Seven Myths About Shipping Container Homes Debunked

Fundamentals

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If you’ve been interested in shipping container homes for any length of time, you have probably noticed that there is a tremendous amount of information online.  Unfortunately, not all of that information is helpful or even factual, despite what are probably good intentions from the people who write it.

We’ve spotted and been asked about a variety of topics that have this information at its root, and we’ve seen several themes emerge.  In this article, we’re calling those themes we’ve identified “myths”, as they meet the dictionary definition: a widely held but false belief or idea.

Join us as we go through all seven myths we’ve identified and explain why they are false.

Myth 1: You Should ALWAYS Use Spray Foam Insulation

Spray foam insulation is definitely the most popular option for shipping container insulation.  In fact, we recommend closed-cell spray polyurethane foam (ccSPF) for most people and circumstances.

The popularity of ccSPF is primarily due to two reasons:

  1. It has a very high R-value per inch, effectively giving you more insulation with less material (and therefore requiring less interior space)
  2. It performs double duty as a vapor retarder

Due to its ability to also serve as a vapor retarder, there is a myth that it is the ONLY type of insulation that should be used with container construction.  However, this is FALSE.

Spray Foam Insulation

To begin with, there are a multitude of insulation options, all of which have various pros and cons (Refer to our article on techniques to insulate your home for additional ideas).  However, to pick the right insulation, you need to understand both your design and your climate.

For instance, if you’re planning to insulate the OUTSIDE of your shipping container, you have plenty of space to work with, and a high R-value per inch isn’t as important.  Also, the benefit of the built-in vapor retarder isn’t as useful, because you don’t need to be as concerned with keeping conditioned air away from the container’s corrugated walls.

Or, if you’re not building in an area where it never gets cold, condensation is less of a concern for you meaning that the vapor retarding benefits are again not as useful.  Check out our condensation article for more information.

To sum it up, although we do prefer ccSPF insulation for the majority of container homes, it isn’t always necessary and worth the added expense.

Myth 2: All Shipping Container Homes Are Eco-Friendly

Shipping containers are a popular building medium these days for a variety of reasons.  One is that it is commonly thought that all shipping container homes are Eco-friendly.  However, this is FALSE.

While the exact criteria of what exactly constitutes being ‘green’, ‘sustainable’, or ‘eco-friendly’ is hard to pin down, we do know that some container homes clearly are not tipping the scale in the right direction.

Why not? It starts off with the actual containers themselves.  Newer containers (One-trip containers) are necessary and/or desirable for certain situations, but they are not as eco-friendly as used shipping containers. If you repurpose a new container into a home, the global economy still needs high-quality containers for ocean shipping, and another new one has to be created to replace it.

To be clear, it isn’t terrible to use a new container.  After all, we use new things all the time in our everyday life.  But, don’t think that using a new container is doing a huge favor to mother nature.

We’ve shared that one of the best features of building with used shipping containers is the good that comes from repurposing.  Something that is otherwise left to rust until it becomes unusable, or melted into new steel at a considerable cost of energy and emissions, can instead be used for housing.  That benefit really doesn’t make sense when you’re talking about new or one-trip containers.

There are a number of container construction benefits that apply equally to both new and used containers, and many of them are related to ecological and environmental issues.  However, these benefits aren’t necessarily universal, and they also can’t negate the problems presented by using new containers.

Therefore, if a primary reason for your interested in constructing a shipping container home is eco-friendliness, you should plan to build with used containers.

Myth 3: Shipping Containers Can Be Buried As-Is

We’re often contacted by people wanting to bury shipping containers to create an underground home for either possible energy savings or security reasons.

Some have been inspired by Steve Rees, who built the first underground shipping container home in California, which we previously wrote about here.

If you’ve watched the video above, you can see that it is certainly possible to build an underground bunker out of shipping containers.  And some people are under the impression you can do this with regular shipping containers, fresh off the truck.  However, that is FALSE.

Shipping containers are designed to be incredibly strong, however, only when used in certain ways.  Specifically, they are intended to be stacked directly on top of one another, which transfers the weight through their corner posts.  Additionally, they are designed to have all the supported load placed on the floor.

However, when you bury shipping containers, weight is applied onto both the roof and side walls from the soil/earth surrounding the containers.  While the weight above the roof makes logical sense, many people are surprised to learn that a large amount of force can be exerted horizontally by soil.  It’s the reason why the ditches beside roads are sloped and not vertical (and why it’s hard to pull a driven stake back out of the ground!)

Containers are not designed to support substantial forces in these areas and you’ll need additional structural enhancements to bury your container.  If you watch the video above closely, you’ll not that Steve did perform several modifications to his containers.

Besides the structural issues we’ve described above, another factor to consider is corrosion.

