As in most big cities, it’s hard to find an apartment to rent in Copenhagen—and even harder to find one that’s affordable. But the city also has a lot of temporarily vacant land. A new development plans to fill it with a movable village of tiny, cheap student homes that can be packed up and shipped elsewhere when the land is in use again.
“Most cities actually have a lot of land that is not being used for the next 10 or even 20 years, because of how cities develop,” says Michael Plesner, cofounder and partner at CPH Containers, the company planning the movable village. “They need to plan [subways], and they need to do all sorts of expensive infrastructure. When the more established city comes, we can just move the villages we plan to build. It’s kind of a frontier city that we propose, to pre-develop some of the outer areas of the city.”
In Copenhagen, that area is an industrial harbor that’s fallen out of use. It’s an ideal place to live, with sea views and a 10-minute bike ride to the city center. And if the developers have their way, it will soon be one of the most affordable places to live in the city.
The new student homes are built from shipping containers, both because they’re designed to move and because the architects wanted to build everything from upcycled materials. Each year, the Danish shipping company Maersk gets rid of as many as 80,000 old containers—though they’re no longer usable for shipping, they still work for housing.
“We tried to make a house that is as sustainable as possible, in the sense that constructing it has a low environmental footprint,” says Plesner. “All of the things we use to build the house are already out there and have already been used for other things.”
Shipping containers are sometimes criticized as a building material and can be tricky to work with. But the architects say that the challenges—such as how to insulate metal—are surmountable.
“It’s a steel box, and with a steel box, you need to know what you’re doing,” he says. “At least in our temperatures, where you have hot summers and very cold winters. So it took us about a year to figure out exactly how we wanted to do the insulation.” The design uses breathable walls with wood fiber insulation and some holes in the containers, to avoid problems such as mold.
The village has a “utility container” that handles everything from treating wastewater to supplying electricity and heat, so the whole neighborhood can just roll away when needed. “The whole infrastructure around the city is also movable,” says Plesner. “We tried to make a city where you don’t dig in the ground.”
The tiny homes are also designed to promote a different kind of lifestyle. “The philosophy is to live simply,” he says. “It’s trying to show it can be nice to live in a smaller space . . . you can spend time in the surrounding city instead of buying things you don’t need. Ultimately we believe there is a degree of freedom to this, of increased happiness. And if we want affordable cities, people building bigger houses just means there’s less land and everything will be more expensive.”
CPH Containers is working with Copenhagen to get the permits to build, and change zoning laws that weren’t designed for temporary neighborhoods. Though it’s been challenging, they say it looks like they’ll get approval, and investors are ready to finance the project.
Eventually, they plan to offer a kit that can be used anywhere. “I think our ideal scenario is kind of an IKEA concept, where we can premake most of the house, the essential part, and then just ship it to wherever you need it,” Plesner says. “At that site, you can have local labor assemble it following these intuitive, IKEA-like steps. We want to make a model where we can actually create local employment as we export these.”
All Photos: via CPH Containers