Can you build a house out of shipping crates?

Green Living Pictures Container City, built in London in 2001, is made up of about 20 shipping containers. See more pictures of green living.

Shipping crates, or containers, are an excellent green building material. Rather than trashing old containers, companies and ambitious do-it-yourselfers are using reclaimed shipping containers to build single- and multiple-family homes. Because shipping crates offer a premade frame, container houses require fewer raw materials to build -- there's no need to spend money and resources on framing and siding.

From simple, DIY plans to elaborate construction projects, the shipping container is becoming one of the newest stars of green construction. One of the coolest things about building with shipping containers is their versatility. Whether you're looking to build a tiny eco-house, a multifamily dwelling or something in between, shipping crates can work as part of the design.

These containers are a great resource for do-it-yourselfers looking to jump in on the bourgeoning tiny-house movement. Once you've sorted through building codes to make sure you can legally build a shipping-container home in your area (more on that on the next page), tracking down the container itself can be one of the hardest parts of the process. Sea Box is a good resource for used containers. For the purist looking to build from scratch, they offer used shipping containers as is. They also sell modified containers that can range from those that need a few tweaks to full-on prefab shipping-container homes [source: Sea Box].

Those building larger, single-family homes can use multiple containers to create a more dynamic space. In Flagstaff, Ariz., Marvin Glotfelty and his wife Marie Jones own a 2,000-square-foot home constructed from six containers. The home is a great example of a container house that's environmentally focused. Not only is it made from reclaimed containers, but the $400,000 house also includes eco-amenities like a water-harvesting system, radiant floor heating and foam insulation to make it energy efficient [source: The Associated Press].

Even apartment dwellers can get in on the container action. Container City in London, which was built in 2001, used 20 containers to create 15 eco-friendly live-work spaces [source: Trinity Buoy Wharf].

Of course, any new building trend has its challenges. Next, we'll take a look at some of the common hang-ups that go along with a shipping-container project.




Challenges of Shipping Crate Homes

Any construction project is going to have a few tricky aspects, and container homes present some unique challenges. Since container homes are still relatively new, you may run into issues with materials, permitting and construction.

It used to be difficult to find shipping containers, but tracking them down is getting much easier. In the past, shipping companies weren't likely to sell containers to individual people, but now, businesses have cropped up that are working as middlemen to connect builders with containers. Sea Box offers containers and modified containers for aspiring cargo homebuilders, and while American Mobile Office focuses on work spaces, it also sells unaltered shipping containers.

While there are definitely more builders and contractors willing to work with containers these days, the process can still be tricky, depending on where you live. Most architects and contractors aren't accustomed to working with these materials, so you might want to start by looking for firms that specialize in green construction. If they aren't accustomed to working with containers, they might be able to point you toward someone who is. From initial plans to electrical work, plumbing and structural modifications, things will go much more smoothly if you're dealing with workers who are familiar with container construction. A local general contractor with experience in container homes can also be a big help in the permitting process.

Obtaining permits can be especially tricky if your state has strict building codes. Codes vary quite a bit from state to state, so your best bet is to start by checking out your state's building code Web site and contacting those offices directly. They can walk you through whether your container structure's plans are up to code and, if not, how to get there. Don't know where to start? Reed Construction Data has a handy Building Code Reference Library, where you can find info on your state.

Despite these challenges, shipping container homes are definitely growing in popularity due to their unique look, eco-friendliness and ease of construction.

For more information on green building, check out the links on the next page.

Related Articles


  • American Mobile Office & Container. "Storage and office solutions." (Jan. 25, 2011)
  • The Associated Press. "Unusual house is made out of six shipping containers." Las Vegas Review-Journal. Jan. 17, 2011. (Jan. 25, 2011)
  • Earth Science Australia. "Building a Shipping Container Home." (Jan. 25, 2011)
  • ISBU Shipping Container Homes. "Container Home Myth #2 - Legendary Strength." May 2010. (Jan. 25, 2011)
  • Levenstein, Steve. "How to Subvert Your House: Buying, Designing and Building Cargo Container Homes." WebUrbanist. Aug. 25, 2008. (Feb. 4, 2011)
  • Pilloton, Emily. "Prefab Friday: LOT-EK Container Home Kit (CHK)." Inhabitat. May 4, 2007. (Feb. 4, 2011)
  • Reed Construction Data. "Building Code Reference Library." (Feb. 2, 2011)
  • Sea Box. "Modified Containers." (Feb. 2, 3011)
  • Spot Cool Stuff. "5 Cool Buildings Made of Shipping Containers." (Jan. 25, 2011)
  • Trinity Buoy Wharf. "Container City." (Feb. 4, 2011)
  • Urban Space Management. "Completed Projects: Container City II." 2007. (Jan. 25, 2011)
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