The Shipping Container Cabin in Perspective

Secured Shipping Container Cabin

This will probably be the most controversial post I make on this blog.  I’m actually going to make the case AGAINST building with shipping containers.  Over the past several years I have corresponded with a fair number of people wanting to build a home or cabin out of shipping containers and, believe it or not, many times I try to talk them out of it.  It’s not that I regret what I’ve done (I don’t), it’s just that I only see a limited number of reasons to build with shipping containers.

There are only two good reasons, in my mind, to build with shipping containers.  The first is for security, which was my sole reason for embarking on this project.  The second is to make an “architectural statement”.  At one time I thought there was a third, such as a situation where you could get containers for free, but now that I’ve run the numbers that scenario doesn’t pan out.  I’m sure you might find other unique situations, such as wanting to build a cat 5 hurricane-proof structure, but in most cases it doesn’t make economic or practical sense.

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention the environment.  The vast majority of cabin builders are more concerned with practicality and cost than green construction.  It’s not that they don’t care about the environment, it’s just that they don’t want to spend more than they have to for the latest, sometimes dubious, green building technology.  I also don’t see re-purposing containers as a great environmental panacea in most circumstances.  Shipping containers are best used for what they were originally designed for – the shipping and storage of goods.  By the time a container is no longer able to do that effectively, I’m not sure I’d want to build with it anyway.  If you feel the need to reduce your environmental impact, build small and insulate well.

I know I’m going to get comments like “I can build a container cabin for $20/sq foot” or “your cabin is overbuilt and too expensive”.  Both of these comments are true if you don’t mind living in a shack more appropriate for a third world refugee camp.  I’ve seen shipping container “cabins” with no insulation, the wrong insulation, raw plywood flooring, no wallboard or paneling, no roof, no foundation, and no utilities.  If all you want is a metal box lying on the ground then yes, shipping container construction can be both easy and cheap.  To be fair, those in warmer climates can get away with much more than I can in the northern US, so let’s just consider this discussion applicable to temperate climates only.

Pros

1.  Security.  In my opinion, this is the greatest strength (no pun intended) of shipping container construction.  I can’t think of an easier way to incorporate passive security in an above ground structure.  The only other reasonable option would be a concrete building with a similar style metal door.

I’m under no illusion that I’ve built some kind of Fort Knox.  There are several relatively easy ways to break into my cabin; it’s just that it will take a far greater level of effort to do so than compared to a conventional structure.  My old cabin could be broken into in approximately 10 seconds with nothing more than the boot on some miscreant’s foot.  This one would take about 10-20 minutes with a cutting torch or the right power tools.  If someone is going to go to that level of effort, they’re going to be disappointed by what they don’t find inside.

2.  Architecture.  I’m only going to touch on this briefly.  I have seen some absolutely unique and beautiful shipping container cabins, although some of the most unique among them would be difficult to live in.  I have nothing against creating a structure for the sake of art, but that is beyond the scope of this usually practical blog.  For those who build for the sake of art, cost and practicality is seldom a concern.

Cons

1.  Cost.  One of the more common misconceptions prospective builders have is that building with shipping containers will be less expensive.  I’m here to tell you it’s not, especially if you want something that lives like a real house or cabin.  I’ll compare the construction costs of three similar cabins; my container cabin, my container cabin if it had been built with used containers and a pier foundation, and a cabin built using conventional materials.

My 480 sq ft (external dimensions) shipping container cabin, fully furnished, cost nearly $36,000 ($75/sq ft) to build.  The only construction extravagances in this build, at least to me, were the new (one trip) shipping containers and a purposefully overbuilt foundation.  The costs also included several thousand dollars spent on contractors, but I would have had to spend that with a conventionally built cabin also – I’m trying the best I can to compare apples to apples between the three builds.

Next is the scenario of building the same cabin with used shipping containers and a pier foundation.  There’s really not much difference between the price of new (one trip) and quality used containers.  I can purchase a new 20′ container right now for $2,650.  The lowest priced used containers that I’d be comfortable building with are running about $1,500.  I might also save a few hundred dollars on shipping since I could probably get them locally, but overall I’m only saving about $3,900 with the used containers.

