Containers have been coming in and out of the docklands for over a century, so when Trinity Buoy Wharf became house to Container City in 2001, it was a natural fit.
The containers, stacked five high and bursting in vibrant reds, blues, and yellows at the edge of the Wharf, not only house some of East London’s creative businesses but also allow some artists to live in their studios, saving on double rent.
Thanks to Art Council subsidies, if you’re an artist, rent stays low – from the cheaper spaces at about £450 a month to the more expensive Riverside view ones at roughly £700.
Only a few live/work spaces are available, and all of them have been snatched up thanks to the good deal on offer – making living in a colourful steel box irresistibly appealing.
Darren Waite, who’s been running the diversity media publication Talent Media in Container City for five years, is one of the tenants who’s been taking advantage of the affordable solution: “They’re sea containers so they’re cheaper to build… it’s not bricks and mortar so we don’t pay council tax, plus government has recently scrapped business rates for small businesses.”
Businesses won’t pay council tax at Container City, while residents who are live/work will pay part council tax and part business rates for their container. The local authority, Tower Hamlets Council, considers each case individually.
Talent Media is one of the over 50 companies in Container City. Most of the businesses are art, media and events related – though not all are required to be in order to get a spot.
Since redevelopment started in 1998, Trinity Buoy Wharf has been transformed from a derelict area into an arty, upbeat corner secluded from the high-rises and flashy skyscrapers of East London. It even enjoys a particularly fortunate view of the O2 Arena across the Thames.
“What brought me here? The river”, says Waite. Slow and relaxed, the area has two eat spaces – Fat Boys Diner and Bow Creek Café – which are also housed in bright, sleek containers, and a spacious exhibition centre which hosts regular art events. The newest addition is the Parkour Academy, which opened on the 20th of February in the warehouse next to Container City.
A 30-square-metre container provides all the essentials of a regular flat. David Gridley, whose video production business moved to Container City four years ago, says that despite how they look from the outside, “once you’re inside, it’s really the same as being anywhere else.”
Being metal boxes, the top floor containers tend to get really hot in the summer, explains Gridley. “But we’ve got big windows, so it’s not that difficult”, he continues. Waite agrees: “On the top floor it does get pretty hot, but the second floor is already overshadowed by the nearby Parkour Academy.”
And, Gridley says, it can get cold in the winter because the metal doesn’t hold heat as efficiently as a bricks and mortar house.
Gridley landed in Container City after the increasing rent of his previous office forced him out of his location. “I decided to look elsewhere and that’s when I found Trinity Wharf. It’s nice here, there are interesting people, it’s an interesting place.”
Due to recent government rulings, small businesses are exempt from Business rates until 2015 – but after that, they will be required to pay the same rates as traditional businesses elsewhere in the borough. This applies also to people who decided to make their living and working space coincide.
Urban Space Management, the company who kick-started and manages Container City, is about to complete the fourth block of container spaces on the Wharf. Specialists in urban redevelopment, they are the people behind the redevelopment of London landmarks Camden Lock, Greenwich Market, Gabriel’s Wharf and Old Spitafields Market.
A lot of their projects are centred around environmental sustainability: Container City itself was built with 80% recycled material, and has a small carbon footprint since every block only took a few months to complete.
Some of the usual housing expenses are spared – the Containers are electrically heated, which might save tenants from inflated gas bills but adds additional electric costs that are generally more expensive than heating your home with gas.
Container City is only a 10-minute walk from East India DLR station, but finding it through roundabouts and flyovers is not straightforward. Once you reach it, though, you’ll want to go back and keep an eye on the vacancy list.
by Chiara Rimella and Daniel McCarthy