May 23, 2018
Home Design Shipping Containers

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shipping container cottage the ultimate guide to shipping container homes

Shipping container houses are the hallmarks of architectural recycling. These are Intermodal Steel Building Units, or ISBUs, that are reused as structures for any place and for any purpose. Be it a home, a studio, a port or a palace, shipping containers are inexpensive and durable buildings for residential, commercial and even industrial use.

Herein is a comprehensive guide for turning shipping containers into homes, their prices and how to buy them. First, let’s get inspired by some of the benefits of having a storage tank as a home and some examples of some homes people have constructed.

  • They are extremely easy to build into a home. Storage containers usually stand superior in the face of building codes.
  • Properly insulated, they can make for a warm and cozy home in the winter. There are also effective ways at making them resistant to excessive heat.
  • Since they are originally built for transport, they can be easily moved when they need to be.
  • They can withstand practically any extreme weather, such as hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes. Standing alone, an ISBU can handle 100 mile per hour winds. Securely anchored, it can take winds up to 175 miles per hour. You can also rest assured that it will never collapse during an earthquake. By far, they make for the safest storm shelters.
poteet architects the ultimate guide to shipping container homes

Via Poteet Architects

modulus the ultimate guide to shipping container homes

Via Modulus

paul mccredie the ultimate guide to shipping container homes

Photo by Paul McCredie

eco pod the ultimate guide to shipping container homes

Via Eco Pod

logan macdougall pope the ultimate guide to shipping container homes

Photo by Logan MacDougall Pope


container dimensions the ultimate guide to shipping container homes

ISBUs are made of 100 percent Corten Steel, and there are a range of different sizes for them. However, the popular choice for shipping container houses are former sea containers that come in two standard sizes:

  • 20 feet long, 8 feet wide and 8 feet tall, equaling to 160 square feet.
  • 40 feet long, 8 feet wide and 8 feet tall, equaling to 320 square feet.

Alone, these can be suited as a tiny house. Even so, some people put multiple containers together for a bigger house. Others have even built entire commercial marine ports out of shipping containers, as well as big company headquarters, student housing and homeless shelters.


<<Discover How to Build a Container Home Step-By-Step>>

How Much Do Shipping Containers Cost – Shipping Container Prices

For a used 20-footer in good condition, the cost can range anywhere from $1,400 to $2,800. A 40 foot shipping container will cost $3,500 to $4,500. Depending on where it is bought, some containers come with building kits and plans for personal customization.

There are also a growing number of manufacturers that are designing prefabricated shipping container houses for $15,000 and up. Bigger shipping container homes cost as much as $215,000, which is still only a fraction of the price of some conventional homes.

Those who buy a shell and opt to hire a contractor for the rest of the technical work are looking to spend $50 to $150 an hour. This can run the whole bill up to $15,000 or more. On the other hand, those who are experienced with construction can completely finish and furnish a home of steel for less than $10,000. Some handy folks even manage to do it for less than $4,000!

Now, more than likely the container will need to be transported to you. The price of delivery varies considerably depending on how many are being transported and far it has to travel.

Turning A Storage Container Into A Livable Space – Shipping Container House Plans

Shipping container house plans are relatively simple to build. They go up in almost no time at all and are built to last – forever. They are, in fact, storage containers designed to hold up to 57,000 pounds. There is a good amount of preparation, construction and tune-up projects necessary for turning a shipping container into a home. This includes setting a foundation, cutting frames for doors and windows, insulating, installing utilities and adding a roof and flooring.

Building A Foundation

concrete foundation the ultimate guide to shipping container homes

There are essentially three types of foundations: a traditional concrete block, a crawl space and a basement. Factors that influence this decision are the overall shipping container home plans and design, water tables, soil type, climate, presence of radon, type of bedrock and the entire shipping container cost.

Traditional concrete block – by far the cheapest, easiest and most efficient foundation. The containers are usually faceted to the corners and welded to embedded steel reinforcements.

Crawl space – these are useful for a certain amount of extra storage when building a full basement isn’t feasible.

Basement – when water tables, soil type and bedrock allow, a basement is a good way of making use of more vertical storage and having potential living space.

In this sense, the foundation follows the same protocol as building a conventional home. Although usually mandatory for building codes, it is possible to forgo a foundation in some areas.

