Thinking outside the box in a 60sqm container house (in cherry orchard)

When a crane swung two shipping containers over the treetops of a cherry orchard it signalled the start of a new way of life for the Heeringa family.

Words: Ann Warnock Photos: Fiona Tomlinson

Ilse Heeringa didn’t expect to be a composting-toilet type of girl. Nor the shipping-container sort. Or capable of being deliriously happy living with her husband, young family and a hulking bernese mountain dog in 60 square metres of encased steel once used to haul electronic goods on the high seas.

“It has surpassed our dream.” The Heeringa family – Ilse holding Arlo (2), her husband Matt, Quinn (5) and Bella (7) with their large and much-loved bernese mountain dog Willow.

Equally she didn’t anticipate that the smartly appointed five-bedroomed, three-bathroomed bungalow she and her husband Matt bought when they first shifted from Titirangi in Auckland to Ilse’s childhood territory of Twyford near Hastings would reveal exactly the sort of life she and her husband Matt did not want to lead. Says Matt:

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“It was the epitome of what successful people might have – with a pool, formal gardens, even chandeliers. Everyone said ‘wow’ but as time went on it felt pretentious, even embarrassing.”

Recycled wooden doors from the former Albert Hotel in Hastings, a Hawke’s Bay-manufactured Pyroclassic mini low-emissions wood burner and a reupholstered $80 Trade Me lounge suite bring big X factor.

Amid the whirl of two small children, a new baby and Matt’s engineering job, the couple’s downtime was gobbled up with lawn mowing, loo and hand basin cleaning and fire wood lugging.

“It looked like we were living the dream. We had beautiful spare bedrooms but no spare time or money. We even had a formal sitting room where the children didn’t use the furniture. It was dumb.”

The flight of stairs off the living space leads to Ilse and Matt’s compact mezzanine bedroom. A bed on pallets and limited head room (for two tall people) isn’t for the faint-hearted but it works a treat.

After a year in the house the couple deliberated. “We asked ourselves, ‘Why are we making things so hard?’”

The answer, they say, was staring them in the face. They wanted to declutter their lives, to lead a simpler existence underpinned with eco-smart practices.

A piece of graph paper appeared on the kitchen table while YouTube clips of small, self-build houses appeared on the iPad. Ilse googled, researched, read and devoured.

Eventually she presented Matt with the most engaging footage she could find about converting a shipping container into a home. “I’m so lucky that Matt is so gung-ho about trying new things.”

The couple was in sync. Both design aficionados with the added advantage of Matt’s career – originally as a fitter and turner but more recently in general engineering – they prepared themselves for a pathway well-removed from their “McMansion”.

Apart from the kitchen joinery Matt built the interior fit-out including the dining table made from vertical ends of laminated plywood.

Two high-cube, German-made containers were bought over the phone from a Nelson shipping yard and the downsizing mission of life, living space and carbon footprint began.

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It wasn’t Matt and Ilse’s first experience of mayhem when it came to changing houses. Married when they were both 21 years old the couple (now 30), who’re both of Dutch heritage but born in Aotearoa, had bought their first house in Auckland by the time they were 22.

“It was a deceased estate and it was feral. I was pregnant with our first child and could barely sit on the toilet for fear it would fall through the floor. We both worked crazy hours to renovate it, but that’s how you make a start.”

Four years later back in Hastings, Ilse sold their sprawling Twyford bungalow on Trade Me. A level of chaos ensued when the transaction brought with it a 10-day settlement.

Matt and Ilse’s idea of buying a piece of land for their shipping container project collapsed. Instead they found themselves living in the garage of Ilse’s parents’ home on the family’s cherry orchard at Twyford with a plan to position the container house a few metres away on a corner of the property.

“While my parents had space for us in their straw bale house where I’d grown up, we wanted to be independent. Matt whacked up a loft, the children had baths in a bucket, we cooked on a barbecue and the winter was very cold. We were there for nine months. It was tough.”

After dinner Ilse and Matt put the children to bed and with the help of Ilse’s parents, a baby monitor and a real time camera, they absconded to Matt’s nearby workshop where the two shipping containers were being readied.

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“We spent long hours grinding rust and priming and my industrial overalls were not the most attractive thing. It was exhausting for Matt who worked a full day, was home briefly for dinner, then working on the containers sometimes until two in the morning.”
“But Ilse was awesome with the grinder,” says Matt.

Beyond the realm of awesome is the end result of their solar-powered, shipping container assignment. “It’s just amazing to live in. Although space is tight, we’ve learned to be content with very little and we’re off the grid forever – we’d never go back. It is satisfying, simple and so much fun to live in.”

In fact so much fun and so fabulous – and with a self-build price tag of approximately $150,000 – that they want to do it again. Matt, who now has his own design and build engineering practice, Otto Engineering (, has added the construction of shipping container houses into his manufacturing portfolio.

“Just as the big house showed us what was too much in life, this house is showing us how little we need,” he says.

Matt and Ilse say there is a word in Dutch – gezellig – that embodies the spirit of the way they now live. “It is not about having a monstrous house, it’s about your home representing who you are. About family and friends, sharing food at the dinner table, ambience, cosiness and the beauty of a simple life.”
And that life, in two recycled steel boxes, with three small children and one large-scale dog, is proving to be quite a beautiful thing.

A demolition yard drinking fountain is an absolute gem. No more ‘Mum can I have a glass of water?’

What we’re reading: Where is the Green Sheep? We’re full on with children’s books. Bella is currently crazy about Enid Blyton so The Faraway Tree series is a favourite.
What we’re listening to: We love being out on the deck with some Black Seeds or Ed Sheeran. We use a wireless Boom speaker.
What we’re cooking: It’s the time of fresh seasonal Hawke’s Bay produce. We love a nice steak with a great salad – greens, cherry tomatoes, red onion, roasted almonds etc.

The magic of grandparents living behind the hedge. Bella and Arlo have climbed across the stile and head into Oma and Opa’s garden next door.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.

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