32 Great Tips for Building a Shipping Container Home

32 Great Tips for Building a Shipping Container Home


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Shipping container homes have grown in popularity immensely in the last few years, and for good reason: they are strong, durable, cheap, eco-friendly (compared to traditional materials) and allow for modular designs. In 2006, California architect Peter DeMaria, designed the first two-storey shipping container home in the U.S. Since then containers have been used to build pop-up hotels, shopping malls, and some jaw-dropping homes.

Why You Should Consider a Home Made with Shipping Containers

1. Strength and DurabilityThis one’s quite the no-brainer. As far as their original usage in shipping goes, shipping containers are designed to carry heavy loads and to be stacked. They are also designed to withstand harsh conditions.

2. Low CostMany used containers are available at an amount much lower than what a brick-and-mortar setup entails. Not only that, you also save significantly on building larger, more expensive foundations. Even buying brand new containers is relatively inexpensive, considering that the outlay on labour is much less.

3. ModularityShipping containers are the Legos of construction. Combining containers into larger structures simplifies design, planning and transport. This also allows for a home that can grow with you!

4. Eco-FriendlinessThe average shipping container weighs about 3,500 kg. Not only do used containers offer convenient upcycling into homes, they also reduce the need for bricks and cement.

Some Myths You’ve Probably Heard

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5. Shipping Container Homes are for Rich PeopleFALSE: While multimillion dollar homes have been made from containers, the whole idea of container homes started out as a affordable housing solution. Over the years, hundreds of affordable shipping container homes have been built, including some for less than $30,000.

6. All Shipping Container Homes are Eco-FriendlyFALSE: It’s unfortunate that one of the top pros of building shipping container homes may not apply to absolutely all of them. The biggest reason is the use of brand new shipping containers, which obviously isn’t as eco-friendly as building with used ones, but it still might be better than a traditional home.

7. Shipping Container Homes can Survive HurricanesPARTLY TRUE: In the wake of a hurricane or other natural calamity, shipping containers could get blown around, yet stay physically intact. If containers are suitably anchored onto the foundation pads, they are able to survive strong winds.

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Things to Ensure while Building the Home

8. See the Actual Shipping ContainerThe container is the base of your new home, so make sure that what you see (online or otherwise) is exactly what you get. Pay attention to the exact material and sizes.

9. There’s a Little-Known Trick to Gain Some Ceiling HeightIf you’re willing to consider paying extra for each container (usually about 1.5 times), you should consider buying high-cube containers, which are the same as regular containers, but a foot taller. This extra foot is worth having, especially if you are insulating the floor of your container.

10. Research Building Regulations in Your AreaDifferent cities (and maybe even different areas within a city) have different rules and regulations for building a shipping container home. Ensure that you’re well-versed with the legal constraints and insurance information before starting the process of building the home.

11. Find the Right ContractorHomes have existed for millennia, but shipping container homes haven’t. Having the right contractor, particularly if they are experienced with the kind of home you’re envisioning, can go a long way in making the construction process smooth and iron out a lot of kinks that might come up along the way. You might also want to deal with one person for all the work, rather than two or three different ones for interiors and exteriors, etc. However to save money and if you are reasonably confident, you should become the overall supervisor and bring contractors in for the various sub-tasks, like welding, plumbing, insulation, etc.

12. Spend Time Picking the Right Insulation ChoiceFor container homes, the most popular choice is spray foam insulation. This is because you want to insulate your home, as well as create a vapor barrier to prevent moisture entering your containers. The only drawback of spray foam insulation is that it’s more expensive than insulation panels. On a tight budget, you should consider insulation panels, which offer just as much insulation but you lose some interior space (about an inch on each wall).

13. Choose the Flooring CarefullyWould you rather have a carpeted floor, or a tiled one? How about durability? A floor that can be easily replaced for a fresh look every few years, or one that you can install once and forget about forever? Your contractor can help with the options, but the decision has to be yours, and a carefully considered one.

14. Consider the Available Options for PlumbingThe overall look and feel of the home can be easily updated with the paint, furnishing and decor, but plumbing is likely to be done only once. It’s a good idea to know all the available options and their long-term pros and cons.

15. Understand the Container’s StructureYou needn’t know the details of how the physics works, but an understanding of basic structural integrity is very important, e.g. the two long walls are both load-bearing and bracing, so if you were to cut a hole in one, it needs to be compensated.

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A Few Ways to Ease the Journey

16. Buy All your Containers from the Same ManufacturerContainers from different manufacturers may have small differences in quality and dimensions, and combining them might take away the ease of using containers to build modular structures. So find the right manufacturer for your area and needs and stick to them.

17. Plan for SimplicityThe level of complexity in building a container home is up to you. Just like with any type of construction technique, container homes offer a broad range of possibilities. If you don’t have much experience or confidence, you can start simple, and perhaps in a later attempt, try a more complex container home. The great thing about container homes is that they are very easy to upgrade, so once you learn from your initial experience, you can always add an extra room, or floor, or even a pool!

18. Cut as Little as PossibleEvery cut you make on a container requires time and money, and complicates the construction (think #15 above). Try to stick to a design that requires a minimal number of cuts.

19. Finalise a Design and Stick to itThis is a follow-up to the previous tip. Each cut comes with a cost, but when you cut out a portion of a shipping container, it involves huge cost and time to build it again, so avoid going back on a decision. Visit as many container homes in person as possible, to get inspiration for your design, and then try to stick to the one that you like.

20. Minimise the Welding RequiredWelding is expensive in both money and time terms, so plan the construction so as to reduce the welding required.

For more detail and inspiration, check out this video:

When it Comes to the Budget

21. Plan More than You Think You Need toIf you want to build a container home on a tight budget, the least you can do is to plan well. Give yourself time to arrive at the sum you’re willing to spend on the home and the various elements of construction, to make sure there are no surprises along the way.

22. Track Expenses to the Last DollarYour plan is only as good as the madness with which you stick to it. Keep track of all expenses; this will keep you from overspending on last-minute changes and additions.

23. New or Used… The Ultimate ConundrumWe know that the cost and eco-friendliness of the home are directly related to the choice of new versus used containers. Buying old containers can be tempting, but also throws up a lot of challenges. You also need to closely inspect all the containers you’re buying, and be prepared for flaws that might become apparent only over time. A good midway option is “one-trip” containers, which have only been used once. They are cheaper than brand new ones, but will have significantly less wear than retired containers.

24. Pick your BattlesTo save money, make smart choices: don’t be stingy with things that you can’t change easily, e.g. the containers themselves. A cheap paint job, on the other hand, can be quickly redone at a low cost. Consider the future cost of one-time savings and indulgences. Make sure you’re not sacrificing safety or legal compliance just to save money.

25. Choose Low-MaintenanceAnother great way to save money is to use building elements which require low maintenance. Apply this to everything from the cost of maintenance to cleaning.

Stacking the Right Way

26. Inspect all the Containers for QualityThe bottom containers need to be structurally sound to handle stacking. This should be true for most new and one-trip containers, but in the case of older ones, it’s better to check minutely to be absolutely sure.

27. Corner-post to Corner-post“Containers are designed for stacking on ships. On ships they stack like-sized containers one right on top of another, lining up corner-post to corner-post. If you look carefully, you’ll see that the corner-posts sit just a little lower than the bottom of the container and just a little higher than the top of the container. The corner-posts and flooring of the container are designed to bear the weight of the container and the container(s) above it. So you want to do the same with your stacking. If you are stacking 2×20’ containers and 1×40’ container, be sure that the 20’s are on the bottom so all four corner-posts of the 40’ container have corner-posts to set on. If you do the reverse, the 20’ corner-posts will not have proper support and the 20’s could fall through the roof of the 40’. If your design does not allow for this, then just build in supports for the corner-posts.”

28. Understand How Stacking Strengthens the StructureShipping containers are designed to be incredibly strong, but only in certain ways. When they are stacked, their weight gets transferred through the corner posts, leading to high stability. On the contrary, this doesn’t apply if the containers were to be buried to form an underground bunker, which applies force (weight of soil) on both the roof and the walls.

29. Locking Containers Together SafelyTo ensure that stacked containers can safely resist strong weather conditions (or rowdy parties inside!), you should lock them together with twist-locks.

Is It Really All Good?

If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably serious about shipping container home conversion, and so far the idea seems quite solid. Before winding up this article, we’ll leave with the devil advocate’s side of the argument. A few points to consider:

30. The Devil in the DetailsReusing containers seems to be a low-cost and low-energy alternative to traditional construction methods, however, it is only during the construction that one realises the amount of energy required to turn a metal box into a home. Depending on the condition of the container, and the expectation from the final home, the structure might need to be sandblasted bare, the floors replaced, and openings cut into the metal. All these processes, and several others, require energy and produce wastes.

31. The Right Sizes and ShapesA container’s dimension makes for awkward living spaces with a less than eight foot ceiling (assuming insulation). To make a comfortable space for living, working, dining, etc., several containers need to be combined in the right ways.

32. The Economics for Your CityIn many areas, containers might be available abundantly and at low prices because it is too expensive to ship them back to the origin port. However, elsewhere, it might be cheaper to build a similar home from wooden panels, and with growing popularity, 3D-printed materials.