Inside the Box

Turning a shipping container into a building system for low income housing sounds like hard work. Making it into a sustainable endeavor with mass aesthetic appeal sounds impossible. However, for someone with the bold imagination and creative curiosity of Caymanian architect Robert Johnson, it’s all in a day’s work.

The container home design theory lends itself well to economic and environmental sustainability concerns.

For those of us behind the curve of progressive architecture, container homes are exactly what the name suggests:  they are homes built using shipping containers as a modular building element. The containers are essentially the skin and bones of a typical housing system’s kit of parts.

In developing countries, containers are repurposed by the homeless as shelter. In urban areas with more advanced community housing, container homes provide a safer, agile and more aesthetically palatable alternative to shanty towns.

And, finally, in countries where the move to Design 3.0 is in full swing, further enhancing people’s lifestyles, these life-sized Legos are driving a new design theory grounded in basic engineering and driven by both economic and environmental sustainability concerns.

The latter brings us to Robert Johnson and his work to introduce the concept of container housing here in the Cayman Islands. Unlike in other places where container housing has been pigeonholed by either the have-nots or the hipsters, he sees a blank slate in Cayman where the system could address a broad spectrum of current housing conundrums.

Container homes can reflect an ultra-modern aesthetic.
Container homes can reflect an ultra-modern aesthetic.

Robert waxes eloquent on how container homes can enhance people’s lifestyles and the architectural landscape of Cayman.  Living in a culture so dependent on its own diversity begs for an equally eclectic design vernacular. In their most evolved form, designed and engineered to every last detail, container homes are a turn-key and environmentally friendly housing solution for work and play.

As the conversation broadens, it becomes abundantly clear that Robert’s vision for container homes is not the stuff of too-cool-for-school designers. It sounds like a bold proposal to shift the needle on indigenous Cayman architecture in favor of a more modern look and function.

But what it is at its heart is a worthy ice breaker for smarter land use and more efficient use of building resources, including the resource of almost-constant scarcity when making a Cayman property purchase: money.

“The young, first-time home buyer has a more sophisticated aesthetic taste than what the Cayman housing market currently offers,” he says. “Having grown up with the internet, millennials want homes that are not just good value but homes that look new or look technologically inspired.”

Within the architectural Eutopia in Robert’s textbook musings and crisp renderings, the California-trained architect explores real-world applications for container homes. In a rendering here, he shows us a practical two-bedroom design with potential residential or business applications.

This rendering shows the container structure as it appears within the building materials for a 2-bedroom townhouse.
This rendering shows the container structure as it appears within the building materials for a 2-bedroom townhouse.

Behind this drawing, he qualifies his case further with sound bites on how container homes can decrease wasted land in urban residential areas, increasing usable space and thereby driving property prices down due to capacity.

“Container housing requires more efficient use of space, in turn promoting density, which is an important factor for the well-being of cities and towns,” he says. “The town house prototype, for example, has a 20’x30’ footprint and allows for three buildings in a quarter-acre lot, each with its own backyard. These units can easily sit on disused parking lots at the periphery of town, like on School Road in George Town, essentially strengthening the residential community that already exists there at a reasonable cost.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Robert addresses those who can afford to invest in their dream property; he posits that a container home is not only an architecturally adventurous undertaking but also one that is well suited for the land-rich. Adopting a container design for a beach house could be one example of this.

With container building coming in at roughly about 60 percent of the cost of traditional building systems, in theory you could expend the difference on a waterfront property as opposed to inland. You could afford a more central property than one in the more suburban areas of the island. The repercussions in terms of purchasing power and land accessibility could cause a permanent cultural shift in our residential populace.

“By repurposing a shipping container, the client can spend money saved on building façade and structure and put it to good use, like affording better land, or towards your kid’s college fund. While at the same time you can live in something cool-looking and very functional.”

As of press time, Robert has yet to build a container home here in the Cayman Islands.  The one very real hurdle for him to overcome is gaining a building permit and planning permission. That said, with his clear and well-researched case, it seems not to be a question any longer if the masses will listen; it is a question of when.