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Say no to shipping container homes

Shipping containers are not sustainable and should not be used for low cost housing in South Africa.

Hear me out.

As someone who has worked with ‘cargotecture’, I can tell you that it is far more complex than the media makes it out to be. It is frustrating when people who have never worked with these structures make flippant statements that shipping containers will work as RDP housing within the context of a developing country like South Africa. According to Carol Atkins, ‘cargotechture’ is a term used to describe the reuse and repurposing of discarded shipping containers in new architectural builds; essentially converting old shipping containers to modern living spaces.

On the other hand the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) in South Africa was a post-1994 government housing program aimed at replacing self-built shacks in townships and shantytowns with fully subsidised brick and mortar houses that are applied for by an applicant who meets the government's qualifications. These houses are given to applicants whose total family income is less than R3500 a month (that is less than $180 a month). Their aim was to create jobs through the building process, create houses that could be passed down to future generations, and provide safe living environments that met good standards of living to uplift their pride and dignity.

Magazines, News Articles and Blog posts all purport that the concept of ‘cargotecture’ and the reuse of shipping containers as housing or commercial buildings is a cost-effective, sustainable, structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing building method that should be considered and utilised throughout the world. Reporters and writers repeat this narrative, applying it to different contexts throughout the world- this does not work for everyone. It is not a cheaper alternative for everyone, and it is certainly not as ‘sustainable’ as everyone makes it out to be.

Tony Clarke, MD of the Rawson Property Group by Business Tech, in his 2019 interview stated that 'the typical cost of a container home being about a quarter of an equivalent brick and mortar property, shipping containers could also offer a very affordable alternative for RDP housing project". According to research, however, shipping containers are not as 'sustainable' as they are purported to be, they are not as cost-effective as RDP housing, are not perceived well by low-income South Africans as they are not purpose-built homes and do not speak to the South African vernacular.

The issue of ‘sustainability’:


The ‘sustainable’ aspect of the use of old shipping containers is publicised as one of the most critical elements of ‘cargotecture’. Articles have created a false narrative that any shipping container used in buildings or 'cargotecture' is automatically qualified as 'sustainable'. It has become an assumption that is not necessarily rooted in detailed research; these articles begin to stray into the notion of ‘virtue signalling’

Stop the virtue signalling.

Defined by the Oxford Dictionary as "the action or practise of publicly expressing opinion or sentiments intended to demonstrate one's good character or the moral correctness of one's position on a particular issue." The focus of these articles appears to be a 'display' of moral virtue and values, they can signify their 'green' and trendy values rather than focusing on the factual issues.

Recycling is not the only component of sustainability.

The articles disregard what constitutes 'sustainability' as an entire topic. Whist many tout recycling as the ‘virtue’ of being ‘sustainable’ they fail to recognise that sustainability in broader terms refers to the concepts outlined by the Brundtland Report of 1987 encapsulating three themes: economic, social and environmental.

The ’sustainable’ narrative of cargotecture disregards a holistic view on the sustainability of the production, carbon emissions and environmental effects of the creation of steel and the processes used in building the original container, of transportation and installation of shipping containers, the sustainability of processes & carbon emissions used to convert a shipping container to a place of residence. Not to mention that over 50% of the world steel is imported from and manufactured in China- releasing harmful emissions into the environment, combined that with the carbon emissions of the trucks, cranes and machinery needed to move the container significantly contribute to an already high carbon footprint of containers. Cargotecture has a relatively high carbon footprint. While reuse of shipping containers is marketed as an energy-conserving, sustainable alternative to traditional building methods, 452kg of hazardous waste is produced to get the empty container to liveable standards.

Shipping Containers are not inherently Sustainable.

Shipping containers need higher maintenance, have higher running costs due to poor insulation, and are structures that have a brief lifespan- this goes against the founding principles of RDP housing. Shipping container homes create additional running and maintenance costs for the poor or are thermally uncomfortable, they will not last long enough to be handed down to future generations and require high maintenance to keep them safe buildings for their occupants. The average lifespan of a shipping container is 25 years if bought new and lasting only 12 years if recycled, unlike brick which lasts up to 100 years.

Most cargotecture projects use new shipping containers.

New shipping containers are more than likely used in container construction which defeats the 'sustainable' argument in its entirety. The CEO of an Australian shipping container manufacturer, Jamie van Tongeren has stated that his recommendation for shipping containers used in the building is only to use new ones because: “It’s definitely unsafe to use the old ones, they’re really the unknown. I wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole.”

