Building With Shipping Containers

shipping container house

Recycling resources through reuse has become increasingly popular in the world of architecture and sustainable design. Surfing the Web, you can find buildings constructed of everything from bottles to kitchen sinks.

Though the latter is a bit ambitious, and probably less practical than the average person desires, there are many well-built examples of homes constructed of recycled materials out there. One such example: shipping container buildings.

Traditionally used to carry goods aboard trains or cargo ships, these steel containers have recently proved themselves as structurally strong, modular building blocks when no longer needed for freight hauling.

When used to carry cargo, shipping containers have an average life span of about 20 years before they are sent to scrap yards. When stationary and properly maintained in architecture, they are likely to outlast other traditional building materials.

Built to withstand huge amounts of weight and pressure, as well as extreme weather conditions, these containers make ideal building blocks. Not to mention the fact that they are plentiful, relatively cheap and easily transported.

As SG Blocks Co-founder David Cross tells CNN, the average shipping container, weighing around 9,000 pounds, takes 9,000 kilowatt hours of energy to melt down the steel. On the flip side, modifications made to the steel containers for building use approximately 400 kilowatt hours of energy, a 95 percent reduction in energy consumption.

Because the U.S. imports more than it exports, containers end up stacked at ports by the thousands, as it isn’t financially feasible to ship the empty containers back.

Stacks of abandoned containers became the inspiration for artistic and sustainable design just a couple decades ago, though awareness of the building concept has increased dramatically in the last few years.

With its increase in popularity came the establishment of the Inter-modal Steel Building Unit Association in 2007. ISBU was founded to promote and educate the public on safe and sustainable building with steel container units.

Examples of shipping container architecture can now be found worldwide, used in homes, offices, hotels, emergency housing and public buildings.

Feature image by ANGELOXWU from Pexels

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  1. My firm, 1016 Architecture, recently started working on an residential/agricultural project which utilizes shipping containers (ISBUs), and we are having a blast with the design work. Reusing the abandoned containers helps minimize the footprint of a building that, due to its isolated, rural setting, might otherwise be more wasteful.

    I think that there are good examples of shipping container buildings out there ranging from modern to traditional. We hope to further the discussion.

    Check it out and let us know what you think:
    Shipping Containers and Alpacas

    [1016] Architecture Inc.

    Inside the Brackets

  2. Hi All

    What a great idea to recycle containers!
    I’ve recently seen dwellings constructed from old shipping containers and find the idea facinating, however, I can’t help thinking that such an endevour would have it’s fair share of problems. How to maintain decent air temperature inside a steel box?, How difficult is it to get building permission? to name a few.


  3. Great article Lori!

    As you mentioned, it is so much cheaper to repurpose these ISBU’s than to ship them back empty or melt them, that I feel people who use these for construction are doing a great service environmentally. I hope you don’t mind too much if I touch on some things Fanie mentioned in her post.

    If these ISBU’s were simply steel boxes, decent temperatures would be a tough issue. However, they are constructed of Corten steel which can rust on the surface, but not through the depth of the steel. They are (or can be) painted on the outside using a ceramic paint that has an equivalent of R19 insulation. R19 is the value of a 6″ wall properly filled with fiberglass batting. If the ISBU is sprayed inside as well with the same ceramic paint, the equivalent insulating value increases to R28.5. I believe this is equal to 10″ of fiberglass insulation. All this is attained using only the ceramic paint, which means you gain that space 6-10″ walls would absorb in standard construction. (free space?). For those interested in being very green, they could look to geothermal to maintain temps., & solar/wind power to power the air handler.

    The standard sizes of ISBU’s are (approx.) 8’Wx8’6″H x 20 or 40′ long. This lack of height means air ducts have to be carefully placed to avoid too-low ceilings. However, another variable is the HQ (high cube) ISBU which is 9’6″H, giving the extra space for air ducts.

    As to building permission difficulties, that seems to vary greatly within each municipality. The ISBA has recently submitted information to the federal government regarding various aspects of concern that building inspectors would need to know to assure that a building is safe & healthy for those who use it. All building/zoning inspection departments have access to this information for evaluating design & implementation approvals. In reality, I wouldn’t expect alot of knowledge or interest on a government level until such time as a citizen in their area becomes a trailblazer for this kind of endeavor.

  4. I just bought two 20 footers and called the county building inspector left them a message that I wanted to separate the two and put attic trusses on top and wanted to make sure the foundation and container was strong enough and they wont even call me back. I guess I have to stop buy and show them some examples.. I have been trying to get ammunition on the strength of the top of the container but seems to be a lack of information out there.. If anyone has info on foundation and building strength drop me a line at I am located in wilmington nc so we have to contend with hurricanes and sandy soils.. Thanks for any info…

  5. Hi, Im wondering about using the base or top of a container as a bridge accross a small creek. Does anyone have any info to offer on this – maybe how strong the bridge would be and how much weight it be able to hold.

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