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Could container homes alleviate Israeli housing crisis?

Israeli architects and students explore the concept of using shipping containers as homes and shopping spaces.

Those who passed by the town of Pardes Hanna Karkur in Haifa district last summer witnessed an unusual scene: giant trucks transporting shipping containers to what looked like a construction site. But unlike other construction sites, this one had no concrete mixers, no tractors and no bulldozers. Instead, metal welders were setting up their equipment to weld together the large containers, while cranes lifted the containers in place. A billboard announced the opening of the Pop Box shopping mall, with cafes and shops housed in the containers — a first in Israel.

Metal containers come in all sizes and colors; some people use them for storage, while others use them for shipping. But some people live and work in them. And while container homes, offices and shopping centers are a common sight in Europe, in Israel they are rare, even though containers have been used by the military for the last four decades.

One of the first Israeli container housing projects was established during the 2014 Gaza war, when Israel's communities in the south suffered daily rocket fire. When Sderot, a city in the western Negev Desert, was repeatedly targeted, turning it into a ghost town, the Ayalim Association, which is dedicated to developing the Negev region, stepped in.

“The people of Ayalim turned to us with a very precise request: to plan and execute a student village in the center of Sderot within only five months,” architect Erez Ella told Al-Monitor. “In Israel such a time frame is practically impossible, not only because of the design process or the construction but also because one cannot start building anything without first getting the necessary permits. That was the main reason why we opted for a prefabricated solution. It allowed us to submit requests for permits quickly, right after the design stage was finished. By the time we got the permits the construction elements were ready. All we had to do was put them together at the site, like a jigsaw puzzle.”

Ella and the entrepreneurs placed the Sderot container village at the heart of the town, so that it was connected to the central square, city hall and the market, thus creating a vibrant urban scene. “The container complex was a success from day one. We managed to create 100 units of simple but pleasant two-bedroom apartments. Students who used to live in neighboring kibbutzim were suddenly drawn back to Sderot. Not only do we now have a waiting list for these apartments, we are currently planning construction stages two and three,” Ella said.

The Sderot container home solution was applauded by other urban designers. Guy Austern, a practicing architect and doctoral candidate in the faculty of architecture and town planning at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, was intrigued by the possibilities of repurposing containers. Together with professor Shamai Assif, Austern recently tasked students with planning student dorms out of these containers. Turning the project into a competition, he grouped the students into teams of four and asked them to develop plans for small apartments that could be easily built and duplicated.

“We wanted our students to experience creating a real product — to develop plans that could be executed. So we picked shipping containers as the basis for our prefab construction project,” Austern said.

“Building homes out of containers is cheap and fast — two weeks perhaps. More so, the quality is excellent. The container is carefully fabricated at the plant, so construction standards are superb — nothing compared with wet construction out of cement on a traditional building site. There are other advantages too; the containers are considered eco-friendly and they demand little maintenance. Turning containers into homes actually fits perfectly with global trends of reusing and recycling,” he added.

The Technion students faced several challenges and obstacles. The harsh Israeli climate was probably the most difficult one, Austern noted. He explained that in the Netherlands and Great Britain such projects must include isolation against the cold weather. In Israel, one must isolate against the heat. But isolation is the easy part; the difficult part is protecting the metal walls of the containers from direct sunlight.

“Our students came up with the great idea of trimming the walls of the containers in favor of balconies that overshadow the frameworks. It is a fantastic example of adapting a construction method used elsewhere to suit conditions here in the Middle East,” Austern noted.

Terry Newman, CEO of Isramarin Modular Construction, told Al-Monitor that the company intends to further develop the prototypes presented by the students. “The Technion project was titled 'Studio One to One,' meaning that the students will get to see their work realized in real size. When they approached us for this project, we were very excited and engaged immediately. In fact we believe that the two winning concepts could be developed into construction models to be marketed.”

Newman said his company has been developing prefabricated construction solutions for more than 40 years, including containers. He added, “But most of our adapted containers are commissioned by the army. At the moment there is not much demand for container homes in Israel, though we believe these could offer great solutions to the housing crisis, especially for students and young couples.”

Ella, however, said it is more difficult to adapt container homes in Israel than elsewhere. “Using containers poses several design restrictions; the dimensions and the form are not flexible. But the main problem here is the obligatory shelter room. According to instructions by the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] Home Front Command, these rooms must be constructed out of steel-reinforced concrete. In the Sderot project, we ordered from a specialized plant ready-made reinforced concrete units, which we used as study/library rooms connecting several apartments. But this is an expensive solution that sabotages the price advantage of container homes,” he said.

Despite these constraints, urban developers and users both consider container spaces to be a creative solution to the current shortage of apartments, and as a means of reducing housing prices. “Friends who visit me at the container home are amazed at the comfortable design inside and the colorful facade of the whole complex,” said Yoav, who lives in the Sderot complex and asked for his last name not to be used.

Ella said, “Now that the Sderot project has life, and with a second container village already constructed and operating in the town of Lod, people are no longer afraid of it. People are actually calling our office to ask if we can use containers in more projects.”

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