Shipping Container Site Preparation

Plan & Budget

There is a surprising amount of site work that needs to be completed before you deliver your containers to the building site. If you fail to think through and execute on these items early on in the project, you can cause expensive rework later on.

At a high level, the site planning and preparation that you undertake at this stage is intended to ensure that the land is ready for the building site, the building site is ready for the containers, and the containers are ready for your container home design and lifestyle. It’s an important part of the overall project planning you need to use for your container home build.

Many of the below factors interact with one another: change one and several others are affected.  Finding the right balance between competing priorities is a recurring theme in container home planning, and this phase is no different.

Deciding on Location

Before you (or anyone else) lifts a finger with regards to actual work on your property, you need to figure out where you want your container home to sit.  There are quite a few things to consider, several of which you may already have in your mind subconsciously.

We find it’s helpful to actually have them written out so you can be open and honest about the criteria that affect your decision.

Sun and Shade

Depending on your climate, the sun can be both a blessing and a curse.  It can warm you up on a cool morning, but it can also blind you during your morning cup of coffee. 

It can provide a soft, natural light in your interior spaces, but it can also cause solar thermal gain that requires additional air conditioning.

As you start to narrow down the potential building sites on your property, pay attention to how the sun interacts with each area at different times of the day.

Shade from nearby trees and bushes makes a big difference, but you can also be affected by things like reflections from water and how topography affects the elevation of the horizon. Don’t forget that the shade will be reduced as deciduous trees shed their leaves during fall and winter.

You should also think about how the sun behaves at different times of the year.  Depending on your latitude, the sun will move in a different trajectory through the sky in different seasons.

SunCalc is a great tool that allows you to calculate the altitude of the sun over the horizon (in degrees) for any place on earth at any time and date. It can also help you think about things like roof overhangs for doors and windows that protect against the high summer sun but let in the warm winter sun.

Topography and Drainage

The closely related issues of topography and drainage require your attention as well. By topography, we mean the shape of the land, and drainage is how water runs through it. As you’re evaluating project sites, you have to constantly be thinking about both how it would be to live there, but also how it would be to build there.

One of the advantages of containers homes is that they don’t normally require a slab foundation. Due to their inherent strength, they can usually just be supported at their four corners and ‘bridge over’ any terrain changes if you can design and install a level foundation system beneath them. That last part can get expensive though if access is limited to construct the foundation.

Water and drainage are closely related to topography. While quick access to a pond or stream may sound nice, you have to think about the potential for flooding and how high the water could reach.

In addition, you may have seasonal pools that form in low spots on the land or seasonal erosion that occurs during heavy rains and could undermine your structure. By observing the property during a rainstorm, you can get a better idea of how water flows through it and potential measures you may need to take in order to redirect it or contain it.

Water can also serve as a haven for bugs like mosquitos, dangerous animals like snakes, or loud birds. So once again, we recommend spending significant time exploring the land to understand how these things might affect you.

Views

When most people think about the view of their container home, they think about the view out, meaning what they see outside through the various windows and doors. The view of a valley, a distant mountain peak, a peaceful stream, or a downtown skyline can all add value to a container home’s livability. Making sure that you place and orient windows in a way that takes advantages of the views you can capture takes planning, but can really be worth it!

view-through-rollup-door

Example of an amazing canyon view through the glass rollup door in Mike’s California Container House

It’s also important to consider the view in, meaning what another person (neighbors, visitors, or even your own family) would see if they looked inside. This primarily concerns issues of privacy and security. If the neighbors can see into your bedroom, or if your kid’s treehouse looks right into your bathroom, you may have an issue.

Another important view to consider is the view of your home from the street. Changing the orientation of the home in relation to the street can dramatically affect the feel. 

Some people want the long axis of the house to be parallel to the street, while others want it perpendicular.  If you have the room, you can even place the home at an angle, further adding to the geometric design already provided by using containers.

Another option is doing a mirror image flip of your design to switch things up from what you originally intended.

Your ability to have room for these options and determining how suitable they are for both your property and your house design is something you’ll just have to explore.

Setbacks and Restrictions

We spoke at length about zoning and deed restrictions previously, and it’s important to note how these requirements can affect where you build, even within the bounds of your own land.

For instance, in some cases, the permissible height of your structure gets lower the closer you are to a property line. And, you may not be able to built at all within a certain distance of a property line.

Be sure you’re checking with all relevant parties before you commit to a building site so that you can be sure that what you’re planning is compliant.  The later you find out, the more expensive it can get!

Access

The last part of the location criteria we’ll touch on is site access.  A house is worthless if you can’t actually get to it, after all.

Unless you’re going really far off the grid, we’ll assume that your primary access will be via automobile, and thus you’ll need a road. The easiest road to build is short, straight, and flat, but sometimes the land doesn’t offer up that option.

Think about the approach to your potential building site from the main road on the edge of your property. How long will it be, and how much elevation change will it have? Are there any steep slopes that will have to be smoothed, low spots that will have to be crossed, or natural obstacles that will have to be driven around?

