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Do you want to live in a shipping container home?


We all want a home to call our own. But new homes can be expensive and the qualifying criteria by the banks can make fulfilling this dream tougher than we first expect. New developments, while generally saving you transfer fees and the need for a 10% to 20% deposit, cost in the region of R6,500 to R10,000 and more per square metre (that’s R400,000 to R750,000 for a bachelor or one-bedroom 60m² apartment).

Here’s how to get your building plans passed

The other alternative is to purchase a piece of land and build your own home. While this in itself is expensive, with buyers having to self-finance at least 40% of the land cost, and needing to have a cash reserve available to fund 60% of the house’s development before the bank starts paying out, there are the headaches of dealing with multiple contractors who – admittedly – don’t always treat your biggest investment with the greatest care and respect. There are also monthly costs and “penalties” associated with building in new estates which force those building their own homes to get their home completed in the shortest period of time. This can lead to shoddy workmanship on your home and be another headache you have to sort out.

Shipping inDSCN0167 resize

Is the shipping container home one solution to these common problems? Widely accepted in Europe as a viable, cost-effective alternate home building method, it is used by the wealthy for primary residences as well as holiday accommodation, and to fulfill student accommodation needs in university towns.

In South Africa, however, uptake of repurposed shipping containers for housing has been a harder sell.

This is according to Alicia Kalil, Jill-of-all trades at Berman-Kalil Housing Solutions, which has been building homes from recycled shipping containers since July 2014.

“When we started the business we wanted to change the world and solve its housing issues,” she says from her factory in Kraaifontein, Cape Town. “Getting rules and regulations passed has been difficult, but we are SABS approved, are fire safety accredited and have applied for Agrément SA certification.

“Government, however, sees its housing programme in brick and mortar terms but the general public needs to see how these homes are finished.”

Making the gradeContainer_Shop_in_Joe_Slovo_Park

One look at container homes, from delivery on site and upon completion, there can be no doubt that affluent and less-affluent South Africans would probably be equally comfortable living in a container home. Still, there is a “knock test” that applies, which basically means if a wall is knocked on and it doesn’t sound like a brick and mortar home, it is rejected by the community to which it is introduced.

Social acceptance is a tricky plank on which to walk, and differs from the poorest townships to the richest ‘burbs.

“We have been in talks with some of the major banks’ low-income housing departments who have said they don’t want people to be offended by giving them container homes,” says Kalil, noting that ultimately, in the low-income housing space, government makes the final decision.

And the banks do have a point. Can we expect the poor to be happy with anything other than what affluent South Africans have used to build their own homes for more than a century? While the problem of cooped up diameters is solved by placing two containers perpendicular or adjacent to each other, headroom is another issue altogether. In fact, while shipping containers are up to 2.9m high, electrical ductworks and utilities quickly eat into the vertical space available.

6m steel dry cargo containers

6.058m x 2.438m x 2.591m

12m steel dry cargo containers

12.192m x 2.438m x 2.591m

12m Hi-Cube steel dry cargo containers

12.192m x 2.438m x 2.896m

All things considered, however, and assuming rich and poor communities accept this alternate housing solution, do South Africa’s commercial banks essentially…erm…bank on shipping container homes – meaning, do they see inherent appreciating value in this type of housing technology?

Dawid Malan, head of strategic stakeholder engagement at Absa Home Loans says the main requirements for “unconventional building material and methods” are behaviour in fire and social acceptance – but are only two of many (see the detailed list of regulatory requirements below).

“These are some of the regulatory requirements that need to be met prior to the consumer approaching the bank for finance,” he says, noting that “container home finance” or finance for properties constructed with and by alternative building material and methods are considered for approval subject to meeting required building standards, specifications or codes of practice as determined by the Department of Trade and Industry. “What this means is that ‘unconventional building methods/systems (rational designs/materials)’ which do not meet the current building standard requirements, but may have undergone and met the required standards or are in the process thereof, will be considered for finance.”

Malan notes, however, that the Department of Trade and Industry is reviewing the current act and its regulations. “Once the new standards of the act are finalised, Absa will align its home loan approval policy to ensure that the amended standards of the act are met,” he says.

Neither Standard Bank nor FNB have policies in place to provide asset finance to consumers wanting to finance container homes, with Steven Barker, head of Home Loans at Standard Bank saying currently there is no approved housing concept within the bank’s home loans department for container homes.

“There is no proven demand by the broader market for this particular product as we have seen very little applications for financing,” he says, noting that the property must be immovable and must be anchored to a foundation. “This particular product has not been generally accepted by the market and therefore is difficult to ascertain a market value as this is not the norm.”

Wimpie Potgieter, property asset management head at FNB, however, says if the system complies with National Building Regulations, has an Agrément SA Approval Certificate and is accepted at the National Home Building Registration Council for enrolment, FNB will assess it as an innovative building system for consideration.

Going privatelyberman kalil

But this does not mean that private, middle-income families cannot seriously consider this form of housing. In fact, Berman-Kalil designs high-end homes which cost anything from R650,000 to R1m, complete with beautiful fittings, fixtures, finishes, as well as gas stoves, solar-water heaters and rainwater harvesting reticulation.