Shipping containers were purpose-built for ocean freight- thus they are often coated in paints containing lead, chromate and phosphorous and leave a high degree of chemical residue; furthermore, the flooring of shipping containers is constructed out of tropical hardwoods. Not only do the trees used in these container floors take 40 to 60 years to mature, making the use of them unsustainable, but they are then dowsed in pesticides such as arsenic and chromium to render them pest resistant. As such, container homes should have their flooring removed and paint stripped off to render them non-toxic to human life- these new processes further add to the wastage and emissions that are not found in brick and mortar constructions.

These chemicals are specifically harmful to children and the elderly, even in small quantities. In a country like South Africa where multiple generations live under one roof especially in the more impoverished communities, it would be irresponsible and negligent to use potentially hazardous infrastructure such as old shipping containers as RDP housing programs that may not have the budget to strip or cover these materials; therefore it should not be used to build RDP housing in communities with notoriously poor access to healthcare.

Shipping Container Homes waste valuable resources

Steel as a material is a 'closed-loop' material' and can be reprocessed numerous times via smelting without losing its integrity. Architect Mark Hogan notes, “Using shipping containers as structural elements for a one storey building is downcycling and wasting of a resource…there is a lot more steel in a shipping container than you actually need for a building… It's really being wasted when it's put into a house.” Melting down two containers produces 6387,9 meters of steel studs, of which 43 meters is required to build the same framework for the same sized building as these two shipping containers- that would be framework for one-hundred and forty eight houses that has been used solely for one small structure.



A second claim widely populated throughout new articles and blog posts about shipping containers as ‘cargotecture’ is that they are cost-efficient. This statement may be true in first world countries where the cost of building, the cost of labour and the limited amount of land increases prices in traditional building methods comparatively to the South African landscape. It is therefore presumptive and ill-informed to assume that what applies to a first world country Europe will apply to a third world developing country in South Africa.

Stop taking a European perspective on Cost-Efficiency:

In Australia the average total salary of a construction worker is AUS $ AU$ 43,060 - AU$ 86,072 and in South Africa is R30,470 - R82,060 or AUS $ 2639.03 to AUS$ 7107.29, that is 11.5 times higher in Australia than in South Africa, to put that in context the average monthly expenses in Australia for a household of 4 is just lower than the higher-earning annual salary of a South African construction worker (Payscale 2020). In Africa, manual labour makes up a large portion of the construction industry who use unskilled labourers at much lower salaries. Couple that with the fact that brick and mortar construction in South Africa is mostly locally produced & sourced materials and use different contrsution methods to other countries-nthus, the first-world building is not the same price as South African construction prices.

You are minimising job creation not maximising it

The use of shipping containers would radically decrease the number of unskilled labourers able to work on the containers and increase the time of training programs, as they require specialist teams with a specific skill set to convert containers to habitable spaces. These teams come at an additional cost with far fewer skilled labourers available to build. Thus, not only would this choice in materials restrict job opportunities for general unskilled labour, it would increase the cost of the building. Plumbing and electrical fitting are also attached differently in shipping containers often damaging the integrity of the walls, and steel structure, the application of these fixtures to unusual materials further raises the cost and decreases the number of skilled people who can perform this task.

Stop conflating different income brackets

What articles also fail to consider when claiming that shipping containers are 'cost-efficient' is that they are referring to a group of people entering the housing market who can afford an R800 000 or possibly a one million rand house loans from the bank or even people in the ‘luxury’ market; there are myriads of articles about ‘luxury’ container homes throughout South Africa. RDP houses are specifically for those earning under R3500 per month; they could not afford or qualify for an R500 000 to R800 000 loan, let alone cover the costs of food per month (Douglas, K. 2015). According to Berman- Kali who owns Housing Concepts in Cape Town South Africa and coverts shipping containers to low-cost homes, admits that the gap in the market for shipping containers lies in the population who earns more than what is required for qualifying for an RDP house (Douglas, K. 2015).

Banks do not provide loans for shipping container homes for a reason

As the purpose of RDP housing is to provide a sense of pride and dignity as well as to uplift more impoverished communities from poverty and meet basic needs by creating a healthy living environment which can be passed on from generation to generation, then shipping container homes contravene these values by degrading comparatively quickly over time as opposed to a brick and mortar structure. Shipping containers last one-tenth to a quarter of the life span of an average traditionally constructed house. It would not be economically viable to have to replace every shipping container RDP house every ten or twenty years, nor would it serve the aims of the RDP housing project. Thus, South African banks do not grant loans for shipping container homes due to their questionable structural integrity and longevity. The credit may outlast the building as shipping containers only have a lifespan of 1 to 25 years. Thus, shipping containers need to be paid in full by the owners savings not through a loan.

