How to Build a Shipping Container Home:

Conceive It.                                                          Focus It.                                                          Action It                               


Conceive It.

Establish planning and design goals.  Define and evaluate space requirements.  Review benchmark standards, codes, and guidelines.

90% Of good architectural design is planning - knowing what you want from your home, what you can afford budget wise, and what the external factors (site, code, costs, etc..) are.  Preparation is an important part of the design process.  As you start to design your shipping container home, the "limitations" brought about by site, code, and budget can serve to inform many of the necessary design decisions along the way.  Being aware of these issues and how they could potentially  impact (productively or negatively) the design and budget, will keep the design economical and efficient.  And buildable.

Conceive It, or Pre-Design, is a critical phase where expectations are set, and budget ceilings determined.  The primary objective is to establish a conceptual design (with input from design professionals, potential contractors, modular suppliers, and material/equipment suppliers) concurrently while a comprehensive budget and schedule are developed. This allows a true profile of scope, budget and risk to be understood and assessed early on. 

Section Index:

I. Before You Start

II. Understand Site Issues and Passive Energy Potentials

III. Create a Simple Floor Plan and Site Layout

IV. Conceive IT Checklist

I. Before You Start

Look closely at shipping containers - photos, drawings, and if possible, go "tour" one. Walk around it. Stand inside it. Getting a sense of the actual size 1:1 , is very helpful in understanding scale and working floor plans.  If you haven't already looked at our shipping container information page "Everything About Shipping Containers", follow the link here .  Drawings with detailed shipping container structural components and terminology available here.  Shipping container CAD drawings and models available here.

Shipping Container Home - Exploded View


Know the relevant/binding codes you will have to contend with.  Where you are planning to build your shipping container home dictates all requirements. Even if you are going to have a portion of the container structural modifications done off-site at another location, it will be your local building/planning department that will review drawings for conformance, issue permits, and conduct inspections.  It is advisable to contact your local building/planning department sooner than later.  Dealing with building issues everyday, they can be a great resource. You don't have to go into great detail about building with containers.  Mention it, but in passing.  Focus the conversation on the fact that you are contemplating building a home with modular steel components and are looking into pre-construction issues. Ask if there are any planning/zoning restrictions,  a maximum square footage for any building(s),  a maximum height limitation, or maximum number of bathrooms. Most building departments (even lots of smaller ones) have websites with all relevant code information as well.  At this point, don't get too intimidated by the code or scrutinize it.  Concern yourself instead with big picture issues.  Like, can you build a house(s) on the land/site, and what is the maximum square footage you can build.  It is also important to get a list of what drawings, permits and inspections, including fees, will be required.  Find out what drawings must be professionally stamped as well. You should also check if their are any deed restrictions on your title.  Some jurisdictions dictate zoning and planning in deeds, especially subdivisions.

It is worth mentioning here, that most states grant a land owner the defacto right to build a personal residence on their private land, regardless of binding local zoning or building code.   However, this is dependent on financing and post occupancy issues.  If you are going to finance (mortgage) any of the cost of the build, banks will require a certificate of occupancy (C of O).   If you are planning on selling the land and house in the near future, you will also need a C of O.  This is to protect the future buyer.  To get of C of O, you must conform the building to all zoning and building codes.

Derive a rough order of magnitude project budget.  Get the sticker shock out of the way at the beginning.  When you're building a house, you don't want costs appearing from nowhere.  Unexpected expenses in both construction costs and professional fees, are typical.  Even to the best prepared.  The only way to minimize the unknowns is do your homework.  Possible required professional services are land surveyor, civil engineer (storm water management, grading, septic), structural engineer, architect, and mechanical engineer.  Permitting requirements are a good indicator here (see above).  You might also contact local architects who have built conventional but comparably sized projects in your area.  A quick preliminary conversation with a good architect can give a sound picture of total soft costs. Also talk to potential contractors/builders, sub-contractors, and shipping container depots/resellers. Contractors can be an excellent source for pricing site portions of the project - including foundation, grading, bringing utilities to site, and septic.  Researching/talking to shipping container depots can give a good sense of container prices and availability, but also local shop capabilities.  It's good at this stage, to get a sense of what level of container modification (and possibly interior fit-out) and at what cost can be done offsite.  Welding on site, particularly on small projects, can be very pricey.  Having as much of the container modifications done offsite is a good initial general strategy.  

Without a building design , it's impossible to fill out the budget.  Again, focus on the big picture.  Goal is to have at least line items in your budget for all potential costs (including both hard and soft costs).  This will help tremendously as you begin to design and detail your shipping container home.  Our RSCP™ Project Budget Worksheet is a good reference and can help get you started with the budget. Link to the  worksheet is here.  The budget will be a crucial document/resource throughout the process. Your project will be best served by continuous budget updates as you get more info and develop/focus the design.


