With the growth of our major cities quickly getting out of hand, the time is now to think outside the box…perhaps to the container.
This is Amsterdam, a city where people struggle to find accommodation at the best of times. Holland is about half the size of Tasmania, but instead of 515,000 people it houses more than 17 million. Despite the fact that the rental market is organised a lot better than in Australia, many people spend many years on waiting lists. Especially students tend to have trouble finding a place to live, let alone something where they don’t have to share bathrooms and kitchens. But new ideas come up all the time, because that is what we do as human beings: when there is a need, we can think outside of the box. So for the next four weeks, I would like to introduce you to a few of those lateral thinkers. They came up with different ways to live, sometimes even to build. Their plans might also help us out, in a crowded city where whole generations can’t seem to find a bed anymore. This week: Tempohousing, and their container homes.
Maria and Kees have been together since they met in a statistics tutorial in their first year of a psychology degree three years ago. Theirs was a quick romance, with Kees packing his possessions in a few boxes and moving in with Maria after only six weeks. But after a while they got sick of the tiny room with dirty kitchen in a share house. They went looking for something else: a bit more space, a bit more privacy. On this lovely summer’s morning in Amsterdam they welcome me in what they found in the end: a container home a ten-minute metro ride from the centre of the city. With 2.4 metres, it isn’t wide, but because it is more than 12 metres long, it feels enormous. Sitting/dining room at the front, then a “pod” with a kitchen on one side and the bathroom on the other, and a light-filled bedroom at the end. They are on the second floor of a five-story block of flats. Or maybe “flats” is the wrong word, seeing that they are all containers. Bright red on the outside, with outside corridors and stairs connecting them. A shared garden on the ground floor, dozens of bike-racks, a few targeted shops (also in containers) on the corner of the street. It all suits Kees and Maria to a tee: “It is affordable, private, and still has the atmosphere of a really cool share house. When the weather is nice, people play guitar in the garden, there are barbecues and some of the girls from downstairs have nurtured some vegetables that are now coming into their own. And all of this close to the city and only 20 minutes from uni. It is a miracle, really.”
This complex of 1,034 “modules”, which houses more than 1,500 students, is the brainchild of Quinten de Gooijer. In 2005, then a young lawyer, he realised that there was at least a partial solution to the Amsterdam housing shortage. Throughout the city, there were many pieces of land that council had earmarked for a future that hadn’t arrived yet. Sometimes they were slated to become commercial areas, sometimes residential, sometimes parks. But whatever their ultimate destination, for the moment they were empty. What if, De Gooijer thought, you could put temporary accommodation on those bits of land? Surely that would be a win-win: the land would be used and people would have a place to live. To De Gooijer, the obvious solution was the humble shipping container. Amsterdam has a working harbour and he thought that if he could buy a few hundred used containers, it should be possible to turn them into houses cheaply and quickly. He started doing some research and soon realised that he was half right. Containers would be great, but they had to be new. The used ones were often too damaged, especially inside, and many of them had transported chemicals, which made them unsuitable to live in.
In the last couple of years they have built a vast array of “modular” buildings, with very different uses. For Tempohousing, this container complex was only the beginning.
Most of us would have quit there. But De Gooijer didn’t. He went to talk to some engineering mates, who designed him a “sandwich panel”: layers of insulation and fire-and-noise-resistant material, capped with a plasterboard skin, that could be slotted into the corrugated walls of the containers. They also came up with a rigid frame, consisting of windows and a door, that fitted into the narrow back and front of the container without compromising its structural integrity. Then De Gooijer and his friends built a model container, complete with bathroom and kitchen, and showed it to both members of the city council and prospective financial backers. They also picked a block of land, which they knew would be empty for about five years. Lastly, there was a thorough plan of how all those containers would fit together and how much it would cost. 25 million for a thousand units. 25,000 Euros per unit, which would include everything: foundations, sewerage, gas, light, water, building of the modules, transport, putting it all together, getting all the paperwork organised, streets, street furniture, lighting, everything.
Amsterdam tentatively said “yes”. They loved the houses, that wasn’t the problem. The PR was. Nobody had ever put students in containers yet, and the city’s publicity people were scared of a backlash. But when De Gooijer put his plan online and asked students if they wanted to live there, there were thousands of applications in a matter of days. After he got the all clear, De Gooijer went to work. Started a factory in China – which, even then, was the biggest producer of shipping containers – and got a system going, despite some initial communication problems. Within a few months, the first ones arrived and a few weeks after that the complex was up and running. With the pipework and the foundations ready, putting the containers down and connecting them was easy. Plug and play, in fact. That was 2006. Now, five years later than planned, the complex is partly up for sale. Some of the land will revert to its original use, some will remain student housing. There are no signatures on the contract yet, but there is a distinct chance that the superfluous containers will be shipped to India, where they will be reused.
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For Tempohousing, this container complex was only the beginning. In the last couple of years, they have built a vast array of “modular” buildings, with very different uses. There are temporary houses for refugees, built in Germany during the height of the mass migration last year. There are container houses for nuisance tenants in Denmark that can be (and have been) moved when a neighbourhood can’t stand its occupants anymore. There is Festivilla, a small complex of hotel rooms that travels through Scandinavia accompanying a rock festival. There are a homeless shelter in Brighton, the UK, a school and harbour office on one of the Caribbean islands crippled by a storm; a hotel in Haiti, built shortly after the 2010 earthquake, a school in Panama, hotel in Nigeria, student housing on the Faroe Islands, a pop-up showroom for Tesla; student housing, of course, throughout The Netherlands, as well as social housing and a “labour hotel”, for temporary workers in the city. What links the buildings is that they are modular. Often containers, sometimes flatpacks, sometimes pods of a different kind, but always modular: flexible, cheap, often temporary.
Art Works in Elephant Park in London (also by Tempohousing) is, like Maria and Kees’ home, a container complex. Colourful boxes, stacked in different ways, housing small shops, cafes, start-ups, classrooms, even a library. One morning we have coffee there. And a Mexican, chili-laden, breakfast. Alejandra is very pleased with her little business. In a way, her story mirrors that of Maria and Kees: the place is affordable, the neighbourhood and the people are cool and she would not have been able to find anything like this any other way. Because the containers are temporary and placed on a bit of disused land, she is able to run her café not in a far-away suburb, but close to the centre of town. Especially for a new business that hasn’t been able to build up a name for itself, that is vital. She’s met so many people here that she has now started branching out into catering as well. She is doing well, better than she expected when she migrated to the UK five years ago. Containers, she says with a smile, who would have thought?