If your soil is appropriate for concrete piers, you can definitely save some money compared to my foundation.  In my location, I have had such ongoing trouble with concrete and wooden piers heaving that I would never trust them for a permanent structure.  Another advantage to piers is that they can be a do-it-yourself proposition, if you are skilled enough, which could save you even more.  The final cost of my cabin with used containers and piers would be about $29,000 ($60/sq ft).

I’ll also include the scenario of using free shipping containers with this build.  Even if you were fortunate enough to find three shipping containers for free, all of the other associated costs such as shipping, crane rental, welding, and reinforcement, would still be required.  Due to this, the free shipping container scenario would still cost about $24,500 ($51/sq ft).

Now we get to the interesting comparison with conventional construction.  Please keep in mind that some of my numbers might look strange, but I was trying to keep the cost categories as similar as possible to the container cabins.  For example, a conventional construction shell would typically include the roof, but I had those costs separated out with my container builds.

The big savings for this cabin were in the shell (walls) and insulation.  Building a shell with 2×4′s, OSB, and siding is so easy and inexpensive, at least in my part of the world, it’s hard for anything else to compete.  You also have to consider that a shipping container shell still needs to be framed inside for attaching wallboard or paneling.  This essentially turns the shipping container into very expensive siding if you don’t need its security.

For insulation I priced it with fiberglass batts for the walls (R13) and ceiling (R25), and extruded polystyrene foam panels for the slab.  I wish there was another, more cost effective option for insulating shipping containers besides spray foam, but there really isn’t.  The total cost for a conventional material version of my cabin would only be about $20,500 ($42/sq ft).  The bottom line is that I spent an extra $15K just to build with shipping containers.  I’m very fortunate to have an understanding wife.

2.  Difficult construction.  Having built cabins with both conventional materials and shipping containers, I can tell you that building with conventional materials is far easier.  Normally straightforward tasks like electrical, plumbing, painting, and trim work can take several times longer when working with containers.  This is potentially a hidden cost that’s not shown in the cost figures above – keep this in mind if you plan on hiring out a lot of the finish work.

3.  Local approval.  A common question I’m asked is “how did you get it approved?”.  The answer is that I didn’t have to.  I’m fortunate to be in a somewhat remote, forested/agricultural area with a fair number of questionable hunting cabins and farm outbuildings.  I did get a building permit, for all of five dollars, but the township seems to care more about taxes than construction.  Most builders won’t be so lucky, and it’s usually quite difficult to get approval for a non-conventional building such as this.

4.  Treated plywood floors.  While this wasn’t a deal breaker for me, there are those who will shy away from using containers because of this.  Since I was only building a weekend cabin, I encapsulated my plywood floors with epoxy and I feel comfortable with that decision.  On the other hand, if I was going to build a permanent residence I would probably replace the treated plywood with untreated.  This would probably be more for resale value than anything else.  Replacing the plywood floors in my cabin would have cost about $900 in plywood alone.

5.  Design limitations.   Designing an efficient and liveable cabin in multiples of 8, 20, and 40 foot lengths is a huge limitation.  Need an extra two feet on one end to fit your dream kitchen?  It’s not going to happen without taking something away from an existing space.  The flexibility of frame construction to scale to virtually any size is a substantial benefit compared to container construction.

Summary

I’m not telling anyone they shouldn’t build with shipping containers, just that they should truly assess their reasons for doing it before they proceed.  A shipping container cabin can be comfortable, secure, and aesthetically pleasing, but it will cost you considerably more than a conventionally built cabin.  It’s not that different than wanting to build a log cabin – my true dream cabin, by the way.  Log cabins also cost more per square foot than conventional construction, but somehow they seem like a better aesthetic deal to me.

In summary, I don’t regret my decision to build with containers.  The peace of mind when I lock up my cabin is priceless – well, at least $15K worth.

Please feel free to disagree with me.  I do enjoy a robust, yet cordial, debate.

49 thoughts on “The Shipping Container Cabin in Perspective

  1. Richard

    I’m glad you gave an honest evaluation of your whole building from concept to finished cabin. I have felt the cost was a lot more than traditional construction . You always hear about how cheap i bought this or that but then you also hear about all of new and extra cost’s . You can make a cheap cabin out of one and be primitive but is that what one really desires in one of these cabins or homes? Thank you for your articles and allowing us to journey with you !

