shipping container home

Intro to Shipping Container Home Conversions

Ready to take on a shipping container home conversion?

Shipping container homes have been a growing global trend over the last few years. Due to their simplicity and convenient size, architects find it very easy to be innovative in designing container houses. Containers can be easily stacked up or joined side-by-side to build larger rooms.

Importantly, shipping containers can help save on construction costs. You can either use brand new containers or upcycle used containers rather than building a house from the ground up. However, working with a steel shell is unfamiliar territory for most builders, a pro or aspiring DIYer. So, it is important to know all the essential factors needed before considering doing it yourself.

Keep reading for an overview of what you need to know before converting a shipping container into a home.

Matt & Paiton's DIY 40-foot shipping container home

Before Building a Shipping Container Home Begin Here

Shipping containers come in different types, including open-top, high cube, dry freight, insulated or thermal, refrigeration, and tank. You need to determine the one you really need for your container home building needs.

1) Check the shipping containers’ condition

It is essential to check the shipping containers that you are buying thoroughly. You can either check it yourself or take help from a professional to check things such as structural integrity, degradation of paint or steel due to corrosion, dents underneath and overhead, and information about past usage.

If you’re buying multiple containers, also check if they are compatible with each other so that they can fit while joining. Usually, you get an 8 feet-high ceiling without insulation. But if you plan to install insulation, you need to buy 9 feet-high and wider containers, which are more expensive.

High-cube containers are a popular option for conversions because they are 9-feet 6-inches tall, available in 40 or 45-foot length.

It is advisable to check containers in person. But in the rare scenario that you cannot visit the container site personally, ensure that you get multiple high-resolution images from the seller that shows the container from all sides and corners.

You also can look up the shipping container serial number to find out what has been transported in it. Avoid buying one that was used for toxic cargo.

2) Inspect used shipping containers

If available in good condition, used containers are a great option for building a container home on a smaller budget. They are available at lower prices, compared to new containers. However, with used ones, you need to be very careful in your inspection.

Choosing a home or a place to rent shouldn't happen before seeing the actual property in person. When purchasing used shipping containers, the same idea applies.

  • Don't purchase "sight unseen". If you aren't able to see the container in person, request that the seller sends you detailed photographs of both the inside and the outside. That way, you can note any damages beforehand and avoid any unpleasant surprises once the container arrives.
  • Always check the usage history. If the container has been used in very rough conditions, it may have reduced structural integrity and lifespan. You need to look beyond the paint job and ensure that no corrosion or body is filling underneath.
  • Beware of toxic materials. You can look up the shipping container serial number to find out what has been transported in it to ensure learn if any toxic chemicals, pesticides, and other harmful substances were shipped in it.
  • Check ‘one-time shipping containers,’ which are as good as new. As the name suggests, the goods are loaded in them only once and shipped. Once the containers arrive at the destination, they are unloaded and sold in the after-market.

It all drills down to the budget you have and the lifespan you are looking for. New containers usually have a lifespan of up to 25 years, but used ones can also last long.

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3)  Check local rules for a container home

Depending on where you're trying to live, different places will have different building regulations and zoning restrictions to follow. Before you begin your plans to build a shipping container home, you should be sure you know any legal constraints involved. This will help avoid any hiccups or legal issues down the road.

You should also be sure you can afford the extra expenses required to be in compliance. Depending upon the weather, you may need to install a pitched roof to shed snow, for instance. For example, most rural areas might require you to install a septic tank beforehand but might not have building code requirements. By doing your homework first, via the local building department, you can know everything to expect.

shipping container home

Relevant Buildings' container homes: factory-built to Uniform Building Code standards and are inspected & permitted by the State of Oregon as residences

Regulations cover various factors:

  • Property zoning – Zoning is done by local authorities to segregate the land into chunks of areas and define the type of construction that can be done on it—for example, houses vs. high-rise buildings.
  • Building codes and permits – In the US and most other developed countries, the building codes and permits are based on the International Residential Code (IRC) and the International Building Code (IBC). These include international codes for plumbing, mechanical and electrical work, and fire protection. Some states in the US, such as Massachusetts, have their own building codes that you need to comply with. On the local level, the version of the code may vary.
  • HOA (Home Owners’ Association) rules and Deed Restrictions (Restrictive Covenants) – Deed restrictions are often associated with the deed. They may require a court order to remove, whereas HOA rules can be changed by simple voting.

If you need to meet building codes, you won't be able to make significant changes to your design during container home construction. Once the design is approved by the structural engineer and local authorities, changing it may jeopardize the quality of the structure and attract penalties due to non-compliance.

We strongly advise you to make all the revisions before the design is approved and stick to it.

A few select shipping container home manufacturers can offer state-level building permits for completed houses, like Relevant Buildings based in Oregon.

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5) Don’t cut or modify the containers too much

shipping container homeOn its own, a shipping container is structurally sound and extremely durable. They are manufactured to withstand harsh conditions. However, once you start cutting, you can compromise the structural integrity. 

Cutting any large chunks out of its walls may weaken the overall structure, so it must be done with great care. There's much room for error. Not only will it cost you more to cut steel walls and reinforce them with a beam, but it will also reduce the overall life of the container.

If you plan on stacking multiple containers or making the containers "load-bearing" in your building plans, then this is an even more important point to consider. As for welding, while it can create an air-tight seal to bind multiple containers together, it's often costly. If possible, you should avoid this if you're looking to save money.

When in doubt about modifying a container, consult an engineer. Manufacturers include engineering as part of their services for shells or completed homes.

