown on site, although the nuts were bought in. Several expressed their hope that this would become a regular event. Work has started on another pick-and-eat day for next year and other alternatives such as a lunch club."

    Feeling the heat
    On the slightly less positive side, over their first winter, some Richardson's Yard residents expressed concerns about the cost of heating their homes - insulation and temperature control being one of the big challenges of converting containers successfully (others being humidity and contamination issues).

    Ross explains what has been done since to address this: "Electrical heating is more expensive than other fuel forms; there is no avoiding this. During the year the price of electricity to residents has been reviewed by Brighton Housing Trust and reduced. Additional functionality, such as summer/winter and day/night rates on the meters in each flat, is also being looked at.

    "From our point of view as the developer, post-occupancy monitoring has been put in place and the data is being collected for full review early next year. Data on energy consumption, internal and external temperature and humidity, as well as internal CO2 levels to determine ventilation levels, will help inform the debate on this type of housing."

    Using old shipping containers as homes is not in itself a new idea. One Philip C Clark filed for a US patent in 1987, describing a ‘method for converting one or more steel shipping containers into a habitable building at a building site and the product thereof'. The patent was duly granted in 1989 and has laid the groundwork for many current container architecture ideas around the globe ever since.

    Old idea, new takes...
    So where in the world did the inspiration for Richardson's Yard come from? "The inspiration came from visiting Amsterdam where there are a whole host of temporary buildings built from shipping containers, building containers and other forms of modular construction," said Ross.

    "It is great to see so many creative projects and ideas - not necessarily just containers - being put forward. Some will be very successful, others won't. We are surely only to solve the very serious issues of homelessness by trying new approaches, building things, tinkering with them and learning from them. I find the creativity behind ideas such as vertical campsites in Marseille [by Stephane Malka, France] and creating homes behind advertising hoardings [Design Develop, Slovakia] very inspiring," he added.

    Andy Winter, chief executive of Brighton Housing Trust, was particularly impressed with Dutch firm, Tempohousing's imaginative work in the Netherlands, in particular the highly successful Keetwonen development in Amsterdam. Believed to be the largest container city in the world with its 1,000 units, it is not designed for the homeless per se, but for another transient sector of society: students.

    In fact the containers used at Richardson's Yard originated in the Netherlands. Originally designed and constructed for a social housing project in Amsterdam for which the funding didn't materialise, the containers were duly sold off at a discounted rate.

    While any type of temporary housing will have its pros and cons, it does seem the humble used shipping container can provide a welcome and viable alternative for the rough sleepers, refugees, and disaster victims of the world. What's more, they're readily available around the globe.

    By Gail Taylor


    There's still a few days left to enter the WAN Residential Award - celebrating proejcts which deliver innovative and sustainable solutions to multi-occupancy dwellings - and the WAN Adaptive Reuse Award. The latter champions designs that repurpose existing structures and bring new inspiration to old spaces.

    Entries close on Friday!


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