Shipping containers: the answer to London’s housing crisis?

Ealing Council has become the first London borough to house homeless people in recycled shipping containers

Can a steel box be a home? Yes, say the bosses at Ealing Council, who have decided to place a group of homeless people in 34 repurposed, ready-to-live-in shipping containers in a quiet lane of the west London suburb.

The first scheme of its kind in the capital, the Marston Court container village has been created as emergency housing to help address London’s growing homelessness crisis. In the borough of Ealing alone, there are 2293 people or families considered homeless and in desperate need of accommodation.

Created by QED Sustainable Urban Developments in partnership with the local authority, the shipping containers have been nicely kitted out with basic beds, kitchen units and radiators. There is also a small play area and management office on the site providing laundry and refuse storage.

Housing people in shipping containers is not as strange as it may seem. The new Marston Court project builds on work done by QED in Brighton for formerly homeless people in need of “move-on” accommodation, and a YMCA project in east London’s Walthamstow has seen young working adults struggling with high rents move into containers for one year.

But it marks the first time homeless people in London will get the chance to occupy the oblong, mobile units.

What will the locals in Ealing make of their newest neighbours? Will the shipping containers and their residents be subject to a backlash from the Nimbys?

Time will tell. The partners behind the project are keen to emphasis the steel and wood-clad homes represent an improvement on what was there before. The containers have been installed in a space between two rows of houses that had been full of disused garages from the 1970s – an area the council identified as problematic, often subject to fly tipping and anti-social activity.

While most of the units are considered studio or one-bedroom homes, there are eight larger, two-bedroom apartments made out of reshaped and upcycled container parts.

The company behind the scheme says shipping containers provide “a sustainable, robust, affordable and flexible solution”

Ross Gilbert, managing director of QED Sustainable Urban Developments, argues that shipping containers are a highly flexible form of housing. His company was keen to help the local authority meet “immediate” accommodation needs, with the housing shortage across the city getting worse.

“In London the problem is particularly acute and many of the available development spaces are complex brownfield sites which are difficult to access and develop,” Gilbert explains.

“For Marston Court we were able to work with Ealing Council to bring vacant brownfield land back into productivity to deliver ready to live in accommodation, providing a sustainable, robust, affordable and flexible solution which is particularly suited to this kind of urban, difficult-to-access infill site.”

Advocates for shipping container housing argue it can be as basic or as fancy as you like. The material has been used in the Netherlands to fashion low-cost student housing and temporary workers’ accommodation. But many self-builders around the world have modified the steel container frame with under-floor heating and high-end lighting systems to create dream modernist homes.

Whether it becomes a truly useful way of accommodating significant numbers of people who need a roof over their head depends on the bravery of councils to back new, temporarily developments.

And if more shipping container villages start popping up in towns and cities across Britain, existing residents will have to be open-minded enough to understand the desperate need for housing in their neighbourhood.

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