Building with Shipping Containers Over-rated?

First off let me preface this rant with this. I was surprised I came to this conclusion because at first I think structures built with shipping containers are really cool and “modern” looking. Using unwanted and cheap materials due to the trade deficit with China really make sense to save money on the surface But the more I think about it they don’t seem to live up to the hype for most situations. I’ll go into why below.

Before I get all negative on container built houses or structures I need to mention that there are a few situations that containers could work well and I’ll talk about those here too.

shipping container building in Seattle

Shipping container building in Seattle

First off containers aren’t cheap. Most people think that the ports are giving them away or something. I live in the port city of Seattle and see thousands of containers stacked and put onto trains every year as I drive to work. Occasionally I’ll see a sign listing containers for sale. Right next to a place where they load containers on barges to ship to Alaska is a metal recyclers yard. Make no mistake that if a container is damaged so much that it can’t be used and no one will buy it they will sell it for scrap steel to the recyclers. When the scrap steel price is high like now,  it will raise the price of used containers. I saw used containers for $1600 to $2200  for 20′ uninsulated. Some delivered, some not.

Cost: After you add up all the costs this is the main drawback of integrating shipping containers into your building. Cost of purchase, transportation to site, cost and time involved with conversion, flooring, windows insulation, walls, plasma cutter to make windows and modifications. Containers are freezers in the winter and ovens in the summer. The only thing that will prevent this is good insulation and that will take up more space in your container. Is it cheaper than framing it conventionally with wood? Answer is no. For the same or slightly less cost you could build a similar sized stick built structure that would be as waterproof and possibly more comfortable because you could design it from scratch for humans and not cargo.

Looks: I don’t think people like shipping containers for their looks. In fact I don’t know what is uglier. If your plan is to cover up the shipping container to make it look better, what is the point of using them?

Property Value: It’s not stick built it doesn’t add to the value of your property at least not in a traditional since. Meaning the appraiser for the bank of a potential buyer won’t add any value based on your container home. This may not be fair but when is anything to do with banks fair?

Container being delivered to Field Lab Site

Container being delivered to Field Lab Site
While writing this article I stumbled up the Field Lab in SouthWest Texas, he has come to similar experience and makes the very interesting point that most container buildings are just concepts, renderings and 3D images. Few come to reality. He makes several more good points click the link above for more.

Transportation of the container to your site: The truck that hauls a 40′ container is going to be pretty big. It is possibly to have a tilting flat bed truck deliver it to your place and simply tilt it off the back. However this is not a precise operation. For some jobs you may need to rent a crane to unload especially if you want to stack your containers. If you have a remote site that is heavily treed this may be a problem or cost extra for delivery. On the flip side if you want an instant cabin or living space and could afford a helicopter to carry it pre-made to your site this could be a great solution. Expensive but instant. But at that point you’re pretty much running a military operation and money is not an object.

Strength & Security: The best thing about shipping containers is they are massively strong and secure. It’s VERY hard to break into one of these and you definitely can’t carry one away. If you need a secure place to store valuable tools generators etc while you’re away then they may be  a great option. Far more secure than a wood structure. In fact this may be the best reason to use containers in my humble opinion, for secure storage of your valuables on remote sites.

Talking about storage and bad looks you could have a win win situation by burying a container and leave the door exposed from the side of the hill for access. It would be your own bat cave at that point and would be pretty cool. Out of sight but still easy to access.

The biggest asset that shipping containers have is they are very very strong. So if you want to build with them, don’t think so conventionally like you would if you were building a conventional house. Tip one container on it’s end and now you have a 20 -52′ tall tower! put some stairs in the middle and work it into your structure.

Also read 10 things to consider in the use of shipping containers from the Field Lab Site. He just had some containers delivered to his site in the Texas desert.

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10 Responses

  1. A lot of possibilities. Designing wouldn’t be a problem. Containers ( ) fascinates me a lot, a simple box with endless ideas to put on.

  2. Reducing the budget of construction is initial when choosing a container as a building. Plus, the convenience of putting them up is guaranteed.

  3. Je Peoples says:

    The advantages of using shipping containers as your construction building blocks include:

    They are inexpensive. A used container will cost between $800 and $6000 each, depending on size, age, condition and distance from the building site. Each 40 foot container gives you 320 square feet. .

    Energy concerns. It takes far less energy to reuse shipping containers in a building than to melt them down and reform then into steel beams. Add solar panels and even the ongoing energy use will be green.

