These Crazy South African Dorms Are Made From Shipping Containers And Old Silos

With an onsite gym, game rooms, computer rooms, and kitchens, this shipping container dorm building isn’t nearly as no-frills as you might expect.

For decades, a set of old grain silos in a rundown Johannesburg neighborhood stood empty, and a few years ago, it was slated for demolition. Then a local developer decided to buy the property and reinvent it as student housing, complete with precarious-looking shipping containers mounted on top.


The silos are 10 stories high, and when the new owners got permission to add another four stories to the top, they had to get creative. “Building on top of circular silos is no picnic, so eventually we thought, why not use shipping containers for the upper levels?” says Paul Lapham, CEO of Citiq, the development company. “The addition actually created probably the best accommodation, with great views of the city.”

Inside the silos, builders added ceilings and floors to what used to be a vertical drop of around 100 feet, and sliced windows into the thick exterior walls. Since the walls curve, being in the new rooms is a little like living in a modern version of a castle tower.

Because it was designed for students, Lapham says they wanted to include more than just individual spaces. Each floor has computer rooms, TV and game rooms, and communal bathrooms and kitchens along with dorm-like rooms. The building also offers a gym, free Wi-Fi, and shuttles to local universities.

These perks aren’t funded only by rent; the developers used a series of energy-efficient features, from heat pumps to low-flow showerheads, to save money that could be put back into the project. “All these features were incorporated because they were cost effective, and not because we were specifically pursuing a ‘green’ strategy,” says Lapham. Reusing the old grain silos and shipping containers, rather than building from scratch, saved even more money.

For students, the building provides a much-needed option for convenient housing. Only about 5% of university students in South Africa live in official dorms, despite demand, and at least one government report blames a lack of housing for the country’s incredibly high dropout rate (only about 15% of South African university students end up graduating).

The building is also helping change a forgotten neighborhood. “It’s a former light industrial area on the edge of the city that has escaped redevelopment so far,” Lapham says. “It is an extremely conveniently situated node, in close proximity to the universities, and with a lot of potential unused and derelict buildings around us for future developments.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.