5 Mistakes To Avoid When Building A Shipping Container Home

5 Mistakes To Avoid When Building A Shipping Container Home

Posted By: August 19, 2015 In Featured

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

Over the last several years the trend of building a home out of shipping containers has taken off.

This trend isn’t surprising considering that container homes are eco-friendly, affordable, incredibly strong and easy to build with.

When you look at good examples of shipping container homes you find homes that were built extremely fast and for a small amount of money.

However, there are also examples of container homes which have failed because their owners have made simple mistakes which you need to avoid.

Today we have put together the top 5 mistakes you can make when building a shipping container home.

Make sure you read the list to find out which mistakes you too should avoid.

1. Buying the Wrong Type of Shipping Container

The biggest mistake people make when building their shipping container home is purchasing the wrong type of shipping container. In fact this was the most common response I received when interviewing 23 shipping container home owners.

Most of the people I interviewed had built their home using regular height shipping containers, only to find out halfway through building that there are ‘high cube’ containers which are an additional foot in height.

Example Of High Cube Container

High Cube Container Height Difference

Regular shipping containers are 8 foot 6 inches in height, whereas high cube containers are 9 foot 6 inches tall.

You can learn more about shipping container sizes here.

Adding a foot to the height of your ceiling is perfect for people looking to insulate the ceiling of their container without sacrificing on head room.

In a traditional container if you insulate the ceiling you would only have a ceiling height of 7 foot. Whereas in a high cube container you can fit insulation to the ceiling and still have an 8 foot ceiling height.

High cube containers tend to be only an additional $1000 which is cheap considering the benefits they offer.

Buying Used Containers

The other crucial mistake people make is purchasing their containers online or on the telephone without seeing the containers in person first.

If you purchase containers without seeing them first, you run the risk of ending up with old beat up containers which are going to cost you money to repair.

Old Rusty Shipping Containers

Even if you have seen photos of the containers, it isn’t the same as seeing the containers in person.

Actually seeing the containers in person means you can check for things such as damp and corrosion which can be easy to miss when you’re only looking at photos.

Make sure to check out our pre-purchase container inspection checklist before you view your containers.

If you absolutely can’t inspect your containers in person before you buy them, make sure to ask for photos of all corner joints and also underneath and above the containers. You can then perform an inspection of the photos using the checklist mentioned above.

2. Not Researching Local Planning Regulations

Just about the worst feeling in the world is when you’re told your house doesn’t comply with local planning regulations and you’re told you need to take it down.

This can be avoided if you get in touch with your local public works building division before you start building and discuss your shipping container home with them.

Before you meet your local public works building division you need to have a very good idea of what it is you want to build, and also have a plot of land ready to build your container home on.

Not Researching Local Planning Regulations

This normally means having scaled architectural drawings and foundation plans drawn up before you meet your local planning department. The planning application can take anywhere from 8-13 weeks and cost several thousand dollars.

Unfortunately each country has its own rules and standards so there is no one approach fits all when applying for planning permission.

However in the US certain areas fall outside of city zoning- this means you don’t need a permit to build a shipping container home there. If you are in such an area consider yourself very lucky!

Though in most cases in the US you will need certain permits so make sure you do your research first.

The key thing to take away is: don’t start building until you have properly researched your local planning laws and acquired the relevant permits. You don’t want to end up like this person, who had to take down their $1.5 million home because they didn’t apply for a permit.

3. Using the Wrong Type of Insulation

The biggest mistake people make with insulation is not considering their local climate.

For instance in areas with lots of rain, you need to ensure your insulation provides you with a seamless vapour barrier- so you would need to use spray foam.

Shipping Container Home- Spray Foam Insulation

Image From Larry Wade

Whereas in very warm, dry climates your insulation should focus on keeping your container home cool so generally you wouldn’t want a seamless vapour barrier.

There is no one correct approach when it comes to insulation- it depends on many things: the local climate, your budget, the container’s age, and the style of home you want.

Whilst most people agree that spray foam insulation is the best to use in most circumstances, it certainly isn’t a panacea which can be used in all circumstances. There are many other types of insulation you can use instead such as insulation panels, blanket insulation and even eco-friendly insulation such as recycled newspapers.

Choosing the correct type of insulation to use is crucial because if you are using the wrong type of insulation, or worse yet, don’t have any insulation, you are going to face lots of problems.

