If you’re the kind of person who thinks outside the box, then a container home might be a good fit for you.
Shipping containers — those colorful blocks stacked high on cargo ships, making their way from port to port — are having a moment. With existing home inventory low, sales prices reaching record highs and the cost to build new also climbing ever higher, it’s easy to see the allure of an alternative approach like shipping container home design.
Plus, repurposing a shipping container can be more environmentally friendly. And, it doesn’t hurt that there are some really cool, modern-looking shipping container home designs out there.
Before you say “all aboard” to this trendy option, let’s take a close look at this architectural style. You’ll learn about the benefits, costs and drawbacks of owning a container home — everything you need to know to decide whether to set sail.
From the high seas to residential streets
First, a quick history lesson. Today, shipping containers are being repurposed as homes, Airbnbs, restaurants and cafes, and even medical clinics — all uses that might sound groundbreaking to us. But it was their original purpose, as a means to transport goods more efficiently, that truly changed the world, according to an in-depth history by Discover Containers, a comprehensive resource on shipping container buildings.
Malcolm McLean, a North Carolina man who ran one of the country’s largest truck transportation companies, invented the standardized metal shipping container, patenting the corner posts that give the shipping container its strength and stacking abilities.
McLean’s first container-laden ship took to the sea in 1956, a voyage that would revolutionize the shipping industry. Six decades later, the world contains an estimated 37 million shipping containers, many of them not in service.
Hence, the urge to upcycle. In 2007, Peter DeMaria, a California architect, unveiled his “Redondo Beach House,” the first two-story shipping container home built under U.S. Uniform Building Code standards. It won the 2007 Excellence in Design – Innovation Award from the American Institute of Architects, and signaled the rise of this increasingly popular architectural style.
The benefits of container living
Not long after the debut of his Redondo Beach House, DeMaria told ArchitectureWeek that he believed shipping containers were the icons of the global age. “In port cities, whether you’re in Newark or Los Angeles, stacked containers create a powerful imagery on the landscape,” he said.
Container buildings are a “symbol of global connectedness,” says Joel Egan, founder of Cargotecture, a Seattle, Washington, architecture firm and, like DeMaria, a pioneer in the use of steel intermodal shipping containers as buildings.
“It’s taking full circle our reliance on global shipping and trade and anchoring it in one spot as a monument,” Egan says.
Beyond the imagery and symbolism, shipping container homes have additional advantages. “They are durable. They are securable. They are relocatable. They are overtly sustainable and they are emotionally visceral,” he says.
Strength and durability
The life of a shipping container is a tough one. Made of 14-gauge steel, each one is designed to carry more than 55,000 pounds of goods, be stacked 10 deep, and travel the world, braving every kind of weather and seas. As a building material, they’re stronger than stick-built homes and some brick and stone homes, able to hold their own in an earthquake or major storm. Their steel frames also make them mold-, fire- and termite-proof: all desirable features for homeowners.
The cost of a shipping container home can be much less than a standard home, although the exact cost depends on the design you’re looking for. These days, though, the trend is to build more architecturally interesting buildings, and those come with a larger price tag, says Aaron Burch, owner of Discover Containers.
“Earlier on, a lot of the adopters for container homes were going for smaller, cabin-type, ‘I want to minimize my life’ structures,” he says. But now, he’s seeing a trend toward more extravagant, $1 million-plus, multi-container homes.
With tens of millions of shipping containers in use worldwide, many of them not in circulation, it’s no wonder that they’ve attracted the focus of builders. Since the United States imports more than it exports, we typically have an abundance of shipping containers that are not being used for their primary purpose. (The COVID-19 pandemic has upended global trade, causing, among other impacts, container shortages, an unusual status that will likely be temporary.)
Upcycling a container can be an environmentally friendly way to build a house, although there’s some debate about just how sustainable container building can be, especially if the building is constructed using a container that’s only gone on a single trip.
For well-traveled containers, it’s the backstory of their long journeys that attracts Egan. He’s designed homes with containers that have longshoremen’s marks on them and labels in other languages.
