Shipping container homes have increased in popularity over the past few years due to the fact that steel intermodal containers are in many ways an ideal building material. Shipping containers are durable, strong, modular, cuttable, stackable, and movable.
Plus, there are plenty of them available and they are cheap, compared to traditional home construction or other prefab options.
The trend toward using steel shipping containers as the basis of a house design has come to the forefront of green building design with its emphasis on sustainability.
What to do with millions of discarded cargo containers? Turn them into green homes designed with the latest functionality and cutting edge architecture.
This has spurred a whole new field of shipping container architecture with notable architects world wide who have developed container based prefab buildings for use in both residential and commercial settings.
For example, in 2006, Architect Peter DeMaria of Southern California, designed the very first two-story prefab container home in the U.S. that was approved by the nationally recognized Uniform Building Code (UBC). It was built on Redondo Beach and was the inspiration for the creation of a container based prefab home company, Logical Homes. Today, there is a myriad of businesses related to the prefab container home market.
Green building enthusiasts, however, are a bit behind the survival and prepper folks who have long considered cargo modules to be perfect for constructing survival or off grid housing both above and below ground.
Pros and Cons of Container Homes
The cost of shipping containers is an immediate draw for those who want a very cheap building block for a home. A module can typically be purchased for as low as $1,200 each from some major transport companies. A brand new one is generally no more than $6,000. There are companies now that exclusively sell them for repurposing, so finding a good deal is pretty easy
Steel Construction – The containers are built to withstand the pressure of being stacked in high columns while being shipped globally. They are also built to resist harsh elements like salt water, while being shipped from port to port. The steel structure makes an ideal building material that can be adapted to any number of building purposes.
Requires simple foundation – Since the modules are built with the top four corners strengthened to support a stack of other units, this makes them exceptionally easy to place on just about any simple foundation system preferred. This is a money saver as well, since a prefab container doesn’t require an elaborate foundation system, depending of course, upon the homeowner’s plans for one or more units.
The containers are easily transported from place to place by truck, rail or ship since they already are built to standard shipping requirements. They are all 8-foot wide and vary in lengths from 8 to 56 feet. They range from 8 ft. to 9 ft. 6 in. in height. Purchasing a module and having it shipped to a residential location for home building is not a problem.
There are over 17 million intermodal containers in the world today. After their intended use, they are then discarded and replaced with new containers for specific shipping requirements. This has made for a huge volume of retired, yet perfectly useful modules that can easily be purchased at low prices.
As with any building medium, there is specialized labor that is necessary to create a home from containers. A specific labor requirement that is not required in conventional building, is the cutting and welding of steel.
Additions or design changes such as attachments need to be drilled and welded to the outer shell. This requires a different set of construction site equipment and can be time consuming. While this can increase construction expenses, it can still less than the overall costs of wood frame construction in a typical home construction project.
The steel modules are uniform and can be purchased in standard height and length measurements which makes them useful for a variety of modular design elements.
The recycling possibilities of shipping containers has made them increasingly a favorite among green living enthusiasts. Each time a module is re-purposed, a huge amount of steel is recycled for better use. Also, building with containers reduces the amount of conventional construction materials used such as cement, bricks, wood, etc.
Since this type of housing is not common in certain regions of the country, you may have some trouble in obtaining a building permit. Building with steel for industrial construction is understood, but using steel for residential housing is not as common. Be sure to check with your local municipality before investing in building a container home. However, it may only be a matter of presenting your ideas convincingly in order to get a permit.
Indoor climate control
Steel conducts heat very well and the home will need to be insulated better than most brick, wood or block dwellings, especially if in a region where there are extreme temperature variations.
Also, because single wall steel conducts heat, condensation can easily form on the interior walls in climates with variable temperatures. Interior air can become moist and form rust, unless adequately sealed and insulated to allow proper breathing within the wall cavities.
Obviously, prefab containers are not flexible in design and home builders must adhere to their default sizes of 20′ and 40′ when combining to create larger spaces. Cutting into the steel and designing non-conforming additions is time consuming and more expensive, although it can be done.
A real concern about homes built from containers is the possibility of multiple toxic exposures from some modules. Keep in mind that the timber floors of cargo containers have been treated with insecticides during manufacturing to meet global quarantine requirements for safe imports and exports. When repurposing a unit for human habitation, it is necessary to remove and dispose of the timber floors. This is not necessary if you purchase a unit with a steel floor.
Another concern is that some modules have been exposed to spillages and contamination from various cargo products during their times in use. The best solution is to sand blast all internal surfaces down to the bare metal, then seal and repaint with nontoxic paint.
A third issue is the fact that during manufacturing, the steel has been painted and sealed with products that may continue to release dangerous solvents even after the unit is retired. Again, sand blasting internal surfaces, then sealing and repainting will take care of this issue.
The sheer size and weight of the modules generally require a crane or forklift to place each container used within your design.
Even thought the corners of a unit is extremely strong, the roof is not. That’s why burying containers underground without additional roof support is not safe. Some preppers and off grid enthusiasts are inclined to do this for alternative housing or bunker style living spaces. If unconventional uses of containers are planned, be sure to consider this issue.
As is expected, modules can become damaged in transport by collisions, heavy loads and general friction. Seam cracks, twisted frames or holes in the steel can occur. Generally, companies will condemn these and not resell. But you should inspect each unit carefully before purchase.
The growing field of container architecture or “cargotecture” has spurred many uses for re-purposing steel containers throughout the world. Schools, offices, businesses, and more have been built with containers.
But a growing interest among mainstream homeowners has also developed within the last few years because of the affordable, sustainable possibilities of this type of design. If built right, shipping container homes can be great alternatives to expensive, conventionally constructed houses of the past.