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Thinking inside the box: top tips on building a container home

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The development of shipping containers in the 1950s transformed the face of the transport industry, but no-one realised at that time that it would take the building scene by storm decades later.

In 1998 the concept emerged in South Africa when Simon’s Town High School required a new hostel and was provided 40 used shipping containers by Safmarine which were used to construct a hostel housing 120 pupils.

At that time it was the largest shipping container building in the world.  In recent years the shipping container, both durable and climate resistant, has gained popularity within residential as well as commercial property, notes the Rawson Property Group.

Container homes take simplistic living, creative design and affordable building to the next level, says Kashief Schroeder, co-founder and owner of Container Intermodal Trading. But, she warns, before launching into your own container build, preparation is required.

Picture: Tim Johnson

Here are Schroeder’s tips for every stage of building your dream container home.

Get council approval: Most councils are open to innovative types of building. Do thorough research on property restrictions before you buy the land. Have detailed plans drawn up and develop a good relationship with your council. This will save you time.

Purchase your container: Buy your container through a reputable company. They will help you choose the right kind of container for your needs, and ensure the container is structurally sound, waterproof and has not transported anything dangerous. There are two types of shipping containers: one that has reinforced square tubing side top rails and one that has flat bar side rails.

Buying the reinforced side railed container will ensure your home is more structurally sound, and you don’t have to pay extra building costs to reinforce the container sides. Building with a refrigerated container is ideal as they already have insulation, but this comes with different challenges.

Most purchases require an upfront payment after you have seen the container and have the appropriate documentation with a container reference number.

A SA Revenue Service/customs EDI release (SAD500) gives assurance that the container is legally in South Africa, has not been used for illegal activities and is not part of an investigation.

Design your home: To achieve amazing things, simplicity and great design are key. The more ambitious the designs, the more time and resourceintensive it will be to build. When deciding how many containers to use, ensure you know how much space you need to live comfortably. Be clear on the vision for your home. Look at show houses for a physical indication of how effective use of space can transform a container.

Get a professional to draw your design in 3D. It will give you and your builder a better feel for the space.

Plan your construction: As many container homes are built on vacant land you may need to install infrastructure such as foundations, running water, power and sewerage before you start your build. Container homes can be built off-site while you lay the infrastructure. This off-site building method is ideal for remote builds or smaller urban plots.

The South African building industry is relatively new to handling modular framed structures and it may be challenging to find an experienced container home builder who will quote a fixed price. However, there are experts such as Len Douglas of Inter Modular Concepts. On any build, skilled labour is the chief variable; by planning everything beforehand, you can monitor these costs.

Phase your build: It takes around three-and-a-half months to have the container ready for occupancy, depending on the amount of infrastructure you need. Have clear lines of communication with your building team, do regular site visits and create a realistic, detailed building schedule. This will keep everyone motivated, reduce stress levels and ensure the budget is not exceeded.

Pre-order materials such as fixtures and pre-cut timber. This is a great way to lower building costs and ensure the building schedule is realistic as you can plan according to the delivery dates of materials. You will need a secure, watertight space to store materials and equipment if you are building on-site.

Budget your build: Your budget should include the cost of the container being transported to site which will require a crane, labour, materials, equipment hire and so on. The average cost of a simple high-end container home is R825 000 to R1 million.

It is wise to include a contingency budget of about 13% for unexpected items or finishings you may need once you occupy the space.  The complexity of your design will determine the amount of customisation needed.

Most building components, such as roof trusses, are designed to fit on to brick structures, which means there will be instances where you must develop your own solution to achieve the look you envision.

These customisations may be challenging to predict or show on the drawings. This might require your attention when they are being installed to make sure the building team, architect and engineer are on the same page.

To build in the box you have to think outside the box, and container homes provide a wonderful opportunity to be truly creative with your home. They give first-time builders a quicker, more economical way of achieving their dream home


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