Building a shipping container home seems pretty straightforward in theory. There are millions of excess shipping containers laying around in ports around the world, and they are the perfect size for a home. If you want a multi-story or larger square footage home, you simply stack a few shipping containers on top of one another and, voila, you’ve got a home. Unfortunately, things are never as easy as they seem from the outset. When it comes to building a shipping container home, there are several things you need to know to make sure that your home is structurally sound, sustainable, and singularly beautiful.
1. See Before you Buy
You would never purchase a used car without first inspecting it and taking it for a test drive. When purchasing a used shipping container, you will most likely not be able to do a complete “walk through”, especially if it is currently located at some obscure port on the other side of the world. However, you can ask the seller for detailed pictures and a thorough description of the container.
Older shipping containers, especially, might have several dents, issues with rust, or other structural problems that come with a lifetime of being tossed around on the high seas. One-trip containers are a little bit more expensive, though they are almost assured to be in great shape, and might be worth the investment if you want to avoid the work (and expense) of fixing a container that is all dented up.
2. Know Your Building Code Restrictions
Many towns and cities might have certain restrictions against building a shipping container home. Before you invest several thousand dollars in used shipping containers, make sure you check on your local and state building codes. A good introduction to state building codes and shipping container construction can be found here.
3. Make Sure You Have a Plan for Insulating
An unfinished steel shipping container will be unbearably hot during the summer and freezing cold in the winter unless you have a good plan for adding needed insulation. When designing your shipping container home, ask certain contractors about insulation ideas, and remember that you will have to heavily insulate the roof as well as the walls. Blanket-style insulation will need an interior stud wall, while foam insulation can be sprayed directly onto the wall. If you are exploring a more green or sustainable alternative, consider sheep wool or even adding a green roof onto the top of your shipping container home.
4. Find a Complete Contractor
Instead of attempting to deal with one contractor for placing and modifying your unfinished containers and others for the interior finishing work, it is best to search for one contractor that can oversee the entire process. Since shipping container construction is still a relatively new niche in the building industry, it can be difficult to find contractors with relevant experience. Here is a list of 16 companies around the USA who specialize in shipping container construction as pre-built homes.
5. Protect Against Harmful Chemicals
If you are purchasing used shipping containers for your home, it is important to understand that these containers were designed for a lifetime at sea. The wood flooring on most shipping containers includes heavy pesticides to deter rats and rodents from eating through the flooring. Furthermore, the paint on these containers often contains chemicals to protect the containers from saltwater spray from the oceans.
To avoid these harmful chemicals in your shipping container home, you can either choose to buy a new shipping container that does not have these chemical issues or make some adjustments. Consider ripping up the pesticide-infested wood flooring and installing your own flooring. Foam insulation on the interior of the shipping container will protect from any off gassing from harmful chemical paints.
6. Avoid Cutting Your Containers into Pieces
Shipping containers are extremely strong since they are built out of solid steel and the walls can certainly be load bearing if you want to add a second story or build a separate roof structure. However, each time you cut a hole into your shipping container for an extra door or window you are debilitating the structural integrity of the container and will most likely have to invest in a steel beam reinforcement. The more you cut into your container, the more reinforcement it will need, and the higher your budget will rise.
7. Plan Ahead for Plumbing and Electrical
When designing your shipping container home, make sure you have a good idea where the plumbing and electrical lines will enter and leave your home. Ask your contractor to cut the holes for plumbing and electrical lines before finishing the interior so that you can avoid having to move your kitchen cabinets to cut a hole to run that one extra pipe you forgot about.
8. Know the Difference between Containers
Not all shipping containers are the same. While traditional shipping containers are eight-feet tall, high cube containers add an extra foot in height. If you are planning to heavily insulate your floor or ceiling, you can be left with a house that ends up being strangely “Hobbitish.” While high cube containers are usually about $1,000 more expensive than regular shipping containers, the extra height can certainly come in handy.
9. Prepare for the Wind
Shipping container homes placed in windy areas will most likely lead to a noisy home. Because of their rectangular shape, these types of homes are the opposite of aerodynamic. Strong winds and gusts will then most likely hit the walls of the home and cause interior noise. If you live in a windy area, consider placing your home behind a windbreak or in an area that protects your home from the piercing winds.
10. Avoid Excessive Welding to Cut Costs
While one shipping container can perfectly be modelled into a tiny home, when you want more square footage you will have to purchase several containers. Shipping containers need to be welded together for added structural integrity. The problem, of course, is that welding is expensive so design accordingly to try to limit the amount of welding that needs to be done.
11. Consider Local and Vernacular Options First
While many people are interested in shipping container housing because of the sustainability aspect, it is best to always begin with local and vernacular options first. Shipping containers are heavy and the transportation required to move them from some distant port to your home site can have a large environmental impact. Shipping container construction is most sustainable if you can find a used container that is being sold relatively close to your region, especially if you live near a port. Furthermore, consider combining vernacular construction methods with shipping container homes, such as using straw bales and natural plasters for interior insulation and walls.
12. Be Willing to Spend the Extra Dollar
While many people are attracted to shipping container homes because of the supposed affordability, it is important to understand that completely finishing the exterior and interior of a shipping container home can add up in cost. As with almost construction styles, the larger your home, the more expensive it will be. The extra cost associated with welding, insulating, and finishing a multi-container home might end up being just as expensive as a regular stick-framed house.