The only thing better than seeing pictures of stunning container homes is getting a chance to actually hear from people that have built them. So we thought doing both at the same time was a great idea!
Once people have a good understanding of container home fundamentals, their next question is usually, “How can I get started building a shipping container house.” So, we asked real shipping container homeowners what they wish they had known at the beginning of their project.
This helped us uncover the setbacks, oversights, and frustrations that came up on their projects as well as getting to hear about the choices they were thankful to have made.
The responses we received vary from technical to practical to emotional, but they all provide great information for anyone interested in or considering shipping containers as a housing option.
Matt Mooney, a principal at Corgan, based in Texas, decided to use shipping containers for his next home. More than fourteen containers were used in total to construct this huge 3,700 square foot home.
It has three bedrooms, 3.5 bathrooms and an outdoor swimming pool to name but a few of the features!
As far as what I wish I would have known, it is very hard to say. I have wanted to build one for almost 25 years. I have been thinking about and studying it for a long time. We (thankfully) had very few surprises. If I had to pick something, I would say that the actual process of buying and shipping one trip containers from Dolphin Containers in Shanghai was an interesting experience. We had to learn how to navigate the used container market here in the region before we decided to go with one trip containers. Other than that, I enjoyed every minute of the experience of building this thing.
Rick is another owner who combined an incredible property with the functional beauty of containers. His two-story container house on two scenic acres is just a few steps from amazing kayaking on the Loxahatchee River. And even if it wasn’t on a river, the house’s three containers form an architecturally appealing design that would look great anywhere. He had to work closely with his local government to get building code approvals and the result was clearly worth it.
The county government initially said no to my idea for a container home for a variety of reasons that were somewhat arguable. I countered to them with the idea of building the house with traditional construction but designed to look exactly like a container home. This helped to force us to examine where exactly the issues lied. Eventually, we were able to compromise on several of the design aspects and were given our building permit.
A few of the concessions we made were incorporating a more modern look, painting the exterior white, adding sliding doors to the ends of the containers, and using impact glass in lieu of storm shutters.
Brenda Kelly from iqcontainerhomes had been dreaming of living in a storage container home since she was 13. She has been modeling and creating designs for container houses for as long as she can remember!
In answer to your question, I thoroughly researched prior to embarking on my first container home so I’m not sure there’s anything I wish I knew that I didn’t. However, this was a non-consented model that, due to its size, didn’t require council permission.
For building a larger home that requires council consent, I would wish to know more about the application process for a building permit!
Hope that helps!
One look at Saffy and Dom’s stunning container home and you’re probably convinced it was an expensive, professional build. However, you’ll be pleased to know it was an affordable, do-it-yourself project for this enterprising husband and wife team. Their innovative use of plywood sheathing with intentional gaps between sheets really created a unique interior look for their home. The fun wraparound deck proves their great eye for design was useful outdoors as well.
I think using huge windows and making clever use of the outside space was key for us. It makes the container feel much more spacious than it is. Think carefully about heating/cooling/insulation, it is a large metal box at the end of the day and at least in the Australian climate, this is a really important factor.
The Nomad Living Guesthouse was designed and built in 2013 by Arnold Aarssen from Studio ArTe. It is based in the Algarve region of Portugal. Only one 40-foot shipping container was used, but the over 300 square feet of living space feels much larger thanks to the huge windows and sliding glass doors.
I wish I knew how to insulate the shipping container. We ended up soldering elements on the walls and then sprayed them with a foam anti-fire insulation.
Also I wanted to know how to keep the sun off the roof; in the end, we did this by double ventilating the roof.
Finally, how could we utilize passive solar energy for the container. We did this by placing large windows in the container facing south west.
Adele and her partner built two small container homes behind their main house to form an oasis in the middle of Atlanta. Presently used for short term rentals, the cargo houses would also make great mother-in-law suites. Adele worked with a professional builder to get her homes completed after being inspired to use shipping containers due to their eco-friendliness.
We really only encountered two issues during the project. The first was some water leakage above the windows and doors that came in after a downpour. This was remedied by welding on small roof overhangs.
The second issue was finding the units too airtight, which we addressed by adding adjustable vents under the floating beds. We have not noticed any loss of heating or cooling, as a result — the containers are really well insulated.
Robyn Volker, from New York, wanted a small country house. She got in touch with Tim Steele from timsteeledesign.com who designed a small but spacious home from three converted containers.
The home is built into the hillside to take advantage of the natural terrain. Two 40-foot containers are spread 4 feet apart to create around 800 square feet of open plan living!
