When rebuilding a house, or building a new home, modular housing, prefab, and shipping container homes can be a great alternative.
In this video, Chris Clarke, builder, went about rebuilding home Callignee II after losing his home in the Black Saturday Fires in Australia, 2009.
Later, he created SWALE Modular and now sees shipping container homes, relocatable homes and modular housing as a great alternative for rebuilding a house.
In this interview, I speak with Chris Clarke, Builder and Director of SWALE Modular.
Chris has an incredible story to share, and a lot of insights that are both practical and mindset related to really help anyone who is rebuilding or building in a bushfire prone area.
So let’s dive in.
Amelia Lee + Chris Clarke (Builder and SWALE Modular)
[Amelia Lee]: You mentioned that you know, there’d be certain things that you do a little bit differently now that you’re in a bit of a different place.
You know, we’re 11 years on from those fires, you’re living in a different environment now, Callignee II has new owners and, you know, you’ve moved on.
Knowing what you do now, how would you approach that project differently if you had to do it again.?
[Chris Clarke]: It was actually an interesting story because I’d finished Callignee II and a good friend of mine actually said ‘can you give me a hand in Vietnam?’, and flew me over there. And I went through a huge shipping container factory where you couldn’t see the other end of it.
And after two weeks, I came back and I had a glass of red and … they built these corten shipping containers and they were building these big 48 footers. And over a glass of red it dawned on me … I stepped out these 48 footers and they were the exact modules of what I’d just built.
And I thought ‘how incredibly stupid’ because I was always looking for a way to take my house with me, if I ever needed to. So obviously that started my modular whole passion, obsession. Yes, I looked at it and went ‘I could probably get this thing a hell of a lot cleaner and true for around half the price’.
[Amelia Lee]: Yes. Can we talk a bit … because obviously since Callignee II you’ve created a modular housing company called SWALE and we’re going to pop links to that in the resources for people to check that out. Because that’s your passion and it’s your business, and it’s an extraordinary adventure. And I’m super excited to be talking to you later about SWALE, because I know that a lot of people will be very, very curious about it as an alternative and a very different way of solving a lot of problems that people are facing when creating affordable homes in all sorts of environments.
Can you talk to us about SWALE … And I suppose that journey of you seeing Callignee II, the mapping of the shipping container module, knowing that people were facing challenges of building in these types of areas, and just the aspect of what modular housing can offer us as a building methodology alternative?
How has that formed SWALE and how to SWALE help people in terms of delivering homes that are sustainable and affordable, and really work for these types of environments?
[Chris Clarke]: I think the big one, actually, at the start was that there’s so much time that’s involved in replacing a home. And when you’ve actually lost your home from the fires and these poor people that are actually out there coming into winter. And you’ve still got people actually wondering what they’re going to do with planning. And you still have to go through the design. You still have to go through this whole whole process.
I really took a look at it, and I said ‘this is what I do for a living, and it’s still taking me SO long to actually open up a drawer and get the knives and forks out to be able to have a meal. So why can’t we have the knives and forks already in the drawer, and be able to drop a complete unit in place that actually ticks all the boxes?’
Why do we … why are we always re-engineering the Porsche when a lot of people can’t afford the Porsche. So I think it was that passion … and it was also the ability to … for us, because we become creative people and we actually want to build these things. These things are not just meant to be on paper.
So, it was the ability to give people something that they actually wanted, that was modular. And I used to say that it’s like driving a Porsche, and it’s like driving something that you want. And to me it was probably a kombi van, or a mini, or something like that. But you had the ability, instead of waiting two years and trying to design your way right the way through it.
And a lot of that passion for design is still there. Because we say with our modular stuff, it’s that we only provide the body. And the body actually needs to be able to be intermodal, it needs to be able to go on any ship, any truck, anywhere. And you can dress it, if you want to dress it, or just leave a percentage of what you actually want to do. Because so many people are just so worn out after the process that they don’t end up doing the beauty of the 10%, to finish their homes. That’s really the part that they can connect to, and call it their own.
So, modular still has that ability and our life in a modular world was based on, virtually, a shipping container factory where there was 2.2 tonne in 20 foot unit. And we could turn that steel work into whatever we liked. And we could get this very raw and designer look in amongst something that was intermodal, affordable and direct.
And that went, for me, it went on to then looking at places to put them, and that opens up a whole new world for me. Because it’s … you go into land sharing, and you go into being able to live on the water and our pontoons … that’s … a 20 foot high cube that’s freshly cut into six. And so everything again is intermodal, and then your modules go on on top of that.
