It’s an Australian summer. The heatwaves are getting longer each year, and despite being a “first-world” country, blackouts are common. Why? The same sun that bakes Australia’s red interior blazes down on rows of houses not designed for the climate. People leave their eave-less, west-facing sweat boxes locked up like Fort Knox during the day while they work to pay their bills. They get home in the evening, house hot as tarmac in a volcano, and crank their air-conditioners to arctic. Suddenly, lights go out. The energy grid goes down, because everyone in the district is going through the same air-conditioning-cranking ritual. There is a small contingent of Aussies breaking this mold, however. The “tiny house movement” is not just important for house affordability. It’s a way to rail against an unsustainable modern lifestyle. There are many trends for sustainable living in Australia, but one of the most intriguing is the rise of shipping container homes. More and more Australians are looking at retired shipping containers to form the framework of their new home. There are right and wrong ways to go about this, however, if you’re looking to adopt a sustainable lifestyle.
IS IT SUSTAINABLE?
There are several virtues that make shipping container houses worth looking into. • They make use of materials that might otherwise be wasted. • They have a naturally small footprint. • They can be cheaper than a standard house, giving new buyers a foot in the door to home ownership. • Done correctly, they can enable the homeowner to live a sustainable (potentially even off-grid) lifestyle. But just because shipping container living can be a desirable, sustainable method of building a home, doesn’t mean it always is.
BUYING NEW ISN’T RECYCLING
A lot of builders of shipping container homes (including companies who exist purely to meet this niche demand) headline the benefits of only using new or one-trip containers. You avoid rust damage and dents, and you reduce the risk of the container being contaminated by whatever toxic contents it might have held. The downside to this approach is you’re not recycling a waste product if that product wasn’t first used to the full. Rust in shipping containers is typically only surface-deep; they’re literally designed to rust. Dents can be a non-issue if they’re not compromising structural integrity, or if you intend to cut that bit out for a window or door. As for toxic contamination; usually removing the container’s timber floor and using sealers on the paintwork is all that’s required for a living space as safe as any other home. Too energy-hungry to melt back down to steel, and too expensive to ship back overseas, there are plenty of retired shipping containers gathering dust. Give a “golden oldie” a chance; try your hand at real recycling.
I NEED ROOM TO SWING A HORSE
Many people live in houses many times bigger than what they need. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this mentality spill over to container-living, where people want that “container aesthetic” and “feel-good” recycling vibes, but with the bloated footprint of any McMansion development. Analyse the amount of space you really need. A shipping container or two is much more eco-friendly than a complex of eight.
SAVE YOUR DOSH
The key to saving money with container homes is to DIY and be frugal with your materials. If you stick to a smaller footprint and maintain much of the structural integrity of the container, your foundational structure is cheap. But what about the rest of the fit-out? Keep the recycling trend going and rescue materials that were headed for landfill. Do as much as you’re legally allowed to do yourself. That means learning how to weld, install windows, insulate and clad frameworks, lay flooring, and building/installing cabinetry. People who are handy and have time on their hands are the ones who come out on top in the money department.
USING WHAT NATURE GIVES YOU
The rectangular shape of shipping containers lends themselves to passive-solar design, meaning that you make the absolute most of what nature gives you. With careful orientation, appropriate insulation, well-designed eaves, and well-placed glazing and ventilation, you can have a shipping container home that is drastically cheaper to heat, cool, and light than the standard houses of Australia. This, combined with other eco-conscious details (like rainwater collection, greywater recycling, solar energy, and efficient heating), can even lead to living off-the-grid. Way to stick it to the man! Building your home out of shipping containers is certainly worth looking into if you want to reduce your carbon footprint on this planet. You’ll thank me when your neighbors are complaining of another mid-summer power outage while you’re cool as a cucumber with full solar batteries.