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The Ultimate Guide to Shipping Container Homes

Shipping containers are an innovative and sustainable building material that can be used to construct beautiful and unique homes. Often seen as tiny homes or “container homes,” these structures are much more versatile and spacious than many people realize. Constructing your home out of used shipping containers offers numerous advantages in terms of cost, sustainability, durability, and customizability.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore everything you need to know about building and living in a shipping container home, from costs and insulation to designing layouts and aesthetics. Whether you dream of an off-grid oasis or a stylish urban dwelling, you can achieve your ideal container home with the right planning and preparation.

What are Shipping Container Homes?

Shipping container homes are quite literally structures built mainly or entirely out of repurposed steel shipping containers. These containers are about 8 feet (2.4 m) wide and come in common lengths of 20 feet (6 m) and 40 feet (12 m).

Stacking and arranging containers in different shapes and sizes allows for spacious, comfortable homes of virtually any floorplan. Oftentimes, additional framing and cladding are added to integrate the industrial look of containers with more conventional building styles.

Benefits of Shipping Container Homes

There are many excellent reasons to build with containers:

Cost Savings: Used shipping containers can be purchased for as little as $1,500-$5,000, compared to tens of thousands for traditional building materials. Savings are also seen in reduced construction times and smaller crews needed.

Sustainability: Repurposing containers saves them from rusting away in ports and prevents the need to manufacture new building materials. Building smaller also leads to less environmental impact overall.

Strength and Durability: Containers are built to withstand harsh ocean journeys. Their corten steel construction offers incredible structural integrity and weathertightness when joined properly.

Customization: With some imagination and welding skills, containers can be stacked, cut, and joined in any number of layouts and sizes. Interior and exterior finishes can also be customized.

Mobility: Container homes can be constructed offsite and transported relatively easily, even to remote areas without road access. They can also be expanded upon or relocated.

Cost to Build a Shipping Container Home

How much does it cost to build a container home? Here is a breakdown of typical expenses:

  • Containers: $1,500-$5,000+ per container
  • Foundation and Framing: $5,000-$30,000+ depending on size/complexity
  • Insulation: $2,000-$8,000 to insulate walls, floor and ceiling
  • Windows and Doors: Around $5,000 for a typical sized home
  • Roofing: $2,000-$10,000+ depending on materials
  • Plumbing and Electrical: $5,000-$15,000 including hookups and off-grid systems
  • Interior Finishes: $10,000-$30,000 including drywall, flooring, kitchen, bathroom, etc.
  • Labor: $10,000-$40,000+ for contracted work if DIYing is not an option

Total Cost Range: $40,000-$150,000, with most single container homes coming in under $100,000 if DIYing much of the work. The more customization, the higher the price. Off-grid container homes also require investing in solar, battery banks, water harvesting systems, and septic tanks.

How to Insulate a Shipping Container Home

One downside of containers is they conduct and retain heat easily. Proper insulation is key to creating a comfortable living environment.

Here are best practices for insulating container homes:

  • Spray Foam: Apply closed-cell spray foam to the interior of container walls and ceilings to seal out air and moisture. This provides an insulation value of R-13 to R-22.
  • Rigid Foam Sheathing: Cut rigid foam boards (extruded polystyrene or polyisocyanurate) to tightly fit exterior walls and roof. Glue and fasten with fender washers. Shoot for at least R-25 insulation value.
  • Fiberglass Batts: Fill wall cavities with unfaced, high density R-13 to R-21 fiberglass batt insulation. Use mineral wool for better sound dampening.
  • Insulative Flooring Underlayment: Use 1-2 inches of closed-cell foam between floor joists. Top with plywood subfloor.
  • Thermal Bridging: Use extruded polystyrene foam strips and spray foam around container corrugations and steel studs to prevent thermal bridging.

Proper ventilation, air sealing, and high performance windows are also essential for efficiency. With the right insulation strategies, container homes can meet and exceed insulation needs for any climate.

Considerations for Off-Grid Container Homes

For those wanting to live off-grid in remote locations, containers can make exceptional homes. However, going off-grid requires special planning and preparedness. Be sure to consider:

  • Solar power system with enough capacity and batteries to meet electrical needs
  • Water harvesting system with storage tanks and filtration
  • Septic or composting toilet system
  • Propane or wood stove for heating and cooking needs
  • Fire protection like smoke detectors and extinguishers
  • Food storage and preservation systems
  • Backup generator for emergencies
  • Detached containers or outbuildings for storage, laundry, workshop etc.

Living off-grid in a container home provides freedom and sustainability. But it also requires acceptance of downsized living and reliance on solar and systems you manage and maintain yourself. Those seeking a more self-sufficient lifestyle will find containers offer the durability and adaptability to make off-grid living comfortable.

