Pros and Cons of Shipping Container Homes

So many clients and friends ask me about the seemingly perfect idea of container homes. You know: homes that use shipping containers as their structure and enclosure. Until now, I couldn't really offer an opinion except to say, "Yeah! Those DO seem perfect in every way." 

Well, I finally did some research. My sister, having no idea I was writing this article, sent me a video. If you have ten minutes, check it out. It's quite astounding what this architect was able to do for ONLY $119 per square foot. (£1000 per square meter.) WHAT?! That's the cost of low-income housing in America!

But... This homeowner, Patrick Bradley, is an architect. He probably liked spending inordinate amounts of time figuring out the most effective and beautiful details. Is a shipping container home the right choice for a normal homeowner?

The Pros & Cons of Shipping Container Homes

Pros

Sustainability. By reusing old shipping containers, you're giving a huge box of metal a brand new life.

Cost. Shipping container homes can be affordable. Based on the case studies I've read, if you keep the design VERY simple, you'll save some money compared to normal construction. Many container homes are comprised of a simple foundation, one or two containers, a thick layer of paint, and some insulation. These are the bargain buildings.

Security. If you're like this guy and are thinking of a container for your vacation home, it can provide a superior level of security. The walls are almost impenetrable and you can keep the metal doors!

Weather Resistance. These containers are built to withstand weather on the high seas. Standing alone, it can handle 100 mph winds. Attached to the ground it can handle 175 mph. This thing can withstand hurricanes, tornados, or earthquakes. They're perfect for storm shelters.

Movability. If you bolt (rather than weld) your container to the ground, you can move it! Obviously this is only possible with homes where each separate container is relatively intact.

Architectural Statement. Shipping containers alone are pretty ugly. But seeing them repurposed as homes can be strikingly beautiful. If nothing else, they certainly draw people's attention. (Don't worry, I'll show you some gorgeous container homes in my next article.)

Cons

Un-Sustainability. Some homeowners opt for brand new containers rather than reusing older ones. This means that containers are being manufactured to be "reused" as homes. It has way more metal than normal home requires and it's probably structurally reinforced in all the wrong places. That's some serious waste.

Cost. Container homes can get expensive quickly. If you want any unusual finishes or a building that resembles a traditional home, you're not going to save much money. THE CONTAINER ONLY PROVIDES THE STRUCTURE. You still need a foundation, interior walls and finishes, structural reinforcing where there are holes in the container, and a roof to keep the sun off the metal.... You might save some money if you DIY like this guy. But even he admits that shipping containers aren't all they're cracked up to be.

Building Codes. Local building departments will be wary of this project. It's unique, you can't blame them! It will likely require extensive communication with your building officials as well as extensive documentation of the proposed plan.

Restrictive Sizing. The most popular containers are only 8' (2.43m) wide. They are 20' (6.06m) or 40' (12.19m) long. You can buy a standard height cube of 8'-6" (2.39m) or "high cube" of 9'-6" (2.69m) on the inside. NOT a lot of options for sizing. Most designers should find these restrictions a fun exercise in modular design. But make no mistake, it will be challenging for the designer to come up with a floor plan that fulfills the homeowner's program like a normal house could. 

Restrictive Structure. Containers are structurally supported by their long sides. Meaning, if you want to cut into that, you have to add structure elsewhere. All of a sudden construction is getting more cumbersome.

Metal Walls Don't Like Cold... or Hot. Insulation is a huge factor when you have metal walls. Additionally, very cold climates make the walls cry. Literally, they form condensation! Many container homes build a substructure inside the container to hold insulation as well as utilities (plumbing, electric, gas). This is getting more expensive by the bullet point...

Scarcity of Builders. Have you ever tried to find a smart, capable, trustworthy contractor for a normal home? It's tough and time consuming. Now imagine doing that for a very unusual type of construction. THAT's gonna be a huge pain in the A!

You could always use specialty builders like Tim Steele Design. I don't think it's cheap but it will be quick and easy. (This video is only 3 minutes long and it's SUPER cool.)

Conclusion

I believe these cubes could serve incredible second lives as disaster relief housing, storm shelters, or backyard studios. However, it seems to me that the energy, time, and money required to create a normal sized home far outweighs the benefits. Still don't believe me, take it from a designer with a dad in the container business.

OR if you're still interested in a shipping container home, check out the blog section of Container Home Plans for many helpful articles. And stay tuned for our next article on Beautiful Container Homes!