The two larger containers are propped up using a 20-foot container which is used for storage.
Remember that my house was started way ahead of the curve in 2009, so there was a lot that was unknown. What I wish I had known is that building a house from shipping containers cost me a similar amount as a stick built house.
A lot of people build container homes as weekend escapes that they’ll share with family and rent to the public. If you have access to a great piece of property like Ryann, a storage container house makes a great launchpad for outdoor adventures. Her container home build was a family affair, and her thoughts on the project overall, while not as technical as some of the other responses, are just as insightful.
We originally used fiberglass batt insulation, which we later learned can contribute to condensation problems in cold environments like ours. Sure enough, we got water damage in the bathroom and kitchen from condensation.
I ended up having to take down the MDF beadboard ceiling in the bathroom, remove the old insulation and replace it with closed-cell spray polyurethane foam, and finally use acrylic beadboard to replace the ceiling finish. We also installed another, high powered exhaust fan to help with ventilation.
The Manifesto House is by far one of the most famous shipping container homes to date. It was made using 85% recycled/eco-friendly materials and was designed by James & Mau.
We decided to speak with Raquel Izurzu, an architect from James & Mau, and ask her what they wished they had known before designing the Manifesto House.
James & Mau’s Response:
We wish we’d known that in cold climates, you need to ensure you have proper insulation to protect against condensation.
With Manifesto House in Chile we had good results. The climate is not really cold or hot there. We only needed to put some pallets on the external walls to control the sun and some insulation.
When you think about homes with amazing views, mountains often come to mind. Mike and his wife built a modern container home right on the edge of a mountain canyon providing views from inside and outside the house that look almost like postcards.
I wish we would have discovered the financing woes earlier in the build because I would have revised the design to include another bedroom and a garage unit. I will keep pushing forward though!
We ended up using a combination of savings and credit cards to finish the house, afterward taking a short-term personal loan to pay off the higher interest credit cards. While it is nice not having a mortgage, we had originally planned on getting one. We were ultimately unable to because mortgage appraisers couldn’t come up with any comparables (comps) for our unique home, and thus they were unable to properly value it.
The Containers of Hope house designed by Benjamin Garcia Saxe for the Peralta family is another of the iconic container home designs. If you’ve searched for inspiration about living in a shipping container, this is likely one of the first pictures you saw.
This shipping container home cost a very reasonable $40,000 to build and provides over 600 square feet of living space. The Peralta family seem quite happy with the home, as their only issue is a relatively small one related to the noise the house makes in extreme wind.
The bold design with huge windows and center skylights has catapulted this container house toward the top of many people’s list of favorite container homes.
The Peralta family’s response:
We did not expect so much wind in the site and are now having to screen off the wind with vegetation as the container makes a bit of noise when there are large gusts of wind.
Shanti brought her can-do attitude and resourcefulness to two container homes she built on her property in Florida. She had the benefit of building each storage container house at a separate time so she was able to incorporate lessons learned from the first into the second. One unique aspect of both homes is that she used pre-insulated refrigerated containers in their construction.
We do tend to have extreme weather here, so I’ve made a few adjustments to account for that. In case of lightning, I had my electrician install grounding straps from the containers to a grounding rod driven into the ground. I also decided to install hurricane straps that are wrapped through parts of the containers and secured to the ground. The containers are quite heavy and probably not in danger of moving but I like everything to be extra safe so I added the strapping just to be sure. I even had people stay during the hurricane last year and I had no worries about their safety.
Kam Kasravi and Connie Dewitt own this particularly impressive shipping container home. The home was designed by Modulus using four high cube shipping containers.
After being prefabricated offsite, the containers were delivered before being reassembled. The very top floor has nine skylights installed in the roof, which provides huge amounts of natural light.
When you think about container home ideas and innovation, this home checks a lot of boxes! From a cantilevered walkway entrance to the see-through floor in the open space of the second level that allows sunlight to cascade through both floors of the house, this California container home is cool!
Kam and Connie’s Response:
The one thing we would have done differently would have been to find one contractor to help the whole process versus having one for getting and modifying the containers, and another to finish out the interior.
This wasn’t really an option given local familiarity with containers as a structure, but that’s what we would have wished. It would have likely made certain things a bit easier.
The beach box is built in the Hamptons, one of New York’s most expensive areas. The home was built by Andrew Anderson using shipping containers purchased from SG Blocks.
The containers on the ground level are used to create four bedrooms. The second floor contains the kitchen, dining room and living room. Just in case this isn’t enough, the home also features a 1,300 square foot exterior deck and a pool! This custom home is a great example of how the size and finish out quality chosen by owners can affect container home prices and style. Contrary to popular belief, a container home can be anything from a single container cabin to a huge multi-container architectural showpiece.
