1, 2, 3 – Design!

The design process of our shipping container house made the project begin to feel very real.  (Previously I outlined why we decided to build with shipping containers, and what it means to us to be “thinking green”.)

Five critical factors that the design of the shipping container house had to accommodate:

  • The house had to be constructed on a 2 000m² plot, fitting into the environment of Baardskeerdersbos, a tiny hamlet on the Aghulhas Plain.
  • We had two twelve meter shipping containers to use, giving us floor space of roughly 60m².
  • It had to be as eco-friendly as possible, despite being done on a shoestring budget.
  • We did not want to recreate what we already have, i.e. a suburban house in Stellenbosch.
  • Aesthetically pleasing design vs functionality vs costs vs green = a tall design order!

Two tricks that greatly facilitated the design process:

The scale model of the house

The scale model of the shipping container house

We built a scale model of the house

The model, made from a shoe box and pizza box, became an important three dimensional tool that we’ve used as a reference throughout the project.  It enabled us to visualize the overall design, to see how aspects such as the doors, windows and external shutters will look and work, and to optimize the limited floor space.

We mapped out the ± 60m² floor space and made “furniture”, all to scale

The mapped out floor space

The mapped out floor space

Drawing the interior to scale made it possible to “see” how the dimensions change depending on, for example, where the internal walls and doors are placed.  It enabled us to visualize the relationship between an open area of about 40m², the bedroom and the bathroom.  Similarly, on paper the bathroom looked too small, but playing with the scaled furniture and fittings proved that it was more than adequate.

Six important design aspects that required careful consideration:

The position of the containers on the plot

The placement of the container house on the erf had to take two somewhat opposing geographic factors into account: north, as the ideal direction to optimize solar energy, and the prevailing wind directions that are south-east in summer and north-west in winter.  If we wanted to face directly north to optimize the sun, then our deck areas would end up exposed to maximum wind all year round.  So we opted for placing the house across the prevailing wind directions – thereby creating somewhat sheltered outside areas on both long sides of the container house.

The placement of the containers on the plot was also influenced by a natural rock outcrop to the one side of the erf that we wanted to keep unspoiled.  It meant that we could not veer too far to the right, further away from our only neighbour on the left, but it was a small price to pay to keep the natural fynbos ridge completely pristine.

The rocky outcrop on the plot

The rocky outcrop on the plot

Privacy: if you can see them, they can see you…

Having a nice view is important, but privacy weighed more for us.  In deciding how high the container house will stand on its pylons (e.g. closer to 900mm or 600mm above the ground) we realized that if we want to limit our exposure to the road or the house across the street from us, then we also have to compromise a bit on elevation and, thus, our views.

Keep it simple

The bottom-line for the overall design of the container house, and its position on the plot, was simplicity.  The clean, straight lines of the steel boxes steered the rest of our thinking.  We knew that we wanted the least number of internal walls so as to optimize the feeling of space within the four steel walls.  We ended up with only two internal walls: the wall between the bedroom and bathroom, and the wall which separates the open living space from the bedroom and bathroom.

Less is more

The internal wall being constructed

The internal wall being constructed

Early on in the design process we articulated a guiding question: what is the minimum that we need to be comfortable?  We have navigated by this deceptively simple question throughout the process.  Living in a materialistic society, one is continually bombarded with messages about more and more stuff to acquire; we often forget that life can be far simpler if we just stop to think.

Low tech is good!

The donkey boiler

The donkey boiler

Another pervasive consumerist message is that all things electronic are desirable.  If it can’t be operated with a remote control, if it can’t sync with any number of other devices, and if it does not have lights and beeping sounds – surely it can’t be any good.  Well… yes it can.  Some of the low tech design aspects are a wood burning donkey boiler that will provide hot water, a gas hob that you light with matches, lamps and candles until we’ve finalized the solar system, grey water gullies that will filter shower and basin water before taking it into the fynbos, and rainwater harvesting that will be our long-term drinking water option.

Limit the impact

One of our primary design philosophies is that we consciously want to limit the environmental impact of the container house and how we live in it.  So: the house is limited to two twelve meter containers (± 60m²) creating a comfortable living space for two people; the containers are placed on nine concrete pylons instead of a concrete slab; no garden will be cultivated, instead we will encourage the return of indigenous fynbos veld following the completion of the build; the minimum will go into the conservancy tank, i.e. only sewerage will enter the conservancy tank, the rest of the grey water will be filtered via specifically-designed gullies; and the efficient donkey boiler will be stoked using wood from invasive aliens such as Port Jackson and rooikrans.

Some lessons learned during the design process:

  • Using 3-D models and drawings to play with will substantially increase your ability to visualize the end product.
  • Allow as much time as possible to plan, think through, discuss, research and consider options. You will find that your ideas evolve – an organic process which cannot be rushed.
  • If you are not sure about what you want, you will probably end up living in someone else’s fantasy home.
  • Don’t blindly rely on the architect, draftsman, builder or engineer to design something for you. Do it the way you want it – or make sure there’s a very good reason not to!
  • Learn how building products and materials work – especially if you are a woman. Read the specs, look at the sketches and ask questions.

For more information, e-mail info@findmegreen.co.za.

Some of the nine pylons

Some of the nine pylons



One thought on “1, 2, 3 – Design!

  1. Pingback: Material, Function & Form | The Find Me Green Blog | S.P.A.C.E.

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