Building Blocks

Paul Lapham (left) and Arthur Blake (right) - the men from Citiq who created 27Boxes.

Paul Lapham (left) and Arthur Blake (right) – the men from Citiq who created 27Boxes.

Melville’s unique new shipping container mall, 27Boxes, is not only a novel concept – it makes economic sense on many levels too. We spoke to the developers, Citiq, about their passion for container architecture.

When observers refer to container architecture as building with lego blocks, the joke is not too far from the truth. Arthur Blake, Managing Director of Citiq Property Developers and a professional engineer, says that when he was designing 27Boxes, he literally used wooden scale models of containers to create the design.

“Then I took photographs of the model and layout and gave it to the drafts’ people to put onto paper. It affords me the opportunity to work the flow and movement out on a small scale. I can move any module in any direction to create more or less space. And because the container is a standard size, I do not have to create a new unit every time I move or enlarge an area,” he said.

27 Boxes is not Citiq’s first container development. CEO Paul Lapham says their first shipping container building built in 2012 was a small apartment block in Randburg – 61Countesses – which was rented out within two days of completion.

“From there we built Mill Junction, a student residence in Newtown, using a mix of shipping containers and the existing grain silos, followed by more student accommodation in Brixton.” When it came to the Melville mall, Blake says the location called for an unusual building concept and not traditional bricks and mortar.

“When I see people taking pictures of 27Boxes, I ask myself: Would people have taken pictures of a normal brick and mortar building? I wanted to create something that would fit in better with the Melville vibe as well as be something people could enjoy as unique to our village.”

The concept also makes economic sense on a few levels: Blake says that building with containers takes two thirds of the building time compared to conventional building and the costs are 80% of bricks and mortar.

There are also various green aspects: Container building involves the upcycling of an existing product, no new bricks are used, less cement is used, less human resources and energy are used and the shorter construction time means less fuel is used to service the project.

Another plus for Blake, is the truly unique design process: “The trick is to look at the container not as a container but as a building module. A very convenient module that can be placed in any way you require, it can be cut to size and it can be extended as required. The sides can be cut out to give a wider space and by spacing containers apart from each other the void that is created between them becomes instant space for halls and meeting rooms with areas and volumes much bigger than the container.

There are challenges too: “Container building is new in this country and no skills existed on the scale at which we are building. Blake says that new working methods and engineering solutions constantly have to be developed. Building with a fixed volume in each module requires a different approach and the inevitable crane work in limited space can also be a problem.”

Containers come in 12m and 6m lengths, says Blake. There are other special lengths but they are not common. He only uses the 12m containers because he can cut them to any size he needs. The 12m container is also more cost effective per m2.

Blake says that container architecture can be just as strong as it needs to be: “Any structure is made as strong as the engineer requires it to be for its purpose.”

“Containers are stacked nine-high on ships. Each 12m container’s own weight is 4000kg and it can be loaded with 25 000kg. If you work that out: Nine levels of about 30 000kg and the container at the bottom carries all that weight. If stacked incorrectly it would immediately collapse.”

From the end-user’s point of view, container architecture also makes economic sense: “We supply small, effective space that is much more affordable in the case of retail. In the case of residential space, we have always been able to give a lot more to the end-user by the savings we make on the building cost. So the end-user gets more for their money.”

He believes that South Africa holds endless potential for container architecture: “In a small way, container architecture could help speed up giving homes and spaces for people to live, in a country where we need housing fast.”

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