When I created my first website 11 years ago I randomly had a request for a container home design. I dove in deep and did a ton of research. As it happened a friend of ours on Costa Rica was building some for clients down there. He called them “lightning boxes”. He was getting requests as well to build them all over. I really loved the aspect of being able to theoretically stack them like Legos and keeping the exterior material of the container and colors intact, made it seem so interesting. The thought is that you are up-cycling left over containers, that we are doing a good thing!

A 40-foot shipping container home in Florida

Not so much – that’s the reality. Put simply -, from Treehugger blog, there are more issues with this method of building that negates any good you think you are doing by recycling.

 First lets talk structure. “the second you don’t stack the containers on their corners, the structure that is built into the containers needs to be duplicated with heavy steel reinforcing.” Literally the only structure is that corner to corner and maintain the walls intact. As soon as you start to cut these bad boys open your are completely negating the structural integrity. Making it useless and having to add tons on more expensive steel to reinforce any on the openings.

More on structure- When I design a house and work on the construction documents, I start with the foundation. you absolutely need to set a container on a foundation. It needs to be level, you need to decide what type of foundation. You would need a foundation for a stick frame or CMU concrete home as well. No savings here.

Then we talk walls. As mentioned above – as soon as you touch any of the walls or stack off the corners you need to reinforce the entire structure. This is a redundant use of materials, a waste for sure. You will still need to insulate and drywall your walls. Keep in mind how narrow a container is. Think a of a parking spot. 8′ wide, minus the 5″ of corrugated metal, 1″ furring strip and another 5/8″ gyp board. You’re looking at a 7′ wide room. A king bed is 7′ wide. Absolute spatial nightmare.

Image from Treehugger blog

Now let’s talk mechanical systems. “you will need to install a very robust HVAC system to heat and cool the building (that Mumbai tower shown above would literally be a deathtrap without cooling). You will have a hard time taking advantage of passive strategies like thermal mass if you maintain the container aesthetic. You’ll also end up with low ceilings, as even high cube containers are only 9-’6” (2.9 m) in overall exterior height, so any ductwork or utilities start cutting in to headroom.” we generally spec out the Mini-splits for the most efficient systems, but here in Florida- you’re in a metal box – in the sun and heat. Those little AC units struggle to keep up.

I really try to talk people out of building with these containers. I ask a million and one questions about how you as a client plans on using the container home. The best use I have seen over an dover is a simple cabin for a visit. There is no storage, so its more a camping experience for most. Or its a hunting cabin. Or how about an office space. The best is a simple storage unit. No ac needed, lockable and unlivable. I have seen them used as temporary housing after an emergency – excellent.

As much as I would love to practice stewardship and reuse these containers for living spaces the reality of actually building them is not saving anyone anything, including our planet. What you can get out of a container by melting it down and reusing the steel in it is a better idea than using a container as a home and using even more resources to make it livable – barely.

You can build a wood frame house, virtually anywhere for the same or less cost than what it takes to build with a container home. With a container you still need to build a foundation, walls, insulate, ceiling, deal with mechanical (hvac and plumbing and electrical) supply materials and finishes and fixtures, build a roof, get all the permits, etc. You are only saving the 2x’s to frame the house with and you are terribly restricted with space and design for functionality. It just doesn’t seem worth it.

Then there is the fact that many municipalities aren’t allowing them as dwelling units at all. So before you get al romantically involved with he idea of reusing a container for a living space, do your homework. google “container homes gone wrong”. Make sure you are up for the challenge of fighting with the city and the structure as well as space utility.