A Complete Guide To Shipping Container Houses in Kenya.

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A Complete Guide To Shipping Container Houses in Kenya.

Background information.
Population Pressure creates Necessity and New demand.
Currently the world population is over 7.3 billion people and growing annually at 1.09% and that of Kenya is estimated at 47 million people with an annual growth rate of 2.61%.

House Deficit.
The Central Bank Governor estimates Kenya’s annual housing shortage to be 240,000 housing units per year with low income earners forming the highest percentage of the affected population. As a result,designers and innovators are seeking solutions to the challenge of affordable housing. Shipping Containers has emerged as a potential alternative solution!

Official Record on Patents and Origin
There are two main Patents issued according to official records for Shipping Container Housing:

1. The First recorded Patent names Christopher Betjemann as The Inventor (Patent No. US3182424 A Filed Oct 12, 1962)- Which states, "This invention relates to portable showcases, and more particularly to a combination shipping container and showcase adapted not only to house and store exhibits, but also to serve as a shipping container therefor, thereby providing a Mobile Trade Fair." Patent_US3182424_May_11,_1965

2. The Second recorded Patent names Phillip C. Clark as The Inventor (Patent No. US4854094 A Filed Nov 23, 1987)- Describes Method for converting one or more steel shipping containers into a habitable building at a building site.
Clark_03 Around the year 2004, HyBrid Architecture of Seattle, Washington, coined the term cargotecture, to describe any system built entirely or partially from shipping containers.

Container Sizes.
There are 3 Sizes of Shipping Containers described by the overall length, that is, 10 Foot (7.39 Square metres), 20 Foot(14.78 Square Metres) and 40 Foot(29.74 Square Metres).The internal dimensions are slightly less.

Applications of Cargo House Architecture/ Cargotecture
Fabricating containers to transform them to habitable homes includes cutting opening for windows, doors, insulating the walls and floor, electrical wiring, plumbing installations and finishing to suit the user which could be in form of painting or tiling.
  • They can be used for Institutional Buildings like Police posts, Clinics, Temporary Offices and Public Libraries.
  • They can be used for Residential Homes, Guest Houses and Swimming Pools.
  • They can also be transformed into Commercial Spaces like Retail Shops, Student Housing, Kiosks and Mini-Shopping Centres.

A good example of this is the Mini-Market along Langata Road between the Shell Petrol Station and T-Mall.
A second example is the Floating Student Housing in Copenhagen

Costings. Are Shipping Containers Cheaper than Typical Masonry Stonework?

It is a popular myth that Shipping Container Homes are cheaper than traditional homes in Kenya. Our research has shown that this is not the case unless one qualifies the statement!
In 2012 the US imported 17,541,120 TEUs yet only exported 11,935,906. This creates an annual surplus of approximately 5 million Containers.

Our trade volumes are relatively lower and there is no apparent surplus of shipping containers in Kenya. Therefore, the fewer containers are sold at a premium by middlemen with substantive mark-ups. It is ONLY cheaper if the containers are donated free of charge, used or at a throw-away-price.

By way of example, Safmarine donated 40 used shipping container to Simon’s Town High School(Cape Town). The school wanted to use the containers to build a hostel which was capable of housing 120 people at any given time. The project cost a total of $227,000 and was ready for its first lodgers on the 30th November 1998.

Shipping Containers could be cheaper in the US where they have a Surplus estimated at 5 million.

 A used 20 Foot Container retails at an average of KES. 250,000.00. Add KES. 30,000 for Transport 50 KM within Nairobi brings the cost to Approximately Ksh. 19,444/square metres before any modifications/prefabrications.

A used 40 Foot Container retails at an average of KES. 350,000.00. Add KES. 30,000 for Transport 50 KM within Nairobi brings the cost to Ksh. 13,194.44/sm before any modifications/prefabrications.