    Reply
    1. Steve Post author

      Richard:

      Even I was surprised by how much higher it was than traditional. I tried to estimate every cost before I started building, but the unexpected costs of working with containers kept popping up throughout the entire build. I still have a couple different container projects planned for this summer where the costs will be more competitive than what I built here – stay tuned.

      Steve

      Reply
      1. Jon

        What was your final square footage cost? Is $85-$100 a square foot be managable for a ‘home’ made from containers?

        Reply
        1. Steve Post author

          Jon:

          My final cost, as mentioned above, was $75 per square foot. You might be able to build a home for $85-$100, but a lot would depend on the quality of materials and amenities you expect. Are you planning on granite countertops, wood flooring, central air, etc.?

          Do you also already have grid electric on site? If so, that’s a savings for you as $5/sq ft of my cost went for my solar power system. On the other hand, you will probably have a septic system which can easily add $15K or more to your costs.

          In the end, there’s just too many differences between an off-grid cabin and a typical home to make comparisons.

          Steve

          Reply
  2. Speed

    Mods International is (or was last summer) selling 40 foot containers (320 square feet) converted to housing for about $32,000 each.
    http://www.modsinternational.com/

    Main selling features were security, minimum site preparation and quick installation. A target market is housing in the North Dakota oil fields.

    Reply
    1. Steve Post author

      Speed:

      I have seen the Mods units before and I think they look nice on the surface. The greatest shortcoming of these units in my opinion is the use of fiberglass insulation rather than closed cell spray foam. Fiberglass insulation in containers relies on installing and maintaining a perfect vapor barrier on the interior side. If the vapor barrier isn’t perfect, or is damaged through transport or use, water vapor will reach the outer steel wall and condense in the wall cavity. Once water is there, there’s nowhere for it to go.

      Due to the high cost of closed cell spray foam, there will always be the temptation to use something else. I would encourage everyone to resist that temptation and just bite the bullet for spray foam. Two inches of closed cell spray foam creates it’s own vapor barrier and typically insulates better than its rated R value.

      Steve

      Reply
      1. Speed

        Another shortcoming is the feeling of living in a cave.

        Containers are a lot like Quonset huts, starting out as inexpensive, reliable, weather-proof structures for holding “stuff” which haven’t evolved into comfortable long-term living units. Sort of like “pre-fab” — it is and always will be the housing of the future.

        Reply
        1. Steve Post author

          Thanks for the link. This is an excellent article that explains very well why fiberglass batts are not the right choice for insulating an impermeable metal shell.

          Reply
      2. james moffet

        I’ve been putting together a design with an intention to use rigid foam board against the metal shell and using a light-duty spray foam tool to seal all four edges.

        I wonder if I’m headed for a reality-check on the feasibility of that?

        Reply
        1. Steve Post author

          James:

          I’ve considered the exact same thing myself. If I was going to do it I would custom cut the foam boards and glue them into the corrugations to limit any air spaces. I would then cover everything up with a thin layer of spray foam. In the end though, I would probably still use spray foam exclusively for the peace of mind.

          Steve

          Reply
  3. Michael

    Thank you for this post. Very informative. I have wondered about the true cost of using shipping containers to build a home so it’s really interesting to read your post.
    I’ve been looking at building a home for myself. I’ve sketched out some possible draft layouts (I haven’t looked at costs as I do not yet have a site) both using the dimensions of shipping containers and also sketching out simple small house for conventional construction. The bottom line for me will be cost and security.
    To accommodate my needs with shipping containers, I figure I would need 3 x 40′ containers. For me, one of the advantages would be, if you can get some work completed off-site, you might have a temporary habitable space in one end of one of the containers to work from. You could also use one of the containers as a secure workshop, tool shed and material storage area while you complete the build. You’d have good security for the tools and materials.
    For me, the security aspect is important, and if I was going the ‘conventional route’ instead of shipping containers. I would probably use a heavily-insulated masonry build. Or ICF’s, but that’s going to be expensive.
    The downsides of containers, for me, are (1) the dimensional/width constraints, (2) getting the insulation right so as to eliminate problems with condensation, (3) potentially toxic treatments used on the plywood floors, and (4) what about resale? You never know, circumstances change and you might need to sell up. Would a well-build and well-insulated conventionally-built cabin sell quicker/better than a shipping container cabin?