Unique Container Home Designs and Layouts

One of the best aspects of container homes is how utterly customizable they can be. Here are some amazing designs and layouts to spark your imagination:

Tiny Container Homes (120-320 sq ft)

Tiny container homes maximize affordability and efficiency on a small footprint. Typical designs include:

  • Single 20 ft container with lofted bedroom
  • Studio with integrated kitchen and murphy bed
  • Two small containers creating a bedroom and living room

Learn more about designing a tiny container home

Small Container Homes (500-1000 sq ft)

By combining two or more containers in creative layouts, small shipping container homes provide ample space for comfortable living. Some great plans to consider:

  • 40 ft container with two-story side extension
  • Angled facades using multiple boxes
  • Attached open-concept kitchen and living room
  • Hexagonal or octagonal homes with 6-8 containers

Large Container Homes (1000+ sq ft)

For those needing even more room, containers can be integrated into truly spacious homes:

  • U-Shaped or L-Shaped designs joining multiple containers
  • Two story homes with containers stacked or flipped vertically
  • Hybrid styles mixing containers and conventional framing
  • Container exteriors supporting stunning modernist designs

Get inspired by these uniquie container Airbnb rentals

With large homes, you gain the benefits of containers like strength, eco-consciousness and cost without sacrificing on space.

Important Design Elements for Container Homes

To turn used shipping containers into beautiful, livable homes, keep these key design considerations in mind:

Insulation: As discussed above, insulation is critical in containers. Plan insulation strategies early in design.

Window and Door Placement: Balance enough openings for light and views with limiting excessive heat gain and maintaining structural integrity.

Interior Walls and Partitions: Use framed walls to divide interior space. This allows flexibility in plumbing and wiring.

Floorplan: Develop smart layouts that work with the size and shape of containers. Consider how to integrate additional living space.

Roof Design: Use sloped truss roofs instead of flat container roofs for better rainwater runoff. Opt for overhangs.

Cladding and Siding: Many choose to hide the industrial container exterior. Consider siding, stucco, stone, or other finishes.

Interior Finishes: Drywall, trim, flooring etc. make interiors feel like any conventional home. Some leave container walls exposed for a more industrial look.

With careful planning and creative problem solving, containers can be shaped into virtually any home style you desire.

Building Your Shipping Container Home

If you’re sold on the idea of a shipping container home, here are the steps to constructing your own:

  1. Design and Permits: Create plans for layout, structure, insulation, utilities etc. Submit plans and obtain any required permits. Consider consulting an engineer.
  2. Foundation: Prepare foundation footings and slab or platform to properly support containers and distribute weight.
  3. Site Preparation: Clear and grade site for best drainage. Remove topsoil for improved erosion resistance. Install ground screws or tie-downs if in a hurricane or earthquake zone.
  4. Delivery: Have containers delivered and placed. Obtain containers locally or via specialty resellers. Ensure containers are structurally sound.
  5. Joining: Position and anchor containers. Join together with self-tapping screws into steel backing plates. Seal joins with silicone sealant and add metal sheeting over gaps if desired.
  6. Cutting Apertures: Use a plasma cutter, torch or circular saw with metal cutting blade to cut out openings for windows, doors, ducting etc. Grind edges smooth.
  7. Insulation: Insulate walls, roof and floor as planned. Secure rigid foam boards and fill cavities with spray foam and batt insulation.
  8. Utilities: Run electrical, plumbing and HVAC components through framed interior walls. Install off-grid systems if not connecting to public utilities.
  9. Exterior Finishes: Add roofing material, siding, trim and other exterior finishes to integrate containers into design.
  10. Interior Finishes: Drywall, paint, trim, cabinets, flooring and other interior finishes make containers feel like home. Add bathroom and kitchen fixtures.

For those less handy, contractors can assemble and finish your container home for you. Obtain quotes to decide between DIY or hired help.

Becoming an Owner-Builder

Many who construct container homes themselves become “owner-builders” – acting as their own general contractor. Being an owner-builder requires solid DIY skills, time and perseverance.

Key tips for owner-builders:

  • Educate yourself thoroughly on building codes and zoning laws
  • Create detailed plans for layout, budget, timeline and waste management
  • Apply for all required permits yourself
  • Rent or purchase necessary tools and equipment
  • Consider completing an owner-builder construction course
  • Document each stage of construction thoroughly
  • Be prepared to problem solve and adapt along the way
  • Hire subcontractors for work requiring expertise like electrical, plumbing and HVAC
  • Consider consulting with an attorney to understand liability

Though challenging, being an owner-builder allows you to fully customize your home and save on labor costs. Arm yourself with knowledge and preparation to take on this rewarding endeavor.

Finding the Right Location

A key step is choosing the right property for your container home. Consider these factors when evaluating locations:

  • Zoning Laws: Some areas restrict unconventional home designs or small lots needed for containers. Research regulations thoroughly.
  • Utilities: Are public water, electrical, gas and sewer accessible onsite? If not, prepare for off-grid setup.
  • Access: Ensure there is a viable route to deliver containers to the site.
  • Drainage: Avoid floodplains or low areas. Opt for gently sloping terrain.
  • Sun Exposure: Ideal for solar panels if off-grid. Also consider shading for passive solar design.
  • Space: Will the footprint fit comfortably on the property while meeting setback laws?
  • Soil Quality: Clay soils may require more extensive foundation work. Sandy soils drain well but erode easier.
  • Surrounding Area: Consider noise, traffic, crime rates and other neighborhood factors that influence livability.