Does it mean it is not cheaper at all? No! As you can see above, the smaller the Container, the more expensive it is for building purposes. Secondly, innovation can lower down the cost per Square Metre by using the Containers in Composite. That is to say, for example creating Contained space in between Two Parallel Containers and using the Roof of the Shipping Container as balcony Space. 
The website Home Contained, defines it as, "the space created between more than one container, allowing flexibility in an overall plan." Uncontained Space is "the space beyond the structure, integrally connected to an overall nurturing environment"

See Full Description in Our Parallel House. The economic sense here is that you are not buying the extra space above the shipping container or the contained space in between thereby reducing overall Cost per Square Metre.

I did a Technical Analysis of the Bold House: A Typical Maisonette (120 Square Metre)  and The Parallel House: A Comparative Shipping Container House(140 Square Metres) utilizing the concept of contained space.
Coffee& Concrete Session Ad Copy

Left: The Bold House Model. Right: The Parallel House Model.

I discovered that The Parallel House maximized on the Space Utilization and Cost Much Less than a Typical Maisonette Construction! This may not hold true for Bungalows since utilization of balconies is eroded.

A simple one bedroom container house costs between Kshs. 500, 000(Basic) to Kshs. 800,000 whereas a three bedroom house costs between Kshs. 1.5million(Basic) to Ksh. 3.5 million. However, i strongly advice that a Bills of Quantities is prepared since Clients tend to be ambitious with finishes even when the budget is tight. Better to know the truth early because you can always increase the budget and add-ons! You can also play around with creativity and innovation to grab more space instead of only utilizing the space inside the container.
Think Outside The Box!

It is good to note that these cost savings between container houses and conventional houses begin to diminish if the designs are sophisticated or if the owner opts for executive finishes.

Time to Completion: It takes between 14- 30 days to put up the house to completion. More sophisticated designs may take a little longer. It is my strong advice that one makes a Program of Works to schedule all the activities. By comparison, the typical period for a bungalow is 3 to 4 months.

Advantages of Cargotecture
  1. Fast to put up with cost savings compared to conventional housing which could be the solution we need for low cost housing.
  2. Containers are self-supporting hence no need for expensive foundation and in case of a sloppy ground, running silt or black cotton soil, one can typically do cheaper foundations including using Logs, Floating them on Water etc!
  3. They are virtually indestructible in the sense that they are resistant to earthquakes, hurricanes and fire. They are self-supporting and made from very strong steel since they are purpose built to carry very heavy loads and maritime transport. Containers are handled by cranes and are pre-painted with rust resistant paints which make long-lasting. However, it is wise to apply fresh paint to increase longevity.
  4. They are versatile. Containers can be very easily stacked and welded together to form multi-storey buildings.
  5. Mobility: they can easily be transported from one place to another which is mostly an advantage to contractors and NGOs who are always on the move due to the nature of their work.
  6. Time Saving and relatively easy to install depending on the design at hand. More complicated designs may require more time to morph the containers.
  7. They require less specialized labour (almost No Mason) but may need more careful interior detailing, glass fixing and welders/ ironmongers.

 Disadvantages of Cargotecture
  1. Social Stigma- in Kenya the biggest challenge that has slowed down the adoption of container housing as a solution to affordable housing is the association of the ‘mabati’ housing to poverty and low social status. People have therefore become hesitant to the idea of container housing. It would go a long way if we were open-minded about the technology.
  2. It is hard to secure financing for installation of container houses in Kenya because the Local Government and the Building Codes recognize the houses as temporary structures rather than permanent.
  3. Some containers could be hazardous to the health of dweller especially if they were used to transport hazardous chemicals before being converted to homes and were not properly inspected and cleaned.
  4. Cutting openings through the container for ventilation, doors and windows sometimes weakens the house and structural modification may become necessary which comes at an extra cost.
  5. What is wrong with Shipping Container Housing? Another Point-Of-View by Markasaurus.

