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12 tips to know before building a shipping container home

12 Tips You Need to Know Before Building a Shipping Container Home

By Tobias RobertsRise Writer
Jan 18, 2018

Building a shipping container home seems pretty straightforward in theory. There are millions of excess shipping containers lying 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 homes, you stack a few shipping containers on top of one another and, voila, you've got a house. Unfortunately, things are never as easy as they seem from the outset. When building a shipping container home, there are several things you need to know to ensure your home is structurally sound, sustainable, and beautiful.

Table of Contents

  1. See Before you Buy,Know Your Building Code Restrictions,Make Sure You Have a Plan for Insulating,Find a Complete Contractor,Protect Against Harmful Chemicals,Avoid Cutting Your Containers into Pieces,Plan Ahead for Plumbing and Electrical ,Know the Difference between Containers,Prepare for the Wind,Avoid Excessive Welding to Cut Costs,Consider Local and Vernacular Options First,Be Willing to Spend the Extra Dollar

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 walkthrough. Especially if it is 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, rust issues, 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; however, they are almost in great shape. They might be worth the investment if you want to avoid the work and expense of fixing a container that is all dented up.

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. It's important to understand ordinances that may impact container home projects, design choices, property zoning, deed restrictions, and governing bodies. Regulations could be imposed at federal, state, county, or municipal levels. Texas, California, Tennessee, Louisiana, Missouri, Oregon, and Alaska are relatively welcoming and easy to deal with when it comes to shipping container homes.

Make Sure You Have a Plan for Insulating

An unfinished steel shipping container will be unbearably hot during the summer and 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 insulate the roof and the walls heavily. 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. 

Find a Complete Contractor

It's best to find one contractor that can oversee the entire process instead of dealing with placing and modifying your unfinished containers and others for the interior finishing. 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 that specialize in shipping container construction as pre-built homes. 

Protect Against Harmful Chemicals

If you are purchasing used shipping containers for your home, it is important to understand that they 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. The paint on these containers often contains chemicals to protect the containers from saltwater spray from the oceans. 

To avoid harmful chemicals in your shipping container home, you can buy a new chemical-free shipping container 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.

Avoid Cutting Your Containers into Pieces

Shipping containers are extremely strong since they are built out of solid steel. 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 container's structural integrity. You 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.

Plan Ahead for Plumbing and Electrical 

When designing your shipping container home, make sure you know 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. Doing this can avoid moving your kitchen cabinets to cut a hole to run that one extra pipe you forgot about.

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 plan to insulate your floor or ceiling heavily, 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 undoubtedly come in handy.

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.

Avoid Excessive Welding to Cut Costs

While one shipping container can perfectly be modeled into a tiny home, you will have to purchase several containers when you want additional square footage. Shipping containers need to be welded together for added structural integrity. Of course, the problem is that welding is expensive, so design accordingly to try to limit the amount of welding that needs to be done.

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 more sustainable if you can find a used container that is relatively close to you, especially if you live near a port. Consider combining vernacular construction methods with shipping container homes, such as straw bales and natural plasters for interior insulation and walls.

Be Willing to Spend the Extra Dollar

Many people are attracted to shipping container homes because of the supposed affordability. It is important to understand that finishing the exterior and interior of a shipping container home can increase the costs. As with almost all 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. 

Looking for more information on Container Homes? Be sure to check out - Pros, Cons, and Cost of Container Homes and 8 Container Homes You Can Buy Right Now.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-10T05:34:46+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.