General Rules to Observe When Designing Your Shipping Container Home
Here at Gateway Gazette we have shown some fantastic pieces of shipping container architecture. However, almost every single one of those buildings have had to get past their local council. Without getting too bogged down in detail, this article sets out some general rules to observe when designing your shipping container home, wherever you live in the world.
Housing design regulations differ from city to city, state to state and country to country
One of the first things to remember as you plan your new piece of shipping container architecture is that just because something similar was built in another part of the country or world, does not mean to say that your home will be approved. Most countries have core building codes that must be adhered to across the country, but will devolve much of the planning approval to local councils.
In Australia, for example, areas that are subject to bush fires will have much tighter codes regarding flammability and how safe someone will be should they hide inside. Shipping containers might be harder to get approved as building blocks for a home in these areas.
Wherever you are, however, it may come down to the fact that the local planning committee just doesn’t like it. An opinion piece in the US magazine The Hill recounted one incident: “Houston developer, Sean Krieger, started planning units in areas of the city with a high need for affordable housing, he was met with disdain and a profane-laced rant from a council member who didn’t want the developments in his district. Despite the Houston-area having one of the largest homeless veteran populations — 80,000 in the city alone — the council member’s opposition centred around the idea of the developments gentrifying his neighbourhood, he also complained that the buildings were “junk.””
Other cities have gone the other way. Recognising that not many people can afford a new home in Sydney, a new state regulation has emerged where subject to certain rules, someone can put two, 40ft shipping containers in their backyard and convert them into a home. Parents who are sick of their 30 year old son living in the same space as them can drop a couple of containers in their garden for their loved one to live in relative independence. Some parents have gone the other way, letting their children and grandchildren live in their old home and moving into the garden themselves. The full detail of the New South Wales regulations can be found here.
Different homes in different parts of a city…
Generally speaking, you should build your new home in a way that is in keeping with local architecture. In a UK ‘Conservation Area’ this might mean that all windows have to appear to be 100 years old and the homes themselves have to appear to be 250 years old and cladded with the same type of stones that are in keeping with the rest of the Conservation Area.
The UK has a clause in many planning regulations that a home can be out of keeping with the local architecture as long as it is of ‘outstanding architectural merit’. In that country at least you can be really ballsy in your approach with a shipping container home, as long as you are prepared to have long conversations with conservative councillors who can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to live in a draughty old thatched cottage with a new-fangled toilet only recently installed inside the building as opposed to out in the yard…
New York is one US state where residential buildings have to conform in a certain way according to where it is in a city or town. This is known as ‘zoning’. The Poplar Network website explained, “In New York City, for instance, the most common residential zones are known as residence districts and are labelled R1 through R10. R1 districts, for example, contain low-density neighbourhoods and spacious lots, while R10 districts tend to be high-density and full of towers.” You could be allowed to build a three container wide one floor home in an R1 district but due to the need for higher density in R10 neighbourhoods you may need to have a five floor apartment complex on a similar plot of land.
Additions to your existing home
You may not be wanting to build an entirely new home but instead be seeking to extend your existing home. This can be far easier to organise than a complete new-build or demolishing an existing home and building on its footprint. Extensions frequently can be added with minimal interference from the city ‘elders’ as long as they meet certain nationally recognised standards. In some countries it is possible to add a container extension to the back of your home as long as it is only one storey high and is not visible from the road out front. You may have to clad the shipping container extension in a certain way and it will still have to meet some quite tight fire safety, energy efficiency and other regulations that are in place to ensure you live in comfort and safety in your new extension.
Two or more storey extensions will often require a visit to the local planning committee and this will mean you are at the whim of people with sometimes puzzling opinions with regards to architecture.
Navigating the muddle – get expert help
As with any home you build, shipping container or otherwise, you should get an architect involved in your plans right from the outset. The architect really should know the local planning regulations and building codes, so this would ideally be an architect from your home country if not (even better) your home locality. The more they already know about local regulations or even the planning committee at the local council, the better they will be able to help you with your dream home, extension or office.
There are hundreds of architects around the world who have experience in building shipping container conversions. It is actually a bit of a joke that nearly every architect will have designed a shipping container based building in their training as they appear to be cutting edge and are so simple to build.
A shipping container building doesn’t have to look as though it is built of shipping containers. You can add a pitched roof and clad the building so it appears to have been built of blockwork. You can buy stone veneer cladding so the final building may appear to have been built with local materials and sits in keeping with homes that are actually built of stone and have pitched roofs.
A previous blog on the Gateway Gazette shows that as a unit of construction in its own right, shipping containers meet many of the Australian core building regulations: “They do not have problems with getting council approval for the use of shipping containers in Australia as they have a five star energy rating, which appeals to local councils. Insulating the homes requires only a tiny amount of energy as they are air tight reducing the chance of drafts or warm air leakage.”
If the job is still looking to be a tough ask to get it through the local planning committee, ask around for a successful planning consultant. There are directories of planning consultants in most countries around the world, including the Planning Institute of Australia directory. Planning consultants will advise how to best put a building design together in such a way that it will have a better chance of getting past the committee, and may ultimately represent you in the committee hearing itself. While they cost a few bucks it could save on appealing and redesigning your home countless times until you and the council agree that your home can be built how and where you want it.
Some final thoughts
Wherever you are in the world you need to be aware of local officialdom when you are planning a new home. A stunning piece of ultra-modern architecture won’t always be well received.
Now you have spotted your ideal piece of land, go through the following steps:
- Ask an architect to design your home in keeping with what has been built there already
- If it is to be of architectural merit, prepare to have a planning consultant to get through the committee
- Be aware of the local zoning regulations that may force the building to be of certain dimensions
- Be prepared to have a fight with obstructive and conservative councillors who may have a very different opinion to you as to what the home should look like or be made of
- Always have the home meet national codes and regulations as to safety and energy efficiency.
Once you have observed these rules you can get on with building your shipping container home in the way that you always dreamed of, but with respect to local planners and national regulations. It might end up looking quite different to your vision, but at least it will meet the criteria people see in shipping container homes – they are cheap to build, quick to put up, and often provide that extra space that you wanted in building a home of your own.