More start-up businesses upcycling shipping containers as premises

Business-savvy entrepreneurs are turning away from expensive office and retail rentals, opting for cost effective shipping containers to get their dream businesses off the ground, by converting containers to meet their accommodation needs, rather than take on expensive leaseholds or incur high building costs.

One such business is the Cook House, an innovative café run by Anna Hedworth, in the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle since August 2014. Anna was looking for suitable accommodation for her café, and ultimately opted to convert two 40 foot long containers which she rents from her former employer.

Originally an architect, Anna had been running pop-up supper clubs in her free time for four years and aspired to change career, opening her own artisan café. Anna commented: “It was a dream of mine to open my own café, but once I’d found out the costs involved I didn’t think it was going to be feasible for some time.

“I couldn’t afford the prices of some of the leaseholds in town, then the idea came to me about transforming shipping containers. They offered a cost effective alternative which enabled me to realise my ambition more quickly and have provided a unique and interesting space for my café, which is growing in popularity and offers discerning food lovers something completely different.”

Anna Hedworth of the Cook House cafe

Just around the corner from the Cook House, on the site of Ouseburn local The Cumberland Arms, is local microbrewery, Northern Alchemy who have also seen the advantages of containers and praise their cost effectiveness and flexibility.

Andy Aitchison, co-owner of the new craft beer firm, who works out of a 30 foot container affectionately called ‘The Lab’, said: “We decided to use a container for the brewery as it meant we didn’t need to build something from scratch, avoiding expensive constructions costs.

“Once we got the container onto site, we realised how much we could do with the space and were amazed at how flexible and easy to work with containers are. Plus by upcycling the container, it meant we were doing something for the environment, avoiding it going to scrap.”

Andy Aitchison of new craft beer firm, Northern Alchemy

It’s not just the North East of England that is turning to the shipping container start-up trend, Lusso Styling in Wakefield runs a successful wedding and events styling company, using Mobile Mini containers for storage, while hipster hub Shoreditch will shortly have disco burger venue Burger Bear.

Mobile Mini, a leading provider of storage containers and portable accommodation with its UK head office in Stockton on Tees, are enthused about the increasingly fashionable and alternative office and retail solution.

Chris Watcham, Health and Safety Director for Mobile Mini UK said: “Although our containers are typically used in construction, building, retail and education, it’s exciting to see the growing trend in new small businesses using storage containers.

“Converted storage containers are an ideal choice for start-ups because of their versatility and affordability. Once planning permission has been obtained, containers can be placed on-site in a matter of weeks, or even days, which gives new businesses the great advantage of getting their premises up and running quickly.

“With a wide range of sizes, prices and delivery options, our storage containers can keep overheads to a minimum, so new businesses can focus on growing, while also helping the environment with an eco-friendly solution. Whether you choose to purchase either new or used containers, we can take the headache out of the transportation and health and safety matters, thanks to our years of expertise.”

Entrepreneurs who are looking for an alternative solution for their accommodation needs have a few decisions to make before getting off the ground. Health and safety expert Chris Watcham gives his five top tips on safely starting up a business in a storage container:

1) Containers vary in size, from 10 to 40 foot, so decide what fits your requirements and how you would like them customised. Preparation is key to a successful building project and it’s important to work closely with your designer or architect to perfect the plan for your premises.

2) Consult a structural engineer about your design plans to find out what kind of foundations will be best suited. Any permanent structure needs foundations to rest on and these vary depending if you’re using a single or multi container structure.

3) Contact your local authority to discuss planning permissions. It’s best to apply for planning permission as early as possible, the wheels of planning departments can often turn slowly. In some cases, planning permissions may not be needed if the structure is an addition to existing premises. But if in any doubt, it’s best to check to avoid any hefty enforcement notices.

4) Consider the transportation logistics and the health and safety issues about getting the container onto your site. Although transporting containers is usually straightforward, getting them exactly where you need can be more problematic if stacking is required, or if the site is down a narrow lane or in a built-up area.

5) Once the container is on site, construction work can begin. As soon as the main frame of the building is complete and your utilities are up and running, you can install the rest of fixtures and fittings and add any finishing touches – then congratulations – your storage container business is complete!

A guide to converting storage containers can be found here