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Container homes in South Africa: how to gain Council approval

Square Elephant Container

Featured image: The innovative Square Elephant container designed by Po.che Architectural Concepts features a custom-designed layout to ensure a comfortable living space. Located in Hermanus in the Western Cape, its emphasis on off-the-grid living incorporates sustainable architecture with rainwater harvesting and its power supplied by the main house on the property.

The debate on container homes has gone back and forth for years. At face value, container homes are an obvious solution to addressing the affordable housing shortage and while the concept seems quite simple, there is still a large degree of uncertainty surrounding container homes with South Africans cautious to adopt the alternative building method head on.

Ayla Damon of Po.che Architectural Concepts who has designed over twenty container homes in the Western Cape believes that container homes are a move away from the conventional way of thinking in the built environment.

“Containers are not as restrictive in their footprints as many believe. They are often perceived as rigid, limitless ‘block’ type designs but this is not the case at all. If you are clever with the design and the construction, a unique design or idea can achieve great aesthetic appeal on completion”.

The ease in the construction of container homes plays a huge part too as they are quick to build with the structure or framework already in place and built off-site.

However, there are additional factors to consider when designing a container home, says Ayla. “You must have a clear idea of what you want and what you can afford as container homes are not as cost-effective to build as often thought. The containers are cheap to purchase but the building materials and finishes cost the same as a brick-and-mortar development and these costs can add up, especially if you want a high-end home.”

South Africa is catching up but there are still many districts that will not approve container homes as they do not consider them to be habitable dwellings.

So, while other countries seem to be open minded to this idea by understanding this form of building, we are trying to show South Africa that it can be done but it may take some time to convert everyone”.

The unknown known 

Thihangwi Mudau, head of the Centre for Research and Housing Innovation at the National Home Builders Registration Council (NHBRC) says it is not as simple as redesigning a container into a home.

The NHBRC’s role is to compel licensed builders to adhere to standards and in turn, to protect the housing consumer.

South Africa is governed by the National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act on the compliance of building residential structures with specific criteria relating to accessibility, health, and safety” he says.

By following the standards dictated by the Code of Practice provided by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS), a residential structure will automatically meet these requirements but residential structures, in many instances, do fail and often in three areas: design, structure and construction. 

In the response to new technologies entering the building and construction sectors, Government established Agrément South Africa, that reviews, approves and accredits all new technologies – like containers.

Imported containers for the purpose of a residential structure need to be sent to SABS or Agrément South Africa for inspection and testing. Once approved, the NHBRC will monitor the development of the container home to ensure that it is being built accordingly.

From the conditions of township approval, municipalities differ in terms of their requirements because South Africa has several climatic zones which plays an influence but Mudau says these differences are minimal with the most common conditions of approval being the height, the boundaries or building lines and the coverage of a structure.

Even though a metro like Tshwane differs from Johannesburg, they are both still governed by the National Building Regulations (NBR) with a level of difference that allows for certain modifications in each region but neither municipality will contradict the NBR”. 

However, containers were not designed for human habitation and they are still required to meet the standards of a residential structure. “The problem often comes when the local market looks to other countries who use container-based technologies and when sourcing and importing, assume that these containers are fit for building purpose immediately, which they are not. Containers are subject to local health and safety regulations”.

The good news is that we have approved containers and most container homes that we are aware of were approved during the early stages. If a container failed the inspection and testing process, it means that it could not guarantee the standard health and safety requirements”.

This 3-bedroom container home sits among the surrounding timber-clad beach houses along Pringle Bay’s coastline. As Po.che Architectural Concepts’ first custom-designed container home, it features a central entertainment core and floated mono-pitch roof to open a free-flowing, open-plan space and its clerestory-roof windows create a seamless interior and exterior to match. (Photo credit: Po.che Architectural Concepts)

Information is the resolution of uncertainty

The hesitancy surrounding container homes filters down into the finance sector too with none of the major South African banks offering home finance solutions for container homes.

Estie le Roux, Manager for Valuations Strategy at Absa Home Loans believes that property developers and the suppliers of container homes have a huge role to play in educating South Africa on container homes.

The most important question for Absa is do container homes provide us with sufficient security for a bond? While we have extensive experience with brick-and-mortar homes and we know what security to assign to a property, there is still a lot of uncertainty around container homes with regards to market acceptance and the demand for container homes” she says.

In speaking to people, who understand container homes at present, the cost of the development of a container home needs to be more transparent. What would be the price level at which a consumer would choose a container home over a brick-and-mortar home and, what would the resale value be in five years’ time?” she asks.

From Absa’s viewpoint, it is also important to understand what the technical specifications, process or standards would be:

Will municipalities approve this type of building or will Agrément South Africa and the NHBRC give us their approval? What would this process look like, would we have to seek approval on a case-by-case basis to ensure each container complies? From a technical perspective, Agrément South Africa and the NHBRC will ensure that the structure is stable and that it complies with the building regulations but, what if poor workmanship is involved? Would the same warrantees apply to container homes that are currently in place for brick-and-mortar dwellings?”

Le Roux says that it all boils down to the market and Absa Bank gaining confidence in the product, which is a prerequisite to enable the financing of container homes. Should Absa consider offering container home finance packages in the future, these would look like the products they currently offer.

Our drive at Absa Bank is to advance sustainable living innovation as well as housing the nation by supporting the industry in providing affordable housing solutions. Developers and suppliers should consider how their product would assist in advancing the objective of achieving sustainable, affordable living when considering innovative building techniques and materials such as container homes”.

Whichever way the industry looks at it, the container home trend is surfacing, and containers could provide a good alternative to brick-and-mortar while keeping the door open for the building industry as people search for more alternative construction methods in a world moving forward post-Covid-19.

People are downscaling. A few of my clients have sold their larger homes in Johannesburg and they have moved into a smaller, container home in the Western Cape. Container homes have also promoted the work-from-home movement and homeowners are looking into container structures as office space too, especially if their property has adequate space” says Ayla.

“Covid-19 has changed the way we view our living spaces and the expense that comes with owning a home. The more people become aware of and fully understand container homes, the easier it will be for young professionals to build a home, especially if they cannot afford to buy brick-and-mortar”.

Situated in Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs, this 270m2 container home is currently under construction and features two kitchens, three bathrooms and a pool with double glazing, rainwater storage, solar panels, an insulated roof, and insulated walls (Photo credit: Ayla Damon & Marcus Viljoen).

By Gemma-Louise Perrins