“On a daily basis we get at least two out of three people visiting our factory enquiring about our housing solution,” she says, noting that they recently completed a three-bedroom home in Grahamstown and are completing an order for a New Zealand home. “We are referring clients who need financing to a registered financial services provider and are trying to structure a deal where R4,999 per month gets you a new home.”

Speaking to a representative at the financial provider, who wished to remain anonymous, he says there were no formal agreements in place as yet, but that his company provides finance through its unsecured lending division.

“We are still investigating financing these homes,” he says. “It’s still premature to say we are providing asset finance.”

Benefits according to Big Box Containers

they’re much cheaper, less disruptive, and faster to put in place than brick and mortar housing

they provide good air circulation

they’re tough, weather-resistant and vandal-proof

they make it easy to scale up the housing space at your disposal; simply add additional, converted containers

they can be relocated as necessary.

Container housing will need to be council approved and pass similar tests as normal brick construction, and will need to be connected to municipal water, sewage and electrical infrastructure.

Essentially, container homes need to comply to the same rules and regulations as building with brick and mortar, and must be council approved as well, according to Louise Bronkhorst, sales manager at Big Box Containers. “We still need the client to forward architectural drawings to enable us to price, as the architects usually make sure the floor plans provided comply with regulations and we cost accordingly,” she says. “The biggest difference between building with containers and building with bricks is that a container will need additional fire materials used to clad the interior, and double-storey units need fireboards installed between floors to comply to fire safety requirements.”

Another must-have is proper insulation as a flat roof and all-steel exterior cladding will prove to be extremely hot in South Africa’s semi-arid climate. Kalil, however, says the walls are insulated with Magna board which enjoys a good fire rating and is water resistant.

“Insulation on the ceiling board is standard and we can give clients a pitched roof,” says Kalil, noting that these basic, but necessary, requirements are a big priority for the company. “The containers have flooring and aluminium windows installed, as well as melamine board for kitchen cupboards as standard. We can use Superwood and clients have the option of single or double sinks.”

What about their inclusion in secure estates?stand47

Monaghan Farm in Lanseria, Johannesburg, features Stand47 – a home built using alternative building technologies supplied by Saint Gobain – so people wanting to build their own homes should identify estates that already feature homes not exclusively using only brick and mortar construction.

“We have received enquiries from developers in Johannesburg interested in creating 60-unit estates using shipping containers,” says Kalil. “I’d like to purchase land myself in the future and develop 60m2 container homes that sell for R300,000 and more.”

The 6m refrigerated container has a nominal cubic capacity of 28m³. The 12m Hi-Cube refrigerated container has a nominal capacity of 66.27m³. The tare (unloaded) weight of a 6m steel container is 2.4t. A 12m steel container is 4t, and a 12m Hi-Cube container is 4.2t

One of the biggest advantages of container homes is the time it takes from site delivery to finished product – in fact, depending on the size, a beautifully fitted out container home can be completed in less than a week.

This time from site delivery to finished product makes this form of alternative building perfectly suited to assisting South Africa’s housing needs challenges, as well as those consumers who don’t want to go through the almost two-year wait of having their homes built.

Still, consumers should go in with their eyes wide open. They owe it to themselves to research all their options, the rules and regulations that apply in their specific estate or municipality, as well as if a container home will meet their current and future housing needs.

“For the consumer who is looking at ‘unconventional homeownership’ we recommend consultation with industry specialists and performing due diligence prior to embarking on their journey,” says Malan.berman kalil 2

Regulatory requirements

Social acceptance survey

  • Buyer’s expectation of dwelling type/price range
  • Income range
  • Buyer satisfaction of product in price range
  • Explanation of building material/construction method
  • Response to structure
  • Inspection/endorsements/independent engineers/invitees
  • Perception of sale (product)
  • Buyer’s confidence (product)
  • Issues/concerns by respondents
  • Location in relation to property value

National Building Regulations: SANS 10400

  • Rational design (competent person) or,
  • Agrement SA Certification

Energy Efficiency Requirements

  • SANS 204-1 – Energy efficiency parameters for buildings
  • SANS 204-2 – Energy efficiency in naturally ventilated buildings
  • SANS 204-3 – Energy efficiency in artificially controlled buildings


  • Cost-effectiveness
  • Fast-track construction
  • Social acceptance
  • Bankable
  • Acceptability of materials
  • Acceptability of products and materials
  • Behaviour in fire
  • Structural strength and stability
  • Weather-tightness
  • Protection against harmful substances
  • Thermal performance and condensation
  • Provision for ventilation and natural lighting
  • Fitness for purpose

Aesthetic Satisfaction

  • Comfort (including energy efficiency and habitability)
  • Secondary market
  • Privacy
  • Security
  • Equity creation


David A Steynberg, managing editor and director of HomeTimes, has more than 10 years of experience as both a journalist and editor, having headed up Business Day’s HomeFront supplement, SAPOA’s range of four printed titles, digimags Asset in Africa and the South African Planning Institute’s official title, Planning Africa, as well as B2B titles, Building Africa and Water, Sewage & Effluent magazines. He began his career at Farmer’s Weekly magazine before moving on to People Magazine where he was awarded two Excellence Awards for Best Real Life feature as well as Writer of the Year runner-up. He is also a past fellow of the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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