This Architect-Couple Built Their Home Out of Container Vans

This 70sqm La Union home was born from a single container van on an empty lot. Step inside and see all its retro details and Japanese-style space-saving tricks.

Original Article: Bubbles Salvador Photography: Michael Angelo Chua Pictorial Direction: Nat Clave Styling: Dagny Madamba & Kamila Garcia

Surfing in La Union brought architects Buji and Nikki Libarnes together. For eight years, they lived with friends in a two-bedroom apartment in the area. They went back and forth to Manila where their work was, but they had their personal belongings and surfboards stashed in this apartment so they could go on the water anytime.

It seemed the most ideal living arrangement until the owner decided to renovate. “Nawalan kami ng tirahan,” Buji relates matter-of-factly, but he wasn’t just about to up and leave the town that had become his second home.

It all started with a Kombi and a shipping container

“I brought my Kombi van, and we lived in that for a year. Nakiki-park lang kami sa mga hotel. Sobrang sarap. Nag-enjoy ako matulog sa van na yun,” he recalls. Nikki says that it was set up in such a way that they could live comfortably in it: “May electric fan, konting curtains, kulambo.”

Eventually, they got wind of a property for sale in the neighborhood. And as like a foreshadowing of things to come, there was already a shipping container at the site. In true bayanihan fashion, their surfer friends helped move the shipping container, and Buji and Nikki got down to work on their new home.

From that single shipping container, they decided to extend it to accommodate a guest room and a garage. “Binutasan namin for the window, and tinaas for the roof,” describes Buji. “We’re also very fascinated with clean lines. Eh yung container, very linear siya. It’s a box, puwede mong paglaruan yung stacking. Ang inspiration ng bahay namin is a mix of California and Japanese style. May pagka-mid-century,” he adds.

The single shipping container gave birth to a hostel

At that time, the couple had no plans yet of putting up Vessel Hostel, which currently stands next to their house. “Nag-leave lang kami ng space,” says Nikki, but that space turned out to be the perfect fit. The design of the hostel is based on containers as well.

A peek inside their 70-sqm home shows that it is carefully planned, and every inch of its space efficiently used. There are no solid partitions, so the living, dining, and sleeping areas flow seamlessly in an open space.


Nikki says that as soon as they wake up, their schedule starts getting crazy. (Living right next to their place of business is a big plus.) Buji takes care of the maintenance and ongoing construction at the hostel, while Nikki replies to inquiries and bookings. When nighttime comes, they focus on their Manila-based projects.

Whether designing or surfing or attending to guests, Buji and Nikki are simply overjoyed to be able to do all of those things where they feel most at home. “Sobrang sarap to design your own home. Kung anong gusto mong gawin, puwede. Dito, nakaka-relax kami. Nakaka-focus,” the couple says.


Meet “Winnie Cooper” (from the 90s TV show Wonder Years), the couple’s 1993 classic Mini Cooper. “Mahilig ako sa lumang kotse. Yung garage, ang layout niya, pag naka-park doon yung sasakyan, parang part siya ng furniture. Parang accent piece,” says Buji.  

The couple’s boards are neatly lined up in the customized rack in the garage. The curtained-off area at left is where you can shower off the sand after a day of surfing, before stepping inside the home. Living close to the ocean has its perks, the most obvious one being that they can head to the water to surf whenever the waves permit. “Kaya kami tumira dito para maka-surf, so importante talaga sa amin yung surfing. Being by the beach is so inspiring,” Buji explains.

Guest bedroom

Buji and Nikki added this guest room and the garage right after they finished the main house. The raised the roof, and the jalousie windows bring in ventilation and light. “Yung slope ng roof, sliding doors, use of wood veneer and louvered windows—di ba ganyan ang mga bahay ng lola natin dati? It’s very California,” Buji describes.

The bed fits just right—snugly but comfortably—in the narrow space. Buji credits the efficient use of space to the Japanese style. “The house focuses on the inside. Meron siyang sariling environment sa loob. [You wouldn’t think] it’s just by the highway. 

Living area

The container van was the perfect material to start with, and comprises the main house. In the living areas, a clean, linear, Japanese aesthetic blends with midcentury modern and vintage pieces. Buji has always been a huge fan of the 1950s to ‘60s, particularly the architecture, fashion, music, and cars of the era. “Parang happy days yun, for me. Sobrang nostalgic. Mahilig rin akong mag-collect ng lumang gamit. Even my architecture is very reminiscent of the golden years,” Buji says. 

Dining area

Buji designed all the furniture pieces from the loft bed to the closet to the dining table, couch, and TV console. “Since it’s so compact, kailangan yung furniture, eksakto,” says Nikki. “Wala siyang masyadong solid partition, puro glass and sliding doors para di siya masyadong compartmentalized,” says Buji of the open layout. 


In place of cabinet doors that will make the kitchen look cramped, strings tied end to end keep cooking essentials secure on the open shelves. 

Sleeping loft

Precious closet space is tucked neatly underneath the sleeping loft, which overlooks the main living areas. This inspiration that the surfer couple can talk about so passionately is reflected most in their architecture. Their home exudes a laidback feel, a characteristic often associated with surfers. Buji clarifies the latter part of that statement. “Akala ng mga tao, pag surfer, beach bum, walang ginagawa. Pero hindi lang nila alam.”

Read the original article ("Perfectly Contained") in the June 2017 issue of Real Living Magazine. Download your digital copy of Real Living on the Real Living App. Log on to for more details. You can contact the architects at libarnesdelapaz[at] You can also watch their exclusive Real Living interview here. 

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