    Examples of plans can be found HERE-

  4. Hi SB,

    Contact us, two six seven – nine two seven seven. We’re on Capitol Hill. We’re general contractors now too, so we are fabricating what we design (next to our office) which is really interesting. Currently on our plates: wood modular, steel module, steel kit, wood panel furring systems, and aluminum module. All 3d computer cut machining wherever possible. Let’s have coffee and show you what we are up to. I look forward to hearing from you.


  5. Thanks for the excellent reply Joel. It’s awesome to see the actual figures behind this type of construction. I really like your building BTW. When I saw it, It almost shot down my argument. You guy definitely used them well can as you say if you have a specific goal in mind the containers may be a solution. Your reply is so good I may make a post out of it.

  6. I am a Principal of HyBrid and HyBrid was the Architect of Design and the Architect of Record for the top green buildings that you see, the c3600 buildings in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle.

    Solar Burrito makes really accurate points here. It’s true, even a cheap container does nothing to reduce the cost of the other required components inside. In the case of the c3600 buildings we recognized that the containers are so overbuilt that they are not a good value to use as simply enclosing space. Since they carry nearly 250 lbs per square foot, and commercial loads are 100 psf, they are best used in combination with kits and panels to span over space between them.

    If you want to make a container building less expensive, use as few containers as possible and alter them as little as possible. That’s what we did in the Georgetown c3600 project. We also designed the site and the building to avoid exterior fire proofing, sprinkling, elevators, underground parking, mechanical rainwater vaults (there is a wetland), and each building only has one stair. It’s really in this site and building design where we drove costs down.

    The building cost about 20% to 40% less than conventional construction and was designed for a 6 month erection. The time to build can save on the debt servicing and the extra rent by an additional 6% to 12% depending on the size of the project.

    Feel free to visit our firm’s website, We mostly do wood modular and other prefabricated systems, plus some relocatable buildings.

    Please note, the clients for these buildings are an interior design firm which sometimes likes to imply that we did not design this project so that people presume that they designed it. It’s not true of course, they needed a stamped architecture firm and they came to us in June 2008 for our known specialty which was and remains container buildings. We transformed a well published design of ours from 2004, a design that never got built called the Urban Mini Tower. We completed permit and logistics of all the consultants, and we employed the exact same design as this UMT.

    On this project our interior designer client operated as typical clients who approved the designs that we developed as the project advanced. They selected the exterior color and managed the tenant improvement once the space was dried in. That’s about it, 99% of the rest was our design. Someone from their office keeps claiming on line that their firm designed it for some reason, sometimes emphatically, but most people know better. If you visit the project try not to tease them about their misrepresentation, just take the high road and don’t mix it up with them please.

    The buildings are cool though. Give us a ring if you have a project you would like to discuss.

    All the best,

  7. Although I appreciate that you have put a good deal of thought into your argument and indeed I would be the first person to agree 100% that ISBU construction is NOT the “dream solution” so many thought it would be, the benefits to ISBU construction are very “maintream ” and as such they are slowly being accepted as a main stream building methodology.

    Have you seen the big Travel Lodge Projects ?

    These guys are buying and using ISBU brand new from the factory because they believe in the technology so much, so its not about “recycling” for them its about strength and cost savings in modular construction techniques.

  8. Ed Davies says:

    I seriously considered using shipping containers for building for a while. To me the big attraction was having a waterproof building from day one.

    However, I agree with most of the concerns you and John Wells list though I’ve read that it’s fairly easy to cut a container: a plasma cutter is not needed. What really put me off, though, was the problem of the internal size. As you say, as soon as you put insulation on the inside it gets too small. Putting it on the outside means that you then have to make it waterproof and add a rainscreen which makes using the containers a bit pointless in the first place.

    (The locations I was considering at the time were on the west coast of Great Britain so the main weather concerns were heavy rain and driving winds.)

    One scheme I did consider, though, was building a house from containers within a larger greenhouse – using the containers as a back-bone structure to stiffen the greenhouse. That way a fairly simple means of containment of the insulation would be possible.

    Even without insulation on the inside the width is awkward as a single container is a bit too narrow for most rooms yet a double container is too wide in many cases – at least for a fairly modest European sized house.

  9. You know I think so… a bit. It’s a cool idea and that’s why people are interested in them but I suspect it doesn’t really speed construction timelines, reduce cost, or make the home any more sustainable.