Shipping container homes are becoming more popular — and elaborate — than ever before. Once used almost exclusively for global trade, steel shipping containers are now being sought to construct homes at an increasing rate. They are typically 20 or 40 feet long, eight feet wide and high, stackable, and capable of being configured in a myriad of ways — representing a limitless world of opportunity to get creative with the size and shape of your space. They’re also robust and versatile; studies have shown that they often boast a smaller carbon footprint than traditional homes.
The trend is no longer exclusively about tiny homes, either. Forget the basic, one-unit dwellings that originally permeated the container home space. Today, container home enthusiasts are going bigger and bolder than ever, creating high-quality homes of varying shapes and sizes. This art has been playfully referred to as “cargotecture,” and it’s transformed the concept of what a container home — or any home, for that matter — can be.
Why Shipping Containers?
Shipping Containers Are Sustainable
One key driver behind the container home trend is sustainability. On average, a modular home produces about 92 percent less CO2 emissions each year compared to a traditional home. This is largely because shipping container homes tend to be smaller and offer more efficient use of space and energy than conventional homes. That said, even larger container homes can prove more sustainable than standard homes, as they can be constructed using fewer single-use building materials, like wood or cement.
Shipping Containers Are Affordable
Cost is another factor bolstering the popularity of container homes. Tiny homes in the U.S. are on average 87 percent cheaper than standard homes. Container home buyers and builders can see even more savings in certain markets, like North Dakota, New Jersey, and New Hampshire, where these homes often cost less than half the average annual household income.
Shipping Containers Are Easy To Use
Building a traditional home can be an overwhelming process, even if you’re pursuing a set design or working with an architecture firm. Opting for a container home can help eliminate much of this burden, because containers are already structurally sound and watertight when delivered. Industry-leading shipping container companies such as Boxhub test them prior to delivery and offer guarantees on their functionality and condition. Because containers have already been vetted, homebuyers typically enjoy faster build times with them than they do with traditional homes. What's more, the standardized shapes and sizes shipping containers come in require a modular approach to building that makes the process so much simpler.
Shipping Containers Are Modular
It’s true that opting for a tiny home yields more savings and is more environmentally friendly than a larger shipping container home. The beauty of building a home out of containers is that you can add or take away space as needed. For instance, you can connect multiple containers to boost square footage on the ground. You can also stack them to create multi-story properties. Both of these “cargotecture” techniques are being used with increasing frequency to develop upscale container homes that double as luxurious lake houses, ski retreats, wilderness hideaways, and beyond. Browsing the lavish and unique container homes listed as vacation rentals on Airbnb provides a glimpse of what can be accomplished, with many offering ample square footage in world-class locations, as well as five-star, resort-like amenities.
Designing Quality Homes With Shipping Containers
Shipping Containers Are Strong and Functional
As previously mentioned, shipping containers are already structurally sound when they reach you. They are also weatherproof and can be made hurricane-proof by installing hurricane-resistant windows, hurricane shutters, and metal roofing rated to sustain strong winds. Containers are more likely to withstand a hurricane than a wood-framed home because they are built from steel.
In many parts of the world, containers are used as temporary shelters from tornadoes, storms, and other natural disasters. Just think about it — these units are designed to carry and store tens of thousands of pounds while battling the elements on the open sea for at least 10-15 years. They must be sturdy and built to last to successfully perform the functions they were originally made for.
Shipping Containers Offer an Adaptable Aesthetic
Containers already have a trendy industrial look and feel, which is ideal if that is your desired container home aesthetic. While this look integrates well into a wide range of settings, it’s not the only aesthetic you can achieve when you opt to build a home using shipping containers. One of the many wonderful things about working with containers is that they can be easily adapted, including modifying their facades.
For example, you can use cladding to make the exterior of a container look more like a traditional house or paneling to achieve an ultra-modern appearance. By leaving a space between containers and bridging them across the top with a third container, you can create a home that more closely resembles the famous dogtrot houses in the southern United States. Additionally, don’t discount the effect a simple coat of paint or new siding can have on the outward appearance of a container home. Even adding an outdoor kitchen, fire pit, or garden can dramatically alter the look of a container’s exterior.
How To Actually Build a Container Home
Delegate the Building Process or Do It Yourself
If you’re already thinking about building a container home, or if you’re ready to get to work but don’t quite know where to start, don’t worry. There are two options when it comes to container architecture. You can build the container home yourself or find a container modifier to build one for you. A growing number of companies specialize in modular design and construction, such as Alternative Living Spaces based out of Las Vegas. In addition to designing and constructing container homes for clients, they offer do-it-yourself modular construction courses for people looking to do it themselves.
Choose the Right Container Grade for Your Shipping Container Home
Whether you hire a builder or choose to go the DIY route, we recommend using new “one-trip” containers when building a shipping container house. This grade of container has only made one journey across the ocean, so they’re in great condition and don’t require any upfront maintenance or painting.
If you’re building on a tighter budget, you can consider purchasing a wind and watertight unit. These containers are more DIY-intensive, as they’ve typically spent a decade at sea and often have patches of surface rust. However, they are more affordable than one-trip containers and are guaranteed watertight.
Prep the Land Before the Building Begins
Survey the area you’ve chosen for your new home before you have your shipping containers delivered. You might also need to grade the land to ensure its level. Then you’ll want to create a solid foundation. This will add stability to your structure and keep moisture from making its way inside your container home.
Cue the Construction Process
Whether you’re building your container home yourself or contracting it out to a company specializing in container modification, there are many factors you’ll need to consider before and during the construction process. One of the first steps is to make spaces in your container for windows, doors, skylights, and vents, then reinforce your container with steel beams if needed to maintain its structural integrity. Next comes framing the interior and installing the roof — you might want to consider putting in a sloped roof if you live in an area with heavy precipitation or snowfall.
You’ll need to add plumbing and electrical components to your shipping container home if you want it to be fully functional. The same goes for insulation, which will allow you to control the climate inside your container home and any condensation coming through the walls. After that comes drywalling and flooring, carpentry, and finally, appliances.
There are many reasons why people are turning to shipping containers as solutions for high-quality homes. Not only can they be more sustainable and economical than traditional homes, but they are also versatile enough that you can get creative with your cargotecture. The modular nature of shipping containers makes them very similar to Lego bricks. When you build with them, you can easily downsize, expand, and reconfigure your home throughout the duration of its lifespan. The only rule to building a container rule is that you have to start with the right units — either one-trip or wind and watertight. From that point on, the sky’s the limit for what you can do with your container home.