10 Things You Should Know Before You Build a Container Home

Here are a few things to consider when building a shipping container home. While these homes can be easier to build than a conventional wood-frame home, they still have unique challenges that need to be taken into account.

Consider a Container Made From Corten Steel

Many shipping containers are made from mild steel, which has a tendency to rust if it’s not maintained properly. You should consider a “Corten” steel container instead. Corten steel (or “weathered” steel as it’s also referred to) is an alloy steel that was developed to resist corrosion. Even when unpainted, it can be exposed to the elements for years without rusting through. You’ll pay more for a Corten steel container, but it’s well worth the extra expense.

Always Have Your Shipping Container Inspected

If you’re considering used containers for your home project, make sure to inspect them carefully for impact damage, rust, rotted floorboards, and structural defects. This is why I don’t recommend buying containers on Ebay or other online sites unless you absolutely have to, especially if you can’t inspect them firsthand before you purchase. It’s best to purchase locally if you can, which reduces the delivery costs as well.

If you’re not comfortable inspecting the container, consider hiring a professional inspector from the Institute of International Container Lessors, or IICL. These inspectors know shipping containers inside and out, and they can certify that the container is structurally sound.

Always Negotiate the Price

You need to realize that it’s a buyer’s market for shipping containers. Due in part to the trade deficit that we have with other countries, there are thousands of shipping containers piling up in ports all over the US. Most sellers will gladly take a lower offer just to get the container off their lot, or deliver the container to you at no additional cost.

Make Sure to Lease the Right Equipment for the Job

Okay, you’ve purchased your container (or containers) and it’s time to have it shipped to the building site. Since shipping containers are designed to be shipped, truckers are very used to hauling them around the country. Sometimes the container is loaded with cargo for the trip and then unloaded before delivery, reducing some of the shipping costs. Also be aware that it typically requires a crane to lift the container off the truck and onto the foundation, so make sure you factor in the cost of this as well. And make sure that if you’re building in a rural or remote location, the crane will be able to get to the build site.

Insulating Your Container

Since shipping containers weren’t designed to be lived in, they have nothing in the way of insulation. Needless to say, if you don’t add some insulation to your container it will be an oven in the summer, and a refrigerator in the winter. The most popular choice of insulation for shipping containers is spray foam insulation, which is good because it forms a seamless vapor barrier which provides great insulation, while at the same time eliminating condensation. This not only helps to insulate your container, it will help prevent rust at the same time.

Potential Health Hazards

Shipping containers can pose potential health hazards due to the paints and sealants used in their manufacture. Also, if it’s a used container there could be additional risks. Some containers are used to transport chemicals and other hazardous materials. Since containers have plywood floors, chemicals such as preservatives, insecticides, and fungicides can seep into the wood and cause problems later. Some of this can be mitigated when the new floor is installed in your home, but you still should be aware of what you’re buying ahead of time

Consider the Functional Needs of Your Containers

You need to plan ahead when building a container home, and know exactly how the electrical and plumbing systems will be installed and fitted. Containers can be hard to modify once they’ve been put in place and welded together. You don’t want to run into an expensive retrofit because you need additional electrical outlets or plumbing fixtures after construction is well underway. That’s why it’s important to have a good set of plans before you start building, and a contractor who has experience building container homes.

Set a Budget

Set a budget for your container home before construction begins. Even though container homes can cost much less to build than a conventional home, there are still a number of factors that can affect the final price tag. Take into account the cost of the containers, the construction costs (whether you’re DIYing the project or hiring a contractor), filling your new home with appliances and furniture, and more. And should expect your project to cost 20% or more above your original estimates, because stuff happens.

Be Careful of “Overmodifying” Your Containers

You need to be careful when you start cutting out sections of a shipping container that you’re using to build a home. Removing too much steel – in the wrong places – can harm the structural integrity of your new home. Also understand that shipping containers are unique building units, and you and your architect need to know how they work. ISBUs are made to be stacked, and they’re strongest at the corners. The roofs of containers, on the other hand, aren’t nearly as strong, so you need to take this into account when designing your roof structure. And if you’re considering removing parts of the containers to create larger rooms, you’ll want to consult with an engineer to ensure that no structural damage is caused either in the process or as a result. This is why it’s best to find an architect who as experience designing container homes if you can.

Make Sure the Property is Zoned For Container Homes

You need to make sure that any land you’re thinking about purchasing is zoned for container home construction. Many residential zones – especially in urban areas – have outdated zoning restrictions that prohibit the construction of a shipping container home. You don’t want to close on a parcel of land, only to discover later that you won’t be able to build your dream house on that property.




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