Don’t unnecessarily cut the boxes. Also make sure your contractor understands modular or container finishing. This will impact the price and quality of your shipping container home.
This home was built for Seth Rodewald-Bates and cost around $200,000.
Seth and a team of friends and family spent two years building the home, working in the evenings and weekends. The completed container home contains one bedroom, a bathroom, kitchen, office and living area.
The main thing would be that in this example there wasn’t any significant cost savings. That being said, I enjoyed upcycling the containers. It was less about the price for me. The largest ticket item was actually the pool.
Casa Incubo is another great example of a shipping container home design from Costa Rica. As shown in the picture below, the home was built around an existing cedar tree and it was designed by architect Maria José Trejos.
The home was built using eight 40-foot high cube containers. Constructing the home out of cargo containers helped reduce the construction time by around 20%.
Since this house is in Costa Rica with tropical weather, I wish I had been extra careful to paint it with the strongest paint to protect against the rain.
Roger Black is the proud owner of the Cinco Camp which is over 200 miles from the nearest airport and based off an unpaved road, unreachable to all without a 4 wheel drive car.
Mark Wellen, from Rhotenberry Wellen Architects, designed the retreat consisting of five conex containers and said that the entire project cost around $200,000. He said that it would have been around $100,000 if the camp was built in a more accessible area!
As you can see from his response, one of the most important considerations is thoroughly understanding shipping container dimensions!
1. I wish I had known there were containers available for very little more money that were virtually new… that are in almost pristine condition.
2. I wish I had known that there were containers that are taller than 8 feet.
Larry Wade built his own shipping container home for a cost of around $35,000. With container home prices all over the map, Larry shows us how you can get a lot of house for a little money if you’re willing to do a lot of the work yourself.
Larry used two 40-foot shipping containers to make his new home. It features solar panels on the roof which are used to provide electric and to heat water.
Everything about building with a container was new to me and there wasn’t any useful info that I could find. For me I really can’t think of anything that stands out from the rest. I can say that the one thing that I wished I had not done was buy my containers without seeing them. I took the company’s word that they would be in good shape. They were beat all to heck.
The good thing was that most of the really dented places would end up being cut out of the containers anyway. I do wish I had known that it doesn’t cost that much more for a one trip container and they are like brand new.
This shipping container home is one of the first in China and was built by Mads Møller from Aarcgency. You can see in the photo that the home has a huge sloped roof which is topped with a living-garden. This filters rainwater and also provides the home with additional insulation.
The external walls of the containers are lined in bamboo which protects the containers from the elements while giving these steel boxes a natural look to complement the local environment.
Just one thing: Building code! What is allowed?
Every country has its own sets of rules and standards. This means a container house in the US does not look like a container house in Denmark.
That is something most people do not think about. The container is a generic product, but climate, fire regulations, etc. are not standard across all countries.
Here we have a beautiful container home in Colorado. The home was designed by Brad Tomecek from Tomecek Studio as an experiment to try and reduce the size of the average American home and to also be as environmentally conscious and friendly as possible. The home is unique due to its pervasive external cladding which somewhat hides the fact that sea containers form the underlying structure.
The containers are bolted down into the existing rock and this provides the owners with a gorgeous view overlooking Nederland.
Welding takes a long time and is expensive, so try to keep it to a minimum.
These container projects have been for clients who really like containers or have some tangible need that containers provide such as durability. Certainly the projects that we have been involved in have always been unique.
Way back in 2008 Marek Kuziel had the idea to build a shipping container home. It wasn’t until 2009 when things got serious and Marek purchased a plot of land just outside of Christchurch, New Zealand.
The home was built using three 40-foot and one 20-foot container and even has enough room for Marek’s office when he works from home!
To be honest I don’t really have one thing I wish I knew about shipping containers before I started. I did lot of research before I was convinced I wanted to do this.
My advice would be to do as much research as possible before the start of the project. It’s all about preparation.
There isn’t a silver bullet approach to research. I guess the more you know and learn about shipping container homes before you start making decisions will help you to fail less. But again, there isn’t a silver bullet approach to this. Failures along the way are inevitable.
G-Pod has recently launched its brand new prototype named Dwell. This prototype is an environmentally sustainable home, made to be easy to relocate. It is built using a single shipping container and has various pull-out and fold-down sections to enhance the home’s overall size.
Their director Dan Sparks was asked what he wished he knew about container construction. His focus on both structural analysis and deeply understanding the types of shipping container insulation.
