Cape Town - Last Christmas the Smiths went shopping. Not at the usual shopping mall but to a shipping container depot in Salt River.
They had a plan. It involved a few thousand rand, and a dream to have a home they could call their own. In their mid-20s and just back from overseas travel, raising funds to buy a house, let alone afford a monthly rental in Cape Town, just wasn’t an option.
But why a shipping container depot? Cameron, 29, an environmental scientist, and Sophie, 27, a photojournalist, had returned from Canada and were keeping an eye on something called “the tiny home movement” with the idea of converting a shipping container into a home.
Shipping container homes offer home builders flexibility, efficiency, and affordability in the design of innovative housing.
“In South Africa the reality is that most people live in tiny spaces. So it is nothing new or special here,” Sophie said.
“By the time 2015 arrived, and having been back from Canada for over a year, Cam and I decided to dig our heels in about paying someone rent every month and we definitely couldn’t afford a bond on a house. So we figured there had to be another option.”
Cameron discovered the concept of building homes out of shipping containers.
“Monthly rent for a one-bedroom flat, with a garden for Mika, our energetic German shorthaired pointer puppy, isn’t cheap in Cape Town – we were not going to get anything under R7 000. Over 18 months it would mean we were putting about R126 000 into someone else’s pocket with nothing to show for it.”
After drawing up a careful costing plan, the couple saw that they could build a one-bedroom cottage from a shipping container for about R130 000. “That way, we spend the same money we would have on rent but at the end of the day it’s ours, and as an added bonus – it’s mobile and we can move it anywhere we want.”
So off they went to buy a shipping container. The trick, says Sophie, is finding a good container for a decent price. So they searched until they found just the thing.
The couple were lucky to be able to do the build on their brother-in-law’s piece of land in Cape Town. Just as they were completing the project they got a job offer outside of Cape Town, and so have never lived in their little home.
“We decided not to move the home with us to our new job with an NGO in the Eastern Cape. Instead we will return to it one day, or if anyone wants to buy it, it’s on the market for a very negotiable R250 000 – just for the container – which the new owner would have to moor somewhere else,” says Sophie.
The budget was R130 000, but the very time intensive labour and hidden costs meant they ended up paying more than planned.
“The plus side is that a small area makes you use space really wisely. You stop hoarding and you stop buying more stuff that you don’t really need. Think about it – if you have less space, you will have less stuff.
“Before we went to Canada, we gave away and sold a lot of our stuff, but we still managed to drag a lot of it to Cape Town to cram into our parents’ shed. Since we’ve been back, we haven’t touched most of the boxes. We have realised how little we really need to be happy.”
One of the Smiths’ regrets is that they never lived in their tiny home. “We’ve been so blown away with the feedback we’ve received for the house and how many South Africans long to do the same.
“My advice to them is to be brave, take risks, plan for extra time as things will likely take longer than you anticipate. Also, plan on some extra budget as odd costs creep in.
“Ultimately, Cam and I have decided to choose not to need a massive house to be happy.”
Making a container home
There are five distinct steps to making a home out of a shipping container:
1. Buy a container
2. Cut and install windows and doors
3. Place wiring and piping
5. Paint or clad
Some of the perks are that shipping containers can be readily modified, connected, and stacked in creative ways for a fraction of the labour and resources it would take to build these homes traditionally.
A shipping container goes for around about R20 000 and the trick, says Sophie, is not to cut off too much of it as it then becomes uneconomical. “We were also determined to ensure that everything we used was secondhand, upcycled or recycled.
“Even our window frames and doors were all second-hand and the cladding we did inside was from recycled apple juice crates, while the exterior was an old factory floor.
“The insulation option we went for was a spray, polyurethane foam insulation, applied by a company called Insuseal. And the best part is that although it’s not cheap, it is green. The poly-urethane foam is created by mixing two chemicals which expand and harden when exposed to air.”
The ceiling had to be insulated; the ceiling boards and then the interior dry walls were next. Then the painting and cladding took place.
For more on the build, check out the Smiths’ website:
Vivian Warby, Weekend Argus