If there was ever an architectural technique perfectly suited to people of a ‘just get on and do it’ persuasion, it must be building with shipping containers.

What could be more fun than giant Lego that you can live inside? You take some shipping containers, cunningly arrange them into the shape of your choice, cut a few extra holes in them, and before you know it the Queen turns up to hurl a bottle of champagne against your impregnable steel front door. No messing.

Maybe I’m over-simplifying, but container buildings have certainly captured the imagination. You might have noticed the Krynkl development springing up in Shalesmoor recently, a four-storey container stack of funky business units with a rooftop café-restaurant. There’s a vast spectrum of possibilities, from artfully setting up your kettle and camp bed in a box to the amazing Manifesto House in Chile, which also beautifully harnesses that other staple of upcycling – pallets. In other words, like any other building material, you can make of it what you will.

Jon Johnson is the force of nature behind Strip The Willow on Abbeydale Road, where lovely food and coffee are served amidst the clank and whirr of reincarnation being performed on thrown-away things. Taking modern-day wombling to the next level, Jon has set up another social enterprise, REACH Homes, aiming to transform people’s options for homes they can afford. Like any true altruist, he’s experimenting on himself by living in his prototype house, made from two shipping containers and located next to Heeley City Farm. 84% of the building materials are recycled.

I visit Jon on a bright and chilly autumnal morning. He makes coffee and we soak up the sun that pours in through the large south and east-facing windows. “These double-glazed windows are the only chink in the armour,” he tells me, “If we had triple-glazing we’d be up to full Passivhaus standards.” That means it’s super-insulated, has heat recovery ventilation and needs virtually no heating. Not bad for a metal box. It’s also – and here’s the clincher – a really lovely space.

“It’s catching on,” Jon explains. “We’re going into production soon, with 12 homes on the Manor and an option for another 60. We’re talking to Sheffield, Barnsley and Rotherham Councils. They have lots of land, so finding sites shouldn’t be a problem. Build costs are low, so housing associations are champing at the bit. Low energy bills make it easier for tenants to afford their rent and we’re looking at a range of rental and ownership models. We’re confident of demand.”

For decades, the housing industry has been offering us a desperately limited product. Stylistically, we get a flimsy, half-remembered nostalgia, harking back to the pattern-book suburban housing of the 1920s and 30s. Progress in energy efficiency is painfully slow. In 2006 the Labour government set a target for all new homes to be zero-carbon by 2016, but this was scrapped in 2015 as a result of George Osborne’s ironically-titled Fixing the Foundations – Creating a More Prosperous Nation report. The truth is, the foundations have never been more shaky. An excellent report by Sheffield Hallam University titled Profits Before Volume paints the picture. Overall supply is falling well short of demand, yet housebuilders’ finances are mushrooming. From 2010 to 2015, the biggest five housebuilding firms saw a 480% increase in profits.

Meanwhile, in Sheffield the median house price is five times the median household income, according to the ONS. In short, we’re not building enough homes and the ones we are building are expensive to buy and expensive to heat. It’s a travesty that Jon and I could chew over all day. “What’s the point of building houses if you don’t build them to be sustainable and affordable?” asks Jon. But he’s no defeatist, and REACH Homes is his characteristic reaction. It’s a ‘let’s just get on and do it’ solution.

The business model is the key. “There are initiatives like this springing up all over the country. We’re not just recycling the materials. Social enterprise is the future because they recycle the wealth too, within the community, instead of it being syphoned off into giant corporations.” Jon acknowledges that system-built housing is attracting the attention of big businesses, like Legal & General, but he doesn’t see them as a threat. “We’re not in competition. We’re offering very different products. Diversifying the market is so important and we need lots of smaller operators to come in to gaps that the big firms aren’t interested in.”

There are also plans for a factory that will offer apprenticeships and career opportunities. Jon anticipates the factory could build 600 homes per year and off-site construction could make a big difference to quality control and cost. The production container houses will use around 60% recycled material, so an important role for the factory will be to re-process unwanted items, such as timber offcuts and slightly damaged insulation panels.

To keep himself busy, Jon is also organising a national conference for decision-makers, housing providers and people looking for new solutions. It is scheduled for 15 March 2018 at St Mary’s Conference Centre on Bramall Lane, and John Healey, local MP and Shadow Housing Minister, is booked to speak. Tickets will be on sale soon.

“The idea is to bring together lots of people who recognise that we urgently need new ways to provide housing. The conventional model is at capacity. We need more housing, so we need new models. At the conference we’ll be raising a petition, asking government to commit to enabling housing that people can actually afford. If representatives of different sectors – housing associations, councils, mixed-use developers – all sign the petition, it stands a chance of having an impact.”

In the end though, will people enjoy living in containers? “There’s something for everyone,” replies Jon. “If you want shared spaces, communal facilities, social housing that gets you off the hamster-wheel of consumerism, you can do it with containers. If you want Frank Lloyd Wright, a luxury idyll, you can do it with containers.”

Despite being lucky enough to own a home already, I can’t help but be excited by what REACH is aiming to do. If I was starting out now, I doubt I could afford a nice house and I confess to a prejudice against standard new-build. I’ve seen too much dodgy workmanship. But a super-efficient container home, especially if I could get involved in the design, sounds like my idea of fun. Jon feels the same way. “My dream home will be made of containers.”

reachhomes.org

Andrew Wood