Cape Town’s bid story

The City of Cape Town's successful bid for World Design Capital 2014 was coordinated by the Cape Town Partnership, in collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders and supporters.

Turning Cape Town's shipping containers into schools

Next time you pass the harbour and see shipping containers stacked one on top of the other, imagine that they're not shipping containers. Picture, if you can, windows and doors. Imagine children playing happily inside - safe from the elements and those who wish to do them harm. Imagine a place of safety and happiness. Visualise a creche.

Verena Grips, the vice chairperson and project manager of Matchbox, spends much of her time working to actualise that dream. She is one of the finalists in Design Indaba's Your Street challenge in Cape Town, for the idea to repurpose shipping containers into creches in disadvantaged communities.

While Matchbox has been around since early 2010, the past one-and-a-half years have been dedicated to planning and evaluating the feasibility of the project. Matchbox hopes to roll out its pilot project before the end of the year.

Lack of early childhood development facilities

According to Verena, an estimated 80% of children in South Africa's townships do not have access to early childhood development (ECD) education. During the day, these children are often neglected and unsupervised when their parents go off to work or to look for work. While many creches do exist, the majority of them are informal and housed in unsafe structures that are poorly insulated and unhygienic. Because a large number of children do not have access to adequate ECD, they soon fall behind when they enter formal schooling, which leads to anti-social behaviour and a high drop-out rate.

Matchbox hopes to upgrade existing creche facilities so that they meet minimum safety standards and the criteria that will make them eligible for government subsidies. Because of the nature of the creches - they are often temporary or unlawfully built on government-owned land - the best solution to the problem is one that is temporary (that is, it can be moved if the need arises) and one that can be built away from the actual site.

Making small spaces work

Because most of the existing creches are situated in small spaces, Verena says that it is necessary to find a "playful and innovative way to make small spaces work".

One of the advantages of repurposing shipping containers is that they already exist. Further to this, they can be modified in workshops and easily transported to the creche site, therefore causing little disruption to the day-to-day running of the creche.

"The containers have a very nice dimension that suits the small-scale urban environment," explains Verena who is a qualified architect. "They are compact and they can work on their own or, if you need more space, you can stack them one on top of each other."

Obviously, the containers need to be changed before they can be used as classrooms. The integration of natural ventilation and a high degree of natural light will make the space a healthy one that requires little electricity usage. The containers will also need to be properly insulated so that the children do not get too cold in the winter or too hot in summer. Depending on the availability of the budget, Matchbox hopes to include various environmentally friendly systems, such as photovoltaic panels, solar water heating, and rainwater collection.

"We need to make sure that the environment is right for the kids," explains Verena, who adds that Matchbox will also concentrate on developing outside spaces where the children can play and where vegetable gardens can be planted to supplement the children's nutrition.

The containers will be repurposed according to the module required - either a colourful and child-friendly play and sleep area, or a sanitation and cooking area. Some creches may require both modules, while others may just require one of the modules. The point is that the intervention can be tailored to meet the needs of the particular creche.

Verena admits that, at between R50 000 and R55 000 per container (after modifications, transport, and equipment), this solution is not necessarily the cheapest one. However, she argues that it is the most suitable one because of the flexibility and durability that it offers. But it is a first step that will be refined for future projects, to provide positive, inspiring spaces for children in need.

Find out more about Matchbox here: And watch this space for more on the Your Street finalists, the winners of which are to be announced soon.

Text by Rebekah Kendal. Photo supplied by Matchbox