And instead of spending $500,000 for a block of land, you can spend $50 a week or something rather for a marina. And the same with land sharing. Why are we paying $500,000 for a block of land instead of $50,000 for 10 people on a half a million dollar piece of land? It’s just insane.
So it’s a really great space to being amongst, especially now when we say that people believe now in modular … I used to say that no one will buy a modular until they’re having coffee beside somebody who’s built modular! Because that’s the way that it works.
And now people have, I think, a lot of faith, and they want to be creative, and they want to do something different. And life is also changing because people are becoming more and more transient now. And our business is fast and the digital world has changed the way that we can work. And there’s not a lot of security now in jobs, and relationships, and bits and pieces. So the home really is going into a, or has the ability to go into, a different place.
So I see that as being one of the … at the forefront of my interest, it’s being able to build communities again, and sustainable communities, and eco villages. There’s some beautiful ones up the coast around your area that I’m extremely interested in.
And obviously, when you stick something that’s intermodal, you don’t necessarily need to own the land. You can actually … it can be removed within 24 hours and then falls under the Residential Tenancies Act. So that’s an interesting space.
[Amelia Lee]: Yes. When I first spoke to you about this, my brain just started singing with all of the opportunities I think that this does to solve a lot of issues around affordability, around siting, around dealing with Bushfire Attack Level ratings on properties, around strategies of where you might rebuild.
Because it is that thing of ‘can there be a chance for people to pool their resources, share property in a more effective way?’ And it requires a pretty big flipping of mindset of what is our … what we own and what our assets are.
And then also, I think that there’s an element of perhaps the compact living component, you know. I see houses, I mean, (in Australia) we’re still guilty of building some of the largest houses in the world. We still are guilty of having houses that have seven different living spaces in them, more living spaces than occupants sometimes.
And so that whole process, I think, of seeing you go through Callignee I to Callignee II, to a smaller and smaller footprint, to a smaller and smaller footprint. And this real sense of what do you actually need to live in? What is living about?
How do you see that mindset development being such a key part of you really questioning that housing can be different?
That you can not necessarily own the land that your house is sitting on. That you can own the house and take it with you.
That there’s still a permanence about your sense of home without you needing to have all of the frills that we ordinarily associate with homeownership.
How, just in terms of getting into the headspace of that … because I can imagine you’re dealing with a lot of people who are really challenging the norm of what owning a home is all about, when they come to you seeking sort of a modular solution.
[Chris Clarke]: I think that there’s some fundamentals, that’s … that we can really look at. And you’ve got to look at this very objectively. Because we look at a space and how much space that you actually really need. And how times are going to be able to change, so that we can adapt our lives.
It’s like, if you’ve got six kids and you’ve got to drive around in a bus. You’re not going to drive around in the bus for the rest of your life. So you’ll downsize that. And I think in this world to be able to build a house and be able to snap a branch off that family tree and give it to one of your kids is something that’s we all should look at designing into our lives. So there’s some really interesting spaces there.
And I think the big one for the interesting space for me, is that if you’re building something it must remain an asset. And then it very quickly flipped into liabilities if you’re not careful. And so we start looking at tiny homes and we start going ‘Okay if we’ve got a tiny home, at what point does it become a dolls house and when they no longer ready for it?’. Where’s it going to go?
But if you’re clever and designing a tiny home, it’s going to be adaptable into another person’s life or re-use or, something along those lines. Because, you know, you look at the property guys and the system is the system.
And a lot of the major property guys, you know, when they bought out the Amazon house it was extremely interesting, because I wanted to hear what the critics were going to say about it. And they said ‘Well it’s going to end up in the tip!’ Because it’s not, you know, it’s not an asset.
But yes, it is an asset. And it’s going to be somebody’s home. And because it’s not connected to a parcel of land, you’re not just holding the value on the land, you need to hold the value in the part that’s actually going to look after you. Because it’s the one sheltering you from the rain. And the land is firstly just a manipulative tool. And if you go in looking at the process a little bit differently, and you look at it from an indigenous point of view, it’s like nobody owns the land anyway.
So there’s some huge processes to break, I think, along the way. But I think now, especially with COVID-19 and whatnot, I think we’re going to actually start to find a few more openings, and start working with some people that want to be more creative and work together.
This interview is part of our Rebuild + Build Better series.
Be sure to stay tuned as we share more information and expertise in helping you rebuild after bushfires, or build homes more resilient to climate conditions and in bushfire prone areas.
Resources mentioned in this video:
Lifestyle >>> LEARN MORE ABOUT CALLIGNEE II HERE
Grand Designs | Season 1, Episode 1 >>> WATCH THE EPISODE HERE
Swale Links and Resources