How to Build a Shipping Container Home: A Complete Guide
Today’s prospective homebuyers have a plethora of choices when it comes to architectural home styles – ranch, Cape Cod, bungalow, colonial and contemporary are just the tip of the iceberg. Many want a home that fits their functional needs, style, and budget.
While most buyers ultimately choose a more common or popular style, some dare to be different by embracing home designs that are unique or trendy. One option gaining momentum is converting a shipping container into a residence. According to a study by Allied Market Research, the global shipping container homes market is expected to reach $73,070.5 million by 2025, up from $44,768.6 million in 2017.
This blog will discuss some of the benefits and advantages of building shipping container homes and provide a step-by-step guide on making it happen.
Benefits of shipping container homes
In addition to owning a home style that probably no one else you know does, building a shipping container home has some practical benefits and advantages.
- They are cost-effective vs. traditional housing. Most shipping container homes are built using 40-foot containers. You can purchase one of these used shipping containers for about $2,500 or a brand new one for around $5,000. They are usually more cost-effective than conventional housing because they require fewer building materials and labor to construct.
- They’re quick to construct. If you’re an expert contractor (or know one), you can build a shipping container home in a month or two.
- They’re modular homes. Shipping container homes are easy to modify. A shipping container home can be built with a mix of 20-foot and 40-foot containers. It’s also easy to combine multiple shipping containers to create a larger home with extra bedrooms, a second floor, or even a shipping container guest house.
- They’re durable, low-maintenance, and secure. Shipping containers are made of Corten steel, which protects cargo during transport overseas. Shipping container homes made from weathering steel can withstand inclement weather conditions better than traditional housing. They can be made more secure by adding patio doors, windows, and additional accessories.
- They can be relocated. Suppose you need to relocate for any reason. In that case, it’s possible to make your shipping container home mobile by hiring a shipping transportation service to move your single-container house anywhere you choose.
- They are environmentally beneficial. Steel is one of the most commonly recycled materials on Earth, with up to 90 percent of its content being recyclable. Even better, when a structure is made from shipping containers, the steel is being 100 percent upcycled without the energy used to scrap and meltdown the material.
Steps to build a shipping container home
Now that you’re convinced that a shipping container home is the way you want to go, how do you get started? Making this new dream house a reality will take some planning, preparation, and purchases.
Step 1: Permits and planning
While you might be able to cut corners during the construction part of the project, you have to go by the book when it comes to getting the initial paperwork for your shipping container home. Before you even order a shipping container, make sure you have all the necessary building code permits and planning permission from the local entities. Ensure you’re allowed to build a home and that a shipping container home complies with local and state policies.
Work with an architect and structural engineer to ensure that the floor plan you have in mind for your shipping container house is structurally sound. It’s a good idea to find an architect who has worked with shipping containers in the past because building with them is entirely different than a typical wooden, steel, or brick building. Also keep in mind that anything you can put in a custom home, you can put in a container home.
Step 2: Purchase a container
So, you’re allowed to build your shipping container home. Great. Next, you’ll need a shipping container. The scale of your plans will dictate the size, type, and condition of the shipping container you’ll buy. The most popular shipping container size used for homes is a 40-foot, high-cube container, which offers about 320 square feet of living space. That’s enough for one bedroom, one bathroom, and a decent-sized kitchen/living room combo space.
To make your shipping container house the best it can be, you’ll want to do your homework before you buy from just any company. Think about cost, delivery options, the vendor's reputation, condition of the shipping container, warranties, and past customer feedback.
Learn more about buying a suitable shipping container for your home here.
Step 3: Prepare your land
You’ve ordered your shipping container, so the next step is to decide where you’ll build your home and then prepare the land. That means thinking about the ground itself and the type of foundation you’ll want to use for the home to keep it elevated from the ground. This will keep it safe from moisture, which could affect the contents and possibly lead to corrosion.