Skills Required to Build Container Housing
  1. Creativity, Innovation and Craftmanship is necessary to create elegant living spaces. Think Outside The Box!
  2. Design Matters. There is no point building up junky stuff.
  3. Containers are considered a recycled form of housing but the buildings don't have to be whacky! You can visit us to see 20 Different Solutions!

Case Studies and Emerging Best Practice
a) Modifications and Morphing
There is no limitation to the Modifications that can be made. According to Architectural firm NL Architecture,they can be Inflated, Smashed, Deformed, Twisted, Expanded.  The Containers do not have to maintain their factory shape. This allows for additional functionality including better lighting, forms, canopy, utility, and adaptation. They can be cut, welded and 'morphed' into various shapes (Examples from the Dongdaemun Plaza Kiosks Project). Modifications_include_
b) Extra Storage
When used as display booths/kiosks, the walls can be mounted with perforated steel plates to increase mounting of products or shelves. In the example below, NL Architecture transformed a Container into a tall and skylit kiosk structure to serve as exhibition space with doors to open on all sides NL-architects-kiosks-dongdaemun-plaza-designboom-01
c) Creating A Breezeway When you allow space in between composite containers for wind to naturally breeze through and offer cooling effect. This can be seen in the Project, "Tagus Linear Park / Topiaris Landscape Architecture"
atelier difusor de arquitectura | image © joão morgado

atelier difusor de arquitectura | image © joão morgado

d) Sunshading and Cladding
As can be seen in the example above, timber slats can be used to camouflage the "ugly" shipping containers, prevent direct sunlight and also enhance internal comfort by stabilizing the room temperatures.
Timber or steel slats can also be used to break the path of direct sunlight as can be seen below in one of our Proposed Concepts designed by Aximo Architects. c0g61qkwiaemwux
e) Green Roofing
Cargo Guesthouse was designed by Texas architect Jim Poteet. It utilises a used 40 foot shipping container which provides around 320 square foot of living space. Container-Guest-House
The roof has plantings which acts as extra insulation against direct sun and adds to the utility of the house.
f) Extra Revenue Source: Build-to-Rent on AirBnB
Spend Ksh.2m on furnished unit. List on for Ksh.8,000 to 10,000 per day and break-even after 250 bookings. Strangers can help pay that building cost and build the next Cargotecture. You can even end up owning an entire chain of simple houses for back-backers! Here is an amazing real life example from Livingston. C0HAjyLXEAA3G-H C0HAnItWIAArbpo
The Livingston "Living Box" is rented out at USD 195 per day.
g)  Info Booth/Urban Couch:
NL Architecture have proposed the mini buildings to serve other purposes, such as fostering interaction and play or providing places for relaxation. They can revitalize dead public spaces! NL-architects-kiosks-dongdaemun-plaza-designboom-02
In the example above, the tail is squeezed to form a smooth urban couch.
h) Site Office and Storage for Contractors
If you are in the Construction Business for the long-term, it makes sense to invest in one or two shipping containers for storage of building materials. Eventually, the cost evens out.  

Important Terms Explained: Cargotecture : Around 2004, HyBrid Architecture of Seattle, Washington, in the US, coined the term cargotecture, to describe any system built entirely or partially from shipping containers.


Thank You
Qs.David Nahinga
Registered Quantity Surveyor,(RQS), M.I.Q.S.K,
Owner: Ujenzibora Investment Limited
Tel : +254 720 578 632

David Nahinga
David Nahinga
Quantity Surveyor | Owner and Director: Ujenzibora Investment Limited | Tel: +254 720578632 |


  1. Eric Mwangi says:

    Very informative article. In my opinion containers might not be the magical solution to bridging the housing gap but they are a very viable solution especially in remote areas, or for off-the-grid homes that are self sustaining. I can picture a small unit that is ready to be set up anywhere quickly and when needed it can be packed up and moved if need be. Aye that’s what the government was thinking with the hospital containers (speculation only).
    I’m curious though on the total carbon/energy footprint of containers though, with the amount of energy that’s used to make cement versus that of steel, and since the containers can be recycled is this deducted from the footprint?
    Awesome piece all in all.

