Contained Living

Naashon Zalk, Rhenda Allan

When Mike and Petra Harris’ children left home four years ago, the couple found themselves rattling about their spacious Durban North family home, cursing still having to clean a pool and mow the lawn. Ardent travellers, they wished they lived some place 'small and secure' that they could lock up easily and leave, and where they could live 'simpler, calmer, less cluttered lives,' as Mike puts it. They were idly discussing it on holiday with friends in France when inspiration struck. 'Why not put a park home on the roof of your office block?' suggested Petra, who makes occasion cards.

The office block was a three-storey one, which Mike, a property developer and accountant, co-owns with Durban architect and designer Rupert Spence of Sphere Design & Architecture in the industrial area between Windermere and Umgeni Roads. 'We all had a jolly good laugh at the absurdity of the idea,' says Mike. Back in Durban, however, they started exploring it. 'The roof was open and had a sensational view from Umhlanga to the Bluff and across the Berea, especially over Kings Park and Moses Mabhida stadiums,' says Petra. 'We'd sometimes take up deckchairs to admire it and the sunset.'

When Mike first gave Rupert an architectural brief to create a home there, Rupert thought he was crazy. 'Rupert was worried about the area and the weight on the roof,' he says, but he and Petra were decided and had already put their Durban North property on the market.

contained3600 Mike and Petra’s ‘iron aerie’ perches above an industrial building converted to multi-use offices for creatives, from architects to graphic designers.


'Suddenly Rupert took us seriously and he quickly drew up a conceptual layout,' grins Mike. Their brief: 'A simple, modular, open-plan, inexpensive home that has recycled elements and also an emphasis on fun living.' They took inspiration from Freedom Café – old schoolmate Neil Roake's nearby restaurant in a shipping container. Rupert's response was to design two steel rectangles – one an open-plan living, dining and kitchen area with a work/hobby space for Petra, the other a master bedroom – and link the two with half a shipping container.

The other half of the container was used for a dressing room off the bedroom, while a second container became an office for Mike, and a third a guest bedroom with en-suite shower.

'My top tip for compact living is chuck out anything not absolutely necessary and beautiful – clutter builds up in a blink of an eye' - Mike

To keep weight down and construction quick and simple, they used a galvanised steel structure with weatherproof IBR metal sheeting for the roof and for the external walls. They clad the inside of the walls with sheets of dry-walling for a smooth finish they could paint, and used insulation between the metal sheeting and dry walling to help keep the temperature constant during the hot Durban summer.

For flooring they simply used suspended shutter boards; 'quick and easy to put down and low maintenance,' says Mike. Polished concrete was used in the bathroom for practical reasons and a few sections were laid in the lounge 'aesthetically, to break the large space'.

contained1600 Mike in the AstroTurf garden.


Massive, double-glazed, sliding glass doors were fitted to the fronts of both rectangular modules, opening them fully to the view. These doors had to be hauled up the outside of the building by ropes. The containers were lifted up by a gigantic crane, as were the stone, sand and bricks – in giant one-tonne sugar bags. 'I couldn’t bear to watch,' Petra confesses.

When it came to decor, however, she was in her element. A lover of DIY, she sanded the shutter-board floors herself then had them varnished; 'anything more would have been gilding the lily'. The three shipping containers were obtained second hand from a container yard, de-rusted and painted in vivid enamel (Dulux Golden Yellow for the guest room, and Post Office Red for the others). For the interior walls, Petra opted for charcoal grey (Aniseed by Plascon) and white for ‘a restful, neutral background’. She kept the same palette when choosing furnishings, from sleek grey lounge seating to a grey buttoned headboard and silver throws, restaurant kitchen stainless-steel tables, and simple industrial steel shelving and rails in place of cupboards.

contained2600 The effect of steel ceiling beams is softened by sleek seating from @home ( and side tables from Weylandts. A custom-made liquor cabinet above a raised bar counter creates a favourite entertaining area behind a Wetherlys’ dining table painted white and a chandelier Petra fashioned from old fire-sprinkler pipes and strung with crystals.


'Everything is easy to find and you’re forced to keep it neat,’ Mike says, with a meaningful glance at Petra. 'I love it,' she counters equably. 'I love everything about living here. No noisy neighbours, no suburban dogs barking or alarms, no security problems, no lawn to mow or leaves to sweep. And the fireworks on holidays and after sports matches are amazing!'

Rupert Spence, Sphere Design & Architecture,