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shipping container house

Shipping Container House: A Unique and Affordable Housing Alternative

Shipping container homes can be a sustainable and affordable option for housing. But is this housing type right for you?


[Updated: Feb 04, 2021] May 18, 2020 by Liz Brumer
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A shipping container house at first glance may seem like an unlikely option for a home, but it's growing in popularity as a cost-effective housing alternative that can pack style, space, and affordability into one steel package.

While they can be an economical and eco-friendly option for building homes, container homes aren't for everyone. Learn what a shipping container house is, the pros and cons of shipping container homes, and where to find repurposed shipping containers for your own container home build.

What is a shipping container house?

A shipping container house is a housing structure made from recycled shipping containers like a storage container or cargo container. These modular steel boxes, which typically come in two sizes -- 20 feet by 8 feet or 40 feet by 8 feet -- can be assembled to create a permanent or mobile living space that varies in design, square feet, and cost. A shipping container home can be one container by itself or multiple containers combined to create a more traditional housing structure by removing walls.

Pros of shipping container homes

Durability

Steel is extremely durable and container homes can be designed and constructed to be a permanent, low-cost home. Certain design elements -- like positioning large windows or sliding glass doors to face the proper sun exposure while utilizing special flooring materials and including proper insulation in the walls and ceiling -- will help keep cooling and heating costs down in the home. Most steel container homes can last a lifetime if designed and constructed well.

Sustainable

For most shipping companies, the cost of returning an empty container after shipment exceeds the cost of building a new container, leading to millions of old shipping containers sitting unused. Creating container homes from upcycled shipping containers is a perfect way to reduce waste, use recycled products, and provides a sustainable alternative for home construction.

Cost effective

Shipping containers new or used can be purchased for as little as a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, making shipping container homes an affordable option, especially for homes at the most basic level.

Customizable

A container home build is extremely customizable. Designers are beginning to specialize in container construction, providing innovative container architecture designs that allow the owners to add their own personalized touches like using recycled materials, adding a full wall of sliding glass doors, or installing off-grid components like solar panels, for example.

Cons of shipping container homes

Environmentally harmful

Surprisingly, many shipping container homes are less eco-friendly than people think. Because a container's original use was for shipping goods, they aren't a suitable structure for living in their current condition.

According to Ship Technology, 20% of shipping containers have concentrations of harmful chemicals or dangerous gasses that exceed occupational hygiene limit values. It can also be difficult to measure what gasses are present in a specific container, so having a container tested before purchasing is an important part of making it a safe living environment.

Limited space

Custom container living embraces the concept of minimal living, with most homes having 320 square feet or less of living space in the most basic models. While you can create a much larger space around 1,000 square feet or more by combining multiple containers, this increases costs and reduces the sustainability of the project through the conversion process. Those who choose to embrace container living should be comfortable with tiny living or living in a more restricted space.

Expensive to customize and transport

While it doesn't cost much to purchase a storage container, it can be expensive to transport and make habitable. Getting the container to you can cost several thousand dollars in addition to needing to own the land you plan to place the home on. Don't forget to account for permitting and getting the site ready to build a home, which could include having public utilities added to the property.

Proper spray foam insulation, reinforcing walls, removing walls, adding openings, installing glass doors, in addition to basic home finishings like flooring, plumbing, and roofing adds up. While container homes can still be assembled and built for less than typical framed homes in most instances, they can also cost quite a bit more depending on the features, size, or design of the building.

Where to find repurposed shipping containers

If you're interested in building your own custom container home, the first step is finding a suitable container. Used shipping containers can be purchased online from websites like shipped.com, eBay, Western Container Sales, or Container Discounts. Most will handle the coordination and delivery of the steel shipping containers and any other materials needed, such as a steel flat roof. From there you can customize and build a container to your heart's desire.

Alternatively, there are companies selling prefabricated container homes that will deliver or build a custom shipping container home on your land that range from $30,000-$100,000+. Most homes can be built in a few months provided you have the land readily available and permitting allows for container homes at that site.

Will the container home movement last?

The trend for building a custom container home is definitely on the up and up. More and more shipping container homes are popping up on Pinterest, HGTV, and in tiny-living communities, and this growing trend will likely continue as affordability continues to be a concern. With the right shipping container, the right land, and the right design, a container home can easily be a large-scale solution for the current affordable housing crisis and provide a beautiful, durable, and even luxurious home for the right homeowner.

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