Smartbox offers container homes and offices

A company in Al Quoz is recycling steel containers and turning them into offices and hopefully, housing.

An interior view of one of the container homes. The buildings are insulated with rockwool to regulate their temperatures.
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DUBAI // A UAE company aims to spread the idea of turning shipping containers into homes and hotels. Martin Croucher reports from Dubai

Not many grown-ups get the chance to mess around with Lego at work - never mind giant-sized versions of the toy building bricks.

But that is how the managing director Arjun Menon describes what his company, Smart Box, does.

"Our business is like playing with Lego," he said. "The building blocks are 20ft and 40ft and we can build anything we like."

The engineering firm based in Al Quoz uses second-hand shipping containers to create all manner of buildings to live, work and wash in.

Projects have included hotel rooms, exhibition stands and a decompression chamber for divers working on the dredging of Palm Jumeirah. And the firm hopes its latest development will bring the idea of container buildings to a wider audience.

The company has been asked to build a 4,500-square-metre office and art space at The Shelter, a campus for creative industries in Dubai Media City. So far, one 40ft container has been installed.

"We're very excited by the project," said Rashid bin Shabib, one of the founders of The Shelter. "It's very different to stand inside a shipping container."

"Most people don't understand the concept," Mr Menon."When they see it in practice, it changes their perception. We're hoping our project with The Shelter will make more people aware."

The container architecture movement emerged in North America and Europe in the early 1990s, and took off in 2000 with the launch of Container City in London's Docklands. The trend has yet to become mainstream in the Middle East, owing in part to fears over how the steel containers would react to the region's heat.

A recent study carried out by the Wine Supply Chain Council found that temperatures could reach 57°C inside a container.

"The biggest question we get is on whether a steel container will get too hot in summer," Mr Menon said. "In fact, it's going to be cooler than any house, because we have insulation."

Smart Box buildings are insulated with rockwool, a substance used in cold stores.

The structures can be built in a fraction of the time it would take for a normal building.

A 120-room container hotel in Oman for which the company recently put in a tender was expected to be finished within four months. The materials required have about a third of the cost of those used in regular construction, Mr Menon said.

Smaller buildings, such as offices, do not require foundations and can be transported easily. Weighing about five tonnes, they are often finished on site and transported to their location.

The containers are mostly purchased second-hand from the parent company IAL Group, a Dubai-based logistics firm.

Smart Box has long-term plans and aims to build a "container city" for Dubai that consists of villas and flats in an area such as Jebel Ali South.

And if you fancy moving into one, the price of a 40ft container starts from about Dh45,000, depending on accessories such as air conditioning, plumbing, flooring and electrical wiring.