An out of the box idea

Container spaces are easy to maintain, assemble and are excellent low-cost housing options. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat  

When it comes to building a home people are conformists. Architecture and people have evolved and there have been bold and innovative experiments in designs, materials and concepts. But how would it feel living in a refurbished shipping container, in one of those solid, bright coloured rectangular boxes?

This idea is neither crazy nor Bohemian. It is a concept which is fast catching up in the country. Some wonderful structures have come up across the world though we have been a bit late in waking up to this idea. But living out of a metal box may not be such a bad idea after all.

To build a container home, several of these boxes are taken apart and retro-fitted. Embellishments such as glass panels, wooden floors, a cool paint job and high roofs complete the design.

“It will be like living in any conventional home. All that is needed is a little bit of brickwork, doing up the interiors, the lighting and plumbing. An issue that one is likely to face is the heat. Insulating the container from the inside and air-conditioners can fix that. The best part is that it is movable, there is no carbon emission, needs very little of wood, is easy to assemble and maintenance cost is negligible,” says Rajesh Raghu of Integrated Lifters, a firm that has been in this business since 1984.

Containers are phased out after 10 to 12 years and these extremely sturdy boxes are now put to use mainly as offices and quarters for workers at sites. “When we started out it was mainly for site accommodation at oil fields. The requirement was for office, dormitories for workers, and toilets. Since then most of the orders we get are for similar projects. We have built offices for the excise and sale tax department at check posts, at the Metro rail work sites in Kochi and Chennai. In fact, at Saidapet and May Day Park, Chennai, we constructed colonies for the workers. We have also built for the Kerala government, Nirmithi, and constructed colonies for the officers (not workers) that included toilets, kitchen and even a clinic on site,” says P.K. Ravindran, Chief Engineer, Projects, Integrated Lifters.

One reason why container homes have not really caught up here is because of a stigma attached to these. These are considered a low-income option. “This is not true. Of course, containers can be used by the governments while designing homes for the poor, in relocating and rehabilitating people or to set up utilities in slums or remote areas. It is ideal for school and college hostels. I think it is a question of our mind-sets. Once these constructions become popular and people find there is nothing strange about living out of these boxes. I’m sure we will have a lot more demand,” feels Raghu.

Noted architect Jaigopal V. Rao feels that in Kerala a house is the ultimate dream and the Malayali is not ready to gamble on that. “No one here is ready to experiment on one’s life’s ambition. All the savings usually go into constructing a house and naturally something as bizarre as a container home is a strict no-no. Perhaps, if they have surplus money like in other cities such as Bangalore, and if they are building a second or a third home, I think, they would go for innovative designs. These would certainly be suitable for rehabilitating people, disaster management authorities can, if possible, keep refurbished containers ready in case such a situation arises.”

Turning these 20 x 8 feet containers into liveable spaces needs a lot of expert and skilled designers. They have many advantages as they combine efficiency, affordability, and flexibility into one eco-friendly home. “These shipping containers are stacked on top of each other holding hundreds of tonnes of cargo. They can withstand harsh environments, and with proper care, will not rust or break. As they can fit almost anywhere, these container homes can be made into almost anything - a guesthouse, as a temporary living space or even a proper house,” feels Raghu.

Container houses are commonly found in port cities where containers are easily available. In fact, the whole concept began in Rotterdam.

But there is a catch. One has to find a good box from the many phased out ones. “My friend Alok Shetty, a young, Bangalore-based architect, is one who has done some good work using containers. He told me that the quality of these containers is the rider. Choosing the right one needs expertise for repairing a bad one is not easy as there are very few experts in the country. The standard size, especially the height - eight feet - can be a drawback. Insulation, waterproofing, putting windows and doors require high skill levels of labour which unfortunately is in short supply. If these things can be sorted out containers can be a fantastic option. And Alok has built some small schools in some North Indian villages and low-cost conference halls, which he feels can be replicated elsewhere too,” adds Jaigopal.

There are some very popular hotels, theme-based restaurants and homes created out of containers across the world. Perhaps, this is the future.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2022 5:45:33 PM |

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