Iain Hall's SANDPIT

Home » Australian Politics » Thinking inside the (big) boxes for indigenous housing

Thinking inside the (big) boxes for indigenous housing

a house designed using shipping container modules

a house designed using shipping container modules

Reading today’s Oz finds  Mal Brough decrying the decision to use the ‘dongas”, surplus from the now closed woomera detention centre, to provide extra capacity in the nearly full  centre on Christmas island, rather than as housing desperately needed for indigenousness communities as he had planned before the change of government. This  brought back into focus an idea that I have had for some time and that is to use shipping containers to solve the indigenous housing problem.

Last week was the start of West Coast Green, a yearly conference on green building design and construction. There were lots of big names there like David Suzuki, Sarah Susanka, and Al Gore. Perhaps one of the most significant things to happen this year was the showing of the SG Blocks container house. Constructed of used Shipping containers, the house was erected on sight in just four hours and 47 minutes. In following with the theme of the conference, the home was thoroughly green throughout with FSC certified woods, solar panels etc. Besides the amazing rate at which the home was built, I was amazed at the stated per square foot price of $150, which includes “all the bells and whistles”. If that number is true, then this shipping container home is truly an amazing combination of aesthetics and affordability. I would love to see if the interior is as well designed as the exterior.


The problem for so many bureaucrats, activists and latte sippers is that they are just not capable of thinking outside the square to finding housing solutions that solve the problems at a  reasonable cost. The illustrations above shows that housing made from shipping containers does not have to look  second rate or makeshift. It can be stylish, practical and affordable but  importantly you can create dwellings that are extremely durable that can be built up in modules to suit the needs of any size  family or community. 

Of course you can bet that what stops the use of surplus shipping containers as a starting point for the creation of some innovative housing solutions, is not their fitness for the purpose but a fear that this will be seen as a second rate housing option for our first Australians. The people who think like this are actually troglodytes who clearly know squat about  architecture, design or building. The problem is not how can we afford to build Mc Mansions in the remote parts of the country but how do we house people who need housing . A real solution needs those in power to think outside the brick veneer paradigm go to a clean sheet of paper and consider lateral thinking options like this.

Cheers Comrades


Oh and before anyone asks me the obvious question, I would be more than happy to build and live in a house made of shipping containers 🙂


  1. Ray Dixon says:

    Iain, I agree that the designs you show above are more than acceptable housing alternatives and in fact are fine examples of contemporary design. They’d make ideal holiday apartments too so maybe I’ll consider them for my next project.

    However, at $150 per square foot they are not exactly cheap. $150 per square foot = $15,000 per square and given that even a modest home consists of around 13 – 14 squares, you’re looking at around $200,000 per building.

    No one is suggesting McMansions, but the only way using shipping containers to house aborigines would be viable and economical is if they came with rudimentary fittings and maybe not even windows. Is that what you’ve got in mind?

  2. Craigy says:

    Iain, for once I am in complete agreement with you (except for your baiting and hyperbole).

    Ray – 14 square houses may be the average, but I can tell you that you can live very well in just 3 squares ( 90 square meters). This was the size of my house before Feb 7. My partner and I now live in much less than that and are still comfortable.

    …..I dream of having 3 squares to live in again….all that space…. I now know what a ‘shoe box in middle of road’ feels like. 🙂

    I think containers would make wonderful homes in remote communities.

  3. Iain Hall says:

    No Ray they can be much simpler than the examples above and still be a good option I had not done the sort of price calculation that you have here but lets say that we make the fittings simple/functional rather than chic and ritzy. window openings can be cut with a plasma cutter the inside lined and fitted out. I can imagine a really nice house made with just two 40ft containers spaced 20 ft apart so that there is a courtyard space between them for outside living and a roof going over the whole thing . There are lots of ways that It could be done.

  4. Craigy says:

    Spot on Iain, two 40ft containers is a bit over three house squares.

    I have only recently got hold of a 20 foot container for storage, (2nd hand) and they are huge. Only paid $2k for it, which included a re-spray inside and out ( I admit it was a good deal).

  5. Iain Hall says:

    I just love the strength of them Craigy, because one thing that is clear to me is that so many of the “suburban” houses built by successive governments of either persuasion for indigenous communities are just not up to the job. In extreme climates a house built of shipping containers can even be “earth sheltered” to maintain a better internal environment. the only limitation is really your imagination.
    Oh yeah and at 2k you could not built a kit garage for that!

