25th Oct 2016


Student villages on the water

  • Students will soon be able to move into converted shipping containers in Gothenburg. (Photo: Urban Rigger)

With a projected deficit in Europe of more than 4 million student beds by 2025, governments across Europe are scrambling for a solution.

The Urban Rigger project in a former industrial port in Gothenburg, Sweden's second-largest city, might be an inspiration.

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  • Danish architect Bjarke Ingels oversees building projects around the world, including new Google and Lego headquarters and Barcelona football club's Camp Nou. (Photo: Lisbeth Kirk)

The first students will soon be able to move into old shipping containers that have been converted into homes. They are heated by solar power and cooled using sea water. They offer a central location, a village-type community, and low cost.

"We have won our first big project in Gothenburg, in Sweden, where we are going to build 24 of these [riggers] to form sort of a student village," explains Danish architect Bjarke Ingels.

“We can actually use these containers as building blocks to create incredibly affordable apartments that have almost all the luxuries of waterfront high-end real-estate," he tells EUobserver, while showcasing the first prototype, anchored in Copenhagen's harbour.

Creating new housing areas

Ingels' Copenhagen and New York based company, BIG, dreamt up the idea together with Urban Rigger founder Kim Loudrup.

Their idea could potentially turn thousands of kilometres of untapped harbours, rivers and canals into new housing areas.

By stacking nine container units in a circle, 15 studios are created that frame a centralised common green courtyard. There is a kayak landing, bathing platform, barbecue area and a roof terrace.

The housing is also buoyant like a boat, so that can be replicated in other harbour cities where affordable housing is needed but space is limited.

Below water, there are storage rooms, a utility room and a laundry. The whole thing weighs 6 tonnes and sits 2.5m deep in the water, making it stable even when a storm passes over.

So far seven countries have been singled out as having a potential market for the riggers: France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

"With the right partners we can build between 200 and 300 platforms yearly, securing 2,000 to 3,000 students an affordable place to live," Loudrup tells EUobserver.

The price for students would be between €500 and €800 each month, depending on the wharf rent and whether internet, furniture, bikes and other equipment is included.

"We have had 3,000 requests in just a few days," says Loudrup.

Co-operation with universities

Urban Rigger operates with two business models: One for private investors, who are interested in student housing with an estimated 7-8 percent return on their investment. The other model is to let the universities be in charge of the rent.

"The trend is certainly that many university cities are port cities,” says Bjarke Ingels.

As ports modernise and consolidate, smaller ports sites closer to the centres of cities are closing down.

“The new container plants are often located outside the city, leaving the old sites empty," he says.

Ingels, 41, was recently described as a kind of rockstar of the architecture world in Wired Magazine.

He is currently overseeing building projects around the world, including new Google and Lego headquarters, and renovations of Manhattan's waterfront.

In 2005, he formed BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) from his tiny apartment in Copenhagen.

He wanted to be a cartoonist, but there was no cartoon academy. So he enrolled in the Royal Danish Art Academy School of Architecture instead and got smitten by architecture, he once revealed in an interview.

Social infrastructure

Why is Ingels spending his time on low-cost student housing when he could presumably do more profitable and prestigious projects?

"We have an idea of ​​something we call social infrastructure for the time, it's about past infrastructures that can be used for something else when going out of service," Ingels explains.

He gives examples such as the Danish Maritime Museum, which was converted from an old shipyard, and London's Tate Modern which was originally an old power plant.

But he also highlights another of his projects, the Amager Bakke power station, which incorporates this dual function from the start. It is a new power plant with a roof that doubles as a ski slope.

Waterfront ownerships

But why build it for students only, when presumably many other would be interested in living in an Urban Rigger?

"Our estimates show that there is a shortfall of 4 million student residences in Western Europe - it's certainly plenty to focus on. Right now that's our focus. What we offer is a community good as an alternative to privatising the waterfront to expensive apartments," says Ingels.

And it does not necessarily have to be university students.

"We work a little with Noma [Michelin-star restaurant] and its chef Rene Redzepi, who once said he'd like to know if we knew anything about housing opportunities. He has a number of trainee chefs from near and far who want to work with him - we even have a lot of trainees ourselves who come and stay for a year or two. It would be brilliant for us - it would be brilliant for Noma, having an Urban Rigger," he says.

"It's a housing form that could be great to live in - at least for five years."

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2016 Regions and Cities Magazine. You can download a free PDF version of the magazine here.

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