Ar­jun Menon thinks in­side the box to cre­ate gor­geous liv­ing and work­ing spa­ces out of ship­ping con­tain­ers.

Ar­jun Menon is set to rev­o­lu­tionise the con­struc­tion scene in the UAE by think­ing in­side the box. Yes, he makes build­ings out of ship­ping con­tain­ers. Shiva Ku­mar Thekkepat re­ports

Friday - - Contents -

As a child Ar­jun Menon’s favourite pas­time was build­ing things with Lego – and he still does it, at 34. Only now, those blocks are big­ger, made of steel, and the de­signs tend to be larger in scale: he uses re­pur­posed ship­ping con­tain­ers to cre­ate en­vi­ron­ment­friendly build­ings.

“It’s just like Lego blocks – you can stack one on top of another, you can stack them next to each other, leave a gap, cre­ate a bridge, what­ever!” says Ar­jun. He should know. So far his Smart Box In­dus­tries has re­cy­cled thou­sands of steel con­tain­ers to build of­fices, homes, stor­age fa­cil­i­ties, ablu­tion units and more in Europe and Africa, as well as the UAE. He’s even been con­tacted to build a ho­tel in New Zealand.

To scep­tics, Ar­jun points out his very con­ven­tional-look­ing, el­e­gant of­fice in Al Quoz, where we are seated. “This of­fice is half the space of three 40ft con­tain­ers joined side by side, the in­ner walls re­moved and di­vided lat­er­ally by a wall,” he says.

Pause for the next sur­prise: The other half of the same space has been con­verted into a lux­ury one-bed­room ho­tel suite. Min­i­mal­ist chic, the suite would not be out of place in a fives­tar ho­tel. “We made this as a model for Saudi Ara­bian Prince Al­waleed Bin Talal Bin Ab­du­laziz Al­saud’s com­pany King­dom Ho­tels,” says Ar­jun. “They wanted to build a five-star ho­tel in Kam­pala, Uganda.”

Closer to home, Geo-Chem Mid­dle East con­tracted Smart Box to build its new of­fice and stor­age space in Techno Park, Jebel Ali, last year. “The MD of Geo-Chem, Ra­jiv Bahl, wanted a green build­ing and he loved the idea of build­ing with con­tain­ers,” Ar­jun re­calls. And why not? The build­ing is green – re­cy­clable – and can be moved to another lo­ca­tion if re­quired, and the land is not dam­aged and can be brought back to its orig­i­nal form al­most im­me­di­ately.

“For smaller build­ings we don’t need a foun­da­tion like a con­ven­tional struc­ture, and if you are scrap­ping your build­ing you get back the price of steel – around Dh1,500 a tonne (three to four tonnes for a con­tainer) at to­day’s rates,” Ar­jun ex­plains.

It took them three months to go through the mu­nic­i­pal­ity pro­ce­dures and get the re­quired per­mis­sions. “Forty-two con­tain­ers were joined to­gether to build the 13,440 sq ft struc­ture and we in­stalled it in four days!” says Ar­jun. “It was our first big project and we learnt a lot as we had a very pa­tient client. It is one of the largest such projects in the world. The only other project with a wider foot­print that I know of is the 27,000-sq ft Bharathi In­dian Po­lar Sta­tion of In­dia’s Na­tional Cen­ter for Antarc­tic and Ocean Re­search in the Antarc­tic, built us­ing 134 con­tain­ers.”

Geo-Chem’s Ra­jiv Bahl is not only happy with the build­ing and the cost sav­ings – ex­pen­di­ture is around 30 per cent less than a con­ven­tional struc­ture – but also the fact that they are the first in the re­gion to go mod­u­lar. “I am proud to be the owner of the re­gion’s first per­ma­nent mod­u­lar con­struc­tion build­ing made from ship­ping con­tain­ers, in align­ment with the UAE’s ini­tia­tive for green build­ings,” he says.

