I. ISO Shipping Containers as Building Components

II. Simple Container Structures

III. Architect Designed Container Structures

IV. Modular Builders using ISO Shipping Containers as Base Building Module

I. ISO Shipping Containers as Building Components

The idea of using shipping containers as a building component and in architecture is by no means new, as Paul Sawyers identifies in his book Intermodal Shipping Container Small Steel Buildings. Most shipping container architecture conversions have however been for temporary accommodation needs, for example, storage, emergency shelters and site offices.  In North America Sawyers describes “farmers and rural folks” as the pioneers using shipping containers as permanent, low-cost structures and states that “Intermodal units have become so prevalent in recent years, they are beginning to turn up in Wyoming, Indiana and other places nowhere near either coast”.  However, more and more architects, builders, and prospective home owners are seeing the potential of shipping containers as modular building components in architecture and green prefab home building designs. 

Shipping Container Home - RSCP - Example Buildings and Homes with Shipping Containers

ISO shipping containers can offer a wide range of building  types and configurations, limited only by the technical ability and imagination of the designer.   ISO shipping containers are widely available and as various pioneers have shown, can be a low cost building and architecture resource. 

Fact is, the housing industry needs to increase its building output, quality and speed of erection.  There are plentiful stocks of ISO shipping containers, and the use of these as building components offers faster construct time and guaranteed quality, especially where the fit out is pre-fabricated prior to installation of the unit.  Shipping containers are a widely available, low cost resource.

Shipping Container Home - RSCP - Shipping Container Transport Images

The ISO shipping container has been designed to stringent standards, not only to withstand the extreme weather conditions on sea voyages, but to withstand the stacking of 9 fully laden containers.  Shipping containers are used by all exporting and importing nations, consequently there is a global transportation network that already exits to move these containers by sea, road or rail. These containers are reusable but if the need for imports exceeds exports then, as most countries find themselves now, there will continue to be a surplus of containers gathering in cities and ports. Future supply of these units is not an issue with ocean routes still increasing in number and larger ships being built to take up to 10,000 containers at a time.

The standard dimensions of an ISO container means that they are an excellent modular unit and their inherent strength, weatherproof nature and availability makes them an ideal modular structural component or as a whole standard accommodation unit.

Containers can provide temporary solutions to a particular shortage, be it housing, office space or another accommodation need. They can be used in disaster areas or areas of need and for key worker homes or student housing. These temporary solutions may use brown / green field sites, flood planes, areas earmarked for future development or virtually any flat surface with enough ground stability.

The reuse of a container as a prefab building component in architectural design provides a second use (for a container) and assists in reducing the embodied energy of buildings. Therefore as a by-product the reuse has added benefits as planning departments are now regularly asking, “What is the sustainability of the scheme?”.  The ISO shipping container has a reduced embodied energy in comparison to other building materials as the unit has already been used for other purposes, possibly for a number of years, where as normal building components and materials are typically a first use of a material...


II. Simple Container Architecture Structures

Across the world shipping containers are seen as a basic military accommodation unit.  ISO containers are used by the US Department of Defense, (US Department of Defense 1999), the UK Department of Defence and the Danish, Swedish, Finnish, United Kingdom, Czech Republic and German military have all used some forms of container accommodation e.g. ablution containers in Iraq, office containers in Kosovo.  Expanding ISO 20 foot containers have been used in Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa and Northern Norway.

Shipping Container Home - RSCP - Examples

The military uses shipping containers due to their availability, low cost, standardized size, durability and ease of transport, this provides them with an ideal modular construction unit.  These benefits can translate to the civilian construction industry, all that is required is some design foresight to take the ISO shipping container from just being a steel box to being a useable and aesthetically pleasing structure.

There are several companies selling or leasing modified containers for civilian temporary or emergency accommodation. Such structures do not have to meet Building Regulations and as such are a simple low investment high return product, requiring little or no design input.  Below are links to container companies providing simple modified containers.

III. Architect Designed Container Structures

Shipping Container Home - RSCP - Home from Shipping Container Examples

There are a great many architectural practices using shipping containers as the basis of their designs. The PHOTOS - Shipping Container Architecture section has numerous examples.

Of note are the following;

The architect Nicholas Lacey  made the leap from a temporary use steel box to permanent accommodation early on.  In the 1970’s Lacey wrote his thesis on the idea of reclaiming containers for use as accommodation. Four of Lacey’s container projects have been built to date and his concepts have been continued by Urban Space Management’s director Eric Reynolds through their container city projects. From the pictures on these sites it can be seen that Lacey’s designs are simplistic and honest to say the least, but this system of building has provided an affordable and quick to erect product.

A further enhancement to the use of ISO shipping containers has been developed by George & Harding Ltd and Buro Happold consulting engineers, together they are pioneering what they call ‘Verbus’ a system of oversized containers that are manufactured alongside standard ISO shipping containers in China then shipped to the UK (with a single cargo inside similar to the Container City projects). These units are then put together and cladding added to look like a traditional dwelling. 

IV. Modular Builders using ISO Shipping Containers as Base Building Module

The following list is of vertically integrated modular building companies that can provide fully modular container solutions including pre design and permitting services. Construction costs (not including site work and soft costs) range $150 per square feet for large projects (15,000 sq.ft. +) and $250-$275 per square feet for smaller projects.

SG Blocks

The SG Blocks Building System is a proprietary structural engineering method that offers the building industry a safer, greener, faster, longer lasting and more economical alternative to conventional construction methods. We redesign, repurpose, and convert heavy-gauge steel cargo shipping containers into Safe Green Building Blocks ("SG Blocks") for commercial, industrial, and residential building construction. Our steel truss framing system offers remarkable strength across a host of asset classes. Design and exterior cladding are limited only by the imagination — SG Blocks is changing the way the world builds, one Block at a time.

Container City

Devised by Urban Space Management, Container City™ is an innovative modular system that creates affordable accommodation for a range of uses. Containers are an extremely flexible method of construction, being both modular in shape, extremely strong structurally and readily available. Container Cities offer an alternative solution to traditional space provision. They are ideal for office and workspace, live-work and key-worker housing.

Finally the benefits of Container Cities can truly be seen in short and medium term land use projects. Short-life sites can have Container Cities that simply unbolt and can be relocated or stored when land is required for alternative uses. To date this alternative method of construction has successfully created youth centres, classrooms, office space, artists studios, live / work space, a nursery and retail space.


The Verbus System is a proven globally deployed patented technology which allows high quality modular accommodation to be produced at low cost and delivered to any site in the world. Verbus modular accommodation is robust, easy to assemble and can be adapted to suit any planning or end user needs.

The Verbus System utilises established production techniques and capacity to manufacture top quality accommodation solutions at high volume. The basis of the system is a range of High Strength, corrosion resistant steel manufactured modules fully certificated, tested and approved that can be combined to create a wide variety of building shapes and be adapted to suit any planning or end user needs.


Tempohousingis a leading project developer, using modular solution in different markets all over the world. We have our own unique construction system based on the intermodal units (ISBU’s), based on standard container sizes: easy and quick to transport world wide at low cost. A similar system with a concrete base is under development. With the completion of the largest container village of the world, we have set new standards in quality, speed and design in the modular industry. While many companies offer nowadays modified container homes, only a few are really capable to deliver a complete project with all the design services and calculations required to meet international building standards. Tempohousing designs can be used in all climate zones and their storm proof and simple set up make them suitable for every country, for both short term temporary use and for permanent structures in residential and hotel markets.