    Reply
    1. Steve Post author

      Michael:

      There are some relatively easy and cost effective ways to add security to a conventional construction cabin. One of the best that I have seen is to incorporate sliding barn doors on the side of the cabin that has the entry door and main windows. You can also install an appropriate gauge of metal roofing/siding instead of traditional wood lap siding. It all depends on how much security you truly need.

      As for building off-site, it is possible to do some of that. Do keep in mind that you should not remove any walls of the containers until they are in place and welded together. With my cabin I could have probably only epoxied the floor and installed the internal framing. The one negative to this is that you might have to pay for shipping the containers twice – first to your home/workshop and then to your cabin location. If I had to do it over again, I would buy an extra container to use as a workshop and then re-purpose it for a container barn later.

      Your last comment on resale value is definitely a concern. If I ever thought I’d have to sell my cabin, I wouldn’t build with containers. Most buyers won’t pay the premium that container construction entails, and your pool of interested buyers will definitely be less.

      Steve

      Reply
  4. Andy

    Steve,

    Thanks for the breakdown of your costs. My questions are from a home builder’s perspective instead of a recreational structure. For starters, what type of siding did you price for your “conventional” cabin? Personally, I consider brick to be a more fair comparison for it’s durability and strength instead of wood, vinyl, or hardiboard. That would increase the costs significantly, especially if labor was included.

    Also, I realize you’re showing how much less a conventional cabin could be, but factoring foam insulation back into the costs and you’re up another $1850.

    And simply from a sq ft perspective, one can find used 40 ft high cube containers for not much more than your cost for new 20 ft containers for those that might be considering bigger projects. Granted, the other construction costs are multiples of your cabin in order to finish out a bigger structure.

    Also, do you have or remember the actual labor costs for any of the contracted work you had done and if so, could you post it?

    I’m still hanging on to the container home idea. Just trying to look at it from every angle possible. Really, one of the biggest cost in doing a container correctly is using foam vs fiberglass. The other big cost is the containers themselves. But when compared to brick construction, the gap narrows quickly. For the DIY’ers, unless you’re a brick mason, containers have a distinct advantage.

    Reply
    1. Steve Post author

      For siding I assumed LP Smartside (Precision series strand substrate) – this is what I used on my framed cabin walls. I think this is some of the best lap siding currently available – even better than fiber cement for most situations. My primary residence happens to be brick and I absolutely love its durability and low maintenance. Even though brick is a great construction material, very few people would consider it for building a cabin. Do keep in mind that my experience and this blog is about cabins and not houses.

      I didn’t include spray foam insulation in the conventional build because I don’t see much use for it with a conventional construction cabin. Fiberglass batt insulation is perfectly adequate for frame construction. I’m even of the opinion that 3.5″ of fiberglass with a standard 2×4 stud wall is good enough in most cases. Since most cabins are typically used on the weekend and for three seasons, you don’t get the same level of insulation payback compared to a primary residence.

      Used containers are definitely more cost effective than new. You can also build a conventional cabin/home more cheaply using reclaimed materials from Craigslist or Restore. I’m also personally not comfortable building with used containers due to their unknown history – see my “The Floor Dilemma” post for my reasoning here. In regards to my using 20 foot containers, I chose these due to their greater opening to square footage ratio. Since I do not have any additional windows cut out from the container for security reasons, I can only rely on the standard container door openings for natural light. Without that limitation, a 40 foot container would make more economic sense.

      I did include all of the labor costs with my estimates above, but I don’t have a good way to extract all of them. The contractor estimates did not always separate materials from labor. In fact, most of the estimates were verbal and approved with a handshake – my preferred way of doing business.

      You’re right about DIY brick. As difficult as my container cabin was to build, brick would have been much worse.

      Reply
      1. Andy

        The LP Smartside is an attractive product. I was not aware of it and it looks to be pretty sturdy too compared to other products in impact demonstrations. Thanks!