II. Understand Site Issues and Passive Energy Potentials

Shipping Container Home - Passive vs Active Heating and Cooling Image

Passive vs. Active heating and cooling At the risk of being too general, there are two types of building designs.  Those that embrace the site, and those that impose themselves on the site.  The house pictured above on the left is Frank Lloyd Wright's solar hemicycle Jacob's house.  The house on the right is Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth house.  Both are icon's of 20th century modern architecture built/designed by masters.  They are both comparative in size, use, and initial project budget.  The maintenance and yearly energy expense for the two however, are substantially different.  The contrast is due to the buildings' different shapes, orientations, and wall/surface materials.  The Jacob's house design embraces the site.  Through the use of an earth berm and orienting the building to the path of the sun, the house advantages passive heating and cooling strategies.  These help control temperature and correlate to lower energy consumption. The Farnsworth house imposes itself on the site. Its orientation and open elevations create a seamless, transparent, and breathtaking flow of interior and exterior space.  However, it's a glass box that heats up quickly in the summer and is extremely drafty in the winter.  Each building illustrates an extreme; the Jacob's house highly passive, the Farnsworth house requires substantially more active heating and cooling.  Each has its unique appeal and adaptability to container building and offer lessons to consider in the initial planning and conceiving of your shipping container home design and site orientation.  As we look closer at detailing and core envelope issues for a container house design in the FOCUS IT section, we'll return to these two model houses and passive design.  Further preliminary reading is available at the Passive Solar Design Issues link.   More detailed Insulation information available here.

Picking where to build on site  is a crucial decision.  There are many factors to consider including grade, soil bearing, existing landscaping, potential views, and proximity to easements/site boundaries/roads.  Generally speaking, if soil bearing capacity is consistent throughout the site, flat/level areas are best suited.  They require less grading/excavation, and allow for the most economical foundation designs for shipping container homes. 

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:Shipping Container Home - Site Image Example:]]

Landscaping and shading are very effective passive design strategies.  When you consider where to locate your house/building on site try to take advantage of as much existing greenery as possible.  The location of dense, coniferous trees on the elevation against the prevailing wind (usually west or northwest) may decrease heat loss due to infiltration and wind chill factor in the winter. Sites with deciduous shade trees can reduce summer solar gain if positioned properly on the south and west elevations of the buildings.

Views and privacy will also be important things to consider.   Every site is different and has its own potentials.  If you don't already have a land survey of the site, it's probably a good time to get one done.  They're full of relevant information and could bring things to your attention (like easements and utility access locations) that you're unaware of.   If you are lucky you received one when you purchased the land or will be able to get one from the record files of your building department.

III. Create a Simple Floor Plan and Site Layout

Shipping Container Home - RSCP - Floor Plan Image Example

Time is the most important thing in life.  Reviewing code and cold calling to get material pricing isn't the best time you'll ever have, even to the most enthusiastic home design/builders.  But drawing your shipping container house floor plan and developing the conceptual design, is where the good stuff starts.  For real.  Earlier, we said we were going to explore how shipping containers are a perfect fit for the design build process.   The floor plan is a great example.  The 8' width of a shipping container is roughly a small room. Arrange two containers along their length, remove some corrugation, reinforce, and you've got a medium to large room. Remove all the interior corrugation, reinforce, and you have the equivalent of a New York City industrial loft.  Containers are "design placeholders" for the perimeter and interior of your home.  They allow you to easily conceptualize the interior space and building massing, simultaneously.

Buy a tape measure. Even if you have one.  A new one.  Make sure it has really good action.  That it fits well in your hand, and compliments your attire.  It will be your new favorite accessory.  Start measuring things.  Everything.  Measure rooms, furniture, circulation/open space. When you are thinking about dimensions of rooms for your shipping container floor plan and not sure what they should be, go measure a space that works and is comparable in size.   Measure some more.

Before you start drawing and sketching,  make a wish list of all the functional elements.  A schedule of all the square footage components including bedrooms, baths, kitchen, dining room, living spaces, garage, etc.  Whatever that total square footage is, multiply it by a factor of 1.3-1.5 to add circulation/open space.  Divide that by 320 and you know how many 40' containers to use.  This is your starting point.  Get some grid and trace paper. Floor plan software is readily available, but stick low tech for the conceptual sketches.  A template file of containers and interior elements is available here to download.  Templates like the "Twin 40' Container Layout" and "Typical Interior Design Elements" pictured above are in the sheets.  They are all scaled equally so you can mix the interior elements with the containers and quickly work some simple floor plans.  Houses and apartments in dense urban areas are very small.   The average total floor area in a Japanese home is 1,020 square feet (three 40' containers).  This should be an additive as well as a reductive process.  You want to add to your wish list so you can incorporate/include as much as possible in your shipping container home, but you also want to edit.  You can do a lot more with less spatially by introducing sunlight, compacting storage/service spaces, and combining/weaving together program elements.  There are many example in the RSCP - Shipping Container Architecture Showcase  section that illustrate how shipping container homes feel both intimate and expansive.  The Shipping Container Home Floor Plans section also has some example floor plans.

Link to the next RSCP Primer section  FOCUS IT  here.

Conceive It Checklist:


   Review site and soil bearing capacity.

   Check for zoning restrictions.

   Determine maximum budget.

    Review site servicing requirements.

  Determine the binding code and review.

  Determine required professional services.

  Prepare project budget.

  Detail all program requirements - number of bedrooms, baths, home office, etc and determine rough square footage of each. 

  Develop schematic design - including container massing configuration,  floor plans, and elevations.

  Locate local or regional shipping container re-sellers and shops capable of performing modifications and interior fit-outs. 


How to Build a Shipping Container House:

Conceive It.                            Focus It.                            Action It  

Design Services and Help link here.