As a child Arjun Menon’s favourite pastime was building things with Lego – and he still does it, at 34. Only now, those blocks are bigger, made of steel, and the designs tend to be larger in scale: he uses repurposed shipping containers to create environment-friendly buildings.
“It’s just like Lego blocks – you can stack one on top of another, you can stack them next to each other, leave a gap, create a bridge, whatever!” says Arjun. He should know. So far his Smart Box Industries has recycled thousands of steel containers to build offices, homes, storage facilities, ablution units and more in Europe and Africa, as well as the UAE. He’s even been contacted to build a hotel in New Zealand.
To sceptics, Arjun points out his very conventional-looking, elegant office in Al Quoz, where we are seated. “This office is half the space of three 40ft containers joined side by side, the inner walls removed and divided laterally by a wall,” he says.
Pause for the next surprise: The other half of the same space has been converted into a luxury one-bedroom hotel suite. Minimalist chic, the suite would not be out of place in a five-star hotel. “We made this as a model for Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud’s company Kingdom Hotels,” says Arjun. “They wanted to build a five-star hotel in Kampala, Uganda.”
Closer to home, Geo-Chem Middle East contracted Smart Box to build its new office and storage space in Techno Park, Jebel Ali, last year. “The MD of Geo-Chem, Rajiv Bahl, wanted a green building and he loved the idea of building with containers,” Arjun recalls. And why not? The building is green – recyclable – and can be moved to another location if required, and the land is not damaged and can be brought back to its original form almost immediately.
“For smaller buildings we don’t need a foundation like a conventional structure, and if you are scrapping your building you get back the price of steel – around Dh1,500 a tonne (three to four tonnes for a container) at today’s rates,” Arjun explains.
It took them three months to go through the municipality procedures and get the required permissions. “Forty-two containers were joined together to build the 13,440 sq ft structure and we installed it in four days!” says Arjun. “It was our first big project and we learnt a lot as we had a very patient client. It is one of the largest such projects in the world. The only other project with a wider footprint that I know of is the 27,000-sq ft Bharathi Indian Polar Station of India’s National Center for Antarctic and Ocean Research in the Antarctic, built using 134 containers.”
Geo-Chem’s Rajiv Bahl is not only happy with the building and the cost savings – expenditure is around 30 per cent less than a conventional structure – but also the fact that they are the first in the region to go modular. “I am proud to be the owner of the region’s first permanent modular construction building made from shipping containers, in alignment with the UAE’s initiative for green buildings,” he says.
In fact, it was the green aspect of building with containers that first piqued Arjun’s interest. “Dubai’s green initiatives gave us the impetus to look seriously at building with containers,” he says.
Arjun ventured into this as an off-shoot of the family container business. Smart Box was originally launched as Penguin Container Trading and Repairing Services in 1997 to service containers that his father TVN Kutty’s flagship IAL Container Line (UK) Ltd. accrued. Arjun then came across other uses for containers rather than just repairing or discarding them.
“When I learnt all about how they could be recycled and converted into modular constructions, I knew I just had to do this,” he says. So Smart Box was created in 2008 to provide environment-friendly modular construction solutions. “The idea is to give back, to go green.”
Arjun flew in a team of specialists from Canada to adopt modern methodologies, production quality and safety standards. “The same year we showcased our work during the Cityscape exhibition in Dubai,” says Arjun. “We didn’t have a regular stall; instead we designed an art gallery in a container that defied all conventional ideas about an exhibition space – we wanted to create a ‘wow’ effect. It fooled everybody – only when visitors walked out and we told them did they realise that they had just been in a converted container. Then they went back in to take another look at the finish, only to see that it more than stood up to conventional construction options.”
Building with containers is not a new concept. “Containers were invented in the 1950s and their conversion in its rudimentary state began in Africa, a vast continent where it was difficult and much too expensive to send back containers to ports from the interiors,” says Arjun.
The locals started hacking out doors and windows on abandoned containers, using mud or cow dung as insulation.
“Now you see perfectly fine construction across the world,” says Arjun. “Container City on Trinity Buoy Wharf, in the heart of London’s Docklands, is a collection of five-storey structures that have been in existence for over a decade now, and people love living there. They then built Container City II, a commercial space that is equally in demand. They later built small stadiums, hotels, schools, all with containers. And the users are all happy.”
On a recent visit to Almaty, Kazakhstan, Arjun saw a two-storey mall built out of 500 containers. “There was also a market put together of containers,” he says. “Old containers cost about $1,000 [about Dh3,670] there and each container shop is owned by a family. It was fascinating to see this happening.”
Soon, Smart Box started diversifying, converting containers into office space, especially site offices. Then engineering companies commissioned them to manufacture engine rooms for industries. In time Arjun was creating customised accommodation for US troops stationed overseas on missions.
Smart Box then began supplying to whoever required its solutions – the army, marine industry, and the construction industry. When the Palm Islands were being created, dredging companies had a lot of requirements. Site offices, toilets, laundry units – Arjun made them all.