        The spray foam IS a huge investment if used in a residence but with the impermeability of the container and the addition of spray foam, I had hoped to keep recurring energy costs to a minimum. As one guy told me, “the two together act like a thermos. Get it warm and it stays warm. Get it cool and it stays cool.” The same guy had built a couple of homes for others in the NC mountains and I believe he told me his winter electrical bill was $25 per month with electric heat but primarily using a wood stove. Mine, using electric heat, ranges from $200-260 for about four winter months in a much milder climate. I think I could easily save $1000 per year in heating and cooling costs.

        Are you able to maintain a consistent temperature with the combination of foam and your wood stove?

        As for used containers, you have to be careful when picking them out but in general, if you’re using multiple containers you really only need one with a good undamaged left side and another for the right side or in a worst case simply buy two new ones for the outsides.

        I think your idea with the epoxy is probably the best solution short of reflooring everything. That said, I worked in a shipping department for many years and loaded and unloaded 1000′s of containers and trailers. You can never be sure unless you buy a new one of course, but it was very rare to see where anything had leaked or spilled. The worst thing was breathing the wood dust from pallets being pushed or dragged across the floors with forklifts. The insecticides in the wood floors probably are the worst you have to worry about.

        One last question. I saw where you mentioned having the waterproof coating under the containers but did you ever put any insulation under there? If not, how does that effect the temperature of your floors in the winter?

        Thanks!

        Reply
        1. Steve Post author

          I don’t have any problems keeping the temperature stable with my Jotul 602 wood stove, even down to -10F. I did have some trouble earlier on when I was using double walled stove pipe on the indoor section of the chimney, but when I changed it out for single walled pipe the stove was more than capable of keeping up. During that time I did find that my two large picture windows were the source of most of my heat loss. I made some insulated panels for them that alleviated the problem, but it was a pain to install and remove them all the time. The single walled pipe was a much simpler solution.

          The other problem with used containers is that many times you cannot get them all from the same manufacturer. There are slight differences between the makes that would make working with them difficult. I’m glad mine were from the same manufacturer and built reasonable close together (time wise).

          The bottoms of my containers have 1″ of spray foam on the underside. It may not seem like much, but when combined with the 1.5″ marine plywood, 1/2″ foam insulation, 1/2″ OSB, and laminate flooring, the floor doesn’t seem cold at all.

          Steve

          Reply
    1. Steve Post author

      A couple of those are actually very nice. One in particular, the Cove Park in Scotland, inspired me when I was designing mine. It’s the one with the six 20′ containers side by side.

      Reply
  5. Newbie

    Steve:

    Let me echo the thanks conveyed earlier for such a detailed explanation of your process. We are just beginning the journey and are committed to containers (both for security and because we are building in a hurricane and tornado zone).

    I had one question about treatment of the interior – did you have the containers sandblasted or anything to remove any chemicals that may have leached into the paint? Also, have you heard of container homes being built above a dug and reinforced basement?

    Thanks,

    Newbie

    Reply
    1. Steve Post author

      I’m not sure what kind of chemicals you’re concerned may have “leached” into the paint. Are you possibly thinking about heavy metals (i.e. lead) that might be present in the paint itself? If so, I have encapsulated all of the original paint with either spray foam insulation or several coats of latex paint. I never tested my containers for lead, but I’m not too worried about it in any case. This is no different from all the lead based paint in the homes I grew up in. As long as you don’t aerosolize the paint through sanding and breathe it in or ingest any paint chips you are fine.

      As for a basement, I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. The only difficulty would be welding up the openings and irregularities of the container base. I chose to forgo a basement so I’d never have to worry about water infiltration and potential mold/freezing when the cabin sits idly for several months. If it was a full time residence on the grid I would probably build a basement.

      Steve

      Reply
  6. Craig Truitt

    Thanks for your info. I’m getting ready to retire and was looking at some hunting property in upstate NY. I thought the easy way for a cabin was a couple of 40 footers and and a plasma cutter. Time to rethink my plans.
    Craig

    Reply
  7. Matt

    Looking for ideas and constructive feedback for a lake home guest cabin. Would be 3 season use. I would have access to electric utility.
    Here is where I would like feedback.
    I was thinking of other flooring options and considering a concrete skim coat over in-floor electric heating mesh. Would that sufficiently seal off the treated floor? or, would I have to add an additional vapor barrier to the floor as well?
    Thanks for feedback.

