Posted on Wednesday 8 February 2012 by Ulster Business

Living in a box

Symon Ross reports on a new business planning to add a quirky variation to the increasingly diverse architecture on display around Northern Ireland.

How would you feel about sitting down to read the paper and sip your morning cappuccino inside a shipping container?

It might sound a little far fetched, but that’s exactly what planning consultant Andrew Heasley is hoping to convince the world is a good idea.

His company Coolbox Cargotecture (www.coolboxcargotecture.com) describes itself as Northern Ireland’s first ‘cargotecture’ design consultancy. Its aim is to “design stunning buildings at an affordable price” using sustainably sourced shipping containers.

“I work as a planning consultant and I’ve always had an interest in sustainable design. I have been going through various ideas that might suit the economic downturn and I thought this was a good one. They are used around the world and I’m convinced there a number of markets for us to explore here in Northern Ireland,” he told Ulster Business.

With the ability to design, build and brand the containers to customers’ requirements, potential uses include containers as cafes, tourist facilities, pop-up restaurants, shops and commercial spaces, student housing and even hotels.

Companies have recognised the benefit of utilising such containers as meeting places to spread their brand concept. For example, Puma uses a specially adapted container as a pop-up store that moves around the world to major sporting events, while Tommy Hilfiger has put a bar in its converted container.

“It is a well used concept, originating in the US, and there are a few examples in England and Scotland now, but we will be the first in Northern Ireland,” says Andrew.

His initial plan is to start with some small-scale projects in Northern Ireland, most likely pop-up café units and tourist amenity buildings.

He believes there would be a “perfect synergy” to using these buildings in Titanic Quarter during the various events planned to mark the ship’s centenary and that they would also provide a great branding opportunity for businesses who want to tap into the tourist traffic. Events like the Irish Open could also open up some exciting opportunities.

Coolbox has also had some interest in the student housing and hotel layouts which have been used in countries such as the Netherlands and which he believes could work well filling sites that have been left vacant in Belfast city centre following the property boom.

Needless to say that a box that travels around the world on ships will be extremely durable as a building block.

But can you really convert an old shipping container into a comfortable space to eat, sleep or work? And can it really look like anything other than a 20, 30 or 40 foot metal box?

Andrew believes so. He has enlisted Adam Robinson of WH Stephens as project manager and former colleagues Derek Williamson and Siobhan Mullan, who worked on projects including Victoria Square for BDP, to ensure the architectural and civil engineering sides are up to scratch. They are convinced both the cost and branding opportunities will be appealing.

“Everyone is very passionate about what we are trying to do. We are trying to push the design element as much as possible rather than just having a bland and functional building,” he says.

Coolbox will work with Mobile Mini UK Ltd, a multinational shipping container company which buys them off the shipping companies and fits them out. Mobile Mini UK Ltd specialises in fitting out containers used by contractors on buildings sites for office space or canteen facilities.

After some slightly more stylish design input from Andrew and his team, the partner firm will do most of the fit-out work off site, with containers then dropped in with minimal disruption to existing premises.

They can become fixed sites or temporary buildings which the company may hire out and take back to re-use again, or sell to councils and private developers to be franchised out.

“We’re living in difficult economic times and our buildings will cost approximately 40% less than a traditionally constructed building. Depending on ground conditions and use, there will be no need for foundations and block work, which are two big expenses in a traditional build,” adds Andrew.

“It is an extremely flexible building product and we will be able to do the small up to the very ambitious schemes.”

The local authorities have been receptive to the idea of “cargotecture” in Belfast, and the company has held talks with around a dozen potential customers who are keen on the concept.

“I’m sure some people might not like them, but we have got people talking about them,” says Andrew. Once we get the first one off the ground we can really go for it.”

“It is an extremely flexible building product and we will be able to do the small up to the very ambitious schemes.”

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