More than one shipping container is required to meet the criteria of an RPD house

According to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group and the Minister of the Department of Human Settlements of South Africa, Minister Hlonyana, RDP houses built in brick and mortar are broken down by the following cost: R168 852 per home with the house structure at the price of R116 867, services connection cost of R 45 985 and raw land cost of R 6 000.

The cost of a standard RDP house which includes meeting the following standards as set by the South African government: 50 square meters or bigger, has two bedrooms, one bathroom and one kitchen and meets all SABS standards, SABS standards require a 2.4m minimum ceiling height.

A minimum of two 12m container's must be used to meet this criterion. The cost of one container according to the, Berman-Kalil states starts at R225,000 excluding VAT at a price between R7000 per square meter to R 10 000 per square meter (Douglas, K. 2015). Thus, nearly doubling the cost to either R 450 000 for one RDP house. This is over three times the price of a brick and mortar structure in RDP houses.

It also does not include the price of transporting the unit, hiring a crane to install the unit, the cost of the legally required foundation, the cost of connecting services and the cost of raw land and the necessary council approval costs- as these requirements vary between provinces. According to the Stats SA, the average national price of building a single free-standing house costs R5 932 per square metre- one thousand Rands per square meter lower than the starting price of a container and with quadruple the life span of a container. Even if one considers the most economical price purported by the available news articles, if the container costs R100 000 for one, it is still more expensive than an RDP house per square meter- what these articles fail to reflect is that the sizes of a R100 000 container home is almost half the size of the stipulated minimum requirement for an RDP house and fails to consider any of the above mentioned additional costs (Douglas, K. 2015). In conclusion, shipping container homes are not more cost-effective than RDP housing.



Shipping container homes have an aesthetic that has a somewhat diametric response from people across the world - “Some love them and some love to hate them”. In first-world countries, the use of shipping containers is considered ‘on-trend’ and aesthetically novel. In a study conducted by Minenhle Maphumulo at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2016, findings indicated that shipping container homes are perceived in a complex manner within the South African context of affordable housing.

Shipping containers are not perceived in a favourable light in South Africa amongst more impoverished communities; the aesthetics of corrugated metal in South Africa has a unique connotation that is not found worldwide. The connotation of informal settlements and shack-like housing is strongly associated with the aesthetic of shipping containers; it would infringe the dignity and pride of RDP housing recipients and are perceived for what they are a: temporary structure, with potentially hazardous materials that afford for poor ergonomics and a sense of inferiority. It would be inappropriate to create RDP housing of another temporary structure with a lesser perceived and real value.

The RDP housing development aims to uplift people and provide a sense of pride and dignity and security; as Maphumulo quotes a man in his interviews “When people want something better, they do not want something that reminds them of a shack”.

The study also found that shipping container housing and its aesthetic had a negative impact on the residence perception of what they considered ‘home’, 8 out of 10 residence stated they would not consider buying or owning a home that looked like a shipping as they are perceived as temporary structures when asked if they would purchase a shipping container house they stated that ‘No, I’d only rent. It’s not worth the investment. Bricks are more durable; they also need less maintenance plus containers can fall at any point’.

Residents found that the original aesthetics of a shipping container lessen the perceived value of the building than if it were clad in such a way as to hide the shipping container aesthetic. Thus, it was concluded that residents would still prefer to live in a building disguised as a traditional building even if it were constructed out of shipping containers

Say No to shipping containers


From the above research, it can be concluded that shipping containers are not sustainable and pose hazardous risks in their design and manufacturing, installation, transportation, conversion to living spaces, longevity and wasteful resource allocation as a housing material as well as the fact these combined factors lead to the use of new shipping containers utilised in ‘cargotecture’ which makes them entirely unsustainable; thus the 'green solution to RDP housing' cannot be found in shipping container homes.

Moreover, 'cargotecture' has many hidden costs that are not taken into account during the build, they do not adhere to RDP housing standards as individual units, and the cost of converting a shipping container to an RDP house with the same parameters is more expensive than the cost of building in brick and mortar, it also has a maximum of a quarter of the lifespan of a brick and mortar building and therefore hinders the goals of RDP housing in South Africa.

Moreover, the shipping container aesthetic is not appropriate or well perceived or received by lower-income citizens as aesthetically it is a constant reminder of the economic hardship they endure and the shantytown and township in which shacks are built, it is therefore concluded that shipping containers should not be used as RDP housing in South Africa.


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