What trees and other foliage will need to be removed? As you proceed up the road, will the views build suspense or be unflattering, and will the changing of the seasons make the views better or worse?

Ensure you’re thinking about access not just for your personal car, but for the trucks of building contractors, the massive trailers hailing containers, and heavy equipment like cranes.  Will the road be wide enough, with turns gentle enough for them to use? Will it be flat enough for them to go over without high-centering? Will water and mud make them impassible for heavy vehicles?

Factoring in all of these things may lead you to alter the route of your access road slightly until you can find one that best fits your situation. And remember, you can always consider a second, temporary road built for heavy equipment that will be removed after the house is complete if you can’t come up with one route that does everything well.

There are plenty of ways to handle site access, but you don’t want to be bushwacking new trails the day a contractor shows up because your road is inadequate.

Site work

Under the umbrella of site work, we’re including all the physical work you’ll have to do to get your building site and surrounding area ready.  Depending on the type of dirt moving required, the utilities you need to install, and their direction of approach, it may make sense to do one before the other so you don’t accidentally break anything with heavy equipment.

Marking and Staking

Your first step is marking the corners where your shipping container home will be constructed, as well as the location of all planned and existing utilities, roads, other buildings, etc.

For some of this, you may need to have a utility location company come out and assist you if you know that you have water mains, gas pipelines, and other buried utilities that aren’t affiliated with your project but just transit through your property.

While in some cases, you can use special ground marking paint, using wooden stakes is usually the best choice. You can connect them with string to get a better visual of larger areas.

Once you’ve marked out your building site, you know exactly where you need to work for the following steps.

Clearing and Grubbing 

Next, you’ll need to clear vegetation, debris, and obstacles from the marked areas. This includes removing trees, bushes, roots, rocks, junk, and anything else that would be in your way.

You can pay a contractor to do this, but if you’re looking to save money, it is a job that you probably do yourself. The more heavily vegetated your area is, the more work it will be, and more helpful it will be to have heavy equipment to do the work.

You also need to think about what to do with everything you collect. The vegetation could be cut up and the small pieces used for compost while the big pieces are turned into firewood.  Or you could just pile everything up and burn it, bury it, or haul it away. 

The other debris you’ll most likely need to collect and haul away to a dumpsite.  If you don’t have access to a truck, you could pay someone to pick it up and dump it for you.

Grading, Cut and Fill

With everything cleared out of your way in your building site, you can start to see what you have to work with.  Depending on the foundation you’ve chosen, an uneven building site may be ok as long as a crane could drop the containers onto it from nearby. If you want a slab or perimeter foundation though, you’ll probably want to do some grading and build a level building pad.

Now is also a good time to revisit the drainage planning you did earlier.  In order to control the flow of water, you may need to add swales and berms to protect your container home and redirect water away from it.

You’ll also need to work on your access road.  You’ve hopefully picked a route that is suitable for you and any contractors, per the discussion above, but you still may need some surface prep work to smooth bumps and reduce steep grades.  You may also need to install culverts, bridges, or concrete low-water crossings at any place where water flows.

Road Building

Closely related to the last part of the previous section is road building.  While a road cut through the existing soil may be ok in some locations, it’s often better to top it with gravel, road base, asphalt, or even concrete to make a more durable, all-weather surface.

This is something you might be able to wait on, but note that heavy equipment trucks can really damage a dirt road and cause you to have to come back and regrade it later.

Erosion Control

The previous few steps have involved both vegetation clearing and dirt-moving, which are prime conditions for erosion to start occurring.  

Erosion, usually caused by rain, can lead to sedimentation build-up in ponds and streams, unwanted sediment deposits on neighboring properties, and removal of high-quality topsoil in the areas you cleared.

It may be helpful to plant an appropriate species of vegetation near the edge of where you cleared, but you’ll have to leave the specifically cleared areas bare in preparation for later construction activities.

Therefore, you need to expl0re temporary erosion control devices like wattles, blankets, and silt fences. These products won’t completely stop erosion, but they’ll keep it contained during the construction phase.

Depending on your location, some of these options may be mandated by law as part of a Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP) or similarly required planning document. Your state or country’s Environmental Quality office should have more helpful information.

Fencing and Security

At the point, your project is getting further along, and you’ve likely started to spend some money.  You may even have tools and equipment you’d like to leave on-site when you aren’t working.

Our discussion of container locks and security is a good read on some of the ways to secure your container and the area around it. You probably don’t have your containers on-site though, so not all of the suggestions in that article apply at this stage.

For now, we’d recommend considering a fence around the property.  If you hope to build one anyway, now is a great time.  Clearing a fence line while you have the equipment on-site for clearing the building site will help you save money.

If a fence doesn’t make economic sense, a security camera or lighting may be satisfactory.  Your needs really depend on what you have to protect and the area that your property is in.

