Everyone knows what shipping containers are for. Transporting computers, television sets, cheap toys and a million other kinds of goods from one side of the world to the other.
But it also turns out you can do something else with these giant metal boxes. From Bath to Brooklyn, imaginative homeowners are proving that containers can make terrific places to live.
In east London, they’ve gone one further and formed a thriving community. Directly across the river from the O2 Arena stands Trinity Buoy Wharf, a collection of old waterside buildings, in the centre of which is Container City. This consists of two multicoloured stacks of shipping containers, piled up four storeys high, and accommodating some 70 souls.
One of the residents here is 36-year-old make-up artist Becky McGahern, who runs a training consultancy called Beaudoir. With her partner Chris Jewer, a sound engineer, she not only rents a 40 sq m container home, but uses it as her office and studio too. Isn’t it claustrophobic? Not a bit.
“It’s lovely living here,” says Becky. “It’s like being at sea, with the big porthole windows. We’ve designed the interior ourselves, with lots of curves, so it doesn’t feel as though we’re in a box.
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“We’ve got a main room, which is about five metres by seven, and an area for the kitchen-and-shower room, which is about two metres by two. It’s a bit of a squeeze sometimes, when we’re all here. We’ve got two cats. But, like the Tardis, it’s actually a lot bigger inside than it looks from the outside.
“We also find that, because we haven’t got a lot of space, we do have to keep it tidy. But that’s not such a bad thing. We love being part of this community. Everyone works in a creative field of some sort. There are lots of musicians, so in the evenings, people will meet up and get their violins out, and I’ll bring my face paints.”
Among Becky and Chris’s neighbours is journalist and broadcaster Caroline Barker. Along with Strictly Come Dancing star Russell Grant, Caroline is part of Container City-based production company Jibba Jabba.
“We used to have horrible offices in Harrow, west London” she recalls. “Coming here has been marvellous – for our clients as well as us. Some of them take the ferry across the river from the O2. They can’t believe it when they arrive.”
It’s not just living and working space at Trinity Buoy Wharf. There is a restaurant, an American diner and a performance space, as well as a fleet of Thames clipper boats.
The park is the brainchild of Eric Reynolds, the founder of Urban Space Management. He has created similar cross-fertilisations of culture and commerce at Camden Lock, Spitalfields Market and Green Park Station Market in Bath. He is trying to repeat the trick at Container City, and reckons the best way to make an area desirable is to attract artists.
This means costs must be kept down. Rents at Container City range from £600 to £1,000 per month, low by central London standards. Metal containers are considerably cheaper than bricks and mortar.
“We buy the containers in China. They earn their passage by coming over to the UK full of fridges or whatever,” explains Reynolds. “When you add the cost involved in converting them, I’d say they work out at £850-£950 per square metre.”
Given that most containers measure 40-45 sq m, this means you’ve got a ready-made apartment for around £38,000 and £47,000. What’s more, they don’t have to be in the middle of a city, where land is at a premium. You can put them anywhere.
For example, overlooking a magnificent Scottish loch, as they are at Cove Park in Scotland, another artistic community 25 miles west of Glasgow.
“Put a couple of 20ft-long containers together and you’ve got something totally suited to an artist’s requirements,” says Julian Forrester, Cove Park’s director. “You’ve got a little kitchen, a working and sleeping area, and a sitting-down-and-doing-nothing area.
“It’s perfect. Not too big and not too small. Of course, we’re a bit exposed here, so if you’ve got sliding doors made of glass, they have to be double or quadruple-glazed, but the good news about containers is that although they rust a bit, they don’t leak. In fact, they work so well for us, we’re thinking of installing some more.”