Are Shipping Container Homes Dangerous To Live In?

Posted By: April 4, 2015 In Guides

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Lots of people come to our site and see shipping container homes and fall in love with how incredible they look and also how affordable they are. But one question normally lingers in the background of their thoughts- ‘Is living in a shipping container home safe?’.

I’ve received quite a few emails about this as well. People use the word safe in many different contexts. For instance, I get emails from mothers asking if a shipping container home is safe for her family to live in. I also get emails from people who want to build a shipping container cabin to use in the wilderness and want to know if it’s safe from people breaking into it…

So today we’re going to look at exactly how safe shipping container homes are and whether you should be thinking about living in one.

Question: Do Shipping Container’s Container Harmful Chemicals?

The most common safety question people ask is do shipping containers contain harmful chemicals? I think a lot of these concerns come from a well wrote article by Brian Pagnotta over at Arch Daily on the pros and cons of living in a shipping container home.

If you haven’t ready to article yet it’s well worth the read.

For those of you too busy to read it Brian highlights two key concerns:

  1. Wooden Floors used in the majority of shipping containers are treated with hazardous chemical such as pesticides (this keeps pests away).
  2. Some shipping containers are coated in paint which contains harmful chemicals such as phosphorous and chromate.

Shipping Container Floor Replacement

Now, Brain rightly raises these concerns however like most things there is more to this than first meets the eye.

If you are purchasing and building your home with new shipping containers, then you don’t need to worry about these concerns because you can specify to your manufacturer that they don’t treat the floors and don’t coat the shipping containers with hazardous paint. Simple.

However using new shipping containers to build your home increases the cost and also depletes the environmental kudos you were gaining through re-cycled used shipping containers.

So, we now need to address second hand shipping containers. If you purchase your containers second hand then there is a good chance that Brian’s concerns hold true for your containers. They will very likely have been treated with these harmful chemical, so we can you do about it?

Firstly, you can contact the original manufacture of the container and enquire whether the floors have been treated with hazardous chemicals. To do this you can use your shipping containers unique identification number to track who manufactured the container- more about this here.

If your flooring has been treated with hazardous chemicals what can you do?

Well we spoke with Larry from Sea Container Cabin who converted his used shipping containers back in 2010.

To protect himself from the chemicals sprayed on the wooden floor he used a non-breathable flooring underlayment (see below).

Shipping Container Home Flooring

This underlayment was laid straight over the original wooden flooring and then Larry laid his titles on-top of the underlayment.

If you want to be completely sure, you could even remove the original wooden flooring and replace it with marine plywood from your local hardware store.

Remove Harmful Paint Coating

Now onto the harmful paint coating which is often used on second hand containers. This coating is used to protect the container from saltwater whilst they are in transit across the ocean. It’s vital for containers when they are being used to transport cargo- but obviously not great when we are using these containers to build homes.

Again the first thing to do is contact the manufacturer of your shipping container and find out exactly what paint has been used (more on that above).

If your containers have been coated with harmful chemicals you will need to use spray foam insulation. You would need to spray this foam insulation on the internal walls of your container and doing so will create a complete vapour barrier. This will prevent any lingering fumes from harmful chemicals oozing inside your new shipping container home!

Question: Are Shipping Container Homes Hurricane Proof?

I’ve received emails from several people who live in natural disaster hot spots asking me if shipping container homes can withstand hurricanes.

These questions are no doubt inspired from the photo’s we has seen of hurricane Katrina. In the photos it shows wooden homes which have been completely annihilated by Katrina, however lying on top of the wood are completely intact shipping containers.

Palms Trees In Hurricane

Shipping containers are designed to be stacked up to nine high when fully loaded with over 26 tons of cargo in each container. It’s not surprising these containers stood up to the test of Katrina.

We are now seeing a spate of shipping containers being used as emergency disaster housing- this is because they are so tough. The most well-known occurrence of this being in New York.

In April last year (2014) New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the Post-Disaster Housing Prototype Program. Guess which prototype won the program?

You guessed it… A Shipping Container Home.

New York aims to use shipping container homes as stackable apartments which can be used as post-disaster housing. The fact that these homes are stackable makes them perfect for densely populated areas such as New York.

You can read more about the post disaster housing program at the Daily Mail.

Whilst I’m not currently aware of any shipping container home which has faced a hurricane, we certainly know that shipping containers can withstand hurricanes.

We have already spoken about Todd Miller’s shipping container home in our Graceville Container House: Case Study; however for those of you not aware he decided to build a shipping container home using 31 containers!

The home was placed on 9 meter deep micro-pile foundations, the piles were capped with concrete piers and  the containers were then anchored down on top of these concrete piers. Whilst the house was featured on Grand Designs Australia Todd mentioned that his home was now cyclone proof due to the foundations and anchoring used.

What’s also interesting about this example is that he built his home is known flood planes in Queensland. The local planning authority approved the home to be built in this area because in Todd’s plans it showed that the home was flood proof.

Question: Are Shipping Container Homes Secure?

I have received this question a surprising amount of times. When I’ve dug a bit deeper and asked questions back, the people who tend to ask, ‘are they secure’, are planning on using them as a cabin in the wilderness. Hence they want to be able to leave their shipping container home for months on end without having to worry about whether someone has broken into it or not.

