City Weekend

Why is Hong Kong getting container homes? And will they work?

Government housing plan takes inspiration from similar projects in Amsterdam and London

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 October, 2017, 9:09am

Hong Kong has been ranked the world’s least affordable city to buy a home in for the seventh year running, with flats costing more than 18 times the annual median income, according to a 2017 survey by American research institution Demographia.

With such high rents, demand for public housing is high. There were more than 150,000 applications for public housing at the end of June, and an average wait of 4.7 years.

And with the city’s 7.4 million population set to grow by 390,000 by 2043 according to government statistics, demand seems unlikely to decrease any time soon.

Last week the Development Bureau announced an initiative for cargo container homes, aimed at easing Hong Kong’s housing crisis through the temporary solution of prefabricated homes, from as early as next year.

Thinking inside the box: Hong Kong container homes could be on the way

The plan comes after similar projects in Amsterdam and London.

In 1999, Murray Grove, a nine-storey block of prefabricated modular housing, was built in east London. The 30 steel-framed modules that stacked up to make the block were made in a British factory and took just six months to assemble.

And in 2005, Tempohousing, a Dutch company, built 1,034 container homes for students in Amsterdam in the world’s first and largest container campus. That was intended to stay in place only five years, but is still there today and will stay in use until at least 2018. Each box is 230 sq ft and includes a toilet and balcony. Students pay the equivalent of HK$3,000 a month in rent.

The Hong Kong government has two pilot projects in mind for the city’s very own container homes. They will launch at the University of Hong Kong campus in Pok Fu Lam, and the Science and Technology Park in Sha Tin, aimed at staff and students.

When the 194 sq ft container homes are in place, monthly rent is expected to range from HK$8,000 to HK$10,000, around 40 per cent cheaper than the market rate nearby, according to a paper by the Innovation and Technology Bureau in July.

The developers are planning to have the 500 cubicles, over 18 storeys, in place by 2020.

“Finding a home and settling down is one of the big challenges everybody faces in life and to always be in a temporary home is a level of instability”, said certified architect Paul McKay. “Especially if you live in a structure that looks and feels temporary. It satisfies basic needs of shelter, but it doesn’t bring a very high quality of life.”

McKay, who himself lived in a container home in the New Territories seven years ago, said the homes can be “rather cheerless with no light from outside”, feeling “impermanent” and “claustrophobic”.

In contrast, London’s Murray Grove has high-quality interiors, with wooden floors, plastered walls and skirting boards, McKay said. If containers are purpose-built for people to live in, such as these, they can feel like home, he said.

This is important because, as was the case in Amsterdam, the architect said, “temporary solutions have a habit of becoming permanent solutions”.

Other innovative housing from ideas around the world: Could they be next in Hong Kong?

We put the ideas to architect Paul McKay

Amsterdam: Canal boats

Many boats that formerly transported wheat and coal have been converted into Dutch canal homes, as they are now too small for freight. Most are small, between 14 and 30 metres long, and 2.5 to 5 metres wide. Monthly mooring costs are about HK$1,800, while everyday practical costs range from HK$9,000 to HK$27,000 per month.

McKay: “How would they withstand typhoons?”

Brazil: Reusing old infrastructure

After the 2014 football World Cup in Brazil, architects from 1Week1Project proposed “Casa Futebol”, a project to insert affordable modular housing into the stadiums used for the tournament. Eventually, that met resistance and did not go ahead.

McKay: “It’s definitely worth looking at the existing building stock and seeing where efficiencies could be achieved. [In Hong Kong] that also ties in with the movement to maintain existing built heritage, which is a positive thing. If that could be done while also satisfying people’s needs for shelter and to build a home, that would be a good thing.”

South Africa: Corrugated metal structures

As part of an initiative in 2014 to improve housing in South Africa’s slums, design group Urban-Think Tank created a home out of corrugated metal. The prototype was a cheap, two-storey shack for a family living in a township in Cape Town.

McKay: “There would be climate issues, not only typhoons but also the heat would be quite unpleasant.”

Canada: Tree houses

In a relatively recent, Instagram-worthy trend, tree houses are being built as homes among Canada’s beautiful scenery.

McKay: “Is it really a mass housing solution? There are basic safety issues. You would end up building big concrete and steel structures to hold up these trees.”