Traditionally, steel shipping containers find their use in the transportation of goods on ships or the back of trucks, both locally and across international borders. Due to their strength and durability, they are suitable to withstand shipment, storage, and handling. These freight units range from large reusable steel boxes used for intermodal shipments to ubiquitous corrugated boxes. However, from a broader perspective, a maritime box finds its use for more than just shipping. Whether as a small cozy abode or an ambitious multi-story project, modern shipping container homes provide a cost-effective, flexible approach to building durable accommodation.

History and evolution of modern shipping containers home

We find a man named Philip Clark when looking for the first official record of a shipping container home. He had filed a patent on Monday, November 23, 1987, called the “Method for converting one or more steel shipping containers into a habitable building.” He outlines the use of the maritime containers on a weight-bearing foundation to create a habitable building. He was the first to comment on reusing shipping containers as they make for perfect modular buildings and can make homes economically viable. On Tuesday, August 8, 1989, Clark got his approved patent #US4854094A.

However, Clark wasn’t the first one to get the idea. Steel shipping containers made their way onto the big screen just two years before Clark filed his patent. In 1985, intermodal units found their use to make numerous buildings on the production set of the film Space Rage. We can go even further back to the 1970s, where UK architect Nicholas Lacey wrote his university thesis on the concept of reusing cargo containers and converting them into habitable abodes.

In 1994, Stewart Brand, an American writer, went on to write about how to convert shipping containers into office space in a book titled “How Buildings Learn”. This was the first publication that mentions building with freight containers.

From here, shipping container homes started to gain momentum and the first completed building we could find on record was the “The Simon’s Town High School Hostel”. It was capable of housing 120 people at any given time. The project cost a total of $227,000 and was ready for its first guests on November 30, 1998.

What is a modern shipping container home?

A container house defines any house created from a shipping unit. The resulting structures however can be quite assorted.

Cargo containers usually come in two sizes, either 20 feet by 8 feet or 40 feet by 8 feet.
The smaller of the two equals about 160 square feet of living space, while the bigger cargo box gets you 320 square feet.

There are also two types based on height, a regular (8.5 feet high) or a high cube container that provides about a foot of extra vertical living space.

Some maritime box homes halt here, using these tightly-packed spaces as freestanding tiny homes or offices. Some units are stockpiled in rows to create multi-level habitations, while others are twisted and turned Jenga-style to deliver striking architectural gems.

Do you need a permit to construct a modern shipping container house? 

As modern freight container houses are still a relatively new concept, the most important thing before starting construction is to research your local laws and regulations. Ensure two things; first, will your container fit on the land available? Second, will it meet existing building codes and zoning restrictions? Building codes set standards for what kind of structures must be built in order to receive an occupancy permit. Meanwhile, zoning regulations dictate the location of a home for construction.

Some codes and regulations explicitly mention whether shipping container homes are allowed. Modern container homes are more likely to be allowed in more remote or less-trafficked areas, but you really need to check with your city planner for the specifics.

Advantages of building a modern shipping container home 

So why are modern freight container homes such a trend? There are about 14 million out-of-commission containers in the world. That’s a lot of shipping boxes. Playing around with giant blocks has its own appeal.

Besides trendiness, interest in container homes also reduces cost and contributes to recycling.


Constructing a DIY container home can be cost-effective. Buying a ready-made or custom-made model could be even cheaper than the same sized traditional “stick and bricks” house. Most of the work is done on a factory floor for a fixed price. Delivery to the site, site preparation, foundation, assembly, and utility connections are the only variables. That being said, modern shipping container homes aren’t always less expensive. The estimates differ, and some put the savings at 5-10%, depending on what you compare it against.

Quick Construction

Modern shipping container homes are available as prefabricated modular homes, greatly shortening the construction period. Some companies project delivery within just 10 weeks! Most of the building code inspections are done at the factory, making things simpler and quicker. The metal shipping container provides you with a fun pre-constructed structure to work with if you are designing a custom home or building a DIY project. Having the basic structure ready at the outset is a time-saver in any case.

Easy Modification

Due to the modular structure of a maritime shipping container, modern shipping container homes are easily modifiable. Whether it is a single shipping container used as a living space or multiple ones stacked one on top of the other to make multiple storey dwellings, the choices are virtually limitless. A variety of roofs can find themselves added to these homes to add an aesthetic and architectural flair.


