As a general rule of thumb, labor for a traditional house accounts for about 30% of the total cost (although this can vary dramatically depending on both design complexity and geographic location). Tools used by professional construction estimators, like RS Means, can give more accurate numbers but they aren’t necessary for our purposes in this article.
With shipping container homes, the labor cost percentage could be even higher due to lower materials costs (reducing the total cost) coupled with the potential for increased labor costs due to some of the different contractors required.
This article will help you identify where money is typically spent on labor when constructing a shipping container home and where you can reduce these costs by doing the work yourself.
With traditional home construction, some of the largest labor expenses include those for architects, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, laborers, and a construction foreman.
Some of these same labor costs are also applicable for shipping container home construction. But, there are other types of labor costs that could be required that aren’t generally required when building a traditional home, such as spray foam specialists.
When looking at the hourly rates below, it’s important to consider not just the hourly fee, but also the total amount of time needed. This point seems simplistic, but it’s often neglected.
For instance, while unskilled laborers have one of the lowest hourly fees, they generally end up being one of the most expensive costs overall because of the number of hours they work.
With that said, let’s take a look at some of the major labor expenses for shipping container home construction.
General laborers have a low hourly fee, but their total cost is generally very high because of the number of hours worked. This work typically includes preparing sites, assisting specialized contractors, cleaning, digging and unloading building materials.
In many cases, the work they do could be done by yourself, with little or no training or experience. Consider doing this type of work yourself whenever possible to reduce the overall cost of your container home.
A foreman is the person who is responsible for the overall project, and is basically a project manager. They manage the budget, sub-contractors, and quality, in addition to organizing and coordinating the build. When you hire a builder for your container home, you are primarily hiring this position. Depending on the builder, they may hire subcontractors for some or all of the actual construction work.
If you’re planning on constructing your own shipping container home, then, by default, you will likely be acting as the foreman. Even if you are subcontracting the majority of work, owner/builders still generally act as their own foreman.
This can save a significant sum of money as the foreman is one of the most expensive people involved in the project. However, this job is also very important and requires a lot of coordination.
There are still some circumstances where hiring an experienced foreman would be beneficial, especially with a complex build. However, if you do have previous experience and enough time, it’s a great way to reduce labor costs.
Architects are required for nearly every construction project, not just shipping container homes. They prepare the drawings of your project and ensure they are in compliance with local codes and regulations. This is why it’s important to hire an architect that is licensed and has experience working in your area.
Architects sometimes work on a percentage of the total cost of construction, but otherwise, have a high hourly fee. When hiring an architectural firm, only some of the work will be done by an actual architect, and the remainder can be done by a lower paid draftsman. Make sure this factored into your bill.
If you are fortunate enough to have either pre-approved plans or are building outside of a zoned area, then you may not need an architect, which will save you a considerable amount of money.
Whether you need a structural engineer or not will depend on both your local zoning requirements and how extensively you plan on modifying your containers.
If you are planning to heavily modify the containers by cutting out large sections of steel, then you will almost certainly require the input of a structural engineer, who will be able to advise you on the structural implications of your modifications and any enhancements needed to account for what you’ve removed. They can also help with the design of your foundation to account for local conditions like soil type and frost depth.
The cost of hiring a structural engineer will be one of the most expensive on a per hour basis, and the complexity of your project will dictate how many hours are needed.
Most urban and suburban areas throughout the world require a qualified electrician to certify the electrical work. Generally, they would be the ones completing the work as well. A lot of DIYers are a bit intimidated by electrical work, so unless you have experience with electrical projects, you’ll probably need to pay an electrician, even if you live in a rural area outside of code requirements.
Similar to the section above on electricians, whether you legally need a licensed plumber to carry out plumbing work varies by location. In some cases, you are allowed to complete the plumbing work yourself and then have an inspector approve it. You’ll have to check on the rules for your area.
If it’s allowable, doing your own plumbing can be a great way to save money.
If you are planning to keep the containers unmodified or to purchase them pre-modified, then you won’t need to hire a welder/fabricator. However, almost everyone does some modifications and cuts into their containers, even if it’s just for the doors and windows.
If you are skilled in this area and have access to some of the equipment, this is definitely one of the labor costs you can reduce by doing the work yourself.
Even if you’re constructing your own shipping container home, some labor costs are pretty much inescapable.
After reading the section above, you should have a pretty good idea of labor costs and which types of labor are going to cost you the most amount of money. A few calls to professionals in your area can give you an idea of the costs.
For each job/role you should examine these requirements, which may vary based on your geographic location:
If you feel you have the resources and qualifications for each of these four requirements, then you should certainly consider taking on that job/role.
If you live in a more rural area away from the regulations of urban governments, then you could potentially avoid having to most of the professionals on this list. If you do all the work yourself, you would escape a lot of labor costs. However, if you’re doing significant stacking and modification of containers, even in a rural area, a structural engineer is still a good idea.
One word of caution, though, is to make sure to overestimate the time required for a particular role/task, especially if you’re a beginner and haven’t done it before. Time estimates found online for a job will likely be for professionals who do this every day. Therefore, you will likely need more time than those estimates to get the job done, which may make the decision to do something yourself less beneficial. However, don’t forget to factor in the non-monetary satisfaction of learning a new skills and making something with your own two hands!
It’s important to know about the different types of labor costs and which are the most expensive when planning to build your shipping container home. Knowing this will help you decide which of the tasks that you will be willing to tackle yourself to save money on the project.
Remember, when any permits are required, it’s very likely you will need to hire a professional to get your permit. Always double-check this before you start any work!
Which tasks will you try to do yourself on your shipping container home? Let us know in the comments below!
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