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Shipping Container Living: A Creative Solution for Today’s Housing Crisis

As property prices continue to climb in the UK, more and more people are seeking alternative housing. A solution gaining significant traction is repurposing shipping containers into homes — offering affordability, sustainability, and unique architectural appeal.

Google Trends reveals a significant surge in interest for ‘Shipping Container Homes’, with 87,000 searches already in 2024 following 238,000 searches in 2023. This growing curiosity underscores the rising appeal of shipping container homes.

After conducting the research behind the rise in Google searches for these keywords we wanted to delve into the reasons behind the increasing popularity of shipping container homes, examining their impact on the planning and permissions sector, including planning permission consultants and architectural planning experts, and discuss the trend’s benefits and challenges. Additionally, we will highlight exemplary cases of shipping container homes across the UK to provide a comprehensive overview of their practical applications and potential.

Why are shipping container homes on the rise?

 

Shipping container homes are increasingly popular in the UK due to their affordability, sustainability, and quick construction. The versatility of shipping containers also allows for customisation to fit individuals specific design and space needs. Containers can be modified in countless ways to meet specific design and space needs. Owners can add windows, doors, and even combine multiple containers to create larger spaces. This flexibility allows for highly personalised living spaces that traditional homes might not offer without significant expense. Additionally, this adaptability makes them ideal for urban development projects and attractive to those who appreciate modern architectural aesthetics.

The use of shipping containers as a solution to the UK housing crisis is an obvious choice. 212,570 new homes were built in 2022/23, an increase of nine hundred from the previous year’s 211,670, but significantly below the government’s target to build 300,000 new homes per year. There are many reasons behind this, but the speed – or lack of – at which traditional homes are built certainly plays a role. We have also seen in the post Brexit world, the costs of labour increasing and with the war in Ukraine, the cost of materials, in some instances, quadruple. 

In traditional build smaller sites take longer to deliver the first home after planning approval, with an average of 18 months. The benefits of ready to go, fitted out units, which can be craned into place in a matter of hours are self-evident. In the post-war period under the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act 1944, the government supported prefabricated homes as part of a solution to the chronic housing shortage after WWII. 1.2 million new homes were built between 1945 and 1951. Some of these temporary homes still stand today despite their intended lifespan being just 10 years. Modern container homes far exceed and outperform their great-grandparent pre-fabs. But when a country is in a housing crisis, it is to modernity and innovation that we should all be looking, thinking outside of the breeze block.

Overall, the rise of shipping container homes reflects a growing interest in alternative housing options in the UK. The increasing need in shipping container homes is driven by a combination of economic factors. As traditional housing becomes more expensive due to soaring house prices, escalating mortgage rates, and rising rental costs, more individuals are seeking affordable alternatives.

 

Economic Factors Driving the Shift

Home Prices: The cost of housing in the UK continues to rise, reflecting broader economic trends and market pressures. As reported by Halifax in April 2023, the average house price across the UK was £288,949. This figure represents a modest increase of 0.1% from the previous month and a 1.1% rise year-over-year. In regions like London and the Southeast, prices are considerably higher, worsening affordability issues for many potential homeowners.

Container Homes as an Affordable Alternative: In stark contrast to traditional home prices, shipping containers present a much less expensive option. Acquiring a used shipping container costs from £1,500 to £3,000. Converting these containers into habitable spaces can cost between £10,000 and £50,000, depending on the complexity of the design and the quality of the finishes. This price range makes container homes a viable, cost-effective alternative, especially for first-time buyers or those with limited budgets.

 

How shipping container living will impact the planning permission industry

 

The growing interest in shipping container homes in the UK has significant implications for industry professionals, especially those working within the realms of planning and development. The unique nature of container homes presents both opportunities and challenges for planning permission processes, urban development strategies, and regulatory frameworks.

There are definitely regions of the country that are more open to the option of container living and working. London has been leading the way, however, there are also several schemes in the West Country, particularly Cheltenham, and Bristol, where container and prefabricated container style pods have been successfully adopted into the urban landscape. 

The uses for containers are not just limited to residential. In Cheltenham, an innovation hub has been granted planning on a car park that had been the site of anti-social behaviour, and fly-tipping. The hub will provide flexible working space, and free up some of the more historic properties in the town currently used as office space, to be converted into residential using Permitted Development Rights.