In fact, it was the green as­pect of build­ing with con­tain­ers that first piqued Ar­jun’s in­ter­est. “Dubai’s green ini­tia­tives gave us the im­pe­tus to look se­ri­ously at build­ing with con­tain­ers,” he says.

Ar­jun ven­tured into this as an off-shoot of the fam­ily con­tainer busi­ness. Smart Box was orig­i­nally launched as Pen­guin Con­tainer Trad­ing and Re­pair­ing Ser­vices in 1997 to ser­vice con­tain­ers that his fa­ther TVN Kutty’s flag­ship IAL Con­tainer Line (UK) Ltd. ac­crued. Ar­jun then came across other uses for con­tain­ers rather than just re­pair­ing or dis­card­ing them.

“When I learnt all about how they could be re­cy­cled and con­verted into mod­u­lar con­struc­tions, I knew I just had to do this,” he says. So Smart Box was cre­ated in 2008 to pro­vide en­vi­ron­ment-friendly mod­u­lar con­struc­tion so­lu­tions. “The idea is to give back, to go green.”

Ar­jun flew in a team of spe­cial­ists from Canada to adopt mod­ern method­olo­gies, pro­duc­tion qual­ity and safety stan­dards. “The same year we show­cased our work dur­ing

the Cityscape ex­hi­bi­tion in Dubai,” says Ar­jun. “We didn’t have a reg­u­lar stall; in­stead we de­signed an art gallery in a con­tainer that de­fied all con­ven­tional ideas about an ex­hi­bi­tion space – we wanted to cre­ate a ‘wow’ ef­fect. It fooled ev­ery­body – only when vis­i­tors walked out and we told them did they re­alise that they had just been in a con­verted con­tainer. Then they went back in to take another look at the fin­ish, only to see that it more than stood up to con­ven­tional con­struc­tion op­tions.”

Build­ing with con­tain­ers is not a new con­cept. “Con­tain­ers were in­vented in the 1950s and their con­ver­sion in its rudi­men­tary state be­gan in Africa, a vast con­ti­nent where it was dif­fi­cult and much too ex­pen­sive to send back con­tain­ers to ports from the in­te­ri­ors,” says Ar­jun.

The lo­cals started hack­ing out doors and win­dows on aban­doned con­tain­ers, us­ing mud or cow dung as in­su­la­tion.

“Now you see per­fectly fine con­struc­tion across the world,” says Ar­jun. “Con­tainer City on Trin­ity BuoyWharf, in the heart of Lon­don’s Dock­lands, is a col­lec­tion of five­storey struc­tures that have been in ex­is­tence for over a decade now, and peo­ple love liv­ing there. They then built Con­tainer City II, a com­mer­cial space that is equally in de­mand. They later built small sta­di­ums, ho­tels, schools, all with con­tain­ers. And the users are all happy.”

On a re­cent visit to Almaty, Kaza­khstan, Ar­jun saw a two-storey mall built out of 500 con­tain­ers. “There was also a mar­ket put to­gether of con­tain­ers,” he says. “Old con­tain­ers cost about $1,000 [about Dh3,670] there and each con­tainer shop is owned by a fam­ily. It was fas­ci­nat­ing to see this hap­pen­ing.”

Soon, Smart Box started di­ver­si­fy­ing, con­vert­ing con­tain­ers into of­fice space, es­pe­cially site of­fices. Then engi­neer­ing com­pa­nies com­mis­sioned them to man­u­fac­ture en­gine rooms for in­dus­tries. In time Ar­jun was cre­at­ing cus­tomised ac­com­mo­da­tion for US troops sta­tioned over­seas on mis­sions.

Smart Box then be­gan sup­ply­ing to who­ever re­quired its so­lu­tions – the army, ma­rine in­dus­try, and the con­struc­tion in­dus­try. When the Palm Is­lands were be­ing cre­ated, dredg­ing com­pa­nies had a lot of re­quire­ments. Site of­fices, toi­lets, laun­dry units – Ar­jun made them all.

