Ben Treleaven’s evening spent supping red wine with friend and colleague Gregg Curtis provided the unexpected trigger for their next business venture.
When he surfaced next morning, Ben discovered that not only had he and Gregg worked out a niche business idea, but that he had successfully applied online for a £100,000 loan to finance it!
Six years on, that idea has evolved into a rapidly growing business that converts shipping containers into the perfect spaces for work or living. It’s even helping to unlock solutions to the UK’s huge housing crisis.
ISO Spaces, with offices in Truro, Cornwall, has now opened a factory in Tonbridge, Kent, to keep up with orders. The factory can turn out up to 100 converted units a month – ready for installation on sites across the South and South-East. Among the biggest customers are London boroughs, which are snapping up the containers to provide emergency housing for homeless people in the capital.
Ben, 37, explained: “Councils and housing associations love that we can provide quick, efficient units ready for families to move into. Our teams can install up to 20 a day – all that is needed once they’re on site is to link the containers together and put up any staircases required for access.”
The units arrive fully fitted with wooden floors, windows and doors, heating, bathrooms and kitchens. They can be joined side by side, or put on top of one another, to provide between one and four bedrooms. When they are no longer needed, they can be lifted on to a transporter and driven away.
Ben and Gregg met while working as stockbrokers in London, but by 2013 they were looking for a new challenge. The evening they acquired the start-up business loan proved the catalyst and their knowledge of the financial world helped in getting more funding to get the company up and running.
“We had already bought a shipping container and were playing about with ideas for converting it into a ‘man cave’ for the garden,” said Ben. “Then came the lightbulb moment, when we realised we could do something really worthwhile with them – something which would help small businesses with office space and people who found it difficult to get on the housing ladder with reasonably priced accommodation.”
With the help of Andy Orr (now their bespoke build director), who invested in the company, and with a £5,000 overdraft from Barclay’s Bank, Ben and Gregg developed another idea, a hydraulic-powered mobile bar, which they sold for £60,000 to Heineken to take round the country visiting exhibitions. This provided additional capital to expand ISO Spaces, starting with 34 homes built for Ealing Council. They have now completed more than 300 units, as well as individually designed spaces for use as coffee bars, burger or pizza restaurants.
ISO Spaces takes on individual commissions, including private housing projects. A fully fitted one-bed home costs £30,000, two-bedrooms £45,000 and three £60,000 – all considerably less than bricks and mortar accommodation. The company is now in talks about producing budget hotel rooms for sites across London and beyond. There are also plans for “flying factories” which can be quickly developed and put into action where needed.
I ask Ben if there is a good supply of containers to work with. He laughs and says there are an estimated 40 million in circulation across the world and that many arrive on UK shores filled with Chinese imports. China finds it too expensive to ship them back empty, so they end up piled up at docks around the country. In New Zealand they have been used for emergency accommodation following earthquakes, or other natural disasters.
When he’s not working on a new business proposition, which frequently requires spending several nights away from home, Ben loves nothing better than to be back in Cornwall playing a round of golf, or spending time with his partner and nine-year-old stepdaughter.