Who Built The First Shipping Container Home?

Posted By: April 9, 2015 In Featured

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

We have already covered the complete history of shipping containers in our blog post last week. However, when Malcom McLean developed the shipping container did he ever envisage them to be used as building materials? It’s doubtful, however visionaries such as Phillip Clark and Nicholas Lacey certainly did. The first official document citing the use of shipping containers as a building material was published in 1962, but who exactly built the first shipping container home!?

Official Records

If we look for the first official record of a shipping container home we find a man named Phillip Clark. On Monday 23rd November 1987, Clark filed a patent called the “Method for converting one or more steel shipping containers into a habitable building”.

Within the patent Clark outlines how shipping containers can be sited on a weight-bearing foundation to create a habitable building. He claimed that shipping containers make the perfect modular building material. He also commented that reused shipping containers can be used to make homes economically.

It took two years for the patent to be granted, and on Tuesday 8th August 1989, Clark was presented with his approved patent #US4854094A. If you are interest the original patent can be view here.

So where did Phillip Clark get his idea from? Was he the first ever person to think that shipping containers could be used to build homes?

Far from it. Just 2 years before Clark’s patent was filed, shipping containers made their way on to the big screen. In 1985, in the film Space Rage, shipping containers were used to make numerous buildings on the production set.

However, we can go further back than that to the 1970’s where UK architect Nicholas Lacey wrote his university thesis on the concept of reusing shipping containers and turning them into habitable dwellings (Source).

He has since gone on to build several of these shipping container homes with Urban Space Management. In fact two of their builds, Riverside Building Offices and Cove Park, were featured in our Top 10: Shipping Container Offices.

However, we can still find earlier examples of shipping containers being used as buildings. The earliest official record we could find was 1962.

On Friday 12th October 1962 Insbrandtsen Company Inc filed a patent titled ‘Combination shipping container and showcase’. Within this patent, Christopher Betjemann was listed as the inventor and it states that shipping containers can be used as an exhibition booth when companies are touring and showcasing their products.

The patent (US3182424 A) was granted on Tuesday 11th May 1965.

You can see the original patent here.

Why did building with shipping containers become a trend?

So within ten years of shipping containers being created, people had the idea to create buildings with them, but why?

Well here in the US we import a lot more than we export- so when goods are shipped into the country we aren’t using the shipping container to export our goods back.

This means that there is a surplus of shipping containers.

Just how much of a surplus?

Well according to the US Department of Transportation: Maritime Administration, in 2012 the US imported 17,541,120 TEUs yet only exported 11,935,906 (Source).

A TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) is a unit of measurement; 1 TEU is the equivalent to 1 standard 20 foot shipping container.

This means there was surplus the equivalent of more than 5 million 20-foot shipping containers. Now clearly not every shipping container is left in the US- it would be worthwhile shipping new containers back to Asia to use again but a considerable number of containers are left in the US.

This trend has been occurring for many years and we have taken a snapshot of the available data from the US Department of Transportation: Maritime Administration for the last five years.

How Many Shipping Containers Are There

So we have a big surplus of shipping containers in the US, could we not just recycle them?

Well a standard 40 foot shipping containers weight 8,820 pounds. To melt down this much steel would take around 8000 kWh of energy, nearly the same amount of energy as a US household uses each year (Source).

The average amount of energy used to convert a shipping container into a home takes around 400 kwh, so around a 95% reduction when compared to melting down the steel.

So building with shipping containers is environmentally friendly, but not only that, we know that building shipping container homes can be significantly cheaper than traditional homes. In our blog post on ‘How Much Do Shipping Container Homes Cost’ we lifted the lid off homes which have been built for less than $100,000!

Shipping containers turning mainstream

So we know that people had the idea to build shipping container homes way back in the 1980’s and that there is, and has been, a surplus of shipping containers here in the US. But how did shipping container homes turn into a mainstream trend?

Well we already know that the US army helped establish the shipping container as the standard method of transporting goods on ships (we spoke about this here). During the Vietnam War the US government were looking for a quicker way to ship goods, this is when they adopted the shipping container and its popularity took off after that.

