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urban rigger 2 1 - All at sea

All at sea

Danish students are living in beautiful floating container homes in Copenhagen Harbour. Can this system help us to solve our affordable housing crisis?

By Jennifer Stern

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Innovative Danish designers Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) have created beautiful floating (relatively) low-cost student housing from upcycled shipping containers.

It seems like an elegant solution to a universal problem so, we wondered, could it work in South Africa?

Urban Rigger

The Urban Rigger units are moored in Copenhagen Harbour so residents are surrounded by water, and enjoy fabulous views of the docks and the passing parade of ships. Loosely modelled on an oil rig, each unit consists of a floating concrete base with submarine, basement-level laundry and storage rooms.

urban rigger 2 - All at sea
Urban Rigger Floating home

After careful consideration, the designers settled on installing the containers around a triangular courtyard, with the upper triangle offset to make a hexagon. This design maximises light and air, with each unit enjoying large windows and fabulous views. Kayak docks and bicycle storage complement the savvy, young, student-style lifestyle, and external stairways, the central courtyard, and a rooftop terrace contribute to easy community interaction – the perfect balance between independent and communal living. With the terrace on one side of the triangle, the two other rooftop sides each support a green garden and a bank of solar panels.

Need for affordable housing

We certainly have a need for affordable housing and, with our dismal track record of providing ugly, inefficient low-cost homes, we really need to start thinking creatively. Building homes from containers is not new, but the practice has accelerated over the last few years. It’s almost a no-brainer. Containers are very strong and relatively inexpensive, and they easily facilitate modular building. And, of course, it’s affordable housing close to the city and to transport networks that we really need, so perhaps we should look at utilising our harbours for housing.

Is it practical?

‘It sounds like a great idea,’ says Zinhle Small, Real Estate Manager at the Port of PE, ‘but in terms of the National Ports Act our mandate is to ensure that any commercial development undertaken does not impede on the growth of port cargo operations, and the water is a key element thereof. We can, however, use back-of-port areas for leasehold commercial developments. Personally, even if we could explore this type of on-water development, I’m not sure we have enough usable surface water to make a dent in the demand for affordable housing.’

urban rigger 3 - All at sea
Urban Rigger Floating home interior

Mark Noble, Development Director of the V&A Waterfront, says that, from an economic perspective, it makes sense. ‘Containers are a great idea as they allow for modularisation and relatively fast, low-cost construction.’

And, while he clearly loved the notion of floating homes, he very practically wondered where we could put them. ‘Certainly, the V&A is far too busy to allow for permanent floating housing,’ he said. ‘But, with the move away from bulk shipping to containerisation, much of the economic activity of Cape Town Harbour has moved east to Paarden Eiland. So, perhaps some space might open up.’

Again, though, it’s unlikely to be sufficient to make a significant contribution to the provision of affordable housing. But then, Mark suggested, ‘perhaps building affordable container-based housing on the land in the harbour might be practical. It’s certainly contextually appropriate, and probably more affordable than the floating version.’

Bottom line

Floating container homes have seen success in other parts of the world, but the scale would be small, in comparison to the land-based container housing that has been done in parts of Gauteng.

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