  6. Ray Dixon says:

    Craigy, sorry to be a pedant but 90 sq metres = about 10 squares, not 3. Three squares is a tiny, tiny area about the size of a small bed-sitter apartment. Hardly suitable for two people let alone a family.

    And 2 x 40 ft containers would only be 3 squares if they were less than 4ft wide (2 x 40 x 3.75 = 300 sq ft = 3 house squares). I think a container is about 10 ft wide, so a 40 ft container is about 4 squares and two of them makes about 8 squares.

    And Iain, your example of two 40 ft containers spaced 20 ft apart with a roof over the gap creates an area of about 16 squares. Even if they are fitted out less “chic & ritzy”, as you put it, you might bring it back to $10,000 per square but I doubt it.

    Sorry Iain, but I’ve done a lot of building & development and one thing I’ve learned is that there are no super-cheap housing alternatives. I think you’re forgetting that so much of the cost is in the infrastructure and connections etc. Small matter of foundations too.

    I doubt that shipping containers would prove any more economcal as a housing alternative to traditional methods. Good idea for a shed though.

  7. Craigy says:

    Yep, and if you can get your hands on an ex-refrigerated unit, then you don’t need to buy insulation.

    You have hit on something I will definitely be looking closely at, when I get round to planning my permanent home in the next few years.

    You might be surprised to know that some of the ‘leftist’, ‘hippy’ owner builder mags have had some major articles on these container designs, just recently.

  8. Craigy says:

    Ray – thanks for that, you are correct, I messed up the figures. Someone will give me a caning for it I’m sure…

    Just down the end of my road a mate had his house built from refrigerated containers, it was a great place, and you wouldn’t have known what it was made from as he had built a roof over the top. I think the whole place cost a bit over $20k excluding labour.

    So it can be done cheap this way. Not sure about the factory built stuff though. Iain is right about the strength, especially in a high wind area.

  9. Craigy says:

    coast should be cost…..and the other mistakes… you get the point though…

  10. PKD says:

    What about building your house out of hay bales – isn’t that meant to be pretty cheap?

  11. SockPuppet says:

    My Dad is living in a shipping container now Iain, at Barwon prison. It keeps him safe from Carl.

    BTW it looks like I got the last word on the head up his bum Doc. Thanks.

  12. Iain Hall says:

    Hay bales can be used to make cheap housing but they are not that great for building load bearing structures and often they require something like a post and lintel construction to compensate.
    what you say about refrigerated containers makes a lot of sense in terms of insulation.
    You really don’t need fancy foundations at all, I can envision that steel posts bolted to the bottom of the container and set in concrete would be easy and cheap given the strength of the boxes even a 40foot box would only need say six posts each. set them say 2 ft above ground level and that would make it dead easy to hook up drainage and utilities. incorporate solar hot water panels into the roof and maybe PV cells if the location is really remote Line the boxes with Plywood (which is much more durable than Gyproc) use sliding aluminium windows, come on lets imagine some simple but elegant design and then it can be done very cheaply indeed.

  13. Ray Dixon says:

    Iain, I think they have to go on concrete slabs because, despite their strength, they are not structures conforming to Austn Building Standards. And the ones that are already insulated for refrigeration would make it more difficult to install wiring.

    Iain, people are already doing this and they do not come cheap. To mass produce them they need to be fully fitted in factories off site and delivered as complete modules. The transport costs are huge. Sure, you could build your own cheaply, as Craigy suggests, but if you’re talking about this being a solution for indigenous housing then they’d be no cheaper (and probably inferior) to other eco-modern prefabs already being sold.

  14. Iain Hall says:

    building codes can be amended to suit innovative building techniques and it seems to me that requiring them to set on concrete slabs is just plain stupid and just the sort of thing
    I see no reason that things like wiring and plumbing could not run in conduits on the outside of the boxes
    fancy factories are not really necessary and I see no reason that conversions could not be a cottage industry in a place like Darwin.

  15. Craigy says:

    PKD, yes hay bales can be cheap, but, as Ray points out, you need to be an owner builder to do it any cheaper than a factory built kit house. Iain is also correct, they need to be post and beam.

