A trend towards the acceptance of designer homes based on skilfully upgraded shipping containers has emerged in the Western Cape.
Cape Town, renowned for some of the most expensive real estate in South Africa, is slowly seeing increasing numbers of plans for container-based homes being approved, although exact figures are not immediately available.
Ayla Damon of Po.che’ Architectural Concepts in Cape Town has had designs for many container homes approved since 2016. At least 20 of her designs have been translated into container homes in the Western Cape. A further 10 container houses based on designs by other architects have been constructed in the province, one of which is currently on sale with a R6 million price tag.
“We designed our first custom container home for a client in the Pringle Bay area and have since obtained approval for numerous projects in Betty’s Bay, Hermanus and the Sedgefield area. We are currently finalising a project in Plettenberg Bay and intend breaking into the Eastern Cape region. Internationally, we have done a preliminary design for a container home in Nambucca, Australia.
“The United States and many other countries have embraced the concept. They seem to understand this form of building and are more open-minded towards the concept.
“We’re hopeful that the South African authorities will buy into the trend by developing standard regulations to make it easier for clients to obtain approval, raise bonds and register their homes.
“Our approach is to show South Africa, through our range of designs, what can be done with container homes.”
Art director Marcus Viljoen and Maryke van Rensburg recently took occupation of their upmarket container home in Fish Hoek. Designed by Po.che’, the house is positioned on a steep, north-facing slope with views of the sea in the east and west. The couple followed the traditional process of wanting to buy their own home rather than rent. They looked at various older homes in suburbs such as Kenilworth before deciding that they would buy land and build.
“We found a 1 071m² site in Fish Hoek overlooking the valley and our offer to purchase was accepted in 2017. Initially, we considered building a timber house but we thought using containers might be cheaper. Our next step was to locate a container supplier and an architect. We bought four containers, two of 12m and another 12m unit cut in half. It’s more cost-effective to modify a 12m container than to buy and work on a 6m high cube container.
“The plan was to have the containers prepared off-site and then delivered ready for placement on our stand. That didn’t happen and Mick Murphy Projects, the contractor that had prepared the site for the containers, was appointed to complete the build.”
Marcus says the approval of plans and the connections for electrical power, water and sewage by city authorities took two years, far longer than anticipated.
“We specified high-quality finishes throughout. We also wanted an extensive balcony built on the front of the house so that we could enjoy the deck and see the sea on both sides of the valley. Luckily, Damon moved the positioning of the house forward on the stand to ensure our superb view was not blocked by neighbouring homes. We are environment-friendly but at present we have only solar water heating. We intend adding further solar panels later. We’re still busy landscaping and our intention is to plant only waterwise greenery.”
The two-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a double garage at road level has a separate, fully serviced guest cottage built at a level lower than that of the main house. The avante garde design has attracted widespread attention in the area.
“Every weekend streams of people arrive to view the house from the road,” says Marcus. “A crowd of our neighbours arrived to witness the arrival on site of the containers after the earthworks had been completed.”
Damon said that one of the main hiccups in the approval process was the need to appoint a fire engineer.
“The whole process took a long time but now that we have dealt with the City of Cape Town (COCT) and obtained approval for three container homes, the process will run a lot smoother. We now know what they look at and what additional information they require to show that container homes are an acceptable means of construction.”
She says that, in essence, the approval process is the same as any (traditional) build except “container homes are seen as rationale designs because there is no specific building code for them. So as a professional team you must show in your drawings how you have handled variables such as insulation, waterproofing and treatment of the containers. Some local authorities require a rationale design report as part of the approval process.”
Pros and cons
Asset asked Damon to pinpoint the advantages and disadvantages of building with containers.
“In areas such as Fish Hoek and Glencairn which have steep sites, containers are an excellent solution because less excavation is required, contractors require less time-on-site and this translates into labour savings. The main advantage and cost-saver when it comes to building with containers is the time saved by the off-site, in-factory preparation of the containers. While the wet works and supporting structure are being undertaken on site, the containers are being converted at the factory. Once the support columns are in place on-site, the finished containers can be delivered and lifted into position. Ease of construction is a great advantage over traditional construction with bricks and mortar where sub-contractors cannot proceed with their work until the wet work is complete.”
Damon points out that while there is a substantial time-saving, prices of materials, finishes and sanitaryware are the same no matter what building method is used.