But how did the US army help to put shipping container homes on the map?

During the Gulf War the US army used shipping containers as emergency shelters because they could be quickly converted and easily fortified. Containers were fortified by placing sandbags against the external walls of the containers; this helped to protect against rocket propelled grenades.

After this in 1994 Stewart Brand, an American writer, published a book title ‘How Buildings Learn’. In it, Brand goes on to write ideas about how to convert shipping containers into office space. This was the first real publication which mentions building with shipping containers.

From here shipping container homes started to gain moment and the first completed build we could find on record was the ‘The Simon’s Town High School Hostel’.

The Simon’s Town High School Hostel

The project was conceived when Safmarine donated 40 used shipping container to Simon’s Town High School.

The school wanted to use the containers to build a hostel which was capable of housing 120 people at any given time.

The project cost a total of $227,000 and was ready for its first lodgers on the 30th November 1998.

At the time of construction it was the largest shipping container building in the world.

21st Century Shipping Container Homes

Following the success of the Simon’s Town High School Hostel, in 2006 Peter DeMaria a Californian architect designed the first shipping container home in the US.

Known as the Redondo Beach House, the home was approved under the national Uniform Building Code and was completed in 2007. This was the first ‘real’ shipping container home.

Since then we’ve seen shipping container homes popping up all over the world! Some of the more famous ones include:

Container Guest House (2010)

This home was designed by Texas architect Jim Poteet. It utilises a used 40 foot shipping container which provides around 320 square foot of living space.

Containers of Hope (2011)

Renowned for its incredible cost savings, containers of hope was built in Costa Rica for around $40,000. The home was built using two shipping containers and is passively cooled with a sloped roof.

The Caterpillar House (2012)

This home was designed by Sebastián Irarrázaval and was built in Chile. In total the home used 12 containers and is 3,800 square foot. It was built on a hillside just outside of Santiago- so I’m sure the owners get some incredible views!

The popularity of shipping container homes continues to rise and there appears to be no stopping these sustainable, affordable homes.

As seen on Google Trends it was the Redondo Beach House in 2006 which started the trend and 2014 has been the most popular year for shipping container homes to date!

As shipping container homes popularity rockets, we have seen many other amazing uses of shipping containers including:

  • Restaurants
  • Swimming Pools
  • Schools

If you want to read more about amazing uses of shipping containers take a look at our blog post.

The only question remaining is- when are you going to build your own shipping container home? Let us know in the comments below!

  1. Ylenia

    Hi, I work in a school in the rural area of north Uganda. We are having problems to raise money to build a dormitory for the girls, who are sleeping in a classroom. So I came across thi page talking about using containers to build schools. We don’t have money to pay an architect but I will love to know how we can make a dorm for the girls.

    • Tom

      Ylenia, using containers for construction is an excellent idea. If you can avoid joining together containers, stacking them, and cutting large holes in them, an architect probably isn’t needed. Check out some of our other articles which go into more steps on the planning, design, and building process. It’s a large, but achievable, do it yourself project!

  2. Mark DeMarta

    Hi, Thanks for a great article on shipping container buildings. I first thought about using shipping containers for a house in the 70’s when my neighbor bought one and used it as a tool shed. Later as an architect, I proposed shipping containers in a few design competitions. One proposal was a shipping container vestibule for a school building lobby. i thought it would be fun for the kids to walk through a container into school. This was entered in the New Schools for New York competition in 1989. Another proposal was for the Architecture for Humanity competition, Housing for Kosovo refugees in 1999. There were a few of us who proposed using shipping containers. My scheme involved having knock out panels that would allow joining units together in various configurations after they arrived on site.

  3. Josef Jonas Ashipala

    Hi Thank you for the wonderful story about how to build a Container homes.
    Here in our Country Namibia in Africa,that is not so much in use,is just the
    building contractors who use it for side offices and to store their materials,
    i like to build for me a retirement container home.

    Thank you very much

    • Tom

      Glad you enjoyed it Josef!