18 October 2019
Container homes are increasingly touted as a stopgap solution to Hong Kong’s affordable housing crisis. Photo: Savills
Container homes are increasingly touted as a stopgap solution to Hong Kong’s affordable housing crisis. Photo: Savills

Could container homes as a housing option work in Hong Kong?

Drive past Hong Kong’s container terminal in Kwai Chung and it’s a sight to behold: thousands of metal shipping containers stacked atop one another. Most of them hold goods being shipped overseas from China’s factories, but what if they held something else – people?

It’s not a nightmare scenario. Just the opposite, according to some housing activists. Container homes are increasingly touted as a stopgap solution to Hong Kong’s affordable housing crisis. Advocates say they could provide temporary relief to those waiting for public housing, or cheap homes to young people who can’t afford to buy their own flat. Shipping containers have already been used for housing in the Netherlands, Britain and other countries. But could it work in Hong Kong?

The motivation

News broke recently that the Council of Social Service, a local NGO, is in talks with Henderson Land to build container homes for families on the waiting list for public housing. The average wait time for a public housing flat is now close to five years, and there are more than 300,000 people on the list. Trapped in Hong Kong’s expensive housing market, many of them are forced to live in rooftop shanties, illegally subdivided industrial units or squalid cubicle homes. Temporary container housing would be a chance for them to reclaim a bit of dignity before they are assigned a permanent public flat.

Two other Hong Kong companies are looking at container homes not as charity but as a business opportunity. Alpod homes are prefabricated units the size of a shipping container, which makes them easy to transport around the world. According to James Law, the architect behind the Alpod concept, developers could build simple concrete structures in which Alpod owners could install their container homes, plugging them into power, water and sewerage connections. Each unit would span 480 square feet, making them about the same size as a standard Hong Kong flat. The price would be anything but standard, however: a single container home could sell for as little as HK$500,000, land price excluded.

The challenges in Hong Kong

The Council of Social Service’s proposal calls for second-hand shipping containers to be stacked four high to form a multi-storey housing block, presumably located on one of the many rural land plots Henderson holds in its land bank. That raises the question of access, as new sewerage, electrical and transport connections would need to be built. It could also run the risk of isolating container dwellers in locations far away from their jobs and schools.

There’s also the challenge posed by Hong Kong’s climate. Containers are made of steel, so they would become ovens in the hot days of summer. Air-conditioning and extra insulation would need to be added in order to keep them cool.

Hong Kong’s strict planning and building codes would also have to be changed in order to allow prefabricated, multi-storey housing.

Converting agricultural land into residential land, let’s say, could be extremely time-consuming and costly, even though it is not staying there forever. Town planning approval is required for temporary residential use and modification of government leases is necessary.

Land premiums are another added concern. Developers would prefer having traditional residential developments rather than temporary residential use if all such hassles are resolved.

A standard container has a height of 8 feet while the building code requires a minimum ceiling height of 8.2 feet. Don’t forget – this is only one example of the many challenges of container homes under existing building laws.

What’s happening overseas

The world’s largest container home project can be found in Amsterdam, where 1,000 containers were stacked atop one another to form a complex known as the Wenckehof. Simple steel corridors connect each of the units to a staircase and lift. Initially built as an experiment in 2006, its affordable homes proved so popular they were made permanent in 2011.

Since then, similar projects have sprouted in many other cities. In London, young professionals who can’t afford that city’s sky-high rents can apply to spend a year in affordable container flats while they build up their savings. Johannesburg’s Mill Junction development placed containers atop an old grain silo in order to create more student housing – and a distinctive local landmark.

However, all those countries with container home projects have no shortage of land for residential development. But the root of the housing problem in Hong Kong is a shortage of available land. Container home projects are low density and hence do not allow efficient use of land.

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Managing Director, Savills Valuation and Professional Services Limited