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Container life

Melanie Sevcenko June 18, 2013

As the cost of housing continues to soar in the German capital, one Berlin investor has found a solution for the rising number of students - put them in storage.

Sketches for the EBA51 student container village in Berlin, designed by Jörg Duske
Image: Entwurfsverfasser: Holzer Kobler Architekturen GmbH

What to do with the abandoned amusement ground "Spreepark" in Berlin's Plänterwald - and who's brave enough to invest in it - is a never-ending point of discussion. Meanwhile, developer Jörg Duske is making use of another leg of the locality.

On an 11,000-square-meter (118,000-square-foot) plot, formerly home to East German administration buildings, Duske is transplanting 410 metal shipping containers as low-cost housing in a future student village.

"Finding flats for a reasonable price is quite difficult in Berlin," said Duske. "I hope that this project will give inspiration to the architectural world because building containers, in my view, is 50 percent faster. It's alternative thinking for architecture."

Apartment in a box

Called Eba51, Duske's vision was inspired by a similar student housing project that he visited in Amsterdam last autumn, consisting of 1,000 units on 17,000 square meters. In a city where housing has always been expensive and scarce, Keetwonen is the largest undeveloped "container city" in the world.

It inspired him to bring something new to Berlin. The result is a building model that is sturdy, cheap and flexible - and represents an edgy alternative to the luxury apartments that are peppering Prenzlauer Berg.

Sketches for the EBA51 student container village in Berlin, designed by Jörg Duske
The containers look cool, but heating in the winter could become difficultImage: Entwurfsverfasser: Holzer Kobler Architekturen GmbH

After talking to students at Keetwonen, whose structure echoes faceless industrial monotony, Duske realized that he needed to up the ante in architectural design if he wanted to attract young people.

Under the premise that containers are a quicker and cheaper way to build housing, Duske opened a design competition last December. The winning design was "Frankie & Johnny" by Holzer Kobler Architecture, a Zurich-based firm that has developed a comprehensive cubic concept that includes a living room, sleeping quarter, kitchen, and private bathroom in each container.

For a 26-square-meter pre-fabricated container, the monthly rent is roughly 220 euros (about $290). Not bad - but you're also paying for the community, figures Duske. "It's really made for students so that they have to come together. It's about a community," he said.

A barbeque area, tennis tables, a laundry room, a communal kitchen and a space for events will be included in the complex. Also planned is a double container for a couple and even a triple container for roommates.

The plot will be trimmed in greenbelts and the natural habitat of meadows and trees - well suited for the proposed surrounding urban gardening project - with walkways, stairs and bridges connecting the cubic complexes.

While it may sound idyllic, there are some drawbacks. "Whether a container building really suits as a home for students is controversially discussed by professionals," explained Berlin-based urban designer Tobias Kurtz. While containers cut costs and time, "the metal shell is not easy to insulate, which means that a normal container is hot inside in summer and cold in winter.

And in winter, Berlin temperatures sink well below zero. "But containers transport a particular look or style that is totally different from the [old] Berlin style," continued Kurtz. "Some rough and fresh buildings that bring another atmosphere could do Berlin good. Especially these days, as many of the former wastelands in the center of the city have to make place for glossy housing estates."

Sketches for the EBA51 student container village in Berlin, designed by Jörg Duske
Eba51 isn't downtown, but it's close enough to the actionImage: Entwurfsverfasser: Holzer Kobler Architekturen GmbH

Building blocks

Invented more than five decades ago as a linchpin of product distribution, shipping containers are moving beyond being a squatter's makeshift shelter and becoming building blocks for green living solutions.

Across the globe, from Australia to Scandinavia, builders are reinventing the box into everything from arts spaces and co-working labs, to luxury condos and boutique hotels, to disaster relief housing and even schools.

Inherently stable and highly mobile, container projects are also eco-friendly since they require only a fraction of labor and material used in conventional buildings. And, admittedly, with their grungy, almost sci-fi chic, they also bring a cool factor.

But to ensure that the Eba51containers are habitable, some of their innate flexibility will be lost in the transformation. "Formally, it's for storage, not for living," said Duske. "So we have to fulfill all the regulations - heat and fire protection, for example."

Though his project is planning to stay put, mobility is often associated with container projects, making them particularly conducive to Berlin. Platoon, an ad agency and arts space, moved around the capital three times since its conception and has most recently re-stacked its green metal boxes on Schönauser Alle in the Mitte district.

"For Platoon, the container concept results out of a temporary architecture idea," says Christoph Frank, co-founder of Platoon and the director of Platoon Kunsthalle. "Within this mobile strategy we can afford to locate our space in the middle of the city on properties we couldn't normally afford. In Berlin, this is a very important aspect as the city is heavily changing and a lot of spaces are still to develop."

Location, location, location

With Eba51 still in the construction phase, Duske is making a demo with a rusty façade to show the container's natural material. Selecting the plot was the most difficult part, he admits, because it was crucial to consider exactly what a student needs. Being close to public transportation to connect to campus and, of course, Berlin's legendary nightlife was top priority.

"We would like to have a plot close to the center, but it's not affordable," said Duske. "And this is an investor talking, not a no-income level student. It's already a broken-record topic among young people in Berlin - little to no affordable housing in the city center, which means students are cast out to the back country in metal boxes. Where's the fun in that?"

Construction site on Eichbuschallee in Berlin where the EBA51 student container village will be built
The container village is still in the early stagesImage: Joerg Duske

Although Plänterwald is by no means at the epicenter of excitement, Eba51 is located next to a bus stop and is only a 10-minute walk from the tram station. It takes just 15 to 30 minutes to get to all surrounding universities, according to Duske, who says that living in Plänterwald still beats locating to the notoriously cheap Soviet-style buildings on the outskirts of Berlin.

The developer admits that, initially, he wasn't focused on coming up with a solution to the immense student population, now totaling around 147,000 and on the up. For him, the cubes were more about art.

"My first intention is to build a nice container village and introduce new architecture," he explained. "But the two things fall together - there's also a demand for more student housing. So hopefully everything will happen at the right time, for the right price."

Eba51 plans to open 73 units by the end of September when the fall semester beings, with final completion by April 2014. Applications to rent a container will be available on the EBA51 website, and Duske says he's embracing a first come, first serve philosophy.