We recently had the opportunity to interview Shelley from the Elgin region of South Africa. Shelley is a grandmother who had the idea of building a shipping container house to use for short-term rentals. She overcame quite a few obstacles to end up with the beautiful home you see here. Read our interview below to find out why and how she did it!
What attracted you to shipping container construction? Did you consider other construction methods?
I’ve been researching the idea for quite some time after seeing a YouTube video (there is HUGE amount of irrelevant stuff to wade through on YouTube!).
The land that I bought is part of a development and the initial requirement was to use timber frame construction. However, I was not keen on using that amount of timber from a sustainability standpoint.
Shipping containers offered a wonderful opportunity for me to put four containers to better use on our planet rather than have them rusting away in a harbor. This was by far the strongest reason for me to use containers.
What inspired you to build a container home yourself as opposed to hiring someone to build it for you? How comfortable were you with do-it-yourself (DIY) projects and construction prior to starting the build? How much did you end up doing yourself?
I qualified 43 years back as an architectural draftsman and did a diploma course on building construction. I specialized in timber frame building with that course; however, I have been out of that industry for well over 30 years. It has been an exciting challenge putting all the forgotten knowledge back to good use!
I employed contractors to do all the building except for the finishing of the inside, including a registered plumber, gas installer and electrician as I needed compliance certificates for all of those.
I did all the project management and purchased all of the materials myself. I then did the inside finishing and decorating myself, including tiling, cupboards, hanging of all rails etc. I also connected the water tanks and will do the entire water recycling system myself.
Certainly How to Build a Container House: The Complete Guide was a huge help with technical details beyond what knowledge I could remember from way back when.
Tell us about your design, and how you plan to use the home?
I am using the home as an overnight rental accommodation, which drove some of the design decisions. The design is basic and uses four standard shipping containers, as it is an income generating property and I needed to contain costs, bearing in mind that we are a rural community and my land is zoned agricultural. The design also emphasized planning from a heating and cooling perspective.
I chose to clad the outside of the containers with fiber cement and the inside with ceiling board. All walls inside and out are insulated with Isotherm, which is made from recycled PET bottles. This thermally-bonded polyester is non-toxic and good for people and the environment!
The total living area is 108 square meters (1163 SF). Including the patios at the back of the building and at the entrance, the footprint is 144 square meters (1550 SF).
I do still have to cover both patios and will use a grapevine and creeping roses on a wooden structure for this. I am going to attempt to do this on my own with local help.
I think the single most effective design concept I employed is that I placed one container on top of another to create an upstairs loft room. This also had huge benefits as far as airflow is concerned. The three bottom containers form a (square) horseshoe. The front wall is timber framed so that meant the living area of 36 square meters (388 SF) is double volume with windows high up to extract the hot air that rises in summer.
We have extreme temperature changes here in Elgin, with winters as low as -5⁰C (23⁰F) and summers as high as 40⁰C (104⁰F).
I did the design myself (after first creating a small cardboard model – the best idea I had of the entire build!). I also drew all the plans myself for submission to the local authority.
I only needed an engineer to sign the pier foundations that I used on all corners and for the roof timbers.
Walk us through the process and timeline of your build? What issues did you encounter and how did you resolve them?
The land came first and then came the decision to use containers. I got off to a rocky start (literally).
I had to bring in a front end digger/loader to clear the overgrowth on the plot and then discovered that the ground is hard rock almost as far down as we could dig.
Sourcing the actual containers was easy thanks to Google.
As my land is in a wetland, building with containers allowed me to minimize excavation of foundations, and I used pier foundations to lift the containers up 500 mm (20 in) above ground level. After putting in the piers, a crane delivered all four containers and placed them accordingly.
Within two days (and before we had had a chance to secure them) we had a MAJOR storm with winds gusting up to 180 kilometers per hour (112 mph). The two vertically stacked containers at the back were blown over and down the plot about 30 meters like sardine cans. Neighbors tell me the noise was horrendous!
Utilities were definitely a problem. I had to start by getting connected to the municipal water supply as I cannot put down a borehole because of the wetlands.
My supply line (from the municipal meter) runs 100 odd meters down the side of my neighbor’s property (on the other side of the river), spans 30 meters over the river via poles on either side of the river, and then up 90 meters to my property! I do have rights to the water from the Klip River at the bottom of my property but that water is contaminated and can only be used for irrigation.
I connected to our local electricity supply but I am using gas to heat everything in the house. I will be installing solar heating within the next few months and will use the electricity supply as backup only. I also have water storage tanks and I am setting up a greywater system to irrigate. The Western Cape is in the midst of the worst drought in recorded history and I cannot irrigate at all with municipal water. At the moment, I am bringing water in for irrigation from the farm supply where I live.
I funded the purchase of the land and the complete build with proceeds of a property I sold in Cape Town. It was my intention to set up tunnels to farm various produce on the plot, BUT having seen the article on container farming in Nigeria I am VERY keen to explore that concept!
From the planning stage to taking in my first guests has been a very long and busy 10 months. I have been completely hands on every step of the way and have been on site every day (excluding weekends to completion of the main build).
Most recently, I have been busy with the inside finish out literally every day for 3 months (excluding Sundays), and mostly 12 hours a day! I am currently a pretty exhausted granny, but also VERY pleased and VERY excited with my project. I would say that aside from the building containers blowing down the hill, everything else has gone smoothly…so far!
What was the cost of your container home?
The land cost R595,000 ($50,700), which was a VERY good buy as adjacent properties are currently selling between R850,000 ($72,500) and R960,000 ($81,840). It certainly helped that I was a cash buyer.
The electrical connection was R28,000 ($2,400) as there is a transformer just 30 meters from my land. The water connection was minimal from the local municipality.
The four containers delivered and placed by crane were R84,000 ($7,160). However, after the storm, I had to then get the crane out again. I moved the two still upright containers off the damaged foundations, re-build pier foundations and then had the crane back again to place all four containers back in place. That was an extra expense of around R15,000 ($1,280).
Contractor services were around R250,000 ($21,300) and materials were around R320,000 ($27,300). The materials included two 5000 liter water tanks plus the septic tank needed for sewerage disposal. Excavation costs were around R30,000 ($2,560). Other costs were the transfer of land, plan submission and engineer approval. Those amounted to just short of R29,000 ($2,470).
I actually have a spreadsheet of EXACT costs and would happily share with anyone who is interested.
NOTE: All costs are in South African Rand (ZAR), with conversion to US Dollars taken in February 2018.
Are there any lessons learned you would like to share, or things you wish you would have done differently?
My best advice is to make very sure you keep an eye on the build EVERY step of the way! Contractors LOVE to take shortcuts and many think they know how to change a design. Stick to the design unless there is a VERY good reason not to, as changes could be costly. And despite the fact that I thought I had budgeted down to the last South African Rand, I still fell short by around 20%!
Nevertheless, I’m really happy with my container home, and I would build again with containers in a heartbeat. I may well put up another container structure on the plot in the future, as there is plenty of room. I already have another idea in mind to build on the slope with high pier foundations in front with the home overlooking the river 🙂
What’s the best way for people to get in touch with you and find out more?
The website for the home is www.klipriver-cabin.co.za, where you can find more information and make a booking.
You can also find me at my main business, www.natraloe.co.za, which is a manufacturer of organic and natural aloe skincare products. It will give you an indication of why the decision to build with shipping containers was the right one for me and for the planet.
Thanks again to Shelley for sharing more about her build with us. If you have any thoughts about building a shipping container home to use as a short term rental, please let us know in the comments section below!