An introduction to the cube-shaped, industrial-style tiny homes including where to buy, building plans, and design inspiration
Bruce Damonte, courtesy of YAMAMAR Office Desk Chair
photography by Bruce Damonte, courtesy YAMAMAR
As the housing market continues to change, the world of alternative architecture continues to grow, with more homeowners embracing non-traditional structures like cabins, tiny homes, prefab houses, and dwellings that are closely tied to the landscape. Once on the fringes, shipping container homes have solidified their place in the mainstream for being a durable, versatile, and believe it or not, aesthetically-pleasing shelters for seasonal and full-time living.
No longer just for transporting goods from port to port, shipping containers, also called high cube containers, have been converted into everything from mountaintop cabins, to multi-level desert compounds, and, in a nod to its maritime roots, a seaside escape that can handle even the roughest coastal climate.
Interested in the possibilities and realities of container home living? This comprehensive guide is for the container-curious folks who want to know more about living life inside the box. Here, you'll find everything you need to know, including building, buying, and inspiring designs to help you get started.
A container home is a small living space converted from one or more, new or repurposed shipping containers into custom homes. Since a standard high cube shipping container is typically 20 feet by 8 feet or 40 feet by 8 feet, a shipping container home build can have anywhere from a 160 to 320 square feet floor plan to work with, similar to a tiny home, and up, depending on how many you stack together. Unlike other types of tiny homes, container dwellings have the added benefit of being a scalable modular structure and impart a cool, urban-inspired industrial aesthetic.
Crafted from durable, weather-resistant steel that’s made to take a beating during international travel, shipping containers are designed purely for functionality. As mentioned, modularity allows you to bring together more than one high cube container to create a larger floor plan and overall living space within the scope of a larger container home design. Containers also have standard dimensions, which makes designing a home more straightforward.
Another advantage is price. Shipping containers are relatively inexpensive, and much cheaper than sourcing building materials for a traditional house—especially if you find a recycled shipping container, which is also an eco-friendly option because it utilizes existing materials rather than new.
In the same vein as the increasingly popular Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU), building a shipping container house is another way modern homeowners are utilizing alternative methods to create more livable space—be it a guest house, vacation home, or full-time tiny house (go you!). By design, container homes are a fairly low maintenance and even transportable home that can be a great investment for the DIY-minded homeowner.
Like any dwelling, there are pros and cons whether you’re building or buying, and in a shipping container project, one of the main disadvantages isn't so much of a con as it is a challenge: turning the steel shell into a habitable structure.
Unlike most new homes, shipping container houses aren’t endlessly customizable, because both the space and living room is limited to the existing container building. That, in addition to their true purpose as moveable, durable storage, not living spaces, means they're not designed to properly regulate heat or handle cold weather, so installing insulation is a must for year-round comfort.
From turnkey properties to customized builds that are all your own, shipping container homes come in all shapes and sizes. There isn't one way to convert these steel cubes into an inviting space—there are two: purchase a prefab container home or build it yourself.
A prefabricated (prefab) container house is built off-site by a qualified manufacturer and arrives ready-made. The obvious benefit is owning an almost move-in ready home (you'll still have to take care of the land, foundation, and connect utilities) which eliminates nearly all of the heavy lifting and construction.
The major downside to this is having very little freedom to choose key design elements such as the floor plan, fixtures, and finishings. While some prefab container home builders might be flexible, it's unlikely you as a buyer will have many choices. However, the trade-off is a professionally built habitable structure.
Like a traditional home, the only way to get way everything on your list is to build it yourself, which may very well be the deciding factor as to whether or not buying a prefab home or building it yourself is right for you.
The DIY route allows for complete control in the building and design process, but also puts all of the responsibility on the homeowner turned builder, designer, and project manager. Be prepared to spend a lot of time researching floor plans, sourcing and installing all of the materials, and selecting every last detail of the home down to the "studs".
While a DIY approach allows for the freedom to find cost-effective materials and methods, be prepared to hire professionals for specialized jobs like plumbing and electricity, and of course, plenty of sweat equity on your end. It's worth mentioning that some prefab container home manufacturers can also assist buyers with the finer points of the area's building codes, zoning laws, and permit requirements, which may be factor into your final decision.
Building a container home depends on your skill level and experience as well as the location and project scope—these will all figure into the best plan of action.
The good news is that you won’t have to wait for the basic structure of your dream home to be constructed because new and used shipping containers are ready-made objects. Now that you have time and the bare bones of your new digs, take a moment to run through a quick building checklist before picking out the paint color.