    • Ujenzi says:

      Thanks Erick for the comment.
      According to David Cross of http://www.sgblocks.com, “a container has 8000 lbs of steel which takes 8000 kwh of energy to melt down and make new beams etc… The process of modifying that entire 8000 lbs of steel into a “higher and better use” only takes approximately 400kwh of electrical energy (or 5%). Granted it takes a bit more “muscle” but that is called Value-Cycling which we feel is that next step up from Re-cycling.”

      I am still looking for the number of how many containers check in via Imports and Check out annually via Exports and those that are retired as @Used@ ready for Recycling. That would tell us if the Surplus can be able to sustain any demand or if there will be a rise in price occasioned by scarcity. Also need to find/make calculations on energy consumed to build up a typical masonry house.

  2. Joseph says:

    A good informative article. However am at a loss trying to understand why the container technology has not picked up in Kenya as well as it has in other countries. Based on your experience, what would you say, other than social stigma is causing the reluctance?

    • Hello Joseph,
      Thanks for visiting.
      1. We do not have a huge volume of Containers. Even if this was to go mainstream, our trading volumes are low.
      2. Lack of actionable Information
      3. Me-Too-Syndrome: We do not have enough Role Models or bold home owners to make this pick. But given time, it will change.

  3. Mwenga says:

    Hi David,

    Am keen on the paralle container concept you modelled.

    What was the typical cost for you model

    • Dear Mwenga,
      Thanks for visiting. We have over 20 Different Designs.
      The Parallel House will depend on choice of finishes and location where it is being built. Remember it is 140 Square Metres which is approximately the size of a typical 4 Bedroom Maisonette. The Cost will range from Ksh. 3m to 3.5m http://ub.co.ke/index.php/contact/


    Hi. I’m most impressed and thinking my first home will have to be a container house. Although I haven’t seen security installations on doors and windows on the images I’ve seen so far, My concern stems from past experiences with burglars. All in all…thumbs up Bwana David!

    • Dear Kihara,
      Thanks for passing by. We appreciate.
      We can install security features to the home just like in any other house.
      We look forward to being of help when you are ready.

      David Nahinga

  5. Naome. says:

    I really like the idea. I would want to get in touch with you.
    Am sure we can come with a solution and solve it. I think it
    needs money to invest in and am sure we can get investors .
    I can contact some people to help us out. I love this ideas.
    Good job. Thanks for info.hope we will make it.

  6. Chrisantus Opiyo Odongo says:

    I wanted to know how much it would cost to construct either a 4 or 5 bedroom bungalow in Bungoma considering the distance. Please send the whole quotation if possible. Thanks in advance.

  7. James says:

    hi, how much do you guys charge for a 3 bdroom house?

    • Dear Mutinda,

      A three bedroom house would range in size from 80 Square Metres (Small one) to 150 Square Metres (Sizeable)

      The cost range is KES. 2,800,000 to KES. 5,250,000

      ​Kindly where would you like to build the house.
      I wish to invite you to my office at Ngong Racecourse to take you through the building process so we can start.

      We are able to Design & Build for you the house to meet your requirements.​

  8. JAmes says:

    Hi There,
    Are there any special approvals required to do a Container home?

  9. Drako. says:

    actually i have seen the good designes you people have and i’m actually wd like such a house. how much would it cost me for a standard, one container house in eldoret town?

    • Hello,
      It will depend on the design. All the projects we do are custom-made. There is no single size that fits all. We would request you to visit so we can be better serve you.
      We are located at Ngong Racecource, nairobi.

  10. Hi David

    I am interested in owning a container home with one master bedroom and two other bedrooms, a living room (4 bedrooms house). Kindly advise.
    Thank you!.

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