    It is the same with most housing, owner built can save up to 50% of the costs if done right.

    Perhaps they should teach some of the people in remote areas how to be an owner builder and some basic building skills. With kit homes, it isn’t that hard to build a nice place to live.

  16. Ray Dixon says:

    Conduits on the outside? This is sounding sub-standard, Iain. I’m not knocking the concept for individual owner-builders but you’re advocating them as a sort of instant village for indigenous people and I think it’s not as simple as you are suggesting.

  17. Ray Dixon says:

    Maybe we could just drop a few on Christmas Island too?

  18. Jason says:

    These are interesting ideas, Iain, and I’ve been interested in container housing myself for some time. I don’t know why you’d restrict this to indigenous housing, though. With housing affordability being what it is, I’d consider it as a semi-permanent solution myself.

  19. Iain Hall says:

    I would not restrict it to indigenous housing at all But as Ray suggests with his comments the major stumbling blocks are things like building codes and the way that people think about what a house actually is.
    have you ever seen pictures of the Pompidou centre in Paris? It has all of its services on the outside of the building and if you can do that with a large public building in a big city you can certainly do the same sort of thing with a domestic building.

  20. Ray Dixon says:

    I think it’s a cheaper alternative if you do a lot of the work yourself, but that’s always been the case. The container concept is simply another form of prefabricated homes and a growing industry. However, if you order them fully fitted, by the time you pay for the land, connections etc, there are no great savings.

  21. Pkd says:

    Anywhere, what this country needs is more cellars.
    Where else can the latte left store their Chardonnay and foie gras in perfect humidity controlled conditions!

  22. Ray Dixon says:

    The Pompidou Centre is just charming, Iain. I knew a bloke who put built a house on stilts on the Great Ocean Road and (because he’s weird) thought it was a great idea to run his sewerage pipes on stilts too – in clear plastic!! He got a real kick of watching the turds being flushed out.

  23. Ray Dixon says:

    If we’re talking housing affordability in capital cities like Melbourne there is, in my opinion, no way of reversing the escalating prices (over $500,000 median now and over $1 million within a decade I’d suggest).

    Meanwhile we have a hell of a lot of affordable housing in regional centres and even more affordable just half an hour so out from those centres.

    I think you’ll find a major demographic shitft over the next few years as people realise the necessity of moving away from the capitals. Yes, I know, what about jobs? Well, first comes the population, then the jobs.

    Our regional centres like Albury-Wodonga are seriously under-populated (no more than 80,000 between the twin cities).

  24. Iain Hall says:

    Actually Ray when it comes to jobs there is so much stuff that people commute to now that can be done over the net (telecommuting) that would make living in regional centres entirely viable.

  25. Len says:

    Commuting is not a new thing guys. Years ago, a former employee of mine used to travel the v/line diesel train, from Ballarat to Melbourne every day, just on a 90 minute commute either way. Just so she could afford her first home. She did that for over five years ! A normal 8 hour day, suddenly turned into a twelve thirteen hour day. Not fun ! That is what people are doing now. That will only get worse. Property values are about the only industry price structure that hasn’t suffered the massive swings in the last few years. Prices have been going up, but rarely down. People are moving away from cities, simply because the thought of a massive mortgage over their heads, for the rest of their lives, is not an attractive thought, every night, as their head hits the pillow. I can sympathise.
    Not all though, and not enough to get industry to follow them unfortunately.

    With the increased efficiency and reliability of technology, people can now work quite literally from anywhere, and that will help ease the reliance on major cities for career options. Not before time either. Add to that, finally, very fast trains (vft’s), are now finally being built, after years of being promised, and that will assist in the decentralisation of population. One can only hope anyway.

    Have a look at the figures of people moving down to Tassy from the mainland. Astonishing. Property values still less than half of the major mainland centres.

    Albury Wadonga was a great idea, and was such a shame that it didn’t take. The principle was a great one. Both towns showed that much promise, and it all started well, but then stopped. I moved away from the state early in the piece, so don’t know the reasons behind the failure, but the whole project just appeared to stop ??

