First Â£35,000 shipping container homes in Sheffield close to becoming reality
More than 600 eco homes made from shipping containers would be created in Sheffield each year, under plans to revolutionise house building in the UK.
Production of the first homes could start as soon as this winter, it is hoped, with REACH Homes in advanced talks with Sheffield Council about creating nine such properties at a corner plot on Castlebeck Avenue, in Manor.
The not-for-profit developer, which hopes to sell one-bedroom homes for as little as Â£35,000, is also in discussions about two other sites within the city - one of which would have up to 65 homes.
Its founder Jon Johnson believes such 'off-site' homes, which are built in a factory before being moved into place, are the solution to the affordable housing 'crisis' which is pricing many people out of the property market.
Not only are they cheaper and quicker to build than traditional housing stock, he argues, they are constructed largely from recycled materials and can generate most of their own energy via solar panels, making them a much more environmentally friendly option.
"There's a crisis in affordable housing and it's only getting worse," he said.
"People are increasingly having to put off making life choices like starting a family because they're still living with their parents or they're working like hell to save enough money to take that first step on the housing ladder.
"We need to stop building in the same way the Victorians did, creating inefficient homes, and start using modern techniques to make sustainable homes which are more affordable.
"We need to design more with people in mind, rather than just profit."
Mr Johnson is speaking from the prototype one-bedroom home created from shipping containers at Heeley City Farm, where the 54-year-old has been staying to test it out.
The cosy lodgings contain everything you need, including a kitchen, shower and a bright and airy living room. The insulation and solar panels mean he didn't have to shell out for fuel, even during winter, and he's been able to grow vegetables including peas, kale and marrows outside.
Visitors to the show home have obviously liked what they've seen, with more than 300 people signing up to a provisional waiting list.
REACH isn't just looking to build in Sheffield, says Mr Johnson. It has identified a couple of potential sites in Rotherham and is talking to housing chiefs in Leeds, Manchester and Gloucestershire, among other areas, too.
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It is also linking up with similarly-minded organisations across the country to launch the National Federation of Affordable Builders (NFAB), in an attempt to push off-site building up the agenda.
As a former policeman, the 54-year-old's vision is to create not just homes but communities, by giving people more of a stake in where they live.
"When I was with the police there were certain areas which were more challenging than others, but even within those areas there were streets where there was virtually never any trouble," he said.
"They tended to be the ones with a settled community where people know one another and look out for each other, which is the way it should be.
"That's what we want to achieve by investing in people rather than profits, which is all most house builders care about."
REACH is focusing on previously developed brownfield plots within areas requiring regeneration, where land is likely to be cheaper, and it aims to involve residents of those neighbourhoods from the outset.
Within larger developments, the goal is to provide one communal building for residents to use as they wish, which could host everything from book groups to a pop-up GP surgery.
There are obvious parallels with the pre-fab accommodation which sprung up after the Second World War, replacing buildings destroyed in the blitz, but Mr Johnson insists these homes are a very different beast.
"Those homes were put up very hastily without much planning and they had a bad reputation, though there are still people living in them up at Ecclesfield who swear by them," he said.
"We're at a stage now where the technology has caught up sufficiently to do it properly. These aren't temporary homes. They're designed with a life-span of 80-90 years, which is more than many new-build developments."
One of the big appeals of the shipping container homes is that a one-bed property can be knocked up in as little as a fortnight, says Mr Johnson, with another four-to-five days needed to install it on-site.
They are also easily customisable, giving customers a greater say in the finished product, and the factory where they are made would create up to 90 jobs when it reaches full capacity.
The aim is that REACH will eventually generate an annual surplus which can be ploughed back into the community, potentially funding support for homeless people or the rehabilitation of ex-offenders.
And the good news if all goes to plan is that there's no shortage of used shipping containers out there, with an estimated 15 million going spare at any one time according to Mr Johnson.