“Cus­tomers then started ap­proach­ing us for ex­ten­sions to their vil­las, adding on rooms, a sec­ond kitchen or staff quar­ters,” says Ar­jun. “So we got into civil con­struc­tion too.”

But it was still a strug­gle for Ar­jun to do what he re­ally wanted to – cre­ate green, mod­u­lar build­ings that would not be a bur­den to the Earth. One of the bright spots was the King­dom Ho­tels project. “They wanted to build a ho­tel in Kam­pala, Africa. It suited us per­fectly as we wanted to ex­pand be­yond in­dus­trial so­lu­tions and be­come creative,” says Ar­jun. “They came to our fac­tory, and saw what we could do. Then they asked us to cre­ate a model to prove we could do it. We did it based on a con­cept they had pre­sented us – two con­tain­ers joined to­gether with a cen­tral cor­ri­dor and two rooms

with en suite bath­rooms on ei­ther side.”

This was com­pleted in 2009. The client was happy, but the project even­tu­ally fiz­zled out in the global eco­nomic down­turn. “The word spread, how­ever, and peo­ple got to know we could do high-end stuff too,” says Ar­jun. “To­day, when they come and meet us in this con­fer­ence room, and are then shown the ad­join­ing suite, the ‘wow’ ef­fect is com­plete.”

For Ar­jun, Smart Box has been a process of ed­u­cat­ing not only the in­dus­try, but also govern­ment au­thor­i­ties about the ad­van­tages of con­tainer con­struc­tions. When Dubai Mu­nic­i­pal­ity au­thor­i­ties raised the point that Smart Box did not re­quest per­mis­sion for mak­ing the struc­ture, Ar­jun told them about the pos­i­tives of such build­ings. “We told them it is not a per­ma­nent struc­ture and we

‘Con­tainer con­struc­tion is greener, smarter, safer and quicker... What’s not to love about it?’

could dis­man­tle and re­move it within 24 hours,” says Ar­jun. “They were fas­ci­nated, and left us alone af­ter that.”

That’s where the ed­u­ca­tion process started, and word-of-mouth pub­lic­ity en­sued. “We’ve done a lot of work for Dubai Civil De­fence since, in­clud­ing a mosque,” says Ar­jun. “We’ve built a lot of ex­ten­sions to vil­las and farms here in Dubai. De­spite all that, though, peo­ple are yet to con­sider con­tainer con­ver­sion as a real so­lu­tion for con­struc­tion.”

In 2009, with the world me­dia high­light­ing the poor qual­ity of labour ac­com­mo­da­tion, Ar­jun de­cided to show that qual­ity con­struc­tion was pos­si­ble with con­tain­ers. “Our trump card was the speed with which we could make them with­out com­pro­mis­ing on the qual­ity,” he says. “While it took al­most two years to build con­ven­tional labour hous­ing, we could churn out a high-qual­ity build­ing in a month!”

Ar­jun and his team de­signed Con­tainer City, with four-storey struc­tures for labour­ers, com­plete with com­mu­nity cen­tres and green wall par­ti­tions, built to in­ter­na­tional stan­dards. “Our con­cept was more like Emi­rates Hills – pools, shops, gyms, a small green wall par­ti­tion, and on the other side, small onebed­room vil­las made out of two con­tain­ers, very con­tem­po­rary spa­ces. We even took the plan to our spon­sors but some­how it didn’t take off. But I be­lieve one day I will still do it.” With the con­struc­tion boom, Ar­jun says that con­tainer con­struc­tion is the way to go. “It is in align­ment with Green Dubai’s as­pi­ra­tions as it is en­ergy-ef­fi­cient, en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly and re­cy­cled. It en­ables quick, high-qual­ity con­struc­tion, and is cost-ef­fec­tive, with quicker re­turn on in­vest­ment,” he says. “It is adapt­able, strong and durable. Add stack­able, and eas­ily trans­portable, and what more do you need?”