“If one moves away from conventional ways of thinking, then containers can offer huge advantages as they can be kitted out in any way required by the client to achieve great aesthetic appeal. Container homes are not as restrictive in their footprints as a lot of people believe.
“The width of a container can be restrictive but this is balanced out by their excellent length and height. That’s where clever design and usage comes in. We make use of what we call ‘hybrid’ areas for the main living spaces as we have done in the Viljoen house. Steel framing with cladding is used to provide expansion space in areas such as the lounge and dining room.
“Bedroom and bathroom spaces where width is not particularly critical ensure the best possible usage of compartmentalised space. In the Fish Hoek design, we made use of the containers for bedroom spaces and areas that could be compartmentalised.”
The design perspective
“I get extremely excited when a new client approaches me to design their container home because each client has such unique and interesting ideas when it comes to building with containers,” says Damon. “I am drawn to the fact that this is something so new in South Africa and it is amazing to see what you can do with containers.”
“I feel successful with projects when I hear people ask ‘Wow, are those actually containers?’ Most people have a very fixed idea of what a ‘container home’ is. They are not for everyone. But when you see people start to change their idea and perception of this construction method then I know that I am achieving something worthwhile.
“I still love doing other designs and welcome any architectural project and challenge, but container designs and builds have become a really special part of my company. Many people think that the design process with containers is simply a process of copying and pasting designs but that is far from true. Inspiration for projects comes from the client’s needs first and foremost – how do they want to use the space and what type of functionality they want.
“From there, it is about putting their ideas to paper while applying good design techniques, sustainable design ideas along with passive design to make sure that they get an aesthetically pleasing home that is liveable and suitable to their needs. Each project and client is unique.
Some clients love to expose the rawness of the containers and enjoy pairing this look with additional raw materials. Other clients prefer to expose only bits of the container very graciously, giving a slight nod to this building technique.”
Damon advises owners considering going the container home route to select a building contractor with excellent credentials.
“Appointing a contractor who is professional and shares your passion for such a unique construction method is critical to a successful build. You might have to pay a bit more but you will have fewer issues during the process. The oft-used saying that ‘You get what you pay for’ applies as much to the building industry as to any other sector of the economy.”
Building contractor Mick Murphy estimates that if designed and engineered correctly a container home of a similar style and finish to the Viljoen’s Fish Hoek build could be completed in seven to eight months compared with a traditional build taking 10-12 months.
“The financial advantage to these type projects is related to planning and sequencing,” says Mick. “The lightweight structure allows for a comparatively lighter building frame, thus providing savings in trade costs and time. When this type of structure is erected on a steeply sloping site there is a reduced need for foundation work, retaining walls and waterproofing.”
“The sequencing of works is an important consideration. There was careful co-ordination of on and off-site work in the Fish Hoek project. The supporting steelwork frame was being manufactured off-site over six weeks at the same time as the on-site civil work was progressing to ensure the site was ready to receive the containers.”
Home loan exclusion
At present, major South African banks do not provide financing for container home builds. The issues hinge around security, building standards and market acceptance.
In response to a question from Asset regarding the financing of container homes, Capitec responded that the bank does not offer a secured home loan product. For these homes it recommend a new Access Facility which provides access to affordable, revolving credit up to R250, 000, with a repayment period of up to 60 months that could be used towards the payment of such a home.
“After a once-off credit assessment, clients are granted access to an amount based upon their affordability. This amount can then be used towards funding a container home and once repaid the funds can then be accessed again should the need arise. For instance, the repaid amount could then be used towards furnishing the home. The Access Facility can be fully managed on our app and gives clients the flexibility to select a repayment amount or period they are comfortable with.”
Estie le Roux, manager for valuations strategy at Absa Home Loans, says the responsibility for educating South Africans about the viability of container homes lies with developers and suppliers of such homes. An understanding of the technical specification, process and standards is needed.
“Will municipalities approve this type of building or will Agrément South Africa and the NHBRC give us their approval? What would this process look like? Would we have to seek approval on a case-by-case basis to ensure each container complies? From a technical perspective, Agrément South Africa and the NHBRC will ensure that the structure is stable and that it complies with the building regulations but, what if poor workmanship is involved? Would the same warrantees apply to container homes that are currently in place for brick-and-mortar dwellings?” Le Roux told Property Wheel.
She says that Absa Bank and the market need to gain confidence in the product. That will motivate a change in the bank’s attitude towards the financing of container homes.
This article was first published in Asset Magazine.