Planning for and Installing Utilities

Getting utilities to your site is paramount not only for allowing you to live in your container home, but also to make building it much easier. Without utilities, you’ll be forced to use things like generators, water tanks, and port-a-potties.

While you’ll typically need to contact each company individually, tools like In My Area help to show you which companies (across multiple types of utilities) service your location.

One thing to check is if any of the utilities have minimum monthly charges. If so, we’d recommend waiting to do the hookup until you’re ready to start construction. Doing it early will just mean paying the minimum bill regardless of if you actually use it.

Depending on where you’re at, some utilities may be deregulated, effectively monopolized by one company, or government-controlled. If you do have a choice as a consumer between multiple companies that provide the same utility service, be sure to do some research to find out which works best for your situation. 

You can also check if they have any incentives or rebates for energy efficiency that you could get with just a few tweaks to your design. Utilities sometimes give you a financial incentive to use better insulation and windows, energy-efficient appliances, etc. Be sure to ask!

Electricity

The first and arguably most important utility is electricity. You’ll need to contact your local electrical company or cooperative to find out the process for installing an electric meter and getting electricity hooked up. 

If you already have power lines on the main road near your property, you should be able to get electrical service installed. The question of how much it costs will depend on things like if they need to install a new transformer, how far (and difficult) of a run it will be, and if it will be run underground or on poles. 

Usually, the company will provide a set distance of wire and poles/trenching, then you’ll have to pay for additional distance over that amount. They should be able to give you an estimate. Understand that in many cases, they are giving you a discount on their actual cost to install it with the understanding that they’ll make a profit on you over time from your monthly service fee.

Due to that, another factor that you may encounter is the electrical company’s desire to see some kind of progress in your build before they commit to extending electrical service to your site. If they feel less than secure about you ever finishing your container home and becoming a good customer, they could have reservations on paying for the install.  Or they may allow you to pay for a larger share yourself to reduce that risk.  Each company is different, so be sure to find out what those in your area require.

Understand that there can be permits and approvals required, especially with additional overhead poles which can impact neighbors. You don’t necessarily need to start the install right away per our previous point about minimum charges, but you should contact them as soon as possible to understand the process and timeline involved. 

As part of the process, you’ll likely want to get temporary power installed first, which will provide you with a few electrical circuits. It should be enough to use for construction, but too few for the entire house.  Later after the house is finished, the company will come back and get your permanent service installed.

If commercial electric service isn’t economical, you may find that living off the grid with a generator, wind turbine, or solar panels is a better choice than paying the electrical company to extend their service to you.

Gas

Gas is great for space heating, stoves, and water heaters and typically includes natural gas or the slightly less popular option, propane.  If you’re in the city, you may have access to a natural gas line that you can tap into with a meter, similar to how electrical service is provided.

In more rural areas, you can usually purchase or lease a large tank that holds gas and can serve your needs for months at a time.

It’s best to find out the costs of gas in your area so you can make informed choices about the types of appliances you want to use in your house. In general, if gas is available though, it’s the most economical and easiest to use option.

Sewer and Septic

If your property offers access to nearby sewer lines, you’ll need to find out the cost and process of tying in. For more rural areas, a septic system is likely your only option.

The upfront cost to install a septic system will usually be much higher than a sewer hookup, but they cost almost nothing to use and operate after installation compared to the monthly fee associated with your sewer connection.

Most septic systems will have a buried tank or tanks plus a buried line with leach pipes or sprinklers.  Work with your installer to come up with a good location for this equipment that won’t inconvenience future construction activities or livability.

Telecommunications

While some people building shipping container houses in rural areas are looking to get away from it all, most people enjoy having at least some connectivity.  The options available can vary dramatically by location.

In the city, you may have several options including cable, DSL, and fiber that combine television, internet, and even phone service into one bill. Outside of the city, you may have to use satellite dishes, slower speed cable/DSL connections, or even point-to-point terrestrial radio frequency technology to get these services.

If you have access to multiple options, make sure you call around and compare prices and do some haggling.  We’d also recommend speaking with neighbors to find out what solution they use and how they like it.

Having telecommunication access early on in the process can be helpful for tying in security camera monitoring, for instance, and making quick Google searches or online shopping possible right from the building site!

Water

Last but not least is water. In the United States, the same water you bath with is also the water your drink, while in other countries, you’ll have to plan on purchasing potable bottled water separately.

Either way, all but the most rural locations usually offer access to a water supply.  If you can’t get reasonably priced access, you’ll either have to pay to drill a well or pay to have water trucked in and stored onsite in a tank.

Both of these options have some higher upfront costs but can work out to be fairly reasonable if you plan on owning your container home for years to come.

Summary

This comprehensive discussion of necessary site preparation activities should be an important step in the process of designing and building a container home. Applying attention here will save you money and help turn a good home into a great home.

Let us know how you navigated some of these activities and discussions in the comments below.

Cheat Sheet:

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