    On the reverse side of the coin, moving away from the city, to rural centres, and then commuting, can be an expensive exercise as well. Outer communities, still not properly equipped infrastructure wise, are copped with exhorbitant rates and local charges, simply because the infrastructure is not there. Money is needed to construct it, hence the expensive local charges. No transport, poor roads and so on. Hardly attractive enough to induce young couples to move away from the cities ?

    As to putting a couple of containers on to a block to convert into a house, I know my local council would be very hard to convince of the aesthetic quality of what the project would end up ?

    Interesting concept to ponder though.

  26. Len says:

    Sorry, but been trying to remember this for days.
    Can’t help myself. Seems very appropriate to the discussion ?

  27. Len says:

    Boy, after three days, I was certain that someone would have had a crack at me, for putting the link up ?

    Couldn’t think of a more apt tune, to cover the thread than this song. What a ripper, but didn’t mean to kill the thread guys ?

  28. Ray Dixon says:

    Ray, Albury Wodonga was a great idea, and was such a shame that it didn’t take. The principle was a great one. Both towns showed that much promise, and it all started well, but then stopped

    It stopped in the 70s because Gough’s idea was to kick start it with the relocation of Govt Depts, like the ATO, but he lost office before he could get much done.

    But in recent years there has been a hell of a lot of both private & Govt investment in both cities. The private investment is in commercial & residential developments, while the Govt has put a lot of money into infrastructure.

    Wodonga is the fastest growing town in the State and I think it’s only a matter of time before it really takes off.

  29. Len says:

    It is a shame that it took that long. It was in an ideal position, between two largest cities, and had vast amounts of space to grow. For industry, it was far from ports sure, but attached to the project was the Hume freeway so transport could easily get their goods to port, or in fact anywhere really.

    With the price of house and land packages in Melbourne, or in fact Sydney as well, it still leaves me shaking my head, as to why it hasn’t taken off already ?

    Seems like a bit of a “no-brainer” to me ?

  30. Iain Hall says:

    I think that there is always some resistance to any attempt to engineer thng s like cities, to some extent they have to be a bit more organic, growing because people want to live there rather than because some pollies think that it is a good idea. A good case in point is Canberra which I think is an awful city, So planned and designed that it has no soul at all. Who in their right mind would chose to live there(apart from public servants) above the other cities in this country?

  31. Len says:

    Nothing wrong with Canberra Iain. The only problem I saw (as I was stationed there for a while), was that it was built in the wrong place !

    The climate sucked ! It was designed for families, but the social life is there, if you know where to look for it. It was well designed, street wise, with circular freeways to move around it, roads were unbelievably good, schools et al. A great place to bring up kids. Peak hour traffic lasted from 5 till ten past 5, and that was it. At night, the streets were deserted.

    In so far as Albury et al, I think Ray was right. When the government changed, so did the subsidies that would draw industry, and the jobs, there ? Sad really if you think about it for a minute or two. How else are they going to provide for the future massive urban spread ? This was and still is common sense urban planning, and a way for the future. Sad industry didn’t see it that way. If they don’t move out of the cities, and provide jobs for people in these new satellite setups, no one else will and that will be that. A shame.

  32. Mark says:

    Hello All, I have just stumbled over this thread whilst trolling for info regarding the SIHIP in NT.
    Everyone has a point regarding this issue, however, let me tell you that after two years of writing to everyone from Kevin Rudd down, travelling to remote areas, having a connection with people who actually proved that suitable housing can be built at 2/3 of the price or less ( see http://www.eco-panels.biz) and presenting our systems to Qld, NSW and Federal Govt. Guess how many meetings with any decision makers we’ve been granted?
    $642 Million allocated to build 1000 houses in NT under this programme. Guess how many have been built?
    The three Alliance teams were chosen and set up and sit around doing nothing whilst the money just trickles away like a leaky tap on a rain water tank in the middle of nowhere.
    I can build cyclone proof, climate controlled homes for these folk for far less than $15,000 per square!
    Better still, I can teach them how to do it themselves! The Government response? Letters from the various politicians’ offices signed by a public servant!
    I am but one of many frustrated people who want to do something but are hamstrung by the inaction of the bureaucracy.
    I’ll get down from my soap box now.

Comments are closed.

Welcome to the Sandpit

I love a good argument so please leave a comment

Please support the Sandpit

Please support the Sandpit

Do you feel lucky?

Do you feel lucky?

%d bloggers like this: