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All About Shipping Container Homes

Do you want to build a guest house? Or a backyard office? Maybe a whole new house? Consider an alternative space, like converting an old shipping container.

Shipping Container Home iStock

When thinking about the construction of a new building, thoughts typically go to lumber, sheathing, and perhaps bricks. But how about dropping a modified steel shipping container or two (onto your property, and starting there? This article spells out the details of using shipping containers for buildings.

What Are Shipping Containers?

in the 1950s by visionary truck driver Malcolm McLean, shipping containers transformed international trade, and their versatility has made them viable, popular structures for storage units, backyard offices, and even homes.

How to Use a Shipping Container for a Building

The first step is to be sure your local building codes and neighborhood rules allow for structures to be built of shipping containers.

A building can be designed with one shipping container or more, depending on the use. Modifications to allow for windows and other openings are generally done by the container dealer. Sometimes, in order to create one large space, entire walls are removed, leaving only the frame and the two containers are set side by side. The ceiling can be removed to create a taller space from stacked containers. Other dealer modifications can include the installation of electrical and HVAC systems, insulation, skylights and solar panels.

The foundation of a shipping container building is typically made of concrete piles or a poured slab. The trickiest aspect is usually the insulation. Since the container is made of steel, a building made from it may be too hot or too cold. Usually, insulation with a high R- value is desirable. However, because the containers are so narrow (narrow enough to be driven by truck on local roads and freeways), very thick insulation will use up valuable square footage. If the insulation is placed on the outside, the industrial aesthetic of the steel shipping container is lost. In general, interior spray foam insulation is the best solution.

How Much Do Used Shipping Containers Cost?

Shipping containers come in a few standard sizes:

  • 20 ft. long by 8 ft. wide by 8 ft. tall (160 sq. ft.)
  • 40 ft. long by 8 ft. wide by 8 ft. tall (320 sq. ft.)
  • 40 ft. long by 8 ft. wide by 9 ft. tall (320 sq. ft.)

The 8 ft. tall containers are termed standard, and the 9 ft. tall containers are known as high cubes.

The cost of the shipping container will be determined by its size and condition. New containers or those used one time cost more than one used for multiple years. Some dealers list heavily used 20 ft. and 40 ft. standard containers for less than $2,000 each, and one-use containers for close to $3,000. High cubes could range from about $5,000 for new or one-trip to about $2,000 for heavily used.

Shipping container dealers have outlets near large ports[1] such as Los Angeles, Portland, Houston, and New Orleans, and will typically deliver to within a 250-mile radius.

Pros and Cons of Container Houses

Pros

  • The reuse of existing materials
  • The industrial aesthetic
  • Extremely strong and robust (build to withstand the open seas)
  • Can be half the cost of standard construction
  • Highly available across the world

Cons

  • Used ones may contain toxic spillage that needs to be removed
  • Might be tricky to get building permits
  • 8-ft. width limits space (without modifications)
  • The steel must be maintained, or it will rust

Container buildings are not for everyone, but they are certainly right for some.