Your container home will be freezing in winter and too hot during summer but your biggest concern is condensation and damp.

Condensation Windows

Condensation can cause your containers to rust- this is very expensive to repair and can take a lot of time.

If you aren’t familiar with insulation methods and techniques make sure to read our beginners guide to insulating a shipping container home.

4. Cutting Too Much Steel Out Of Containers

The fourth most common mistake people make is: cutting too much steel off their shipping containers.

The great thing about shipping containers is that they are incredibly strong. In fact they can be stacked up to eight containers high when they are fully loaded!

Shipping containers are the perfect building block to use for fast, affordable construction.

Unfortunately some people over modify their containers; this severely reduces their structural integrity and strength.

What’s meant by ‘over modify’ is to cut too much steel out of the containers.

By cutting out large sections of steel from the container you are reducing its strength. This means that you will incur additional costs because you will need to reinforce the containers with steel beams.

You will also need to weld the steel beams in place which can further add to your costs and is also very time consuming.

Don’t get too concerned though, you can remove sections of steel for your windows and doors, however when you remove entire walls (like in the image below) you will need to use support beams.

5. Choosing the Wrong Builder/Contractor

The last mistake we are going to look at is: people choosing the wrong contractor to build your shipping container home.

Lots of people like to build their shipping container home themselves, however people without the time or DIY know-how will need to get a contractor to build their home.

When you choose a contract you need to make sure that they have experience building with shipping containers, or, at the very least understand shipping container homes and are enthusiastic to build one.

The last thing you want is a builder who doesn’t understand shipping container homes- this will cost you time, money and certainly won’t be exceptional quality.

If your contractor doesn’t have experience in shipping container homes or modular building, it’s likely they will make mistakes and this will cost you time and money.

Also, make sure you choose a contractor who is able to follow the build all the way through. You don’t want to use multiple contractors throughout the build as this will create unnecessary problems and issues.

So there are the top 5 mistakes people make when building a shipping container home.

Let us know below what mistakes you made building your shipping container home…

  1. Kamille


    We live by the beach and have regular typhoons. What are things to look out for and are container vans even an option for us?

    • Tom

      They are certainly an option for you still. Remember, containers are used on ships where they are exposed to high winds and salt spray daily. The three major things to keep in mind are: (1) ensuring the container is rust proofed and coated so there is no bare metal. This is obviously more of a concern for used containers than new ones (2) ensuring the container is adequately attached to the ground. Containers are very heavy, but they can move with flooding and high winds. The corner attachment points need to be anchored to the foundation securely (3) every penetration made in the container for windows and doors weakens the structure and provides a less durable surface for flying debris in the case of a severe storm. Consider having metal storm doors that cover the windows and doors, and additional structural members to account for material that is removed for penetrations.

  2. Neddy

    Hi, I just read the questions and I wondered about the one that Bruce Anderson asked about laying the container on it’s side to get a 9’6″ floor. I am guessing that the normal floor of the container is somehow different than the walls, besides just that they seem to have a wood floor on top of the shell. Does any one know how the floor is different so maybe the wall could be beefed up to become the floor. I love the idea of having an extra 1.5 feet in width. thx, Neddy

    • Tom

      That’s a bad idea. Shipping containers are designed for vertical loading. Turning them 90 degrees on their side completely changes how the structure is loaded. Additionally, the wall and floor are completely different: the wall is just a single piece of corrugated sheet metal, unable to support anything close to the load of a floor. The plywood floor you see has substantial structural members underneath it (just look on the underside of a container to see).

  3. Jayne

    Living in the wettest side of Big Island, HI
    After reading this article foam insulation seems the best bet for mold/condensation?

    • Tom

      Aloha! Yes, closed cell foam insulation is usually the best bet. It can contour to the corrugated steel walls preventing air gaps, and it’s fairly impermeable and thus will not become saturated with moisture. It also has just about the highest R-value per inch.

  4. Tommy

    Whats the maximum number of containers that can be stacked vertically, without compromising the stability of the overall structure?/

    • Tom

      The highest container stack you typically see in port situations is nine containers, although this is with ‘static loads’. When human occupants are involved, this becomes ‘dynamic loading’ as the forces on the container change as you move yourself and furniture around the containers. We’ve never seen a house with anywhere near nine containers stacked on each other though. If you look closely, most large stacks for human occupancy have a separate steel structure that supports the containers, instead of simply stacking them. In short, for any complicated stacking, we recommend speaking with a structural engineer to ensure the project is safe.