“Customers then started approaching us for extensions to their villas, adding on rooms, a second kitchen or staff quarters,” says Arjun. “So we got into civil construction too.”
But it was still a struggle for Arjun to do what he really wanted to – create green, modular buildings that would not be a burden to the Earth. One of the bright spots was the Kingdom Hotels project. “They wanted to build a hotel in Kampala, Africa. It suited us perfectly as we wanted to expand beyond industrial solutions and become creative,” says Arjun. “They came to our factory, and saw what we could do. Then they asked us to create a model to prove we could do it. We did it based on a concept they had presented us – two containers joined together with a central corridor and two rooms with en suite bathrooms on either side.”
This was completed in 2009. The client was happy, but the project eventually fizzled out in the global economic downturn. “The word spread, however, and people got to know we could do high-end stuff too,” says Arjun. “Today, when they come and meet us in this conference room, and are then shown the adjoining suite, the ‘wow’ effect is complete.”
For Arjun, Smart Box has been a process of educating not only the industry, but also government authorities about the advantages of container constructions. When Dubai Municipality authorities raised the point that Smart Box did not request permission for making the structure, Arjun told them about the positives of such buildings. “We told them it is not a permanent structure and we could dismantle and remove it within 24 hours,” says Arjun. “They were fascinated, and left us alone after that.”
That’s where the education process started, and word-of-mouth publicity ensued. “We’ve done a lot of work for Dubai Civil Defence since, including a mosque,” says Arjun. “We’ve built a lot of extensions to villas and farms here in Dubai. Despite all that, though, people are yet to consider container conversion as a real solution for construction.”
In 2009, with the world media highlighting the poor quality of labour accommodation, Arjun decided to show that quality construction was possible with containers. “Our trump card was the speed with which we could make them without compromising on the quality,” he says. “While it took almost two years to build conventional labour housing, we could churn out a high-quality building in a month!”
Arjun and his team designed Container City, with four-storey structures for labourers, complete with community centres and green wall partitions, built to international standards. “Our concept was more like Emirates Hills – pools, shops, gyms, a small green wall partition, and on the other side, small one-bedroom villas made out of two containers, very contemporary spaces. We even took the plan to our sponsors but somehow it didn’t take off. But I believe one day I will still do it.”
With the construction boom, Arjun says that container construction is the way to go. “It is in alignment with Green Dubai’s aspirations as it is energy-efficient, environmentally friendly and recycled. It enables quick, high-quality construction, and is cost-effective, with quicker return on investment,” he says. “It is adaptable, strong and durable. Add stackable, and easily transportable, and what more do you need?”
One question everybody has is about the durability of old containers. “Marine containers are many times stronger than any conventional construction material,” says Arjun. It exceeds the normal international building code (IBC) several times over.
Shipping containers are constructed with seaworthy Corten steel and then coated with epoxy paint, thereby making it near impossible for them to corrode. “A shipping container home constructed according to building codes will be the most maintenance-free structure you could ever have,” he says.
Heat is the next concern for most prospective clients. “Any non-insulated structure can become hot and unsuitable for human habitation in summer,” says Arjun. “A shipping container is as responsive to insulation as any other structure or material. All our container modules are insulated with Rockwool or PU sandwich panels, resulting in a more efficiently insulated environment than a standard brick-and-mortar construction.”
The idea seems to be catching on in the UAE now. “Our projects that were shelved during 2008-2009 are slowly being revived,” says Arjun. “We are building an assembly line operation in our new space. This is our second wind.”
Arjun also has plans to construct residential buildings. To prove that container homes can be high-end residences, he first intends to build a luxury seven-storey apartment building. “Just to set the benchmark,” he quips. “It will be contemporary living, like any premium apartment in Manhattan, New York. A roof garden will provide a green cover.”
He also wants to help those who need it, and has projects with a CSR angle to them. He’s designed modular bus-stand units with built-in toilets that can play a major role in developing nations. “The bus stands will be climate-controlled, with modern toilet units designed and built for least maintenance, and do not lend themselves to vandalism. Each shelter will have a space for a janitor too,” he says. “We plan to run a pilot project for free in our native Kerala, India, soon.”
Once the project takes off, Smart Box will manufacture such units for CSR projects in other countries too, which can be sponsored by other companies.
But Arjun says he’s just scratched the surface with all his ideas. “We have the technology and expertise to build whatever you dream of,” he smiles. “It need not be just blocks, you can stack them any which way. It all depends upon your creativity. We aim to be bespoke fabrication specialists.”
With modular construction coming of age and Expo 2020 timelines looming large, Arjun feels it is breakout time for Smart Box. “Container construction is greener, smarter, safer and quicker,” he says. “What’s not to love about it?”
Arjun pauses. “Experts advise you to think outside the box,” he quips. “We say: think inside the box. You won’t regret it!”