Is there something wrong with Shipping Container Housing?

One architect responded “Yes, everything! In Denmark, shipping containers have become such a big thing that they are even placing them in glass cases. Ever since I was ten, I have not the best relationship with shipping containers, this was when my father entered the container business. Back then they were manufactured in Canada and the USA, they were quite expensive, no one ever thought of living in them. However, every once in awhile he would receive a picture if a container in Africa which had fallen off a truck, windows as well as doors had been cut right into the walls”.


My First Year Summer Camp

While in University, I had a bit of fun with them. I designed, for temporary use a summer camp which would fold out of a forty footer. Being as you never would really use a container empty, the dimensions were not really ideal for people to use, insecticides were used to treat the flooring, the paint had been designed to last on high seas for at least ten years, this means that they were highly industrial. Not sticking to containers may have been a very bad career choice, however my attempts at tiny homes and modular construction did not quite pan out either.

The lesson here may very well be that when housing is in question, technology or perhaps the lack thereof is probably not the fundamental issue. After I in a very bemused way watched all the shipping container schemes which were being broadcasted, I wondered if there was any sense to shipping container architecture. This was a few years back, now however and as a response to the same architectural competition which was covered here, OpenScope Studios architect, Mark Hogan made a list with questions of his own.

Having actually built a container as a project, he is able to speak from personal experience, he states: “Sites in which it is not desirable or feasible to have on-site construction, a sensible option may be to fit a container out in the factory.” But what about for housing? Mark makes some very valid points on his personal website, here are a few of the ones I found most interesting:

Generally, Housing Is Not a Technology Issue.

Everywhere in the world you will find vernacular housing, generally, due to the local weather it will work pretty well. There are places that have shortage of material or cases where housing which is factory built may be more appropriate, this is especially true if an area is in recovery from a disaster. This would be a case in which it would make sense to have prefab buildings, having them made in containers however would not make blueprints

Here I may point out that the amazing genius of shipping container does not lie in the box itself but in the handling systems. There are cranes, ships, trains and trucks which are designed around them So if these can be delivered quickly after a disaster, the shipping container is the very best form. A fundamental problem is then addressed by him and that is width, it really is just too narrow. Insulation is another huge issue and at last there is someone who understands structure.


Cantilever proposals can be seen everywhere. Containers which are stacked much like Lego building blocks, perhaps with one layer that is perpendicular to the other. Architects are obsessed with kind of stuff, much like the generally meaningless and misleading phrases they throw around like “kit of parts”. But guess what, the moment the containers are not stacked on their corners, the structure which is built into the containers requires duplication with reinforcements of heavy steel.

The top rails as well as the containers roof are not at all structural, the roof of a container is made of light gauge steel, even if you step on it, it will easily dent. If openings are cut in the container walls, the entire structure will begin to deflect and because the sides, which are corrugated work as the flange of beam, once large pieces have been removed the beam will no longer work, they will need to be reinforced. Steel reinforcing can be quite expensive; however, it is the only way in which a “double-wide” can be built.


I thought I would add to the article becuase Hamed Wardak, see comments below, offered up perhaps a very unusual circumstance, but not in the big picture of home creation or buying.  Noise can be a big factor for almost all of us when if comes to the location and the type of home we live in. For Hamed Wardak, who is a rather versed techno music producer and DJ, he needs more protection from outside noises, but also from his noise getting out of control.

The  short answer is ‘yes’. If Hamed Wardak wants to build a contianer home, he can for a bit more money make cetrtian that noise neither escapes or gets inside his container home unit.

Utilities and Mechanical Systems

Here is a very important one which had never occurred to me. A lot of space to run utilities is required in a large building. Due to the above mentioned insulation issues, a very robust HVAC system must be installed to cool and heat the building. Passive strategies such as thermal mass will be difficult to take advantage of if the container remains aesthetic. You will also be stuck with ceilings that are very low being as even high cube containers are a mere 9-’6” (2.9m) of general height on the exterior, this means that any kind of utilities or ductwork begin to cut off head space.


The issue of recycling is something else that Mark mentions. In the past I too have looked at this, I did a calculation of the Upcycle House which ambitiously was attempting to become the first house ever constructed from environmentally sustainable and upcycled materials. The calculation was to determine if the use off two shipping containers for the house structure was the best and highest use possible:

The weight of a 40’ shipping container is 8,380 pounds; the weight of a galvanized steel stud is one pound per linear foot. Once these two containers had been melted down, rolled and then formed would have been upcycled into steel studs that were 2,095 8’ long. If walls were framed as opposed to using shipping containers, would have required the use of about one hundred and forty-four of them. It is actually downcycling to use shipping containers for structural elements of a building that is one storey, and that is a waste of a resource.

More steel than is needed for a building is found in a shipping container; this is so that they will be able to be stacked nine high, tossed around while out at sea, tossed on trucks and trains without suffering any damage. When it is put into a house, it is a real waste. Mark intelligently points out that it will probably be built for much less and in a shorter amount of time if you do not bring in a welder that will only mess up a shipping container.

Building a room that size can easily be done, even by someone who is relatively untrained, it can even be made of simple wood framing in only a day, you will not have to even rent a crane or take on welding classes, this may even cost around the same if not less than purchasing a used container.

Let me make it clear that I absolutely love shipping container architecture which moves and can plug in, this is really making the most out of an amazing infrastructure. I am in agreeance with Mark, for temporary or emergency use, it is terrific. However is it good for housing?  What are your views on the subject?  Have you built one yourself?  Let us know in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Is there something wrong with Shipping Container Housing?”

  1. Hi David,

    Thank you for this article. I have dreampt of and considered using containers for over a decade (way before the pinterest craze.) The appeal to me was the idea of an upcycled, multi-use, cost effective and hopefully sustainable off-grid structure for living and working. My hope is for something with more durability and less upkeep than a traditional stick built. As I have researched, however, I have found that it looks like steel framed warehouse-type structure would actually be less expensive and more durable. I was hoping for comments from those who have built with containers or some hybrid in response to your article. I will check back to see if more information is posted in the future. Thank you!

  2. Hi David,

    would you know a US company who makes custom design container homes?

    Ideal SF 4x 40 High Cube or up to 6 x40′ regular container


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