In Whapping Wharf at Bristol’s fashionable waterfront, shipping containers have been installed to provide restaurant and café spaces. The stacked containers are a dynamic and modern installation, next to more historic warehouse buildings, and bring an injection of character with a nod to the port’s industrial past.

As residents, development managers, planning councillors see more shipping containers sited in urban areas, the concerns about their materiality and impact on the local vernacular will lessen. 

At Planning By Design, our policy research skills, and experience in working with many different local authorities gives us the insight to guide our clients towards schemes that will be acceptable to development management. An excellent understanding of design through close working with a team of professional architects enables us to justify our clients’ planning submissions, and help planning officers recommend approval for our clients’ schemes. With the help of our partner New Forest Containers we are not afraid of challenging the status quo and creating robust planning statements for our clients, backed up with reasoning and evidence, which allows us to best represent our clients’ planning interests to Local Planning Authorities.

 

Increased Demand for Expertise in Alternative Housing Solutions:

As the popularity of shipping container homes rises, there is a corresponding increase in the demand for professionals knowledgeable in the specific requirements of these structures. Planners and architects need to understand the intricacies of converting shipping containers into liveable spaces, including structural integrity, insulation, ventilation, and sustainable design.

Challenges in Compliance and Regulation:

Shipping container homes must comply with the UK’s existing building codes and standards, which were primarily developed with traditional construction methods in mind. This situation often requires planners and regulators to navigate a grey area of how these homes fit into local zoning laws and building regulations. Adapting existing frameworks to accommodate such innovative housing solutions without compromising on safety and community standards is a key challenge.

Need for Revised Planning Guidelines:

The increase in shipping container home projects might necessitate changes or updates to local planning guidelines. Planning officers are required to consider how these homes impact the urban landscape, neighbourhood character, and infrastructure. There is a growing need for guidelines that specifically address the placement, aesthetics, and utility connections for container homes, ensuring they integrate smoothly into existing and new developments.

Opportunities for Sustainable Development Initiatives:

Shipping container homes offers a pathway to more sustainable urban development, aligning with global and national goals for reducing carbon footprints. Professionals involved in planning and development have the opportunity to lead initiatives that promote these types of green practices, potentially gaining funding and support from government sustainability programs.

 

Innovative Uses of Shipping Containers for Housing in the UK

In the UK, several notable projects and developments have embraced shipping containers as viable housing solutions, illustrating the innovative use of such structures and their growing acceptance in urban and suburban settings. Here are a few examples:

Container City in London:

One of the most famous examples of this architectural form in the UK is Container City on the Trinity Buoy Wharf in London. This project was launched in the early 2000s and utilises recycled shipping containers to create complex live-work spaces. The initiative’s design was cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and highly efficient in terms of construction time.

Container City includes artistic studios, office spaces, and residential areas, showcasing the versatility and potential of container architecture.

Delivery

There is no doubt that the very fact that this development was to be made from recycled containers aided its case in planning terms. The ability of the project to deliver much-needed workspace, in a remarkably short period of time, gave confidence to the development management team in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. The outfitting of containers off-site and craning them into place, reduced on-site build time to just eight days for phase one of twenty-two artist lofts/workspaces. Phase 2 created over 15,000 sq. feet of space to just 15 days on site.

Heritage

The site is near to the Grade II Listed Chain and Buoy Store and Lighthouse Block. The potential impacts on the setting of a listed building had to be carefully considered by the architectural team as well as the Heritage Officer and wider DM team. The fact that Container City is very easy to remove, with very little demolition, enables restoration of the site with little to no long-term impact on the heritage setting.

Sustainability

The sustainability credentials also play a key role in selling container development to planning officers. The containers themselves are the definition of recycling. The containers can be reorganised and/or transferred to other blocks of land should the need arise, strongly adhering to all three sustainability values – reducing the need to use new materials, reusing what is in existence and recycling at the end of the useful life. The relatively low cost of the units and the building process allows for a greater proportion of a developer’s investment to be spent on renewable energy such as solar, district heat pumps and wind turbines. Biodiversity can also be provided through the incorporation of green roofs, with the added benefit of improved thermal efficiency. All valuable assets in the delivery of sustainable development.

