The balcony is edged in parallel strips of steel to continue the profile of the top floor without sacrificing the views

Grand Designs: County Derry shipping container house


Architect Patrick Bradley used a base of shipping containers to build his County Derry, UK, home on an achievable budget

Building in the countryside can often raise a few eyebrows, and when architect Patrick Bradley explained his plans to build on a treasured spot on his parents’ farm, he divided family opinion. “They all agreed I could build on a picturesque area with a stream bubbling through it,” says Patrick. “But my idea was for a bold contemporary home made of boxes balanced on top of each other. They thought it was a bit wild and my mother was worried that I was going to ruin her favourite view forever.” But Patrick was confident the house would work. His design is an arrestingly simple one, with the house having two principal faces. For the view from the road, Patrick created a toned-down facade, with one box laid over another in a natural palette that blends with the countryside. But the rear elevation is far more sculptural, with a large statement chimney and a cantilevered first floor, balcony and terrace. Fortunately, the one place where the design didn’t cause concern was in the planning office, which embraced the boldness of Patrick’s scheme. “It’s not as dominant in the landscape as you might think, either, when you compare it to the enormous white bungalows that are the norm around here,” says Patrick.

To help his home fit in with the setting, Patrick turned to agricultural buildings for inspiration. “There are plenty of large barns locally, but your eyes don’t pick them up. Their raw materials and dark colours mean they recede into the countryside rather than stand out,” he says. Consequently, from the start, the property’s cladding was to be in a natural palette, with two distinct materials zoning the private and shared spaces of the house. Downstairs, the sleeping area was to be clad in rust-red Corten steel, with the top floor sheathed in a dark grey, coarse metal mesh.

In addition to this daring design, Patrick’s build route was also far from conventional as he planned to upcycle four shipping containers to create the frame of the house. The containers were a creative solution to a budgetary problem, he explains. “I always design and build with a quantity surveyor, so I know the cost down to the last screw,” he says. “But when we priced up the plans, I just couldn’t afford to progress with the design using a conventional build method. I’d seen shipping containers used before, so I thought why not use them for the structure?”

Containers are enormously strong when stacked conventionally thanks to their load-bearing properties, but Patrick’s plan was to stack them in a cruciform arrangement across the weakest point. This meant a new steel skeleton had to be made for the containers by off-site steelworkers so the weight could be supported centrally.

Once the new steel was in place, it was time to try the containers in their final configuration to see if the structure had the integrity it needed. “This was probably one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of any of the houses I’ve built,” says Patrick. “Thankfully, though, they were as solid as a rock.” While the containers were being transformed off-site, work on the foundations had slowed to a crawl. In addition to being economical, using containers had the advantage of not requiring the deep foundations of a traditional block build, only pad foundations. But during the excavation, the team hit an enormous seam of basalt — a tremendously heavy and strong rock — which really slowed down progress and stretched the budget. “The rock was a nightmare to get out, although we did eventually put it to good use by creating a wall on the site once the build was completed,” adds Patrick.

Finally, the containers were moved to site and stacked in position, and for the first time, the building’s mass became apparent in the landscape and the family’s opinion hit an all-time low as all they could see was giant white boxes piled on top of each other.

However, the project moved on at a speedy pace, with insulating as well as first and second fix quickly following on from one another. “Having the Grand Designs TV crew scheduled to visit at regular intervals was a real catalyst to get us working our socks off,” says Patrick. “And, to be honest, if I had to do it all again, the only thing I would do differently would be to give myself an extra three months to complete the build.”

Despite the frenzied pace, the finished house is everything Patrick dreamed of and more. “I only ever wanted to build a house with enough space for a small family, not some massive place with rooms I never go into, which is what so many people think they need to live in,” he says. As a result, his 115m² of space is open plan, with the living areas upstairs making the most of the views. From the restrained entrance — a simple orange door set within the dark grey metal facade — a corridor takes you past an office/third bedroom before opening out into the open-plan living zone.

Here, the kitchen, backed with the stairs to the lower floor, leads on to a spacious room with dining and seating areas, large windows and a balcony and terrace. Downstairs, a small corridor links bedrooms one and two, a bathroom and utility area. The litmus test for the project was always going to be how the completed house was received locally and, most importantly, the reaction from Patrick’s mother. “She didn’t visit until it was completed,” he says. “But the minute she saw the finished building, she loved it. She’s round every day for tea and to look out at her treasured view.”

While the completed property is testament to Patrick’s vision, the architect is quick to point out that the house is the sum of the skills of the contractors who worked on it. “I designed it, but the credit of creating it has to go to the people who actually built it. The dedication and craftsmanship of everyone involved is what makes it such a success.”

“It’s not until you actually live in a building that you really understand what you have and how it performs as a space,” says Patrick. “To be honest, I just feel so privileged to live here,” he adds. “Every day, I wake up to the view and it just feels as if I’m on holiday.”

Photography by Aidan Monaghan