The UK is in the middle of a major housing crisis. Meanwhile, there are millions of unused shipping containers in the world. I went to meet Iain Clark, of London housing cooperative the Yellow Brick Road, to see how recycled shipping container homes might help.
According to the homeless charity Crisis, on average 4134 people slept rough every night in England in 2016. In 2017, the figure was 4,751: a 15% rise. However, those sleeping rough are a small proportion of the homeless population. In 2017, the number of households registered in England as statutory homeless, and living in temporary accommodation, was 79,190: a 6% increase on the previous year.
But the true number of homeless is thought to be even worse. In a 2011 survey by Crisis, 62% of respondents were the hidden homeless: hidden from government statistics as they were dealing with the problem informally. These are vulnerable people, relying on sofa surfing, squatting, ‘beds-in-sheds’, family and friends.
The problem is growing. An ageing population and high birth rate are placing strain on the housing stock. Increasing competition leads to rising rental prices. With so much demand for rental accommodation, there is less motivation for landlords to ensure that it is fit for habitation.
Ways need to be found to increase the availability of affordable, good quality accommodation.
Why shipping container homes?
There are millions of shipping containers in the world – estimates are anything up to 170 million – and many are unused. It can be cheaper to produce new containers than ship them empty back to a goods supplier. Therefore, net goods importers like the UK accumulate shipping containers. The UK Department for Transport estimates that in 2016 alone, the net import of shipping containers was the equivalent to 0.2 million 20-foot shipping containers.
The idea of converting them into dwellings and other structures is not new, but has recently gained popularity. Recent examples include the Richardson’s Yard social housing development for the Brighton Housing Trust, retail developments like Boxpark Croydon and Pop Brixton, and numerous one off-residential projects across the globe.
However, there is debate whether it is more sustainable to refit shipping containers as homes, or melt them down to produce building elements. According to Lloyd Alter of the Treehugger blog, a 40 foot container could be turned into enough steel studs to frame the walls for 7 similar sized houses. On the other hand, the energy used reconfiguring a container is an argument for re-using it unaltered.
The company due to supply the homes for the Emerald Village is MAC containers. They are a UK based company and build a variety of modular units based on shipping containers: examples apart from accommodation include classrooms, secure storage units, and offices. These units are bespoke and built from scratch, rather than being recycled shipping containers.
There are many attractive examples of shipping container homes, and there is a clear benefit to recycling the steel – although how best to use it is debatable. Nonetheless, the Emerald Village is an exciting response to the housing crisis. The easily transported modular units will make it easy to provide cost effective, high quality homes. The Emerald Village can be set up or moved with ease, responding to changing land use and needs. Other aspects of sustainability are also addressed: the use of brownfield sites, and clean fuel sources like solar and biogas.
As seen in places like Hockerton, this is a concept that relies on co-operation and community to enable sustainable living. There will be plenty to learn from this project and I look forward to sharing their progress.