Seven Important Stages of Shipping Container Construction

Plan & Budget

7 Most Important Stages of Building Your Shipping Container Home Blog Cover

While no stage of shipping container home construction should be taken lightly, certain stages are definitely more important than others.

These ‘key stages’ of construction should be carried out carefully. They have the capability to make or break your entire build.

Knowing these key stages also helps you prioritize where you should spend your time and budget. There is no sense in spending most of your budget on external cladding and having to cut back on key aspects such as insulation and rust prevention.

With that in mind, this article provides an overview of the 7 most important stages of building a shipping container home.

Installing Insulation

Spray Foam Insulation Shipping ContainerThe insulation of a shipping container home can make or break the entire build.

Get it right and you will have a home that can maintain a comfortable temperature all year round. It will also be cheaper to operate and reduce your energy bills.

However, if you get your insulation wrong, your home will not be energy efficient, you’ll lose heat easily and find excessive moisture inside the home. You will also have expensive energy bills as you will spend more on AC in the summer and heating in the winter.

Regardless of the type of insulation you decide to install, you need to make sure it is installed correctly.

With spray foam insulation this means ensuring a vapor barrier is created.

If you’re using panel insulation this means fitting them with the foil the correct way around.

You should also make sure you insulate the correct parts of the shipping container. A lot of people don’t insulate underneath the shipping container, however we recommend you do.

It isn’t just fitting the insulation though; it’s making sure you choose the right type of insulation to use in the first place.

The type of insulation you use will depend on the climate you live in and also your budget.

For instance, if you live in a cold climate you will want to look at using spray foam insulation. Whereas in a dry, mild climate you could use panel insulation.

If you’re looking for more guidance on insulation, read this and this.

Choosing Shipping Containers

Choosing your shipping containers is one of the most important stages of your shipping container home build.

Failure to get the appropriate shipping containers can lead to issues such as limited ceiling height, rust and corrosion.

If you’re buying new, or one-trip, containers then you only need to focus on getting the right type of shipping containers.

The right type of shipping container to buy will clearly depend on your plan and what you want to build. As a general rule though we recommend building with high cube shipping containers.

This gives you more ceiling height and also provides additional space for insulation to be fitted underneath the floor.

If you’re buying used shipping containers you also need to pay attention to their physical condition.  An in-person inspection is key; don’t rely solely on an online description.

When inspecting the containers, you should pay special attention to any leaks, areas of corrosion and check for any signs of dampness or mold.

We have previously published a detailed checklist in our complete guide to buying shipping containers. You should read that if you’re looking for more detailed information.

Shipping Container

Zoning & Permits

We wouldn’t be talking about shipping container home construction properly if we didn’t make reference to zoning and building permits.

Obviously, this one stage alone can completely stop a build before it even gets started.

While many regional planning departments are starting to warm to the idea of shipping container homes, there unfortunately are still those that aren’t familiar with them.

As you might expect, getting a permit in areas familiar with shipping container homes is far easier than those areas with no previous builds. Luckily, even areas with reputations of being some of the most difficult are starting to see container homes.

We recommend that before you purchase any land, you approach your local planning department and see how responsive they are to the idea of a shipping container home build. Better yet, take a look around the local area to see if any cargo homes or other unorthodox builds have already been built.

You don’t want to be this person. Robert Fidler built his home, at the cost of $1.5 million, without a permit and was forced to pull the building down.

Make sure you have all the necessary approvals in writing before you start.

Planning Your Build

While planning isn’t necessarily the most exciting part of your build, it is definitely one of the most important.

Without a well thought out, realistic plan your build is already off to a bad start.

When people decide to build their own home, they tend to get excited and want to start building as soon as possible. While the excitement of seeing your shipping containers arrive on-site is unrivaled, we suggest that you take your time on this important step.  Afterall, as they say, “A failure to plan is a plan to fail.”

It’s well known in construction circles that any mistakes on your plans are much more expensive to fix once you’ve started building.