    Reply
    1. Steve Post author

      Matt:

      Most concrete vapor barriers on the market are designed to block/reduce the transmission of water vapor to the concrete. The type of vapors you’re worried about though are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the treatment chemicals in the plywood flooring. While a polyethylene vapor barrier might reduce the infiltration of VOCs from the flooring, there’s no way to know how those chemicals would effect the integrity of the vapor barrier itself over time. There are special vapor barriers available that do resist VOCs, but they’re probably not cheap and I don’t have any experience that would allow me to recommend one.

      If I were doing something such as this, I would give some thought to replacing the existing flooring. If you could replace the 1 1/2″ plywood with 3/4″, the electric heating mesh and skim coat of concrete might just bring you back up to the original floor level. You might even be able to squeeze a thin layer of EPS foam under the mesh.

      Steve

      Reply
  8. SarahJ

    I’ve been doing lots of research and this was a very helpful point of view… I’ve researched SUPERTHERM as being a very effective insulative coating for containers. I will be building a large container house soon and thought this a much cheaper, less labour intensive product to use than foam insulation… :)

    Reply
  9. Jim CT

    Hi Steve,

    I think it is very cool how you continually answer questions and published your website to help others with your container building experience. I have a few questions or ideas you may be able to help me with, which other viewers may benefit from as well.

    I’ve bounced between Airstream mobile trailers and a shipping container cabin home for some time now, wanting to put a get away place on a 150 acre property with a perennial stream outside LA, California. I liked the aluminum, metal, shinny outer layer and less rules of just using a trailer, but on the flip side, I am concerned with very hot weather in the summer, earthquakes, fire and security.

    About a week ago, I became convinced after a California Airstream owner said I would not be happy having to constantly make trips to get propane to run the air conditioner under the baking sun and they leak. I added to the logic I could not really secure it where windows could be broken, rolled away or burglarized thru the aluminum door. I’ve watched videos and read how others gutted old airstream trailers down to the frame and restored them. My conclusion was I wanted something metal and fire resistant and could not be easily stolen. On the other hand I resisted the containers due to delivery in this area as it takes dirt roads to get to the property. In the videos, I watched how the metal shell of the Airstream is thin and they use a couple inches of fiberglass to insulate. I bring this up because it seems air circulation keeps coming up from viewers and it seems there has to be a solution in addition to opening doors and windows.

    My first question is do you think a single mini split would help, especially when heating or cooling, when the doors and windows need to be closed.
    http://www.pexsupply.com/LG-LS090HEV-8500-BTU-16-SEER-Inverter-Value-Line-MEGA-Heat-Pump-Bundle

    I like how you left the concrete foundation open and with fire issues in California, I need something that will not burn. The land can be managed and keep clear around the home, but a lot of fires start from burning ash blowing into roof vents. So one area of concern is under the container. I love closed cell spray foam, but it is very flammable so I am concern with a fire attacking from underneath. I could close the foundation with a stone wall, gravel filled patio on the front and back. What would you put on the bottom of the container exterior floor if you were in my shoes? Example-screw steel metal sheets?

    What do you think of the idea of flipping the container where the wooded floor becomes the ceiling, and the roof metal seals the bottom of the open unit? I’m thinking of using metal framing studs with a metal roof with spray foam insulation. The wood floor could actually be removed and just fill in like a normal home with a plywood floor.

    I like how you can close your unit doors and it’s secure. Exactly what I need. Now I saw a video where a guy bought a 20 ft containers where one, large door swung open from the long side of the middle and it was built this way. I thought by place this type of container to the inside would save having to remove a wall between units, if one could live with a 12 foot door.

    I’ve seen one unit that is 10 feet and I wonder if there is a way to modify your unit so all the utilities and solar instruments go into the 10 foot section, leaving more space for the living area.

    Sorry for bouncing all over the place. Last, I was surprised you sided the your tin cabin rather than the container look. I guess it makes sense for resale and it does look nice. I concluded if I was to side, I would need Hardy cement siding since it is fire resistant. Can I ask how did you attached your siding to the container? When you created the framing walls in the front, where the windows and doors are, I can see you nailed the bottom of the framing to the wall, but how did you attach the wood 2×4 framing to the ceiling, etc.

    Thanks.

