Cheap Hong Kong-designed ‘container homes’ the way of the future

Have house, will travel: portable, eco-friendly and durable, compact prefabricated homes may provide an answer to fast-changing living and working environments. We're unlikely to see them used in Hong Kong any time soon, though

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 February, 2016, 8:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 February, 2016, 4:03pm

Two Hong Kong companies are developing homes that will sell for as little as HK$500,000 – and we are not talking about illegally converted pigsties in the New Territories.

The Alpod and the G-pod are prefabricated homes the size of a standard shipping container. These are not the drab “prefabs” of the kind put up in Europe after the second world war, nor do they resemble the makeshift offices fashioned from used containers on construction sites. They are stylish, eco-friendly and, most important, long-lasting homes that you can pack up and take anywhere in the world with you. Assuming, of course, that you have somewhere to put them.

“We are interested in moveable buildings, an approach that prevents wastage and gives people the freedom to move anywhere. Your house follows you when you move,” says architect James Law, designer of the 40ft-long aluminium Alpod on display in Kowloon Park as part of the Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture, which ends on February 28.

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The unit has a net area of 480 square feet, comparable to the multimillion-dollar shoeboxes that most Hong Kong people call home. The bathroom is surprisingly comfortable and the space can easily be kitted out in the same way as a studio flat. At just 3.3 metres wide, however, it is narrow, but that’s the compromise for its portability: the pod can be hoisted onto the back of a container truck.

With an all-glass front, the show unit might turn off customers lacking an exhibitionist streak. Law explains, however, that the full potential of the Alpod is only realised when used as a high-density residential solution, rather than as a stand-alone unit placed at street level.

Our living and working environments are in flux. So homes should also become more flexible in such a fast-changing world
James Law

His models are of high-rise apartment blocks conceptually similar to a multi-storey car park: a bare, central structure that allows Alpod owners to “park” their homes, plug in to water and power mains and share in the use of lifts and fire escapes. Importantly, potential developers will not be selling the Alpods – just the space for docking them. (Law says that, in theory, there is no limit to how high they can go.)

“The changing environment, changing politics and changing economics mean that our living and working environments are in flux. So homes should also become more flexible in such a fast-changing world,” he says.

Law, owner of James Law Cybertecture (JLC), is a persuasive man: Green Bird-Parinee Developers in Mumbai, India, recognising the appeal of apartments with private pools, has been working with JLC since 2012 to offer units with plunge pools on balconies. But he admits the Alpod Tower is at a conceptual stage, though one deemed technically executable by partners Arup (a global engineering firm) and Aluhouse, a joint venture between Asia Aluminium Group and Guangdong Fast Metal Technology that already sells mass-produced aluminium houses, mostly in China.

“There is a global trend which has seen mobile, prefabricated homes gain momentum,” says Law. “A major advantage is the production cost – it is less than a quarter of what it costs to build a same-size bricks-and-mortar flat. The materials are also highly recyclable.”

That translates to about HK$500,000, he says. Not that it’s for sale: the Alpod will be heading to the Science Park at the end of the biennale for use in research on green buildings.

The G-pod and the Alpod are not exactly two peas in a pod, despite both being container-sized and -shaped. Recently unveiled in Cyberport, the G-pod can be unpacked into a home that has more than double the floor area of its travel size. The front folds down into a front porch and the back slides out to make a sealed extension, which means a 20ft-long unit (half the length of the Alpod) can extend to afford a gross floor area of 390 square feet.

With the G-pod, everything slides in and out. You can pack it up and ship it off within a day
Duncan Colling

Australian architect Dan Sparks came up with the idea when he was trying to design comfortable and easy-to-install accommodation for senior executives working at Australian mines.

“With the G-pod, everything slides in and out,” says Duncan Colling, director of business development at G-pod International, the Hong Kong company making and selling the steel units. “You can pack it up and ship it off within a day. It also comes with a cyclone-proof fly-roof that can support solar panels. So if you want to go completely off the grid, you can use solar energy, capture rainwater and install a chemical or compost lavatory. A basic unit weighs about 6.9 tonnes, which makes it easily transportable. It can be set up anywhere.”

Colling says the company doesn’t use re-purposed shipping containers because the G-pod needs to be stronger than standard, commercial containers to allow for the open design.

Like the Alpod, the G-pod is produced in a factory in southern China, which makes it handy for filling orders from Hong Kong. But Colling says local demand is unlikely to be significant and most of his potential clients are in Australia, New Zealand and the United States. The availability of land is an issue in Hong Kong, and city regulations don't cover such housing. There have been cases of people living in containers converted into flats but these are illegal (they wouldn’t pass fire regulations, for starters) and categorised as squatter huts – temporary housing that has been outlawed since 1982. (In 2013 lawmaker Chan Yuen-han led an unsuccessful campaign to have the government sign off on the installation of container houses under flyovers that could serve as affordable, temporary housing for the homeless.)

Thus far the only Hong Kong inquiries about the G-pod have been in connection to its commercial use, according to Colling. “It can be quick to deploy as a coffee shop, a pop-up restaurant, or in events and exhibitions,” he says. “We offer a US$39,900 (HK$310,000) ‘blank’ version of the 20-foot model that commercial clients would be more interested in because they’d want to fit it up themselves. A fully fitted one for living in would retail for US$74,900.”

The company is also developing a larger model, slated to be available from the middle of 2016. This 40ft-long G-pod should afford 690 square feet of usable space.

In case you’re wondering, there is little likelihood either of the pods will be sprouting from the rooftops of New Territories houses any time soon. Law says that although the Alpod ought to be light enough to be supported by a village house, it would probably be deemed an illegal structure under Hong Kong laws.