An interview with Mr. Arjun Menon, Managing Director of Smartbox Industries, Dubai.
Building with containers is a rising trend in the UAE in temporary set-ups as well as permanent developments like Boxpark. Having written about the underlying principles of Cargotecture previously, we spoke to Mr. Menon to understand the practicalities of structures made with shipping containers and their stand in the local market. Established in 1997 and being one of the first companies to bring this concept into the building market in the UAE, they understand the nuts and bolts of container architecture.
What is the demand for container architecture in the UAE? How has this shifted since 1997?
When we first started out in 1997, the market in UAE demanded industrial and engineering solutions that can be installed at a fast pace. A lot of our other projects related to different building uses were outside the country. In 2008, what made the difference was when we decided to participate in Cityscape. We wanted to introduce a new concept into the market and built our stall – a gallery – with a shipping container. Most people were surprised when they were told that they just went through a shipping container. After that point we had a lot of interest from the local market as well as Africa to build structures other than for industrial uses with shipping containers. Unfortunately, after that the recession hit us and things slowed down. It is picking up again and we are getting back to the bigger projects as before.
How is it different from conventional building in terms of setting up a construction company?
We are what is called a Specialist Contractor, specializing in building with shipping containers. In any project that requires a combination of construction techniques, we take care of the part to be built with containers. We can build anything with shipping containers – from heavy duty industrial solutions to high-end luxury hotels. That is the core of our business. We are growing in the direction of ‘mass producing customized solutions’ related to container architecture as per client requirements.
Which phase of constructing with containers is less/more costly than conventional structures?
Well, when you compare the costs of the interiors of the structure, it is exactly the same as a conventional building structure because we can provide any type of finish using standard building materials, just like any other building. The cost of the structure is reduced because you don’t require to dig deep foundations as done in traditional construction. You also save on time when building with containers. While the foundations are being dug up on site, the structure itself is being built in our factory. Most of the interior finishes are also completed in our workshop. So your structure can be up and running in about 1-2 months. We can build really fast. Our structures are also quite versatile and flexible. Say, a year from now you decide to move to another location, this can be done very easily without much changes to the interiors. In case the structure needs to be demolished for any reason, the containers can be broken down and the value of steel can be reclaimed. Considering all the advantages building with containers provides – durability, flexibility, speedy construction, versatility – in today’s market, a building made with shipping containers will cost you about 15% lesser than building a traditional concrete structure.
In the works
Where do you source your materials from?
We are a sister concern of IAL, a supply chain logistics provider with over decades of industry presence globally. This makes it easier for us to procure good quality, non-seaworthy shipping containers.
Are there any specific procedures for building approvals required for building with shipping containers?
Well, Dubai Municipality (DM) will only accept drawings for approvals from a consultant. So once our consultants submits the design drawings and structural analysis for approval, DM then evaluates it based on their standards for construction. However, building with containers is not a part of their existing building systems for permanent constructions. So sometimes we need to demonstrate to them that this in fact has been done successfully in other parts of the world. We are trying to get them to recognize this as a permanent construction option. We already have a clearance from Civil Defense Authority. So, while it’s going to take time, we have reached this far and we are going to keep pushing for it.
What category of building use do you cater for – residential, commercial, industrial etc.?
A shipping container is in face a super-sized Lego block, adaptable to any type of construction. We construct industrial and engineering solutions, single housing units, bus stops, villas, student housing, affordable housing, office spaces, public toilets and hotels. We also provide offshore solutions for the oil and gas industry, military and mining camps, pop-up venues for exhibitions and fairs among others.
In fact, Smartbox constructed the MENA region’s first approved permanent modular building using shipping containers for Geo-Chem Middle East in TechnoPark, Dubai in 2013. We have also facilitated Hai D3, a unique cluster of office buildings made in a contemporary version of classic Arabic architectural style, complete with wind towers, made of vertically places shipping containers. Plans to build an affordable residential units in Dubai with shipping containers are in the pipeline.
GeoChem Building, TechnoPark Dubai
What is the most common perception or misconception among people when it comes to building with shipping containers?
Despite worldwide acceptance of shipping container buildings as a viable and efficient habitation solution, the market here associates such structures with industrial building uses. Having said that, there is definitely a change in that trend with more permanent developments being set up where cargotecture is being used. However, there is much to be explored in realizing the potential of shipping container architecture in the UAE, especially in Dubai.