A shipping container can be used for more than just its intended purpose. Why get rid of material that can be put to good use? If you’ve been thinking about what you can re-use your shipping container for, then consider investing in a project like creating a shipping container home.

Steps to Build Shipping Container Home

1. Design a cabin

Before we buy any containers or do anything else, we should have some idea how we want to live in our shipping container cabin.  Figure out how much space we want, or really need, and start working up a floor plan.

2. Consult an engineer

If one is thinking about removing any walls or other structural components of a shipping container, it would be best to consult with a qualified engineer.  Removing structural components of a shipping container, without the proper reinforcement, could make the structure unsafe.  A few openings for doors and windows will probably not affect a containers structural integrity, but large scale modifications definitely will.

3. Purchase the containers needed

Depending on where we obtain our containers, we may need to plan for this well in advance. Used shipping containers are more readily available, but then we don’t really know what’s been inside them during their service.

4. Build a foundation

A foundation can range anywhere from some concrete or wooden supports on the ground for a single container all the way up to a full basement for multiple containers.  The decision will need to be considering both what is structurally required and our own personal preferences.  It’s probably best to consult with a qualified builder or engineer to design a proper foundation for our container cabin.

If we decide on some type of poured concrete foundation, then we should plan on embedding steel plates into the concrete where the container corner blocks will rest.  This will allow the containers to be welded directly to the concrete foundation.

5. Place the containers

The easiest way to place shipping containers on our foundations we have created is with a crane. There is no safer way to build our shipping container home than by utilizing a crane.

Once your containers have been placed on the foundation, it’s relatively easy to make any final adjustments with a large crowbar.

6. Connect the containers

Containers can be connected using bolts, specialized clamps, or through welding.  The easiest method for those of us who plan on “Doing it ourselves” (but not necessarily the most secure), would be with sets of large bolts and drilled/punched metal plates.  The metal plates would need to fit inside the corner fittings, and would act as heavy duty washers for the bolts.

A really slick alternative, although usually very expensive, would be to use clamps specifically designed to connect containers together.

The most secure method, and probably not that difficult for a handy person, would be to simply weld the containers together.  As long as you never plan to disassemble the containers this is probably the best option.

7. Add reinforcement

Before any structural components (i.e. walls) are removed, and before the roof goes on, it’s time to add any structural reinforcement that may be necessary.

Depending on where we build, and how/if the containers are combined, we may not even need a roof.  If you do need a roof, or just want one for appearance sake, it’s really not that hard to build one.  Be sure to keep in mind how you are going to insulate the roof, and whether of not you will need access under the roof to do it.

8. Build a roof

Depending on where we decide to build our shipping container home, and how/if our containers are combined, our home may not even need a roof.  If we do need a roof, or just want one for appearance sake, it’s really not that hard to build one.  A simple low pitched (3:12 or 4:12) shed roof, if one likes that look, is probably the easiest and cheapest to build.  Be sure to keep in mind how one is going to insulate the roof, and whether or not we will need access under the roof to do it.

9. Cut out openings

Removing metal from our containers is only necessary if we need passage between the containers, or we plan to add window and/or door openings to the container walls.  There are lots of ways to cut through container steel, including a plasma cutter, cutting torch, grinder, and even a jig saw.

10. Remove or encapsulate the flooring

Unfortunately, the wooden floors of nearly all shipping containers are treated with various pesticides.  Some “experts” act as if it’s nuclear waste and needs to be removed in every case, and the uninformed simply ignore it completely and use it as is.  This is something that needs to be decided on a case by case basis depending on the container’s initial chemical treatment and usage history, but this is a decision that each person will need to make for themselves.

11. Seal the cracks

If we remove any of our interior walls, we create large gaps between the containers that need to be sealed from the elements.  One solution, that is probably the most rugged, is to weld steel strips on the side gaps.  If we removed the walls, the roof would already have a beam welded across each gap for structural support.  Even if we chose to weld steel strips to the outside we would still want to fill the gaps behind them with spray foam.

12. Enclose the openings – frame, sheath, and weatherproof

This phase of construction is actually pretty easy, especially if one has had any rough framing experience, as we are just creating separate 8′x8′ framed walls to fit into the container openings.  A couple of things that are different from standard framing are how the walls are connected to the containers, and that they are not load bearing.

13. Add doors and windows

Sliding glass doors, would be very complimenting, if building a container in warmer climates. They do let in a lot of light, which is an advantage when we only have openings on a single side.

14. Frame the inside

If one is intent on saving as much interior space as possible, they need to consider using 1 1/2″ steel studs.  These studs do a fair job of securing drywall, and are stiff enough if spray foam is applied to the walls and studs.  In areas that the foam did not connect the wall and studs, the steel studs are only adequate.  An extra layer of drywall, or more narrow spacing of the studs, would definitely help here.

15. Install a subfloor

This is an optional step, especially if the floors have been replaced.  If we want to provide an additional physical barrier to the treatment chemicals, or we need to get above some structural remnants of the containers, then we need to add a sub-floor.

16. Electrical

Now is the time to wire our cabin for electricity.  Even if we are not sure we want electricity, it’s easy and inexpensive enough that we should just wire it at this point, because it would be much harder for us to do later on.

17. Insulate the containers

When it comes to what type of insulation to use, the most optimum option to consider is spray foam.  Even though it’s the most expensive route, the benefits far outweigh the financial disadvantages.  A minimum 2″ layer of spray foam will create a seamless vapor barrier against the metal walls of the container, add structural support to the walls and framing, and allow for thinner side walls and greater interior volume. I wouldn’t trust any other method to prevent condensation from forming behind the walls.