Shipping containers fill a crucial niche in the world’s economy. They are large and sturdy enough to uniformly transport goods but small enough to fit on trucks and light enough to be moved by cranes and forklifts. However, over the decades a challenge emerged: an excess of used containers.
Where some saw a problem, innovative architects saw an eco-friendly opportunity. Since the mid-2000s, designers began repurposing containers into a wide array of buildings. Some structures can be simple—a single compact shipping container outfitted for dwelling—while others are complex designs that use multiple containers merged with other structural components.
So what exactly goes into building a shipping container home? And are they as economical, sustainable, and livable as claimed? We break down what you need to know below.
What is a shipping container house?
A shipping container house is any dwelling made from a shipping container, but the resulting structures can be quite diverse. Shipping containers usually come in two sizes, either 20 feet by 8 feet or 40 feet by 8 feet. The smaller of the two equals about 160 square feet of living space, while the larger container gets you 320 square feet. There are also two height types, regular (8.5 feet high) or a high cube container that provides about a foot of extra vertical living space. Some shipping container homes stop here, using these compact spaces as standalone tiny homes or offices.
But many builders or owners combine containers to create larger homes, like this version in Missouri. In homes with multiple containers, walls are often removed to create more spacious interiors, and traditional construction methods add exterior materials and additional rooms.
Some containers are stacked in a row to create multi-level residences, while others can be twisted and turned Jenga-style to deliver striking architectural masterpieces.
Where do the shipping containers come from and how do you buy one?
If you buy an empty, brand-new shipping container, it will likely come from manufacturers in China; the Chinese company CIMC produces around 82 percent of the world’s steel shipping containers. Used shipping containers are a more eco- and budget-friendly option, but you need to carefully inspect their condition. Pay attention to the different certifications. Some are certified for being able to ship goods overseas, and more stringent certifications designate containers that are wind and water tight.
Some containers are identified as “one trip”—which is just like it sounds—which offer a good balance of value and decent condition. “As is” containers may have been used to transport dangerous chemicals or they may have rust, doors that don’t seal, or holes; these aren’t advised for home construction.
Used containers are available from either national dealers or local sellers. While national dealers have large inventories and can deliver to most any location, local sellers often have better prices but don’t offer delivery. Twenty-foot containers can be moved using a standard forklift and hauled on tow trucks, but 40-foot containers usually require a crane.
Finally, a new batch of companies are providing shipping container homes ready for purchase. These tiny homes range in style and price, but they offer a one-stop-shop for anyone who wants a shipping container home but doesn’t want to build it themselves.
What kind of permit do you need to build a shipping container house?
Shipping container architecture is still relatively new, so the most important thing before starting construction is to research your local laws and regulations. You need to ensure two things: First, that your container building will fit on the land, and second, that it will meet existing building codes and zoning restrictions. Building codes set standards for what structures must have in order to receive an occupancy permit. Zoning regulations, meanwhile, dictate where a home can be built.
Some codes and regulations explicitly say whether shipping container homes are allowed while others group “non-traditional” structures—like tiny houses or dome homes—together. Shipping container homes are more likely to be allowed in more remote or less trafficked areas, but you really need to check with your city or county planner for the specifics.
What are the drawbacks of building with shipping containers?
Despite their housing-friendly attributes, shipping containers can pose challenges when used for homes. First off, remember that almost all shipping containers are eight feet wide with an interior room width of just over seven feet. That’s quite narrow, even for people accustomed to living in cramped apartments. If you want wider rooms you’ll have to use multiple shipping containers with walls removed, or enclose the area between two parallel but separate containers.
Another potential drawback is that the metal of the containers can make it hard to install insulation. While typical wood walls with studs have a cavity for insulation, the corrugated metal sides of a shipping container doesn’t. Large-scale projects that use multiple containers might also require extensive steel reinforcement, adding to potential costs.
Are shipping container houses more sustainable than traditional homes?
Advocates for shipping container homes applaud them for giving unwanted containers a new life. According to most estimates, there are millions of unused shipping containers in the world. It’s often cheaper to receive new shipping containers than it is to send them back to suppliers, which means that some containers are discarded after only one trip.
Reusing a safe shipping container is an excellent example of building with recycled materials, and shipping container homes can also encourage a smaller footprint and less usage of other building materials like wood and masonry. Owners who are open to alternative living spaces like container homes often incorporate other eco-friendly elements, such as solar panels, wind power, water recycling systems, and rainwater harvesting systems.
Still, some used containers are hardly eco-friendly—they may have held toxic chemicals or have been treated to prevent corrosion during transit, leading to high levels of chemical residue. Picking the right container is key.
Others argue that the energy required to make the steel boxes habitable erases the benefits of recycling. According to an ArchDaily report, the average container eventually produces nearly a thousand pounds of hazardous waste before it can be used as a structure.
Are they more affordable than other types of housing?
Shipping container homes are not always cheaper to build than traditional stick-built homes, but they can be. There are a large number of variables that influence project cost, such as location, size, design, and interior finishes.
The cost of buying the container itself can range from $1,400 for smaller containers to up to $6,000 for a larger, brand new 40-foot container. Newer containers will cost more than older containers.
A shipping container comes with a flat metal roof, exterior walls, and a metal frame that can double as a foundation—these elements are often cited as cost savings. But you’ll still have to spend money on transporting the container to your site, insulation, and interior finishes.
You’ll also still need to pay for land. Container homes, however, can often be built on (properly zoned) land that might not be suitable for normal construction without a lot of site work. If a plot of land is rocky or steep, shipping container houses can be elevated on sturdy pilings instead of paying for pricey excavation.
If you want an already built shipping container home, these can be as affordable as $33,000 for the smallest, most basic units.
Are shipping container houses faster to build?
Shipping container homes are often faster to build than traditional stick-built houses. The simplest and smallest of container homes can be built in a few days or weeks, depending on how much finishing work your design requires. More complex homes will usually still take at least a few months, and note that shipping container homes are still subject to normal construction delays.
For the fastest type of shipping container home, look for companies that fabricate most of the structure offsite before transporting them to your land. These prefab-style shipping container homes tend to be smaller, but they come prebuilt with most everything you need to move in right away.