Are Shipping Container Homes Dangerous To Live In?

Posted By: April 4, 2015 In Guides

Want to build your own shipping container home? Start Here.

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 they always want to know if living in a shipping container home is safe.

We get emails from mothers asking if a shipping container home is safe for her family to live in. We 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.

Do Shipping Container’s Retain Harmful Chemicals?

The most common safety question people ask is whether shipping containers have harmful chemicals? I think a lot of these concerns come from a well written article by Brian Pagnotta at Arch Daily on the advantages and disadvantages of living in a shipping container home.

The article highlights two key concerns:

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

Brian rightly raises these concerns. But, 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. In this case, 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 does increase the cost. It also depletes the environmental kudos you would gain through constructing with used shipping containers.

Now we 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 chemicals. What, if anything, can be done about that?

First, you can contact the original manufacturer of the container and inquire whether the floors have been treated with hazardous chemicals. To do this, use your shipping containers unique identification number to track who manufactured the container. For more information about that, read this article here.

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

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

© Larry Wade

This underlayment was laid straight over the original wooden flooring. The tiles were then positioned 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

There is a harmful paint coating used on second-hand containers. This coating is to protect the container from saltwater while 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.

The first thing to do is contact the manufacturer of your shipping container and find out exactly what paint has been used.

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. Doing so will create a complete vapor barrier. This will prevent any lingering fumes from harmful chemicals oozing inside your new shipping container home!

Are Shipping Container Homes Hurricane Proof?

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

These questions are no doubt inspired from the photos we have 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.

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

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

In April, 2014, New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the Post-Disaster Housing Prototype Program. Guess which prototype won the program? You guessed it. The Shipping Container Home was the winner.

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.

We are 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. For those of you not aware, he decided to build a shipping container home using 31 containers!

The home was placed on nine 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. 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 is also interesting about this example is that he built his home in known flood plains 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 floodproof.

Are Shipping Container Homes Secure?

We have received this question a surprising number of times. Often, the future owners 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.

To answer this question, consider what a shipping container was originally built to do. Shipping containers are made to be an airtight, impenetrable storage solution used to transport goods around the world.

In fact, when shipping containers were first used in the 1950’s, the amount of lost or stolen cargo dropped significantly, as we discussed in: 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 laborers were known to steal these goods. At the time it was known as the cost of shipping. However, when shipping containers came on the scene, 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.

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, which does lessen its security value somewhat. But a shipping container converted into a home is just as secure as a traditionally built home.

If you want to make your shipping container home even more secure because you plan to use it in a remote location, you should leave the original structure of the container intact.

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.

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 your retrofitted 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!

  1. Mike Esworthy

    Hey Tom, you said you were writing an article on permitting in New Zealand, do you publish them on your blog, if not, where can we go to see your other works?


    • Tom

      We don’t have any articles that are particular to permitting in New Zealand, although we do discuss permitting more abstractly in some other articles on the site. There is also a little more discussion on the topic in the ebook for sale on the site. There is a lot of variability, not just country to country, but city to city, in regulations, code enforcement, etc. It makes writing something particular to one geographic location very difficult.

  2. M

    We owned a shipping container house consisting of three 40 foot containers. Two of the containers were parallel with a 15′ X 40′ concrete pad between them and a third container cantileving on one of the bottom containers and held up by a concrete pillar. It was beautiful, the bathrooms were outside and huge cutouts, we collected the rain water into a cistern. The three containers were welded together and again welded to the concrete pad, finally there was a metal staircase up to the third container which acted as a second floor, this staircase was welded the “third’ container and again to the concrete pad. This container home survived 190 mile winds in Irma and barely shifted, the homes is located in the Caribbean. 75% of the houses on the island its on lost their roof, it goes without saying that container homes are a force to be reckoned with if assembled correctly.

    • Tom

      Very impressive! Yes containers themselves are very resilient, and homes made from them are too if they are anchored well and have adequate structural support. If you have any pictures or additional info on the home, we’d love to see it. Email us via the Contact button at the top!

  3. Kinzi

    Hello, I am thinking of building a container home in california? Are they earthquake proof?

    • Tom

      That’s a difficult question to answer and depends on your design. An unmodified container would certainly do quite well in an earthquake. Once you start talking about making cuts for windows and doors, stacking containers on top of each other, ec. the situation becomes more complicated and an engineer would need to be involved. All things being equal though, a shipping container is a more structurally resilient starting point than traditional construction.

  4. Sophia

    Hi Tom. Like Fran, I too live in North East Florida. I am wanting wind calculations for hurricane conditions. Thank you.

  5. Fran Jones

    Tom, we live in north part of Florida, east coast. We do get winds from hurricanes, thunderstorms.. is there a wind calculation on the storage containers?


    • Tom

      Hi Fran.

      Send me an email and I will give you a report I think will help you.


  6. heather

    Has anyone successfully got through permit/zoning for oceanfront in Florida. We live on a barrier island (west coast) and all houses must be constructed on pilings. Has anyone got around this because of the structural integrity? Has anyone done these on wood pilings/stilts?
    Thank You for the excellent info.

  7. Mariana

    Hey Tom,

    I just came across your website while doing a search on people living in shipping container homes in NYC. Do you know anyone in the city who has build/lives in one? I would love to profile them for a journalistic piece I’m doing! Thanks 🙂

    • Tom

      Hi Mariana,

      Thank you for getting in touch.

      I know of a few container homes in NY. Please email me and we can discuss this further 🙂


  8. 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.


  9. 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!


  10. 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,


  11. 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.


  12. 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,


  13. 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!


  14. 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,


  15. 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.


  16. Jacky

    Thank you for this article. it was most helpful