The freight containers find themselves built to withstand extreme conditions at sea and rough handling during transit, so they are safe and durable in every kind of weather and environment. The boxes go through a rigorous verification process that ensures that they can withstand winds of up to 180 mph which is much stronger than most hurricane-force winds. This makes modern container homes extremely durable and lets them withstand the toughest of weather conditions.


Due to the modular nature of intermodal shipping containers, the modern shipping container home is quite easy to carry around and set up anywhere. They provide a level of versatility and speed which is hard to replicate by any other construction model. Container homes can be stacked up to eight containers high.

Disadvantages of building a shipping container home?

Owning a modern shipping container house sure seems cozy and comfortable but keep a few factors in mind before finalizing your dream house.

Hard to get permits

It is hard to get zoning permits for modern shipping container homes anywhere, especially in urban areas. This often forces future homeowners to purchase land in rural or less trafficked areas that have fewer zoning restrictions. Hence, always check with your local zoning rules before starting the construction of your dream home.

Not always Eco-friendly

When new or slightly used shipping containers are taken out of circulation and turned into homes, it’s not exactly good for the environment. The freight units contain at least 10 times the steel as compared to a traditional home. Also the painting and treatment a container has undergone can leave chemical residues which can be hazardous to the residents as well as the environment.

Fitting Appliances can be difficult

Despite having home-friendly attributes, modern shipping container homes can pose challenges when used for homes. Keep in mind that almost all shipping boxes are 8 feet wide with an interior room width of just over 7 feet. That’s quite narrow, even for people used to living in cramped apartments. If you want spacious rooms you will need to use multiple shipping containers with walls removed, or enclose the area between two parallel but separate containers.

Need of Reinforcements

Another potential drawback to keep in mind is that the metals of the maritime shipping containers can make it hard to install insulation. While typical timber walls with studs have a socket for insulation, the corrugated metal sides of a shipping container don’t. Massive projects that use multiple cargo units might also need extensive steel reinforcements, adding to potential charges.

Steps to prepare for your modern shipping container house? 

Listed below are some of the steps to prepare your modern shipping container house.

1. Set your budget

The price for modern shipping container homes can vary, depending on the number of boxes used, how large the units are, and how elaborate the design and finishes are. Future container homeowners with cutting-edge DIY skills can save money by doing most of the work themselves. According to some estimates container projects usually require a lot of custom work and welding, which can greatly increase costs.

2. Contact City Planning Office

Before starting the construction of a modern intermodal container dwelling, you need to ensure you contact the city planning office. This is to find if your dwelling complies with existing building codes and zoning restrictions. Building codes set standards for what structures must have in order to receive an occupancy permit. Zoning regulations dictate the location of the house. Shipping container homes find themselves allowed in more remote or less trafficked areas.

3. Design properly

Owners who are open to alternative living spaces like container homes often use other eco-friendly elements like solar panels, wind power, water recycling systems, and rainwater harvesting systems for a smaller carbon footprint.

4. Container inspection before buying

Before purchasing a shipping container for home construction make sure it is free of any toxic residue and is environmentally safe. Try to figure out the point of origin of the shipping box, what it has been used to transport and what kind of treatment it has undergone. They may have previously held industrial toxic chemicals leading to high levels of chemical residue. Picking the right steel shipping container is essential.

5. Limitations to keep in mind

Keep in mind that modern shipping container homes require a lot of effort for a little space. This often includes framing, wiring, plumbing, and insulation just to name a few. This leads to a small space getting even smaller. Also, these container homes aren’t permitted everywhere, and owners have to purchase land in rural areas with lesser zoning restrictions. Your Modern shipping container home could have invisible damages which compromise its structural soundness. Those areas need reinforcement and sealing. Keep environmental issues in mind when starting the construction of your home.

Modern Shipping Container home FAQ 

Q. Are modern shipping container homes safe?

You cannot possibly know the origins of used shipping units. It could have been used for the transportation of anything from harmless consumer goods to toxic industrial chemicals. Also, it’s hard to determine the treatment it has undergone. The paints and finishes used on the boxes tend to be industrial. The box’s intended purpose is for shipping across the ocean, not for living in. So proper inspection proves essential to ensure the cargo container qualifies for construction of a modern shipping box home.