    Reply
    1. Steve Post author

      Hi Jim:

      Here are my thoughts:

      1. Without knowing the size of your proposed building, and the amount/type of insulation, it’s hard to say if that Mini-Split would work. You really need to consult an HVAC professional for a good answer.

      2. If I wanted to protect my cabin underside from fire, I’d frame the side openings and cover it with sheet metal. I’ll probably do that someday, but more for secure storage than protection from wildfires.

      3. Don’t flip your container. Why take a perfectly good roof and make it your floor. A container roof is also not flat or smooth, so you would need to construct a new raised up floor as well.

      4. While the side opening containers are nice, and work well with some designs, they do cost considerably more than standard containers. Removing a wall is also not that difficult, and you then have the advantage of some extra metal to play with.

      5. There’s no reason you cant build a separate utility building, although that’s probably more practical in climates warmer than Wisconsin.

      6. My containers are not sided – they still have all the original exterior steel. The only part of my cabin that has some siding are the three front walls that are behind the container doors. In regards to the framing, I recommend you read the appropriate section on my “How to Build” page.

      Steve

      Reply
  10. Jim CT

    I forgot – I brought up the Airstream trailers because they have metal exteriors and they are closed in like the cargo shipping containers, yet there is no problem with condensation and air circulation. I am wondering if having a single mini-split would help with the circulation since both the cargo shippers and Airstreams are alike, and these are the kind of units they use, except they are on the ceiling of the trailer.

    Reply
    1. Steve Post author

      I am so not qualified to comment on air conditioning. I don’t have air conditioning in my cabin, and I doubt I ever will. If it’s ever too hot to be in my cabin, I probably wouldn’t go there in the first place.

      Reply
  11. Jim CT

    Thank-you Steve.

    In your #2 reply, the phrase to frame the side openings, does this mean to have a four wall foundation?

    2. If I wanted to protect my cabin underside from fire, I’d frame the side openings and cover it with sheet metal. I’ll probably do that someday, but more for secure storage than protection from wildfires.

    The size I was considering would be like yours since it would be a get away. I brought up the single mini-split as an idea to circulate air. They come in air heat and air conditioning in one unit. A neighbor has one in his home with solar and loves it.

    Thanks again
    Jim :)

    Reply
    1. Steve Post author

      Jim:

      If you look at the pictures of my cabin you will see that I have two foundation walls, one in front and one in back. Each side has a 2.5′ x 19′ space that is open underneath. While I may someday enclose the open sides between the foundation walls, that will not make those side walls part of the foundation. They will serve no structural purpose other than as a framework to attach some plywood or siding.

      For air circulation I use a Vornado fan, although my summers are more moderate than yours.

      Steve

      Reply
  12. Jim

    Thanks Steve. Now I get what you were saying. Check out IPE wood. It’s hard and insect resistant for that area as an option. Thanks again for answering my questions. Very cool web site and very creative work on the cabin.

    Reply
  13. Grace @ sense and simplicity

    Hi Steve,

    Great post which has obviously generated a lot of interest. I have always wondered if you regret not flipping the middle trailer opening so you got some cross-ventilation and sunlight coming in from more than one side. I love your layout though and flipping the trailer would totally change that. I know you considered that at the beginning and I wondered on how you find it now that you have lived with your cabin for awhile.

    Congrats on having your cabin in the Alaska magazine. What fun.

    cheers,
    Grace

    Reply
    1. Steve Post author

      Hi Grace:

      It’s good to hear from you again. I still wish I could have flipped the middle container as it allows for both a better floor plan and better ventilation. Unfortunately my building site was not amenable to having the entry on the back side of the cabin. The best view on my property is due south, so this is where I wanted the windows and deck. The best building site also happened to be on the north side of the driveway. So, having the entrance on the main deck was a feature I wasn’t willing to give up.

      Best regards.

      Steve

      Reply
  14. Lloyd Alter

    As someone who grew up around shipping containers (my dad was in the business) I have been writing about many of the point you have made here for years. It is so refreshing to see someone who has actually done it be so honest about it. This is a wonderful article and I will writing about it.

