How to Build Cargo Container Homes

You can build a house out of large metal shipping containers that have outlived their original purpose. The world's trade goods travel in metal cargo containers, and used containers are stacking up, especially in American port cities and shipping centers. America imports many goods from countries such as Japan and China, but doesn't ship as many goods back to those countries. You can acquire some cargo containers quite inexpensively and use them as the skeletal pieces for an unconventional house.

Used shipping containrs can form the basis of your house design.

Designing Your House

You can accommodate containers of various sizes in your house design.

Most shipping containers come in a standard width and height: 8 feet wide by 8 feet 6 inches high, and either 20 feet or 40 feet in length. You may also find some shipping containers that are 45 feet, 48 feet or 53 feet long.

Shipping container frames are made of tubular steel, built to withstand the stress of stacking up to ten containers in height. Their corrugated steel skins resist the harsh environments of the open decks of the huge transport ships. In many cases, containers have floors made of 18-ply marine plywood.

Containers may be covered with exterior sheathing.

Plan the number of containers you'll need for your design. A single container doesn't contain much space; plan to use more than one container in your house design. Think of your house design as a collection of containers, perhaps placed side-by-side, two stacked on top of two others, mixed 20-foot and 40-foot containers, a cantilevered second floor...the combinations are nearly endless.

Look for architects and designers who are specializing in working with container designs. Some architects are able to transform the used shipping containers into attractive houses, office buildings, and even apartment houses and shopping areas. Study the work of these designers and you''ll get plenty of ideas for your own house design based on shipping containers.

Step 3

Check local building codes to be sure you can get permits for such an unconventional structure before you get too far into the project. Some container-based homes have been designed to united building code (UBC) standards, so there's no doubt you can meet or exceed loading requirements. But check first.

Container House Construction

Don't place your containers directly on bare earth.

You should not plan to set your shipping container house on the bare earth. Over time, moisture could corrode the metal. The containers themselves are not particularly heavy, but you will need to have a solid foundation. Some architects have worked with poles anchored in cement footings, while others have opted for more conventional concrete slabs. Basements in container housing designs are not common.

Step 2

Use a crane to hoist the individual components into position. Remember that, while the steel skeleton of a shipping container can support heavy loads, the same is not necessarily true of the metal skin. Some home builders have reported buckled container roofs from the weight of fairly light snow loads. You may need to design a standard truss roof over the top of your container or design other methods of spreading such loads.

Get an expert for welding the skeletal structure of the containers together and to cut openings in the side and roof panels for doors, windows and skylights.

Step 3

Don't ignore the issue of weatherproofing any exposed metal of your containers, especially if you're planning to partially bury the containers, or berm earth up around them. You'll need some type of vapor barrier and waterproofing to keep the insides of the container structures dry and cozy.

Investigate various ways of insulating your container home. One challenge with using these steel "building blocks" is that the steel frames and siding conduct heat and cold very efficiently. Some builders use a spray foam insulation on the interior walls, which seals cold air infiltration. Depending on your house design and location, you may also need to apply a thin layer of insulation to the exterior. There is a thin spray-on ceramic coating that has proved to be useful for finishing the exteriors of container-based homes.

Gary MacFadden

Based in central Oregon, Gary MacFadden started writing in 1972 as a "stringer" for several Montana newspapers. He has written six books about bicycle touring and has been published in "Outside," "Wilderness Camping," "Adventure Cyclist" and other publications. MacFadden holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the University of Montana.