Cutting Frames For Doors And Windows

grinder sawzall plasma the ultimate guide to shipping container homes

It sounds easy enough, but how do you cut through the extremely thick and heavy steel? This is an important detail, and there are three possible options:

  • Cutting disk (top left in photo) – very rudimentary, but it works. Expect lots of sparks, shards and shreds of shooting metal flying every which way. Also, expect to replace the blade multiple times.
  • Reciprocating saw, also called a “sawzall” (bottom left in photo) – as long as it’s industrial strength, most of these will make it through the entire build without burning out.
  • Plasma cutter (right in photo) – these compress air and electricity to such a degree that they melt the metal as they cut. Definitely the most efficient, although costly. They require an air compressor and sometimes a special plug or outlet. The tips of these burn out easily and are expensive to replace. The machine itself sometimes fails and will require some troubleshooting. All in all the plasma cutter is the quickest way to get the job done.


insulation the ultimate guide to shipping container homes

Simply applying a closed-cell foam layer to the inside and outside walls of the building will work wonders for insulating against most problems of heat, cold and moisture.

Hot climates, or at least hot summers, might require reflective paint on the outside of the building. A “cool roof” coating helps reflect the sun’s UV rays and prevents too much heat gain.

Supertherm and NASA-type ceramic-based spray paints are the other option. They are cheaper than foam and leave more welcome room in an already compacted living space. They work well because the adhere strongly to metal.

These paints inhibit mold, mildew and rust from forming on the building. After several layers of application, ceramic paint can provide for very substantial insulation.

With the exception of ceramic-based paint, don’t expect other “insulating paints” to provide for much insulation. Mixed with extra chemicals and additives, they have been debunked for any real insulating value. They are just too thin for any noticeable effect on cooling, heating and moisture compared to ceramic paint or an inch of foam.

Dry wall is often installed to hide the corrugated steel, wiring and foam and give the building a more homelike feel, as well as for added insulation.


This is similar to installing utilities in any conventional home. Plumbing is usually restricted to one, two or three locations. Gas can go to the kitchen, the water heater and maybe a vented fireplace. Often, wiring runs behind dry wall and below the flooring.

Installing A Roof

One advantage of a shipping container is that it already comes equipped with super-strength and weather-tight roof and walls. However, the tank was initially designed for storage, and the roof is not the best fixed structure when two or more containers are joined. This is because the water run-off design of a single container is negated by that extra join. Water begins to build up on the roof and serious corrosion can occur.

In only a matter of hours, a conventional hip roof can be installed by metal straps, welding and clamps. The advantages of this are better water run-off, potential rain harvest, solar heat reflection and extra shade over the doors and windows.


Shipping containers already come with ½ inch plywood floor. One thing about this, however, is the hazardous chemicals that the plywood is treated with, such as insecticides, fungicides and preservatives. Many studies conducted on this subject have confirmed that these chemicals are harmful to humans. They are easily transferred to anything touching the floor.

For a shipping container home plan, it is a good idea to either remove and replace the floor or cover the existing floor with an industrial epoxy or polyurethane paint. For a 20 foot container, it will take about 5 sheets of plywood and double that for a 40-footer. Otherwise, an epoxy or polyurethane coating completely seals the chemicals and off-gassing into the floor, rendering the container a safe place to live.

How To Find Shipping Containers For Sale

There are places all over the world to find used shipping containers for sale. Of course, it is best to try and find someone locally, since the container can be personally inspected before buying. It will also considerably cut down on delivery costs.

If there’s no local option, and you’re unsure about who to buy such a formidable product from, the safest bet is to find an ISBU association member. You can buy shipping container with complete security and satisfaction. These are certified dealers that supply quality tanks with a history of business.

Otherwise, there are plenty of other dealers. This is a good online resource for finding a variety of companies, small and large, where you can find a shipping container for sale.

When there is no way to personally inspect the container before making the purchase, ask for high quality photos of the entire structure. That is, all sides, top and bottom, inside and out. Make sure it is structurally sound and not twisted, crooked or corroded. Ask about its age and find out if there is any documentation.

Don’t buy a used container if it’s been recently painted. It could be hiding damage, such as corrosion. Usually, rust, scrapes and small dings don’t affect the overall quality and function. Corrosion does, however. Even with a discount, it isn’t worth buying a corroded container because it’s too expensive to repair. Corrosion could also mean that the container isn’t even real steel.

Shipping Container Homes For Sale

New Generation Builders is a Lakeland, Florida-based company that sells customized, prefabricated storage container homes. They specialize in the smaller 20 foot containers for efficiency and sustainability.

Rhino Cubed is based in Louisville, Kentucky. They have completely decked-out and artistically created shipping container homes for living on or off-the-grid.

Cargotecture is a Seattle, Washington-based company building very affordable prefab storage container homes. They also sell shipping containers with Do-It-Yourself kits for an even cheaper approach.

The recycled use of shipping containers for homes and other buildings symbolizes a pivotal point in our industrial culture. We are moving towards a more sustainable approach to using resources. Many people have taken to reusing existing materials, either from financial restrictions or from conscious choice. Shipping container homes offer offer an extremely sturdy foundation for building an environmentally friendly future.