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Shipping Container Homes: Designs, Ideas and Cost

July 2nd, 2024

Shipping container homes are becoming trendy for a reason. The cost of housing is going through the roof and shipping containers provide a fast affordable way to build a home.

Without any modifications, shipping containers provide much better shelter than tents. Add a front door and a couple of windows, drop it on your raw land, and you’ve got an instant hunting cabin. 

Add insulation and a wood stove, and you’re practically ready to list it on Airbnb. The point is that it doesn’t take much to turn a shipping container into a suitable dwelling. 

And with a little imagination, you could turn shipping containers into your dream home!

This guide provides everything you need to build a shipping container home - designs, ideas, floor plans and cost. 

Let’s get into it…

Benefits and Challenges With Shipping Container Homes

First, let’s look at some benefits and challenges to container homes so you know what you’re getting yourself into. 

Here are some Benefits to building a shipping container home:

  • Cost-effective: Shipping containers cost is relatively inexpensive, and their modular nature can reduce labor costs compared to traditional construction.

  • Faster Construction: Since the basic structure already exists, construction can be completed faster than a traditional build.

  • Easy to Modify: You don’t need extensive construction skills to modify shipping containers.

  • Durable: Made from strong, weather-resistant steel, shipping containers can withstand harsh weather conditions and provide a secure living space.

  • Sustainable: Repurposing used containers reduces construction waste and promotes eco-friendly building practices.

  • Customizable: Shipping containers can be easily modified to create unique and modern living spaces.

  • Stackable: Two-story homes are simple with shipping containers because they’re stackable.

  • Portable: Depending on the design, a shipping container home may be moveable to a different location if desired.

Challenges to building shipping containers homes include:

  • Limited space: Standard shipping containers are only 8 feet wide and 8.5 feet tall, and High Cube containers are 8 feet wide and 9.5 feet tall. 

  • Weight: Steel shipping containers are heavy and require a sturdy foundation and cranes if stacking.

  • Insulation: Metal conducts heat easily, so sufficient insulation is needed to regulate temperature and prevent condensation.

  • Rust: Shipping containers are susceptible to rust if not properly treated and maintained, although they last longer than traditional wood siding.

  • Building codes: Some areas may have building codes that restrict or don't allow shipping container homes.

  • Financing: Not all lenders offer traditional mortgages for container homes, so financing options may be limited. (You can buy shipping containers for low monthly payments at Container One.)

Prefab Container Homes vs Building DIY

Prefabricated (prefab) shipping container homes offer a streamlined process. Prefab container home builders handle design, construction, and delivery. They provide a quicker turnaround and professional quality control. 

However, customization options are limited, and the cost reflects their convenience. Prefab shipping container homes cost around the same as manufactured mobile homes which are typically 14-feet wide versus 8-foot wide container homes. 

Prefab container home models are also usually limited to just single container designs instead of a complex design with multiple containers. So if you want a larger home, you’ll likely have to build it yourself or hire a shipping container home builder. 

Building your own container home allows maximum personalization and cost savings because you can buy cheap used shipping containers. You can choose the container condition, layout, and finishing touches to perfectly suit your taste and budget. 

Ultimately, the choice hinges on your priorities. Prefab offers speed and ease, while DIY allows for ultimate control and potentially lower costs

Shipping Container Home Design Concepts

Shipping container home designs can be categorized by how many containers are used in the floor plans. As such, there are three basic container home design concepts:

  • Homes Made With 1 Container

  • Homes Made With 2 Shipping Containers

  • Homes Made With 3 or More Containers

Keep scrolling to see some ideas and floor plans for each container home design concept.

Cheap Shipping Container Homes (Single Container Houses)

Image source: Airbnb

The most affordable design concept is a home built with a single shipping container. The most common shipping container sizes are either 20 feet or 40 feet long. 

Being only 8 feet wide, a single 20 ft shipping container is only 160 square feet. And a 40 ft container is 320 square feet.

These size restrictions require “tiny home” creativity to make a cozy living space out of container home designs.

20 ft Shipping Container Home Floor Plans

A cheap shipping container home can be built from 20 ft shipping containers. Prices for used 20 ft containers start around $2500, making them cheaper than a storage shed.

Since they are only 160 sq ft, the number of floor plans is limited. And adding insulation and walls makes the interior space even tighter.

However, 20 ft containers are sufficient for mother-in-law ADUs, guesthouses, pool houses or man caves. 

Look at the 20 ft container home floor plans below to get ideas:

40 ft Shipping Container Home Floor Plans 

The most popular container used for building a home is a 40 ft high cube shipping container because it has 1 foot higher ceilings than standard containers. 

