How far can container homes go in providing affordable housing?

Main photo: Ian Murage outside his house. He shows us how spacious the container is (right). PHOTO| ROBERT NGUGI

What you need to know:

  • Although they are way cheaper than conventional houses, a number of factors would work against their adoption.

  • These include stringent building laws, which consider them temporary shelters, and the widespread belief that a house should be made from brick and mortar, and the stigma that those who adopt the trend would face.

From the outside, it doesn’t look particularly impressive, but once inside, you realise it is has most of the features you find in any ordinary house. Perhaps the only remarkably thing is that the walls and floors are heavily padded. Ventilation and aeration have also been well taken care of by the windows fitted on it.

The structure, which Ian Murage called home for two months, is far from what many people would consider a house. But to Murage, living in a shipping container is no different from living in a house  made from brick and mortar.

Although it takes time to adjust to living inside a steel box, 25-year-old Murage, says he got used to it without any problems.

“I borrowed the idea from a television show I had watched and after doing some research online, I found a company in industrial area that could make the necessary modifications on a container for me,” explains Murage.

He spent about Sh820,000 on the 40ft container as well as having it designed to have a modern bathroom fitted,  with a spacious bedroom and a sitting room to boot.

To control the temperature inside, the walls were padded with styrofoam.

“Once you  are inside, you practically forget that you are in a container. You  feel just as  you would if you were inside a stone house,”  says Murage.

He says when he first took his prefabricated house to plot in Westlands where he installed  many people did not believe  or understand how a recycled shipping container could be transformed into a modern house. But a couple of months down the line, his one-bedroom unit has become acceptable in the plush residential area.

“When I brought it here, people could not believe it was a house. Many feel that such structures should be taken to ghettos,” says Murage.  “For the months I lived here. I was very comfortable, and I had a lot of space to myself as well.”

Often, one sees cargo containers that have been transformed into police posts, clinics, shops and temporary offices, but their use for housing is only just beginning. But a few companies have shown readiness to respond to the demand. .

One such company is Container Kenya, which  fabricated Murage’s house. When it started off, the company, which was formed by Mr Joseph Mutua and two other partners, simply used to sell containers.

“Before 2014, all we used to do was sell shipping containers to clients,” he says.

And it was not until a customer walked into Mr Mutua’s shop in Nairobi’s Industrial Area and requested for his container to be modified into a clinic that Container Kenya realised that there was a world of opportunity out there.

“Today, a client who has a mental picture of the way he wants his container modified will walk into our shop, tell us what he wants, and our technician will make it,” explains Mutua.

The houses that are made from drawings and designs provided by clients cost between Sh500,000 (one bedroom) and Sh1.5 million (three bedrooms).

“It takes only 14 to 21 days to make the necessary changes,” says Mr Mutua.


Meanwhile, Murage  is looking for a tenant for his container house, for which he is charging a monthly rent of Sh33,000; the rent for the adjacent one-bedroom apartments is Sh50,000

“The rent is  driven mainly by the location,” he says. “People want to live in Westlands, and if you are offering a fairer price than others, they will readily pick yours.”

His is looking for tenants who appreciate the location where the structure is and are willing to pay the amount he is asking for. So far, a number of potential tenants viewed the house but none has taken it yet.

“Although I am yet to get a tenant, those who have come to look at the place and the house are amazed,” he says.

Shipping containers, just like other alternative building technologies, are viewed by some people as a cheap and easy way of providing pre-fab housing. But can they go beyond being pop-up structures and become a permanent solution?

Property valuer Reginald Okumu argues that, although the use of containers for housing is a viable option,  it is unlikely to have a major impact on the real estate industry.

“Although the conversion of containers into houses is not a new concept, there is a growing interest in this type of housing thanks to the scarcity of timber and the fact that it is costly to maintain a timber house,” he says.

 “This type of housing will only be a game changer if middle- and high-income earners are willing to scale down and adopt such for shelter,” he adds

Despite this, Mr Okumu thinks that container homes provide and expand client choices as well as help address unmet needs.

“It expands the thinking that houses need not be made from stone or concrete only. There are other materials that can be useful in providing shelter,” he says. 

Meanwhile, advocates of container homes like Catherine Kariuki argue that the speed of installation, cost savings on materials and the possibility of  moving the units to new locations make them a serious option for urban housing.

“If there is an abundant supply of containers and planning permission is granted, container homes can definitely become a game changer,” she says.

“In countries where the practice has been accepted, normal planning and technical standards were not used, but were deemed feasible and viable,” she adds.

So what is it like to actually live in one?

Murage says his container is cosy: the cubical bathroom and sound-proof walls make one forget that they are inside a container. Insulated panels help regulate temperatures, so one doesn’t get affected whether it is stifling hot or freezing outside. 

It’s also cheap, something that Ms Catherine Kariuki argues could have a positive impact on the supply of low-cost housing.

For Mr Mutua, the idea of converting a container into a house seems a viable alternative to providing people with decent yet affordable housing, but he says that for it to work, Kenyans need a mind shift.

“We’re still trying to overcome the idea that a steel box is not a good place to live in. People think brick and mortar last forever,” he says. “People should accept that one can have a house made from a container and still live decently.”

Mr Murage concurs, saying: “People need to be open-minded and embrace alternative building solutions.”

But the cost of converting a container, though cheaper than building a conventional house, might not be as cheap as it is made out to be, notes Mr Okumu.

This is because cost savings begin to disappear as soon as one begins to play around with a container’s basic structure.

Besides, even though the trend is gaining traction, there are still a number of challenges.

For instance, Ms Kariuki and Mr Okumu (both property valuers) say that rigid legislation (the Public Health Act and The Building Code) and building by-laws do not help promote certain building materials.

“The Building Code and financial institutions would  consider such structures temporary and, therefore, not eligible for financing,” says Mr Okumu.

Besides, middle- and high-income earners, who are the major buyers in the real estate market, might find it difficult to accept and live in such structures.

From a design point of view, Ms Kariuku adds, the challenge would be finding architects, engineers and interior designers who can transform containers into habitable and well-designed spaces.

“Where openings are made, they weaken the container and will require structural modification to strengthen them,” she notes.

There is also the issue of supply of the raw material. “The containers used are imported, which creates uncertainty regarding the supply of the raw material, which is heavily dependent on the demand for imported goods,” she says.

Then there is the  social stigma.  That people are socialised to believe that certain building materials enhance one’s status and esteem, Ms Kariuku says, is a major constraint to promoting awareness of, and the use of some building materials.

“A very dominant issue regarding any new technology is the perception and social stigma prevalent among the urban and rural poor,” says Ms Kariuki.

The port of Mombasa handles more than 800,000 containers measuring 20 feet every year. This number is likely to grow with the ongoing expansion of the port as well the construction of Lamu Port.

While a number of these containers end up in Uganda and Rwanda, a large number remains in the country.

So, while the advantages of shipping container housing (sustainability and cost) might make them an attractive option,  unless the hurdles (rigid legislation, building by-laws and social stigma) are addressed, the idea will do little towards reducing country’s housing deficit.