It’s often not possible to know what has been shipped in a used unit – anything from harmless consumer goods to hazardous industrial materials – or what the container has been through. The paints and finishes used on containers are industrial and intended for shipping across the ocean, not residential homes so that they could contain lead and toxic pesticides.

Q. Can a modern shipping container house rust?

As modern shipping container houses are made of metal, there is always a possibility that they may rust. Some maritime containers find themselves initially manufactured with alloys, a process commonly referred to as weathering steel or Corten steel that helps to form a surface level of rust that mitigates further corrosion. The climate where the cargo unit is located factors into whether a modern shipping container home will rust as wet and dry climates affect the freight units differently.

Q. Are shipping container homes environment-friendly?

It’s not always possible to know what has been shipped in a used shipping unit. Anything from harmless consumer goods to hazardous industrial materials could have been shipped or what the container has been through. The paints and finishes used on containers are industrial and intended for shipping across the ocean, not residential homes, so they could contain lead and toxic pesticides which could be hazardous to the environment.

Q. What is the standard size of a modern shipping container house?

Due to the shipping container dimension, a substantial amount of space finds itself consumed by plumbing, HVAC, insulation, and other systems. A container commonly finds itself designed to fit on a train, which means it is narrow, and most ordinary furniture cannot fit right. A standard shipping container is only 8ft wide and 8ft 6in high. This doesn’t leave much headroom for insulation and wiring installation.

Q. How to insulate a modern cargo container house?

The narrow shape of a freight unit doesn’t allow for insulating the exterior very well. To avoid using up interior space, a relatively thin layer of insulation with a high R-value per inch, such as polyurethane spray foam, is used. Although spray foam is an effective and airtight insulator, the blowing agents used in many brands of spray foam are powerful greenhouse gases. Using insulated containers for homes can also be an innovative solution as it makes the insulation process to be easier in the home.

Q. Is it possible to add a roof to the shipping container house?

Even though shipping containers find themselves reinforced at the corners, the existing roof may lack structural integrity. Those who are looking for modern shipping container homes capable of supporting weight, such as weather, should consider if building a roof would be the correct choice for them. A roof can also provide aesthetic and architectural elegance to the home. A number of styles of roofs find use in a modern shipping container home. Common amongst them are flat roofs, pitched roofs, roof terraces, and living roofs.

Q. Are modern shipping containers home better than traditional homes?

According to most approximations, there are millions of unused intermodal containers in the world. It’s often cheaper to receive new cargo containers than it is to send them back to the suppliers. This means that many units find themselves discarded after just one trip.

Reusing a safe cargo box is a great example of constructing with recycled materials, leading to a smaller footprint and less usage of other building materials like timber and workmanship. They can also integrate other environmentally safe elements, such as solar panels, wind power, water recycling systems, and rainwater harvesting systems.

However, some containers may have held toxic chemicals or found themselves treated to prevent corrosion during transit, leaving high traces of chemical residue. Hence, picking the right container is essential. Some argue that the energy required to make the steel boxes habitable erases the benefit of recycling.

Q. Is it affordable to build a modern shipping container house?

Modern freight box homes are not always cheaper to construct than traditional stick-built homes, but they can be. There are a large number of variables that influence project costs, such as location, size, design, and interior decorations. A container comes with a flat metal roof, exterior walls, and a metal frame that doubles as a foundation. These elements can save costs. But you still need to spend money on land, insulation, and interior finishes.

Q. How fast can one build a modern cargo container house?

The simplest and smallest modern shipping container homes can find themselves built in a few days or weeks. It depends on the amount of finishing work your home design requires. More complex homes can take a few months. Note that these homes can still be subject to normal construction delays. Companies often prefabricate most of the structure offsite before transporting them to your land. This greatly reduces the time spent on construction on-site.

BOXXPORT is one of the top platforms for trading CSC and ISO maritime shipping certified containers. With affordability and flexibility in mind, whether it’s open high top, flat racks, reefers, or tankers, you can buy or sell containers of different types, anytime, and anywhere. Whether these are brand new or used shipping containers for sale, they’re all trustworthy and have valid CSC plates.