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Life in a box

Why shipping containers are turning into attractive housing options for people who like to upcycle

February 17, 2017 06:57 pm | Updated 06:57 pm IST

On a hillside outside Chile, four metal rectangles push away from the rocks, commanding enviable views of the Andes Mountains. Built from shipping containers, architect Sebastián Irarrázaval’s Caterpillar House is contemporary, with clean lines and plush interiors. You will be forgiven if you can’t visualise its previous occupants — cars and heavy machinery.

Sturdy and cost-effective, shipping containers have been finding favour as housing solutions for years now, because they take far less time to set up than conventional homes. Now, however, they are going beyond international port cities like Amsterdam, and finding acceptance in Indian urban landscapes, be it in Aamby Valley or Bengaluru, and cost anywhere from ₹5 lakh to ₹16 lakh. Hemant Mahajan, who is constructing a container farmhouse in Aamby Valley, is a fan. “I can shift my home wherever I like,” exclaims the architect, who was motivated by a trip to Amsterdam a few years ago, and believes this is a great solution for clients looking to buy a second home.

Creative brief

India uses between four and five per cent of the 20 million industrial shipping containers made in the world. Once the lifespan of a 3,750-kg container is over, it usually ends up in a landfill (as it’s too expensive to ship back and too risky to sell). But an eye for design can go a long way. According to architect Neeraj Khandelwal, founder of Gurgaon-based design consultancy Vesna, a box made of corrugated material just needs some imagination and a bit of sprucing up.

During his visit to Rotterdam in 2015, Khandelwal and his wife chanced upon endless lines of containers, some stacked on top of each other, to form an arresting symmetry of colour. A few blocks down, they discovered a tiny pop-up café, made from the same material. Thus began In The Box Space, a firm dedicated to high-end homes and pop-up shops made from containers. “There’s also the idea of a recreational dwelling unit next to your house or your farmhouse,” he explains, adding that you can make an entire house (save the interiors) for approximately ₹15-₹16 lakh.

The LEGO advantage

“They’re made of high-quality steel that can withstand extremely corrosive marine climates,” says Sonali Phadke, a partner at Pune-based firm Studio Alternatives, which has just finished constructing a 2 BHK using three 20-foot containers. The primary concern in India is that the ‘steel boxes’ are good heat conductors. But Phadke says good insulation can help. “Natural or artificial canopies, or anything that provides shade, can relieve this,” she says, adding, “We’re receiving a lot of interest from restaurants, resorts, private home owners and schools, mainly in areas where timelines are a constraint or a temporary structure is a requirement.” It leaves a low carbon footprint, too. Since the structure is supported by 18x18 columns or pillars, there is no need to excavate the soil.

Another advantage is that it can be used to create any kind of space. “They’re like LEGO blocks,” enthuses Akshat Goel, founder of New Delhi-based non-profit Aadhan, which turned into a for-profit set-up shortly after building a classroom in Govardhan using containers. “You can stack them, one on top of the other, to create any kind of space. A 2 BHK private home in Mukhteshwar is currently underway.

Disaster relief

Housing problems in China, Vietnam and Japan are being solved with container homes. Shigeru Ban, a household name in architecture in Japan, has designed high-end homes, biennales and museums.

They also have a Voluntary Relief project where container homes form the cornerstone. “Container Temporary Housing was designed after the earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region in 2011. We first constructed them for the refugees, and then provided community spaces for 189 families,” Naho Taniguchi of Shigeru Ban says.

Industrial reincarnation, anyone?

Khandelwal’s clientèle ranges from Punjab and Delhi to Bengaluru and Kerala. “Those up North want a swanky, luxurious set-up while clients in the South demand a more rustic look, retaining the aura of the shipping container itself,” he says, adding that one of the possible problems with shipping container housing he foresees in India is the growing demand for condominiums and gated communities. Aspirations are also a roadblock. “One man living in a container home while the rest live in their small homes is where the challenge arises,” he says.

Adam Kalkin, head of industrial design at US-based firm InZombie, has a more optimistic view. “The technology applied to container architecture can be very primitive or very sophisticated, according to how and where you use them. You can hybridise the container with local building traditions,” he explains, adding thatthe basis of Eastern philosophy could make a good case for container homes in India.

“Asian cultures are interested in the reincarnation of the soul. Why can’t we have industrial reincarnation?”

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