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Architects slam shipping containers to house the homeless


Architects have criticised converting shipping containers into accommodation for the homeless after a report revealed the trend was gaining popularity among councils

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, said it was a ‘scandal’ that councils were using the containers as temporary housing.

The report, which estimates 210,000 children are currently homeless, also tells of families living in converted office blocks and squeezed into tiny flats. 

In addition to shipping containers, the report also highlighted the issue of office to residential conversions, where disused blocks –often in industrial areas – are converted into housing under permitted development rights (PDR). 

Longfield said it was sad and surprising to learn of the new developments councils were turning to in order to deal with the problem.

These, she said, included ‘office block conversions, in which whole families live in single rooms barely bigger than a parking space, and shipping containers which are blisteringly hot in summer and freezing in the winter months.’

The report said there had been reports of shipping container projects in Bristol, Cardiff and west London, often located on ’meanwhile sites’ earmarked for future development.

While these had the benefit of being self-contained, Longfield said the units were typically not designed for children and were one or two bedroom and small in size, meaning overcrowding could be an issue.

Longfield said that, despite these issues, they continued to be an ‘attractive option’ to councils as they are less costly than ‘repeatedly paying for B&Bs’. The report said a one-bedroom shipping container cost approximately £35,000 to set up.

Recent years have seen a rise in shipping container conversion projects such as BDP’s Boxpark, where the empty vessels are used to house pop-up shops or bars on sites awaiting development.

Architects have reworked the containers for a range of uses, including a marketing suite in Edinburgh by Dixon Jones and Neubau’s porter’s lodge in Cambridge. 

Earlier this year, London and Berlin-based architects Patalab Architecture won approval for a nine-storey office building in Whitechapel which it claims will be, on completion, the tallest building in the world made from shipping containers.

Mach 1 Edinburgh by Dixon Jones and David Mach

Mach 1 Edinburgh by Dixon Jones and David Mach

Source: Assembly Studios

Mach 1 Edinburgh by Dixon Jones and David Mach

But shipping container homes have provoked more of a debate, with fears often raised over whether the units meet minimum space standards and have suitable daylight and insulation. 

Chris Medland, of One-World Design said while he understood why some architects look at shipping containers and see their potential for reuse, ‘homes are not places within which to store people. 

‘It’s not clever to take something that can do the job it’s designed for well and adapt it to do something else badly.

‘Repurposed containers for site offices, garden summer house, emergency shelters, great; for permanent housing, no.’

Levitt Bernstein’s Julia Park – who recently launched a petition against the conversion of offices to housing under permitted development rights (PDR) – said there was a danger of poor-quality temporary housing becoming normalised.

‘We need to remind ourselves (and everyone else) that none of this is normal or remotely acceptable,’ she said.

‘The long-term solution lies in building more social housing – millions, as Shelter’s cross-party report said. Meanwhile it seems pretty obvious that we need stricter regulations even for temporary housing and a finite limit on what “temporary” means’.

RIBA president Ben Derbyshire said the accommodation highlighted in the report was ‘frankly appalling’ and showed how many families were suffering as a result of the housing crisis.

He added: ‘The government and local authorities need to work together to build good-quality, safe homes so that families are not forced to live for months on end in such shockingly unsuitable environments.’

Last month Fraser Brown Mackenna Architects secured planning permission for a series of small one-bed homes made from shipping containers in the Buckinghamshire town of Aylesbury.

Backed by the Vale of Aylesbury Housing Trust, the Gatehouse Road scheme was described as providing ‘low-cost homes’. Fraser Brown Mackenna was approached for comment on the report.

Section through one of Fraser Brown Mackenna's approved shipping container homes in Aylesbury

Section through one of Fraser Brown Mackenna’s approved shipping container homes in Aylesbury

Section through one of Fraser Brown Mackenna’s approved shipping container homes in Aylesbury


Readers' comments (7)

  • Industry Professional

    The method of providing the housing is surely irrelevant. It is the quality and quantity of the housing that is important whether it reuses offices shipping containers or is new build. In a crisis all methods should be encouraged, especially in a world of scarce resources, those that re-purpose otherwise redundant fabric.
    So all that is missing is proper control over the standard of what is provided.

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  • "The report said a one-bedroom shipping container cost approximately £35,000 to set up."
    Sum Ting Wong.

    A nice little timber framed cottage, built to current standards and with an additional 100 sq.ft. would cost less.

    The only repurposing of shipping containers should be a trip to the steel mill where they can be melted down.

    So good read a commonsense article.
    Now ! If we could have one on the demerits of CLT, that would be another great leap forward.

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  • Shipping containers clearly can be successfully 're-purposed', in the right hands, and it's surely reasonable to assume that the conversions to temporary / emergency housing in this country are to a reasonable standard for habitation.
    So it was a surprise to hear comments on C4 news yesterday that they were baking hot in summer and freezing cold in winter, suggesting that at least one project is a dud, and giving others a bad name.

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  • Clare Richards

    Instead of shipping containers councils should be more inventive, like Lewisham, making temporary use of a vacant site with The Place (rsh-p.com/projects/place…) - modular, fully demountable, reusable, energy efficient emergency housing with above average space standards. The Place also includes low cost workspace and a community-run cafe. ft’work was a participant in the discussion about meanwhile use of vacant sites for housing at the Draft London Plan Examination in Public. There was general support, but we argued that innovative ideas and new technologies (as exemplified by The Place) must be pursued, to provide social housing solutions with no loss of quality. How about running a competition AJ? We’ll back it.

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  • As usual the root cause of the housing problem isn't stated, either in the article or by commenters. Oooh, too sensitive an issue, but problems can never be solved unless the causes are acknowledged and addressed.

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  • Alan Crawford

    With homelessness spiraling out of control, 1 billion pounds was spent by local authorities in 2018 on temporary accommodation to house the growing numbers, fueled by urbanization and population growth, and with no permanent affordable housing available, is it really surprising to see these headlines. This discussion on using shipping containers for housing has been trending on social media with many people writing to say that they aspire to live in converted containers as an economic means of getting a roof over their heads, with a high percentage writing from the US, and there are many very good examples of homes designed using repurposed containers on sites like Dezeen that show what architects and self builders have created with them. Housing a homeless family of 4 in one or two container modules is going to be claustrophobic, but until we get down to addressing the root causes of this growth in homelessness in a constructive way, then we are likely to hear many more similar stories on the news in the coming decade. There are solutions to address the issue in the short term, however, we need to be looking at a long term fix!

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  • Well done Alan, for mentioning the ‘sensitive’ problem of global population growth, heading rapidly to 8 billion, and tripled over the last 70 years. No doubt this will be ‘solved’ shortly with mass starvation once the oil runs out, followed by human extinction, with any luck. How about a shipping container on wheels? It’s called a caravan and is cheaper than £35k. It’s a pity that we have not progressed on the mass housing issue since Bucky had a go, for which he was roundly castigated by the AIA for his ‘pea-in-a-pod’ solutions. I somehow don’t think that a shipping container scheme is going to win the Stirling.

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