The cheapest and most effective way to build is to take your time and plan properly BEFORE you build, making sure you catch any potential problems early.

Just realized that your bathroom is too small on your design? It’s much easier to move a wall on a piece of paper than on an actual house!

When planning your build, some of the key things to think about are: budget, design, zoning, and project timeline.

If you’re looking for more information, make sure to read our article on how to plan your build.

Setting a Realistic Budget

In our anecdotal experience, the single biggest reason that a shipping container home build fails is a lack of money. The majority of the time, this difficulty could have been avoided if a solid plan and budget had been put in place before the build had started.

As previously mentioned, you need a bulletproof plan before you start your build. A huge part of the plan is setting a realistic budget, and then designing your home around this budget.

For instance, if you’re looking to build a large family home but have a small budget, you would want to consider building with used shipping containers to keep the costs low. Make sure to plan and budget for only what you need and later on you can spend money on luxuries and add-ons.

While this is obvious, it’s worth stating, as it’s very easy to get carried away during the planning phase. Before you know it, you’ve committed to spending far too much money.

You should also make sure that you put about 20% of your overall budget into a contingency allowance. Even with the best plan, unexpected things can and will occur during your build. A couple of relevant quotes here are, “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst,” and “Better to have it and not need it, then need it and not have it.”

So if your budget is $50,000, you should plan to spend $40,000 and place $10,000 into your contingency fund.  If, after completion, you still have the contingency funds left over, great!  Use them for landscaping, cladding, high-quality appliances, or nicer furnishings.  Maybe a carport or an elevated deck.  There are always things you can add if you have extra, but it’s harder to scale back when you’re in the middle of the build.

Site Preparation

With self-builders in particular, site preparation is often an overlooked step because it doesn’t feel productive and is something that can be done, as and when it’s needed.

We recommend that you don’t fall into this trap.

Site preparation involves a lot of boring, but crucial tasks. For instance, clearing off debris and leveling the site. Marking out where your foundations will be dug.

It also entails making sure there is suitable access to your land. If you’re building on a new piece of land, chances are there won’t be a road to the building site. So you need to make sure there is access from the nearest road so the containers and other supplies can be delivered.  And remember, you need to think of access not in terms of your personal vehicle, but access for the large truck and trailer that will carry in your containers.  Sharp turns, steep inclines, creek crossings, low hanging tree branches, and loose soil should all be dealt with ahead of time to permit easy access.  Additionally, the trucks will need room to maneuver and turn around after delivery.

While each of these tasks might not sound significant on their own, added up they equal a lot of work. Completing all these tasks before any major construction takes place will help make your build much smoother.

If you’re looking to save money, many of the site preparation tasks can be done yourself.

Rust Treatment and Prevention

Rusty Shipping ContainersRegardless of the material you choose to build your house with, tradeoffs and weaknesses are a fact of life. For instance, wooden homes face decay and termite infestation. Concrete homes have to deal with cracking, settling, and crumbling. With shipping container homes, the primary issues are rust and corrosion.

Shipping containers are built out of Corten steel and coated with anti-corrosive paint when new.

During the construction, when you are cutting and modifying the containers, you will likely strip away some of the protective paint. This can leave your shipping containers exposed to the elements.

This is why it’s crucial you treat your shipping containers for corrosion during the build and cover any bare metal.

Even after you’ve finished your build and moved in, you still need to keep an eye out for rust and corrosion.

It’s much easier, and cheaper, to treat rust sooner rather than later.  Left unchecked, it can create both aesthetic and structural issues that are difficult to repair.  The time to fix damage is before you start modifications, but it’s good to stay vigilant for new corrosion issues on an ongoing basis.

Once every few months, you should inspect your shipping containers. Read our guide on identifying, preventing and treating rust and corrosion here.


We hope this article has helped show you some of the key steps in the process of building a container home.

By knowing these crucial stages, you’ll know where to focus your time and effort and ensure a successful build. Get them right and you dramatically increase the likelihood of a successful build.

Tell us what you think the most important stage of a shipping container home build is in the comments below!

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