Building a custom container home can be significantly cheaper than a traditional home primarily because of the smaller footprint and materials. Before the project begins, take some time to run the numbers and set a realistic budget. Below is an overview of the main expenses for a DIY container home build—as it goes with any project, be sure to round up!
The total should include the cost of land, the containers themselves (which can run from $1,500 to $5,000 depending on size and whether it's new or used), delivery, site prep, a foundation, and permits.
Like any new home build, the shipping container home budget should also include enough to cover the building materials, as well as windows, doors, flooring, plus other interior and exterior finishings to make the space habitable and aesthetic. Hardy DIYers can save money on paid labor in a container home build, but for others, hiring professionals or buying a prefab container home can be a necessary albeit pricier option.
Of course, the cost will increase if you opt for a larger floor plan (meaning multiple containers and more construction materials), high-end fixtures and finishings, and add-ons like a rooftop deck or outdoor patio.
On average, the minimum amount homeowners should expect to spend on a completely finished 40-foot container home DIY build is $30,000-$40,0000. For an itemized list and full breakdown of the costs of this type of build, check out this video from a general contractor who converted a 40-foot shipping container himself using high-end materials and no additional paid labor, for just $33,000.
As previously mentioned, a prefab container home will inherently cost more in exchange for a beautiful, high-quality dwelling. Scroll through our list of modern prefab container home builders to scope out the wide range of prices and options available on the market.
ModBox builds custom, eco-friendly homes, ADUs, and retail and office spaces in the US and Canada. Depending on the project, ModBox offers semi-customizable floor plans or customized builds, as well as delivery for an additional cost.
Honomobo makes high-quality, modern, energy efficient factory-built shipping container homes, ADUs, and commercial spaces in Canada and the US. Buyers can choose from a variety of modular layouts that have different options for fixtures and finishings.
Giant Containers offers a range of turnkey shipping container builds for both commercial needs and residential homes. For that reason, this award-winning company costs more, but gets you a high-end build with all the trimmings.
The self-described "Cargotecture" design firm Love Container Homes builds custom residential and commercial container projects. The firm also offers blueprint plans and even a guide to building for DIYers.
Price: $500-$2,200 for blueprints; request a quote for builds
Texas-based builder Uncontained Dreams offers custom container builds and floor plans for sale in the US. Their standard flagship model is customizable and available for delivery within 1,000 miles of their location in Alvin, TX.
In the California high desert, two 40-foot shipping containers were combined to create an off grid cabin on a remote 1,000-acre plot of land. The interior is clad with reclaimed Douglas fir siding, insulated doors and windows, and solar panels to harness the energy of the sun.
This three-story getaway in the sprawling Mojave landscape features a large patio, pool, and onsite spa for a true desert oasis. Made from two shipping containers, the exterior is painted in sunset hues to blend in with its surroundings, and inside, a serene all-white design features large picture windows that offer up big mountain views of nearby Joshua Tree National Park.
Situated on the grounds of a former rice paddy field in Thailand, this residential compound joins together five shipping containers to create a family vacation home. While the clever A-frame design is aesthetic, the architects utilized containers because there were limited materials and construction workers nearby to complete the project. It's a remarkable example of how shipping containers offer both form and function.
It's easy to forget this zen-like Brazilian escape is constructed from steel shipping containers thanks to the bright and airy interior and many small luxe touches. The second-story patio is covered in lush grass and a vertical garden, and the backyard features a gin-blue lagoon in place of a traditional pool.
In this project, three 20-foot shipping containers were converted into a sustainable 530-square-foot livable space for a family on the beautiful Australian coast. Interconnected by enclosed walkways, the minimalist abode is beautiful and practical with a wood stove, thermal insulation, and a floating, slanted roof that houses solar panels and a rainwater catchment system for maximum self-sufficiency.
A modest container home with a spa-like feel, this Australian abode is tucked away in a rugged and remote section of coastline called the Eyre Peninsula. Though it might be small, the home maintains a cozy ambiance with panoramic views of the seascape to let the outside in.
Outfitted in pine, hundred-year-old barn wood, and cedar siding, this double-decker shipping container home in Central Texas channels a rustic meets industrial aesthetic. Some of the steel panels were replaced with a floor-to-ceiling windows to welcome in natural light; outside, a spiral staircase leads up to a rooftop deck.
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Bruce Damonte, courtesy of YAMAMAR
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