Grand Designs Australia: Shipping Container House
$580,000 Flood Safe Sustainable Build
The Building Details
In the flood-prone area of Graceville in Brisbane, where homes are typically traditional Queenslanders and new builds are high on stilts, Todd and Diana Miller and their two young daughters were living in a small three-bedroom post-war-era brick home.
Todd is a builder and the family had spent about a decade building homes, selling them and moving on, but it was time to settle into something a little more permanent. Following the devastating 2011 Brisbane floods, a new house had to be sensitive to the possibility that the waters could rise again. The family needed a bigger home and Diana was adamant on having her own space for an art studio as well. “We basically needed more room as a family,” says Todd. “We wanted another living area so that we could have separate entertainment away from the kids … and we needed to do it all on a shoestring budget.”
A Crazy Notion
After looking at the concept of a shipping container as a cheap backyard studio idea for artist Diana, Todd got the “crazy notion of building an entire house out of them, and so the process began. Once we decided to use shipping containers, it got bigger than our initial vision,” says Diana. “The most important factor was to create more space for us but as the project evolved, the design elements and the look of the house became a big priority.”
The scale of the house grew in size and Todd’s innovative concept led to plans for a three-level home made from 31, 20ft steel shipping containers. The steel structure means the ground level can be flood-proof, and at just less than $4000 per container, it’s certainly a cost-effective building solution. Even more so when you consider that for that price you essentially get a structure that includes walls, floor and ceiling. It was an idea that ticked all the boxes and Todd is the kind of guy who was only spurred on harder by people who weren’t sure it would work.
A Unique Construction
“Todd loves a challenge so he really just wanted to do it to prove to the world it could be done,” says Diana. Constructing such a unique build was daunting though, and Todd himself was never quite sure if his plans would work. Bringing the concept to life was definitely a challenge. Fortunately for Todd, his careful planning, dedication and commitment meant this fascinating project succeeded, though not without its hitches; the weather for one was not on their side. Todd’s original plans were to complete the house in an incredible 16 weeks but the weather had other ideas. A considerable downpour at the start of the build slowed the project progression down. Things were looking back on track when the 10 containers for the flood-proof ground floor were laid in place in just four hours, followed by the next level’s 11 containers, craned in two weeks later. At eight weeks the entire three levels were in place and made watertight.
Another vicious storm hit the unfinished house, sending roof panels flying into trees and doing damage to windows. It’s no surprise the continuous bad luck with weather dampened their motivation levels at times.
Creating Voids and Space
Once each level of shipping containers was stacked, Todd used an angle grinder to cut away huge panels of steel to create openings, joining the containers and forming rooms and voids. As the build took place, the design and layout of the home changed, with rooms evolving and new spaces taking in the spectacular views created. One of the big considerations of the design was that the size of each container was locked in, so that the home could only increase in increments of 20 feet. “It was an entirely new way of building and designing for Todd,” says Diana. “He had to learn on the fly about how to put it all together as this sort of build had never been done on this scale in Australia, if not the world.”
The family spends most of their time in on the second levels, which is open plan and features the kitchen, dining and living area. “Our favourite feature is the massive raw-steel i-beams that span the ceiling of the living space and the double- and triple-height void as you come up the stairs,” say the couple.
Prior to the new build, Todd made a point of salvaging building materials that would have otherwise ended up in landfill. Looking at the eclectic mix of materials inside the house, his knack for creative design using a range of materials is clear — and the result is stunning. “Mismeasured or wrongly ordered windows, timber, panelling and lighting were all brought home and stored in our garage and around the home — yes, our house looked like a tip!” says Diana.
This has not only added to the unique style of the home, but has greatly reduced the overall cost while being good for the environment. “The entire vision behind the container home was building something cheaper than a conventional build, out of sustainable, recycled and upcycled materials,” says Diana.
A Cost and Environment Saving
Creative re-use of materials like this has not only added to the unique style of the home, but has greatly reduced the overall cost of the project, while also being good for the environment. “The entire vision behind the container home was building something cheaper than a conventional build, out of sustainable, recycled and upcycled materials,” says Diana.
The intention of the house was never to hide its shipping container roots, however with so much hard, cold steel it was important to bring in other elements to create a home. The handmade garage and front doors were created by the family out of individually cut cedar offcuts to “warm up the facade”. The same idea of warmth was applied to the interiors, with timber flooring used on the top two storeys. “We wanted to create an industrial yet homely atmosphere, which I think we have achieved,” says Diana.
The carefully considered interiors and creative overall design of this project has resulted in a truly individual house that functions beautifully and has warmth and character too, ensuring that what is essentially a stack of steel boxes feels like a real home.
Words: Emma Wheaton
Originally from Grand Designs Australia magazine 3.4