    Reply
  15. luis montoya

    I think your comment is valid depending on some variables. If you’re building on remote locations where limited materials and qualified workmanship is an issue, then containers will give you the chance to work where those resources (and some others) are available. In my case, I would have to drive 2.5 hours just to get to the location where I’m planning to install my cabin and then 2.5 hours back home. And let’s hope I don’t forget a tool or something! Let’s say I hire somebody instead of doing it myself. Inspecting the construction site is something to keep in mind. Right ? Even though I have skills in construction and furniture, The structural studies and plans I would have to pay if not using a container is a lot of money I can save or invest in my mod. The biggest loose end I have to tie is learning to weld, since it seems to be essential for building with metal structures.

    Reply
    1. Steve Post author

      Luis:

      It sounds as though you’re considering building your cabin in modules where it’s more “civilized”, then shipping them to a remote location for assembly. I can see this as a benefit in certain cases, although there are some concerns you should be aware of. First, do not remove any walls of a container before they are welded to each other and/or onto a foundation. Doing so could cause them to come out of square and make your final assembly very difficult. Second, if you install spray foam insulation, as you should, cutting torches, plasma cutters, and grinders should not be used near exposed spray foam insulation as it could start a fire.

      Do keep in mind that you can also pre-build components for conventional construction and have them shipped to your remote site for easy assembly. You could also have the components transported in a shipping container for secure on-site storage during the build. The money you would save using conventional construction could easily pay for a couple of containers to use for shipping and an eventual garage/barn.

      Steve

      Reply
  16. BDJ1

    So my thoughts on building with shipping containers would be more so having them at the ends of the structure and using as a closet, storage or bathroom. Make one door into the container with very little changes needing to be made. The strength of the container would allow a roof to be held up. Then just construct the front and back of house.

    In your photo, you have three containers side by side. I would have thought a structure four containers wide with only using two containers, one on each end.

    Reply
    1. Steve Post author

      There is certainly nothing wrong with what you describe from a construction standpoint, although you would lose what I consider to be their greatest strength – security. This is why I have three containers side by side rather than a hybrid structure with conventional construction mixed in. At the point you’re considering a hybrid structure, why not just build all conventional and apply steel panels for the appearance or durability. Containers are much too expensive to use as siding.

      Steve

      Reply
  17. Curious Kat

    Hi,

    Just wondering if using insulated containers would have helped with the final insulation costs?

    I also think that anyone who would prefer to use shipping containers over other greener, or cheaper, options are choosing to use up a tiny part of a massive resource polluting harbours and shipping locations around the world. Large scale use may seem the most effective way to get rid of stacked and racked containers, but even one person using them does make a difference. Consumers can change the economic landscape by what they do & purchase. People should get in on the ground floor of this movement, because once it becomes “a thing” they will be charging serious money for containers. IMHO Wait until some super star celebrity does it, and you have waited too long.

    Thanks

    Reply
    1. Steve Post author

      Kat:

      After looking at the prices of insulated shipping containers on eBay, I can’t imaging how I would have saved any money on insulating. The spray foam insulation for my cabin was about $2,700, so about $900 per container. I don’t think I could have found three new insulated containers for $900 over what I spent on mine.

      Another problem with insulated containers is where to route the wiring and plumbing. Since the walls are already in place, you would need to rely on exposed wiring. While my cabin may look odd from the outside, I did want the inside to be as “normal” as possible.

      Steve

      Reply
  18. Lilian Nascimento

    Hi Steve!

    I’m a Brazilian girl rooted in Argentina, both countries have houses shipping containers as the solution of the moment for all housing problems.
    My husband and I were seriously considering investing on it, but after reading your blog, we are slowing a little bit with the idea….

    Thank you!

    Best regards from Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires.

    Reply
    1. Steve Post author

      Lilian:

      Don’t give up yet. Shipping container construction costs are region specific, and my numbers favor traditional construction only because I’m in the northern US where lumber prices are relatively low. In my discussions with readers in other countries I have found that their lumber prices can be so great that the balance tips to containers.

      A lot also depends upon your local climate. Do you need spray foam insulation, a separate roof over the container(s) to deal with snow loading, combined or separate containers? You need to run the numbers yourself to know for sure.

      Good luck.

      Steve

      Reply
  19. Scott

    I can think of one additional advantage – camoflauge.

    If you build without making major modifications to the exterior walls no-one will know what’s inside and your container is left largely un-noticed in semi-industrial areas.

    Reply

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