A good question. I did a lot of research up front so it wasn’t as though I jumped in and discovered something that complicated the build. However, I think understanding how the structural integrity works is very important, i.e. the two long walls are both load bearing and bracing so if you were to cut a hole in one it needs to be compensated.
Insulation is also something you need to spend time researching.
Like the G-Pod Dwell above, this Tiny Home is also a prototype. The home was built by Steve Sawyer.
The home was made using a 20-foot shipping container and contains a full kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom!
That’s a tough question, and one that I don’t have an answer for. I began modifying shipping containers 10+ years ago. I have made so many mistakes I can’t remember them all, but I tend to forget most of the bad decisions and remember the good ones. The neat thing about this business is we are always learning. The advice I give every new person is to speak with their local building department before purchasing the land.
The C192 Nomad is a shipping container cabin made by Cargotecture, one of the many container home builders that have started businesses in the past few years to take advantage of the market demand for these unique houses. Despite its small size, it can sleep a family of four.
Joel Egan, Cargotecture’s owner, says the Nomad is designed as a self-contained backyard cottage or remote retreat.
I wish I had known how important it is to have a design expert involved at the front end.
It’s not a good idea to go it alone if you have a custom home you are interested in. It’s best approached with professional drawing services and competent structural engineering.
These apartments are the first residential shipping container homes in the Washington D.C. area. They were designed by Travis Price and Kelly Davies from Travis Price Architects and are a great example of multifamily container housing.
The building was utilized using second-hand containers to keep construction costs down and improve the green qualities of the project.
There are countless things that I wish we had known prior to doing our project, but I would say the ONE thing that would have made a big difference would have been to have all of the plumbing chases cut out of the container floors and ceilings to easily run pipe once they were stacked.
Also, the containers sit very tight next to each other and in the design phase we added an additional inch to the width of the foundation just in case they didn’t butt up tight. In hindsight, we should have designed it an inch less for a better drip edge connection.
Cordell house is the brainchild of Katie Nichols from Numen Development. Christopher Robertson, a local architect helped design the home and the results are just stunning!
The home spans some 1,500 square feet and contains two bedrooms, an office, a playroom, a kitchen, and a laundry room. There is also a 40-foot container located at the rear of the home which contains the guesthouse!
There are many things I could say, but I think the biggest thing I have learned over nearly a decade of container construction is this: Shipping containers are like my favorite people. Overall, they are very simple, but they have intense bits of complexity. Knowing and understanding those complexities is truly key to being successful with a container build.
It is definitely worth it to work with someone who has expertise with container structures.
We now look toward Hartman Kable from Kable Design Build. He built this DIY shipping container house as a beach retreat using recycled sea cans. Hartman wanted a holiday home on the beach which he could enjoy over the weekend! It’s a small but efficient space that encourages you to get outside and enjoy the amazing view and activities afforded by the location.
Thanks for asking. I guess the one thing I wish I’d known was:
The walls of the container are rough and need framing so that your internal walls are flat and smooth.
Shelley’s container cabin utilizes a design idea we often hear about: arranging containers in a U-shape, then enclosing the area in between. In addition, the high-sloping roof leading to the second-floor loft really makes the living space feel much larger.
My best advice is to make very sure you keep an eye on the build EVERY step of the way! Contractors LOVE to take shortcuts and many think they know how to change a design. Stick to the design unless there is a VERY good reason not to, as changes could be costly.
While this isn’t exactly a single home, the construction process is similar and there are still many lessons which we can learn from Broadmeadow!
Broadmeadow is designed and owned by Christian Salvati from Marengo Structures. This megastructure was built with 27 containers, is four stories high, and contains 6 apartments.
There is no one-liner that I can answer with. The key word in your shipping container home question is HOME/HOUSE.
Building with shipping containers can be challenging and the aggravation is still the same as traditional construction, though the costs are reduced.
We’re so appreciative of all the great advice we received from the container homeowners who shared with us. There is value in hearing lessons learned from people who have walked the path you’re thinking about already. We hope you’ve found their perspective and advice helpful and that you won’t have to painfully repeat any of the same mistakes.
The Top 3 Things You Need to Know:
Want to see even more inspiring shipping container projects? Take a look at our list of Shipping Container Offices. Even though they are commercial spaces, some of the unique ways they are combined and used are still relevant for residential use!
Have you built your own shipping container home? Why not tell us the one thing you wish you’d known before you began building your shipping container home?
Cover Image Modified From Angel Schatz
Is a Container Home right for you?