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Can magic boxes solve urban housing conundrum?

By John Defterios, CNN
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
  • Australian company is building homes out of disused shipping containers
  • Concept has already appeared in the Netherlands, the UK and South Africa
  • Shipping boxes offer environmental and cost advantages compared to traditional brick homes

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(CNN) -- With its iconic Harbour Bridge and world-famous Opera House, Sydney is easily Australia's most recognizable city.

It's also a hot property market.

The country's low interest and mortgage rates have driven sales of affordable middle income housing in recent years.

But with demand so high there is barely enough stock to satisfy hungry homebuyers.

Now one company believes they have the solution that will both save space and keep city living cost effective -- shipping containers.

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From its base in the town of Lismore, The Container Build Group is transforming the durable metal boxes into comfy homes that will eventually be transported to locations across Australia.

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According to Jamie Van Tongeren, the company's CEO, the concept provides a clean and productive way to provide affordable urban housing.

Shipping containers as homes have already appeared in various guises in the likes of the Netherlands, the UK, Sweden, the U.S. and South Africa.

"I started the business because I thought there was a need for affordable housing and a cleaner and greener option," Van Tongeren said.

"I'd seen (containers being used) overseas and I think it's something that needs to be done and I'm doing it."

So far, business for Van Tongeren has been brisk.

Annual turnover last year was over $1.5 million dollars and the company expects to double that going forward.

From $565 per square meter ($52 per sq ft) to $1,400 per square meter ($130 per sq ft), the cost of construction and overall sale price is lower than a brick building.

According to Van Tongeren, there are environmental and construction advantages as well.

"The ecological advantages of building with a container is the recycling of a container ... we try to use as many eco-friendly products as possible including solar composting toilets," he said.

"There's virtually no on-site work to build it so there is less use of tradesmen going to site and there's a lot of savings for the client like scaffolding, safety fences, portaloos all that stuff that you need to construct on site."

Given the time saved by excluding these processes, a house can be built from scratch in as little as three weeks.

Windows are cut out, containers are welded together and stacked on top of each other to provide multiple floors and rooms while insulation panels are installed to contain heat.

Clients can also personalize the design to give their new abode a bespoke feel.

Many still doubt whether people will want to live in recycled steel boxes, but with more than 34 million shipping containers either in use or lying dormant around the world, an increasing number of architects are aware of the possibilities they provide.

Read: The world's first 3D printed house

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