To answer this question let’s consider what a shipping container is originally built for. Shipping containers are made to be an air tight impenetrable storage solution which is used to transport goods around the world.

In fact when shipping containers were first used in the 1950’s the amount of ‘lost’ (stolen) cargo dropped significantly as we discussed in: A Complete History of the Shipping Container.

A Complete History Of The Shipping Container

Before shipping containers, goods were placed on ships as break bulk cargo. This essentially means goods were either in sacks, crates or barrels. ‘Light-handed’ labourers were known to steal these goods and it was often known as the ‘price-of-shipping’. However when shipping containers came on the scene in the 1950’s the number of stolen goods dropped massively. This was because shipping containers could be locked by the owner before they were even loaded onto the ship.

So as standard, shipping containers are one of the most secure storage facilities you will come across. However when people convert the container into a home, they often cut away metal and change the structure of the container- hence reducing its security value.

A shipping container converted into a home is just as secure as a traditionally built home.

However, if you want to make your shipping container home even more secure, for instance if you are planning on using it as a cabin in a remote location- you should leave the original structure of the container in-tact.

To do this you would need to fit windows and doors behind the original shipping container doors.

This way when you leave your shipping container home- you can also lock the original shipping container door to seal your container up.

Then when you are staying over in your cabin, you can leave the original shipping container doors open to let light in, yet you will still have you retro-fitted windows and door closed, like a regular house.

Now you know exactly how safe shipping container homes are to live in, what are you waiting for!? Let us know what you use your shipping container home for in the comments section below!

Shipping Container Floor Replacement image from trailersoftheeastcoast
Non-breathable Flooring Underlayment image from Sea Container Cabin

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  1. Jacky

    Thank you for this article. it was most helpful

  2. Shimrit

    First of all thank you for all the information very helpful indeed, maybe I missed a post’d love to know if it is legal to build with container? Should the building permit? Where can I find information on this topic ? Thank you very much

    • Tom

      Hi Shimrit,

      Yes it’s completely legal to build shipping container homes- however, clearly you need to check your local building permits and get approval.

      I have sent you an email about this.


  3. John

    Thanks for this article which inspire me and make decide to make my own container home in New Zealand. Btw, do you know any information about what kind of permit need to be gained before this DIY container home building project starts in New Zealand?

    • Tom

      Hi John,

      That’s fantastic new!

      Yes we discuss this within our guide and I’m currently writing another article on this,


  4. Ashley

    I really enjoy reading your posts! I did a lot of research before starting my container home and I came across your website when I was already into my project. I’m a few weeks from completion on my single 40′ high cube container home. Thanks for all the resources and pictures! I drew a lot of inspiration from your posts!


    • Tom

      So happy you’ve nearly finished your container home Ashley!


  5. Kenneth

    Just wanted to find out if you have to spray foam the top too because I believe that the drywall should be able to prevent these VOC from getting into your house and secondly most shipping container homes have HRV which is a very means for venting the home.

    • Tom

      Hi Kenneth,

      It depends on if you plan to build a roof over your containers or not, and also which climate you live in!

      If you drop me an email we can discuss this further,


  6. Loi

    Hi, I’m from Vietnam.
    Can we make 40f HC higher? is it safe?

    • Tom

      Hi Loi,

      Are you referring to stacking the containers on top of each other?

      If so, then yes you can stack them and it’s perfectly safe.


      • Loi

        Thanks tom.
        But is it ok if i make it high 3.9 m. how can i do it safety. because my land have dimesion 5mx18m, and I have to built a house have 3 floor, the 1st floor must high 3.9m, the second floor 3.4m. Pls tell me a advice

        • Tom

          Hi Loi,

          Are you referring to making the actual container 3.9m high? I would suggest the simplest way to do this is to stack containers and remove the floor of the stacked container to increase the height.


  7. Brenda

    I would like to know about window and door placement and who does this work please? Are there any containers already designed and ready for sale aas in a manufactured home? I am seeking a cottage 2 storys high to take advantage of a distant ocean view. Thank you so much. I am not sure where to begin my project. I also would like to create a flower garden located on the top plus an outdoor space for entertaining. Is this possible?
    Thank you!

    • Tom

      Hi Brenda,

      Thank you for getting in touch.

      You have two choices. You can buy containers with the windows and doors already fitted. Or, you can hire a contractor who will do this to your exact specification.

      Also, yes you can create a flower garden on the roof!

      Best of luck,


  8. Suwini

    Are shipping containers safe for a Safari camp inside a thick in a jungle with elephants and tigers

    • Tom

      Hi Suwini,

      I haven’t built a container home in a Safari camp but I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be as safe if not safer than traditional homes built there!


  9. Rachel

    Hi, I would like to build a container apartment building 2 stories high in the Caribbean, the building codes are very strict based on the highest category hurricanes (category 5) 157 mph or higher. I will need to scientifically prove that container homes can withstand these winds to acquire my building permit. Do you know of any actual proof that I can present? Thanks

    • Tom

      Hi Rachel,

      What sort of evidence do they require? Send us an email and we will follow this up for you.