Here are the exact dimensions of a 40 ft high cube container:

Ceilings of 9.5 feet make High Cube containers desirable because they allow room for insulation and running utilities above a drop ceiling and still make your home feel larger. 

Standard 40-foot containerswith 8.5 ft roofs are also suitable for home ceilings but they may feel more cramped. 

In either case, 320 square feet is plenty of room for a comfortable living space. Think of luxury 40-foot RVs and how attractive they can be. And 40 ft shipping container homes are the same amount of space but with taller ceilings.

Not only that, you can put a rooftop patio on a shipping container home like the Airbnb rental above.

Below are a couple of floor plans for 40 ft shipping container homes. The first is for a 1 bedroom home and the following design has 2 bedrooms.

Shipping Container House Plans Using 2 Containers 

There are countless ways to design a home using two shipping containers. But there are three basic design concepts for homes built with two containers. 

  • You can attach the two containers together side by side

  • Spread them apart and build a roof between them, or 

  • Stack one on top of the other

Designs with 2 containers attached side by side:

Connecting containers side-by-side and cutting out the inside walls creates a large open concept space.

Home designs with 2 containers spread apart:

Spreading two containers apart with a roof in between is a design that creates much more square footage than only using the containers for the home. 

This design was popularized by the YouTube channel Life Uncontained where a young couple documents building their home using two 40-foot high cube containers.

2-Story Shipping Container Homes:

One of the unique benefits about building homes with shipping containers is that they can be stacked, thus creating a 2-story home without the need for extra load-bearing walls.

You can even build shipping container apartments by stacking multiple containers together.

Luxury Container Homes Using 3 or More Containers 

Building with shipping containers doesn’t mean you have to build a tiny home. In fact, because you can save money building with containers, you may be able to build a larger home than you otherwise could afford. 

The luxury shipping container home pictured below in Washington state was built using 5 shipping containers. It makes for a very unique vacation rental home.

Another young couple on YouTube, Jake and Nicholle, started living offgrid in a yurt in the Canadian wilderness. Now they are building an offgrid shipping container home using six 40 ft high cube containers. That’s about 2000 square feet of living space.

How Much Does it Cost to Build a Shipping Container Home?

Is it cheaper to build a shipping container home than a traditional house? Yes. 

There are several reasons why shipping container homes are cheaper to build. First, buying used shipping containers is inexpensive compared to the value they deliver. 

Cost savings building with shipping containers (things you don’t need to add):

  • Outside sheathing or siding

  • Roof sheathing and covering

  • Subflooring

  • Load bearing walls 

Not needing to pay for those aspects is a significant cost savings when building a home. The savings is both materials and labor.

Additionally, limited sq ft keeps finishing costs down. In other words, you can afford high-end finishing touches like granite countertops and shiplap walls if it’s for a small area. 

For those reasons, the cost of building a shipping container home may be 20-40% less than a traditional home.


What’s the best shipping container size to use for building a home?

The most common shipping container used for home building is the 40 ft High Cube because they’re a foot taller than standard containers at 9.5 feet tall. And they usually cost less because there are more of them for sale. 

Does my state allow shipping container houses?

Yes. It is legal to build a shipping container home in every state. However, local authorities may object. 

Do I need a permit to build a shipping container house?

The short answer is, Yes. But in most jurisdictions in the United States, structures under 200 sq ft do not need a permit - especially if you don’t connect to public utilities. 

So using a 20 foot container to build a cabin, guest house or man cave may not require a permit because it is only 160 square feet. Check with your local building authority for more details.

What tools do I need to build a container home?

In addition to normal construction tools, you will need a good angle grinder with metal cutting disks to be able to cut holes in the containers. 

You will also need a welder in order to weld in framing for doors, windows, AC units etc. And finally, you may need to rent a large tractor or crane to move your containers around.

Do shipping container homes still need wall framing?

Yes. Although walls are not needed to support the ceiling in shipping container homes, wall framing is needed to create space for utilities, insulation and wall coverings like sheetrock or shiplap paneling. 

What’s the best insulation for conex container homes?

Spray foam insulation is the most commonly used insulation for shipping container homes. It creates a seamless layer of insulation directly against the metal. Don’t forget to insulate under the container too.

How to find a good shipping container home builder?

Building with shipping containers is actually easier than building a traditional home. So most good home builders should be able to accommodate your design. 

Ask your friend network for recommended builders. Tell them your plans, interview them, and visit their past projects to evaluate them.

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