With the right property, zoning and access, you can construct your container home virtually anywhere – from rural deserts to dense urban areas.

Financing Your Container Home

Like any home, container homes require financing unless you have sufficient savings to self-fund. Some financing options to explore:

  • Conventional Loans – Mortgages and construction loans may be available. Meet with lenders open to alternative structures. Expect higher rates and fees than conventional builds.
  • Personal Loans – Banks or online lenders may offer personal loans. Shorter terms mean higher monthly payments. Rates are based on credit score.
  • Home Equity Loan – If you have equity built up in an existing home, a home equity loan or line of credit can provide funds for a container home.
  • USDA & VA Loans – For rural locations, USDA guaranteed loans are possible. Veterans can also inquire about VA backed loans.
  • Owner Financing – If purchasing land and containers from the same seller, owner financing may be offered.
  • DIY Funding – Save up income and tax refunds each year towards completion goals. Pay for labor and materials incrementally.
  • Crowdfunding – Crowdsourcing through platforms like GoFundMe can raise funds for unique container home projects.

With proper planning, it’s possible to finance your container home build through many available options.

Important Building Codes and Zoning Laws

Before constructing your container abode, be sure to research any building codes and zoning laws that apply to the location. Key regulations include:

Building and Safety Codes

  • International Residential Code (IRC)
  • International Building Code (IBC)
  • International Mechanical Code (IMC)
  • State and local amendments

Zoning Ordinances

  • Land use and minimum lot size
  • Allowed structures and designs
  • Setback requirements from property lines
  • Maximum height limitations
  • Easements and right of ways

Permitting Requirements

  • Grading permits
  • Utility connection permits
  • Sewage disposal permits
  • Electrical, plumbing and mechanical permits
  • Certificate of occupancy to finalize

Navigating codes can be complex. Thorough research and open communication with local officials ensure your container home meets regulatory standards. Consider consulting your local building department early in the process.

Advantages of Prefabricated Container Homes

Another option besides building from scratch is purchasing a prefabricated container home. Prefab container houses and modules offer major advantages:

Speed – Prefab homes can be installed rapidly compared to traditional construction timelines. Many are move-in ready immediately after delivery.

Quality – Benefit from professional factory construction versus potential defects in DIY projects. Materials and finishes are also warranty covered.

Simplicity – With a predesigned floorplan and finishes, you avoid complex design decisions and construction learning curves.

Affordability – Factory mass production yields savings passed onto buyers. Limited customization also controls costs.

Convenience – Prefab companies handle permitting, shipping, set up and often utility hookups for a turnkey experience.

Eco-Friendly -Prefab achieves sustainability through smaller footprints, efficient materials, and repurposing containers.

Check out some top prefab container manufacturers to weigh the pros and cons of prefab vs. custom building.

Top Manufacturers of Prefab Container Homes

The growing popularity of shipping container homes has led to many prefab manufacturers emerging to offer turnkey designs. Here are some of the top companies in this space:

Honomobo – This Canadian company offers ultra-efficient container homes in 11 different layouts from 320 to 1100 sq ft. Their homes meet rigorous sustainability certifications.

Boxabl – This startup fabricates foldable modular containers making shipping and setup simple. Their lean pricing and Casita model gained viral buzz.

Marmol Radziner – Founded by a Los Angeles architect, these modern prefab designs range from single containers to expansive residences.

SG Blocks – They use containers and other materials to fabricate commercial and residential spaces for government, hospitality, retail and multi-family projects.

Abodu – Based in California, Abodu specializes in stylish container backyard studios, guest houses and ADUs with full bathroom and kitchenette amenities.

Connect Homes – Their containers integrate with conventional building materials for homes that align with neighborhood aesthetics.

IndieDwell – With an emphasis on affordability, IndieDwell offers unfurnished single and double container options starting under $50,000.

Tempohousing – These Spanish designs include stacking containers vertically to allow for 950 sq ft layouts on a compact footprint.

Prefab container companies continue to push innovation in efficient and livable designs. Purchasing prefab eliminates much of the time and risk associated with self-building.

Inspiring Examples of Container Homes

Need a little visual inspiration? Here are some stunning examples of container homes and creative layouts from around the world:

Sustainable Family Home in San Antonio, Texas

This two-story home comprises six containers arranged in a U-shape. The design optimism container cost by using conventional roof trusses, siding and a partial foundation on piers. A spacious deck and shaded carport complete the family-friendly layout.

Elegant Cottage House in Nicaragua

Stacking two 40 ft and one 20 ft container enables this stylish home featuring bamboo siding, a metal roof and courtyard garden space. The interiors include gorgeous polished concrete floors, natural wood, and an open-concept common room.

Rustic Cabin Retreat in Colorado Rocky Mountains

Nestled within the remote forest, this nature getaway was constructed from two containers placed end-to-end. A lofted bedroom and minimalist living space allow for off-grid relaxation.