A foundation can range from concrete or wooden supports on the ground for a single shipping container up to a full basement for multiple shipping containers. Your decision will need to consider both what is structurally required and your personal preferences. If you decide on a poured concrete foundation, then plan on embedding steel plates into the concrete where the container corner blocks will rest. This will allow the shipping containers to be welded directly to the concrete foundation.
While it's best to consult with an expert, particularly if you plan on using multiple storage containers, you'll probably consider options like a concrete slab, steel plates, concrete piers, or concrete strips. You should also ensure there's a clear path for your shipping container to be delivered.
Step 5: Place the containers
The easiest methods to place shipping containers on the foundation is with a crane and by delivery truck. Nothing beats the ease, speed, and safety of a crane. If you don’t have one, you’ll probably need to hire a local builder or rent a rough terrain forklift for a few hours.
Once your shipping container has been placed on the foundation, it’s relatively easy to make any final adjustments with a large crowbar.
Step 6: Cut your openings
Removing metal from shipping containers is necessary to add window and door openings to the container walls. There are many ways to cut through shipping container steel, including a plasma cutter, cutting torch, grinder, and even a jigsaw (for small openings). For removing an entire wall, a plasma cutter or cutting torch works best.
Note: Before starting to cut openings, make sure you’ve discussed it with your structural expert. Removing structural components of a shipping container can quickly create a dangerous situation if not done right.
Assuming you’re good to go, start cutting holes for windows, doors, skylights and accessories to start making your shipping container look like a home. Depending on your skills, you might want to hire someone to do this for you.
If by cutting in your openings, you create any gaps, they will need to be sealed to protect the inside of the house from the outside elements.
Step 7: Add doors, windows, and framing
To save as much interior space as possible, consider using 1 1/2″ steel studs to frame the shipping container's inside. They secure pretty well to drywall and are stiff enough if you end up using spray foam insulation. In areas that foam did not connect the wall and studs, steel studs might be needed. An extra layer of drywall, or narrower spacing of the studs, might help.
Whichever method you choose, try to include a thermal break between the studs and the shipping container's metal walls. This is especially important when using steel studs as they efficiently conduct heat from the interior spaces.
Step 8: Install electric and plumbing
Even if you don’t know how much electric wiring you’ll want yet, it’s easier and cheaper to wire most of it at this point. One potential difficulty in wiring is getting the wire past some remnants of the removed container walls. One option is to run the wire around the steel and make a custom nail protector – it’s an easy and cheap fix.
When considering electric wiring and plumbing, think about if you’ll be adding HVAC systems or an outside AC unit. Also, consider solar panels for electricity. If you place panels on your roof, as well as add in a glass door, you’ll be able to capture more of the natural sunlight and its energy.
Step 9: Insulation and temperature control
You’ll need insulation to help control the interior temperature of your shipping container house. Keep in mind that you’ll lose a little bit of living space if you insulate the inside.
You can insulate on the exterior if that is a concern. Cedar, vinyl, and even log siding can be applied over a shipping container's insulated exterior. Having the outside insulation also allows you to utilize the entire space of the shipping containers, as long as you like the look of corrugated steel walls in your interior.
The type of insulation you use – spray foam, panels, etc. – will also depend on where you live or what you prefer. Spray foam insulation is commonly used, but it’s the most expensive type. Learn more about insulation options here.
Step 10: Landscaping and decorating
Now that your new shipping container home looks good, think about the space around the shipping container. Consider adding a nice deck to extend the living space or landscape area to ensure that your home fits in with its natural surroundings. You can also start painting the interior, lay floor coverings, and make your new container house a home.
Step 11: Inspection and sign-off
Here’s the test. All your planning and hard work is about to pay off. Your new shipping container house is ready for inspection to see if it’s up to building code. Before calling the inspector, have your engineer and other structural experts take one final look so you can address any needed changes to the shipping container building. Keep your fingers crossed.
Building a shipping container home takes much planning and preparation, but it's totally worth it. It's cost-efficient, mobile, and customizable. Begin the process of building your new shipping container home by browsing containers near you.
Infographic courtesy of REthority.com, "Shipping Container Homes"