  5. Loycee

    I am trying to start a shipping container home I have no idea on how to cut them out I was gonna take the whole wall out the middle glad I came across this site how do I join them together and how should I cut it out I want the two end rooms to go across both container how is this done

    • Tom

      Loycee, the most common ways to cut the walls out of a shipping container are as follows, in order of speed: plasma cutter, acetylene torch, abrasive cut-off wheel in a grinder. Joining the containers together requires welding some addition metal in the gap around the periphery of your cut. Be sure to seal the new opening well to prevent moisture intrusion and air leakage. Most important is adding structural reinforcement to offset the removed metal. This depends a lot on the design of your particular home, so it’s best to ask a structural engineer for specifics on this reinforcement.

  6. Scott

    Can I remove the gable ends of a shipping container . One end will be for a fixed window . The other end will. E for a window and door . Will I need to structurally stiffen the steel frame of the container if I do this ?

    • Tom

      Hi Scott,

      I have seen this done before and yes the ends needed to be reinforced. I can’t advice you on the specifics though as I’m not entirely sure what you have in mind.


  7. Bruce Anderson

    I came to your blog when searching for an answer to my question – has anyone experience of turing a highcube container on it’s side? I am attracted to getting a 9’6″ wide floor, and appreciate it will lower the ceiling height, but can live with that, if the structure can stand it.

  8. Audie

    I am in the process of joining two 40′ shipping containers. I am cutting out 20′ in the middle to have a large 20’x16′ center room and 4 smaller 10’x8′ rooms. I am considering an exterior spray on foam insulation with an elastomastic artic white coating. (New Mexico) any recommendations on the insulation?

  9. Elaine

    Do I need to insulated the ceiling as well as the walls? I live in oklahoma. Thank you in advance.

    • Tom

      Hi Elaine,

      There are no yes/no answers. It really depends on the R value you’re looking to reach.

      With that being said, generally I recommend people insulate their ceilings…


  10. rita

    Hello, if I wanted to link 2 containers (one is 40×8 foot, and the other is 20×8 foot), in a way that the a long elevation of the second container is is completely open, will it affect ob the strength of the containers? Thank you.

    • Tom

      Hi Rita,

      Yes it will impact on the structural integrity of the containers. You will need to reinforce the opening if you’re planning to remove the entire side wall.


  11. Rachael Myers

    We’d like to have two 40-foot containers on the first floor and two of the same perpendicular on the second floor. (creating a courtyard/atrium of sorts. How wide apart can the containers be placed apart/span with and without a support column. Can we create a full 24×24 courtyard or will it need to be smaller or have a lot in the way of support columns to support a glazed roof over the whole thing? Thank you.

    • Erick

      Hi Rachael,
      It would be in your best interest to get an engineer to draw up plans on any structure that will be more than one floor, also if it is going to support any type of other structure on top of it.

  12. Bill Wischmeyer

    What is the weight of a shipping container? 20’x9’x8′.

    • Tom

      Hi Bill,

      A 20ft high cube container unloaded will weigh around 2,350kg.


  13. Dianne

    Hi Tom, I just joined minutes ago. I want to erect a 4-5 family building on what now is occupied by a 3 family home with ample room in both front and back yards. I am reading everything and know that I first must contact my local zoning board for clarification as to what they will and won’t allow. Thank you for be an enthusiast. I am going to need one. Talk to you soon. Dianne

    • Tom

      Hi Dianne,

      Thank you for deciding to join us!

      Please keep in touch and be sure to email us if you have any questions,


  14. Silvia

    What about to remove the complete ceiling to add a second container and then get a living room double height?

    • Tom

      Hi Silvia,

      You can do this yes- this is a great idea!


  15. Steve

    There is no single or simple answer to that question as it is too generic. There is no safe amount it depends on where you are taking it out. Let’s say you cut a square foot out of a corner, that could be really really bad. Whereas cutting a square foot from a side could be done and have no problem. It really needs to be evaluated against what it is you are trying to accomplish. A door and window, for example, have it’s own framing to support it and can be done relatively safely. But again it depends on where they are taken from leaving us with the only safe answer not having enough detail as – there is no amount of steel that can be safely removed without the specifics.

  16. Sara

    Does anyone know what is the maximum amount of steel that can be removed from a shipping container without compromising its structure?