Millions of people need homes. Millions of shipping containers are going unused. Could this be an answer to the global housing crisis? Cleveland Containers explore further

England is facing a housing crisisAccording to housing charity Shelter, more than 50,000 households a year are being forced out of their homes, and there are more than 9 million renters in unsecure rented accommodation. The situation is shaky even for those who own their own homes. 28,900 homes were repossessed across the UK in 2013.

But this situation isn’t unique to England. House prices are soaring across the world, which is placing home ownership out of reach for millions. And that’s just in the developed world. Around 850 million people are currently living in “informal settlements”. In numerous rapidly urbanising cities, the average housing costs can be up to 200% of the net monthly income.

There is no single explanation as to why the world’s facing a housing crisis, and there’s no easy answers for how to solve it. But one major factor is a general dearth of good quality, affordable housing. Many developments in the housing market are focused on constructing high-end units that are expensive to build and out of the price range of most. This needs to change.

Desperate times often call for radical solutions. One thing the world isn’t lacking is shipping containers. There may be up to 40 million shipping containers in the world right now, and experts believe that only six million are currently in use.

Who’d live in a shipping container?

Shipping containers are built to be strong, secure, and practical. These are all sound benefits for storage and mass transit, but do they make for comfortable accommodation?

The idea of living in a shipping container might strike some as odd – unfeasible, impractical, and maybe even a little unappealing. But it’s important to think of shipping containers not as finished products, but as raw materials – as exoskeletons for future homes.

Because really, there’s no end to what you can do with a shipping container. They can easily be insulated and fitted with windows, doors, indoor partitions, electricity and running water – everything that’s needed for human inhabitation. A single shipping container can be transformed into a cosy dwelling in no time at all. But if more space is needed, you can just stack multiple containers on top of each other.

And if you’re really wondering whether people would be comfortable living in converted shipping containers, just consider the great reaction that greets shipping containers converted for retail use. They’re thought of as cool, hip, quirky. When used as affordable housing, it’s no stretch to say that many won’t think of shipping containers as a last resort, so much as actively desirable.

Urbanisation that leaves nobody behind

Using shipping containers for accommodation is a form of modular construction. Most of the work can be done offsite, and then it’s simply a case of transporting the containers to location for installation. Because of this, it’s possible to completely transform areas in a very short timeframe.

There are numerous examples of shipping container villages that have been rapidly constructed on brownfield sites to create a hip new urban developments for work, rest and play. Though most of these “villages” have been built with shopping, dining or entertainment in mind, it’s easy to picture a village created just for accommodation.

In a matter of months, you could transform an unused piece of land into a thriving new community, a brand new village where the quality of life is high but the cost of living is low. For an example of how this might work, look to Richardson’s Yard in Brighton.

Compared to more standard accommodation, it does not cost much at all to convert a shipping container into a home. And once the conversion is complete, running costs are minimal; one American-based manufacturer claims that all-electric modular shipping container homes can be run for less than $50 a month.

Shipping containers address more than one crisis

Beyond providing high-quality affordable housing, converting shipping containers for human use addresses another major problem facing the world right now – global warming.

Why are there so many unused containers in the world? It’s because it can be prohibitively expensive to ship empty containers back to their origin. Many shipping firms, therefore, choose to use brand new containers for each shipment. The end result is a hugely inefficient system, and millions of unused containers left to rust around the world.

Of course, you could recycle these containers, but melting them down uses around 8,000 kWh of energy. Converting them, however, can use as little as 400 kWh.

This is just one reason why converted shipping containers are considerably greener than other building types. The cement industry is one of the biggest producers of carbon dioxide in the world. As well as cutting the emissions that would come from a more traditional build, shipping containers make very good use of existing materials that would have otherwise cost the Earth to break down.

A cure for the global housing crisis?

The lack of affordable housing is just one factor contributing to the global housing crisis. This is an extremely complex issue with no quick fix. In many countries, the problem is one of attitude – too much emphasis is put on home ownership, and far too many treat property as a tradeable asset rather than a fundamental requirement.

Building more affordable homes won’t solve the global housing crisis overnight. But the situation’s getting critical, and desperate times call for a creative approach to problem-solving. There are many millions of unused containers in the world, and many millions of people who need homes.

So are shipping containers the future of affordable housing? At the very least, they’re a great place to start in our search for a solution.