One ques­tion ev­ery­body has is about the dura­bil­ity of old con­tain­ers. “Ma­rine con­tain­ers are many times stronger than any con­ven­tional con­struc­tion ma­te­rial,” says Ar­jun. It ex­ceeds the nor­mal in­ter­na­tional build­ing code (IBC) sev­eral times over.

Ship­ping con­tain­ers are con­structed with sea­wor­thy Corten steel and then coated with epoxy paint, thereby mak­ing it near im­pos­si­ble for them to cor­rode.

“A ship­ping con­tainer home con­structed ac­cord­ing to build­ing codes will be the most main­te­nance­free struc­ture you could ever have,” he says.

Heat is the next con­cern for most prospec­tive clients. “Any non­in­su­lated struc­ture can be­come hot and un­suit­able for hu­man habi­ta­tion in summer,” says Ar­jun. “A ship­ping con­tainer is as re­spon­sive to in­su­la­tion as any other struc­ture or ma­te­rial. All our con­tainer mod­ules are in­su­lated with Rock­wool or PU sand­wich panels, re­sult­ing in a more ef­fi­ciently in­su­lated en­vi­ron­ment than a stan­dard brick-and-mor­tar con­struc­tion.”

The idea seems to be catch­ing on in the UAE now. “Our projects that were shelved dur­ing 2008-2009 are slowly be­ing re­vived,” says Ar­jun. “We are build­ing an assem­bly line op­er­a­tion in our new space. This is our sec­ond wind.”

Ar­jun also has plans to con­struct res­i­den­tial build­ings. To prove that con­tainer homes can be high-end res­i­dences, he first in­tends to build a lux­ury seven-storey apart­ment build­ing. “Just to set the bench­mark,” he quips. “It will be con­tem­po­rary liv­ing, like any pre­mium apart­ment in Man­hat­tan, New York. A roof gar­den will pro­vide a green cover.”

He also wants to help those who need it, and has projects with a CSR an­gle to them. He’s de­signed mod­u­lar bus-stand units with built-in toi­lets that can play a ma­jor role in de­vel­op­ing na­tions. “The bus stands will be cli­mate-con­trolled, with mod­ern toi­let units de­signed and built for least main­te­nance, and do not lend them­selves to van­dal­ism. Each shel­ter will have a space for a jan­i­tor too,” he says. “We plan to run a pilot project for free in our na­tive Ker­ala, In­dia, soon.”

Once the project takes off, Smart Box will man­u­fac­ture such units for CSR projects in other coun­tries too, which can be spon­sored by other com­pa­nies.

But Ar­jun says he’s just scratched the sur­face with all his ideas. “We have the tech­nol­ogy and ex­per­tise to build what­ever you dream of,” he smiles. “It need not be just blocks, you can stack them any which way. It all de­pends upon your cre­ativ­ity. We aim to be be­spoke fab­ri­ca­tion spe­cial­ists.”

With mod­u­lar con­struc­tion com­ing of age and Expo 2020 time­lines loom­ing large, Ar­jun feels it is break­out time for Smart Box. “Con­tainer con­struc­tion is greener, smarter, safer and quicker,” he says. “What’s not to love about it?”

Ar­jun pauses. “Ex­perts ad­vise you to think out­side the box,” he quips. “We say: think in­side the box. You won’t re­gret it!”

Is it a cafe or a ho­tel? Well it’s a cold bar made from stacked ship­ping con­tain­ers. Below: Var­i­ous projects Smart Box has pro­duced for lo­cal com­pa­nies

Smart BoxMD Ar­jun Menon

Smart Box’s 13,440 sq ft of­fice for Geo-Chem Mid­dle East in Jebel Ali is one of the largest such projects in the world

The Re:start project built with con­tain­ers in Christchurch, New Zealand, af­ter an earthquake

A high-qual­ity con­tainer build­ing can be made in a month

Ar­jun with wife Sumaya and daugh­ter Nyla

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