With the right research and guidance, shipping containers can still be intelligently modified to construct a cozy cabin, a million-dollar home, and anything in between.

6) Have an Insulation Plan

When making your budget plans, you should include insulation with the cost of building a shipping container home. After all, it's just like a traditional home and will need floor-to-ceiling insulation. Otherwise, it will likely end up sweltering in the summer and frigid in the winter. Depending on what you're looking for, there are several different options for insulation. Research your options beforehand so you know what to expect cost-wise.

Choosing the type of insulation also depends on performance, R-value, net interior space, air leakage, vapor permeability, and eco-friendliness. You can choose among any of these options:

  • Non-traditional straw bale and hempcrete insulation.
  • Blanket insulation from fiberglass, slag, mineral, and rock wool, sheep wool, and cotton.
  • Loose-fill insulation using cellulose, fiberglass, vermiculite, and perlite.
  • Expanded foam insulation using either spray foam or various kinds of foam insulation boards, or a combination of the two types.

7) Pre-Plan Your Plumbing and Electricity

You want to build a shipping container home around your plumbing and electricity, not the other way around. Before you start installing walls or flooring, be sure you know where everything will be hooked up—even when working with contractors. If it helps, create a checklist of all your electronics and appliances, ensuring you account for everything beforehand.

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8) Plan Your Container Home Design

Planning is always essential for house building but especially crucial with container conversions. It might seem like a shipping container comes halfway built for you. Don't be fooled! There are a thousand little steps needed to complete a safe build. As you progress with your conversion, you want to avoid doing anything that can't be undone. Container homes are a great example. If incorrectly cut a hole for a window, it is exceptionally complicated to correct.

shipping container home

The Ramona, 40' container home with 4' bump-out

Work with an architect or engineer, if you can. He or she will help you layout the home properly, paying attention to all the details like optimizing design, electricity, water, and insulation. But, working with a skilled craftsperson comes at a hefty price tag.

If you’re brave enough to design it yourself, consider the layout very carefully and triple-check your math! Get creative and have fun with your shipping container homes floor plans, but remember it needs to be functional. For instance, having the bathroom and kitchen on opposite ends of the house may not be realistic for efficient and low-cost plumbing.

Container home design is full of flexibility. As you might guess, the design possibilities between 20-foot and 40-foot shipping container homes vary greatly. And the options dramatically expand once you consider combining and stacking options! 

So if you want a home office, dining table, bathtub, and upstairs deck, you can have it. But keep in mind, that even with the overall affordability of containers, the larger the house, the more it will cost and the greater the maintenance needs will be.

9) Shipping Container Home Plans

DIY design is not everyone’s forte.  Additionally, sometimes what seems obvious in a completed small home layout, often is not obvious when staring at a blank space. Fortunately, there are now sites that offer ready-made shipping container home plans.

A selection of tiny container home plans:

Gaia Shipping Container Home

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Plans Price: $190
Size: 181 sqft plus 69 sqft porch

shipping container homeNo inch is wasted in Gaia shipping container home! The interior design is exceptionally space-efficient with all built-in furniture and storage. Expand your living space by opening the side container doors, as well as the fold-down attached porch. Use the winch to pull up the porch for more privacy.

The Gaia, made from a single high-cube 20-foot container, was also created as an experimental self-sufficient housing project.

"With Gaia, there is no need to rely on external sources of energy or water since this house harnesses solar energy and wind energy. The house is equipped with solar panels, as well as a wind turbine, ensuring your batteries can be charged at all times of the day and all seasons.

The battery level, consumption, charging, and other factors can all be monitored remotely by using a mobile app.  The house is also equipped to retain rainwater, which is filtered and distributed to the bathroom and kitchen.

Model One Container Home

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Plans Price: $359
Size: 192 square feet plus rooftop deck

The Model One shipping container home plan showcases minimalist, modern, luxurious shipping container conversion design. Though, you might even not notice it’s built from a container due to the beautiful wood panel sidings.

“Reclaimed wood creates a cozy and homey feeling in your shipping container home, and surrounds you like a big hug.

-Erick Haglund of Modern Dwellings, designer of the Model One

This compact 20-foot shipping container floor plan is ideal as a tiny home for one, a mother-in-law suite, or an Airbnb rental.  For optimal efficiency, you can use a Murphy bed to create more living space. The deluxe rooftop deck also creates a spacious lounge for soaking in the outdoors with room for friends.

Two-Storey Container Home

shipping container home

Plans Price: $490
Size: 318 sqft plus 111 sqft porch & 58 sqft balcony

Lego-style stacking doubles the living space of a 20-foot shipping container floor plan while minimizing a footprint on the land. That is a top benefit of this container home plan by Pinup Houses. You can enjoy even more bang for your living space buck with a downstairs porch and upstairs balcony.

These two-story shipping container homes plans showcase an elevated utilitarian look.  Further, they don’t skimp on functionality with ample room for off-grid capabilities. Just imagine the flat roof covered in solar panels! You could also easily fit a rain catchment system up there.

Building Your Shipping Container Home

Shipping container homes attract more and more people because of their cost-effectiveness, ease of construction and modification, durability, and versatility. There are few limits to how innovative you can be in the design and utility of a shipping container home.

If you're up for the challenge, converting a shipping container into a tiny home can save you big. Don't be afraid to ask for help from a contractor for key elements of your conversion or source a shell from a professional container home manufacturer.

"I will tell people if you want a thousand year product and you build it out of a shipping container, and you put a roof over it that you replace every 40 years, you'll have a thousand year product."

-Carl Coffman, Relevant Buildings owner

DIY Container Home VS Pro Manufacturer

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