Container home

Source: trinitybuoywharf

Help Bristol’s Homeless (HBH):

Help Bristol’s Homeless is a charity initiative that converts shipping containers into temporary lodging for the homeless. The project focuses on providing safe, temporary accommodation while residents seek permanent housing. The initiative illustrates the potential for container homes to address social issues, such as homelessness, by providing a viable alternative to traditional shelters.

Container homes for the homeless

Source: Help Bristol’s Homeless

Snoozebox Hotel:

Snoozebox is an innovative portable hotel concept that utilises shipping containers to provide temporary accommodation solutions. Initially designed to cater to the accommodation needs at events and festivals, Snoozebox has effectively demonstrated the versatility and potential of shipping containers for various temporary residential uses across the UK. This concept highlights the adaptability of container architecture, enabling rapid deployment and reusability, which are essential during large-scale events where traditional hotel space may be insufficient or unavailable.

Shipping containers used as a hotel

Source: Snoozebox Hotel

The Pros and Cons of Shipping Containers as Homes

The trend towards utilising shipping containers as homes, driven by affordability and sustainability concerns, has both positive and negative consequences.

Positive Consequences:

 

Affordability

The primary advantage of shipping container homes is their cost-effectiveness. Traditional homes in the UK are expensive, with average prices far exceeding what many first-time buyers can afford. In contrast, the low cost of acquiring and converting shipping containers can significantly reduce the barrier to home ownership. 

According to a report by Zoopla, 42% of adults aged 18-39 who do not currently own a home have abandoned the idea of purchasing one within the next ten years. The primary reasons cited by these potential buyers reflect significant economic pressures: 64% are deterred by the ongoing cost of living crisis, 51% are discouraged by steadily increasing house prices, and 49% are hindered by higher mortgage rates.

Speed of Construction

Builders can construct shipping container homes much faster than traditional buildings. The time efficiency not only reduces costs but also helps quickly address housing shortages — a significant issue in many urban areas across the UK.

Mod Hauz has reported that container homes can be constructed in less than a month, offering a rapid solution to housing needs. In contrast, Strata Homes notes that the average construction time for a new build traditional home ranges from five to seven months. This significant difference in construction times underscores the efficiency and time-saving benefits of container homes, making them an appealing option for those seeking quicker housing solutions.

Environmental Sustainability

Repurposing used shipping containers as homes significantly contributes to waste reduction by diverting these large metal structures away from landfills or idle storage. Typically, once shipping containers reach the end of their lifespan in commercial transport—often due to economic reasons rather than structural failure—they are left unused. By converting these containers into residential properties, the construction industry can reuse a durable and readily available resource, which helps reduce the demand for new raw materials and the energy consumed in manufacturing them.

Negative Consequences:

 

Regulatory and Zoning Issues

A significant challenge that builders face with shipping container homes is navigating local zoning laws and building regulations, which do not often accommodate non-traditional structures. This difficulty can result in lengthy and uncertain planning permission processes, deterring potential builders and residents from the projects.

Building Standards and Comfort

Shipping containers are traditionally designed for transporting goods, not housing people, which can cause insulation, ventilation, and comfort issues. Modifying containers to meet living standards can sometimes offset the initial cost savings, particularly in climates requiring significant heating or cooling. Concerns can also arise about the long-term durability and safety of these structures, especially if not properly modified and maintained.

Social Stigma and Market Perception

A stigma is often associated with container homes, perceived by some as inferior or temporary solutions. This perception can affect resale values and deter some from considering them a viable long-term housing option. Overcoming this stigma is essential for the broader acceptance and success of container homes as a mainstream alternative.

 

Conclusion

The trend of using shipping containers as homes addresses several urgent needs, including the lack of affordable housing and the environmental impact of traditional construction.

However, it also faces significant hurdles that must be addressed to realise its full potential. These include improving regulatory frameworks to support alternative housing solutions, enhancing the design of container homes to meet living standards, and shifting public perceptions to see these homes as desirable and permanent residences.

With the focus still firmly on “brownfield first” both through the National Planning Policy Framework and in Local Plans, the use of containers to provide homes, over car parks, and in former industrial areas, even those with potentially sensitive neighbours such as valuable heritage assets makes planning sense. With annual housing figures being still tens of thousands short of the target, the speed of delivery of container homes means that not just in trendy urban redevelopment spaces, the ship may well have sailed for slow build traditional material dwellings.

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