Transporting the home to the orchard involved two 4-kilometre road trips – one for each container. Photo: / Fiona Tomlinson

Photos: Fiona Tomlinson Words: Ann Warnock

The passing of two shipping containers over a cherry orchard signalled the start of a new way of life for the Heeringa family.

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.

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 Heeringa’s childhood territory of Twyford near Hastings would reveal exactly the sort of life she and her husband Matt did not want to lead.

Matt Heeringa describes their former home as “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.” 

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.”

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. Heeringa 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”.

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.

It wasn’t the Heeringa’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, they sold their sprawling Twyford bungalow on Trade Me. A level of chaos ensued when the transaction brought with it a 10-day settlement.

Their 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 they 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.

“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.

The Heeringa’s 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.

* This article was first published in the January/February 2017 issue of NZ Life & Leisure, on sale now. For more stories like this, visit

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