“All those features, I leave those things on,” Egan says.
Container homes can do “structural gymnastics that will make your job drop,” Egan says. He’s referring to cantilevered components perched high in the air and stacked and combined containers.
For Burch, the home designs that are catching his eye right now are ones that use 10 to 20 containers. He finds the Jaora Street home, in Brisbane, Australia, particularly striking.
Building ease / modular design
Building a shipping container home can be much faster than constructing a standard home, since many are available as prefabricated modular homes — easy to transport and easy to install. At Missouri-based Custom Container Living, homes are built indoors, which means the crew never needs to take a weather pause. Depending on the design you want, your new home could be ready in just a few weeks.
Not everyone is a fan of shipping container construction. “I hate them,” was the blunt declaration of a professor of contemporary visual studies in a 2019 Opinion piece in the New York Times.
No doubt, with this unique home option, there are downsides. First, due to the size of the containers, the interior space can be small. This can require using multiple containers to make a space that fits your living needs.
Insulation can also be a challenge; since the shipping container is already a narrow space, there’s not much room to work. To add insulation, builders can add internal stud walls, then insulate with spray-foam or rigid foam. And, if your design requires cutting into or combining the containers, you’ll also need to worry about reinforcement, such as welding.
While it’s gotten easier since he started, Egan says container homes are still plagued by permit concerns. “There’s no end to the challenges with local permitting,” he says. It’s important to check your local building codes and zoning regulations to make sure a container home will be allowed.
Another obstacle can be obtaining financing and insurance, says Burch. Financing options may include mortgage, personal, or construction loans, but not all lenders and insurers provide programs or policies for shipping container homes, so you might have to do some research. A solution may be to work with a smaller bank that has more flexibility and an insurance broker used to dealing with unusual architecture.
How much do shipping containers cost?
It’s not a sure thing that a shipping container home will cost less than standard construction. After all, it’s custom architecture, says Egan. “You can do things with [containers] that a regular building cannot do, and that is what I remind clients, that that is what they are paying for,” he says.
We’ve already told you some of the prices quoted by container architects. Now, let’s break it down to basics: the cost of the shipping containers themselves. Most containers come in one of two standard sizes: about 20 feet by 8 feet, and 8.5 feet high, or 150 square feet of interior space, and 40 feet by 8 feet, 8.5 feet high, or 300 square feet of space.
The cost of the 20-foot containers ranges from $1,200 to $6,000, depending on if it’s new or used, while the cost of a 40-foot one ranges from $2,600 to $7,000.
When budgeting, you also need to factor in the cost of the land, as well as professional labor (at $75 to $150 an hour), and the cost of modifications needed to make your container livable.
As with any home, what you’re looking for can yield a large cost difference. Cross Container Homes, in Missouri, says their container homes start at $15,000, At SG Blocks, a New York-based container building designer, housing prices start at $90,000. Custom Container Living says their houses range from $29,000 to $100,000-plus. HomeAdvisor puts the range between $10,000 and $180,000.
Find your own home sweet container home
If your Instagram feed is dominated by container home images, maybe it’s time to take the next step: finding your own home sweet container home.
You have quite a few options. You can always buy new from a manufacturer, though that might be less appealing since you miss out on the reuse potential.
The eco-friendly route is to buy a used shipping container. This can also be a more affordable option, but you’ll need to pay attention to what you’re purchasing, especially when it comes to size and certification.
Some containers are advertised as one-trip containers, meaning they’ve literally only taken one trip. But others may have some deficiencies from their life on the high seas, and should probably be avoided.
There’s also the option to buy a premade home. Companies like CargoHome, a family-owned business in Waco, Texas, allow buyers to select from a list of pre-made models, or elect to do a custom build.
If you’re not ready to take the leap, you can always give the container home life a dry run first. Discover Containers maintains a listing of container home rentals.
But if you are ready to launch your shipping container home dreams, then reach out to a top HomeLight agent who can steer you through the process.
Header Image Source: ( oatautta / Shutterstock)