So, you certainly can build a bunker using shipping containers, but there are some large caveats and restrictions.  You can quickly get into a situation in which you would have been better off starting with a different type of construction, so we generally recommend people don’t pursue containers as a way to build underground.

Myth 4: Shipping Container Homes Are Too Hot To Live In

Before the idea to use them as houses was originated, shipping containers were (and continue to be) used to store various types of cargo both at sea and as temporary storage on land.  Anyone who has worked around them in the warmer times of year has felt the incredible heat inside when you open the doors.  It’s not unreasonable for these same people to think that living inside one would be next to impossible, given the conditions they personally face when moving goods in and out.  However, this is FALSE.

Like almost any metal building, shipping containers get hot when it’s warm and/or in direct sunlight.  For more detail as to why, our article on heat transfer in containers spells out the technical reasons.  However, the addition of insulation provides a way to separate the building envelope from the temperature-controlled space inside.

To be clear, we aren’t saying that shipping containers never get hot.  We’re saying that despite them getting hot on the outside, with air conditioning and insulation, they can remain cool on the inside.

It’s also important to note that getting hot on the outside is something that can be controlled to some degree with shade, cool roof coatings, and other techniques.

Myth 5: Shipping Container Home Construction Is Complex

After seeing shipping container homes like this, you may be left with the idea that building your own shipping container home is complex and shouldn’t be attempted by anyone other than a professional.  However, this is FALSE.

Clearly, the complexity depends on what you’re attempting to build.  It is not advisable to attempt to build a mansion shipping container home without any experience.  However, we’ve seen numerous examples of beginners building their own simple shipping container home with some DIY skills but no previous homebuilding experience.

Just like any type of construction technique, there are simple and complex design.  However, one of the benefits of container construction is that you start off with a structurally sound and weatherproof roof, walls, and floor, as Shanti highlighted in our interview about her attraction to container homes.  In a traditionally-constructed home, these components are some of the most important (and intimidating) to build.  In a container home, you can skip past them as they are already included, making the project much simpler.

If you’re looking to build your own shipping container home and don’t have much experience, we definitely recommend that you start small and uncomplicated.  Perhaps you could begin with a single story home in a simple rectangular layout.  But it is doable, as many people have demonstrated in our Case Studies.

As your design starts to include things like joining and stacking containers, the experience and expertise of professional starts to become more important.  Oftentimes, your local government is going to want a professional’s involvement in at least the design phase in order to get the necessary approvals (although you can still have a sigficant role in the construction activities afterwards).

Myth 6: Shipping Container Homes Are For Rich People

If you’ve followed the shipping container home trend for any length of time, you have probably seen homes like this one:

Shipping containers attract people for a variety of reasons.  Given that one of the main ones is aesthetics, it’s understandable that even wealthy people would be interested too.  This leads to incredible container homes that are fun to look at, but probably not attainable for a lot of people.

However, it is fair to say container homes are exclusively for the wealthy?  No, this is FALSE.

In fact, if you look back far enough, you will see that the shipping container home movement was started by people looking for an affordable solution to the housing crisis. More and more people were being priced out of the housing market, and they wanted an affordable way to build and live in their own home without having a huge amount of debt.

So, shipping containers were used as a replacement for more traditional building materials since this reduced the cost of the home significantly.

Since that time, hundreds of affordable shipping container homes have been built including many for less than $50,000.

Myth 7: All Shipping Container Homes Are Cheap

Given that we just debunked the myth that container homes are only for the rich, it may seem odd that we’re now talking about container home always being cheap.  However, the two positions exist independently of each other, and we hear about both.

You may have read our article about the first shipping container home ever built. The shipping container home movement was created by people looking to use alternative building materials to reduce costs.  As housing prices continue to rise, it’s natural that people seek ways to own a home without burdening themselves with lifelong debt.

While Myth #6 talked about container homes being the exclusive domain of the rich, there is a separate group of people who believe that all container homes are cheap.  However, this is FALSE.

We’ve already shown examples in this article of multi-million dollar shipping container homes.  Remember containers are only the building blocks, you’re free to actually build anything you like.  Whether that’s a small weekend cabin or a huge container-based office is up to you.

And even talking independently of size, you can also control the cost per square foot of your build by varying the level of luxuriousness in the interior finishes (think twice about the 24K-plated bathroom faucets).

All that is to say that container homes can have a huge variety in the costs, most of which is driven by the desires of the owner.  However, it is true that the majority of container homes are relatively cheap when compared to traditional construction methods.

Summary

We hope this article has shed some light on the myths and facts about shipping container home construction. Remember that just like any construction method, use common sense and logical thinking and always start with a good plan.

Let us know in the comments below what you think about some of the myths we’ve discussed.

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