When Should I Not Build With Shipping Containers?

Posted By: August 14, 2017 In Guides

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Shipping container homes have become increasingly popular over the last decade.

We all know that building with shipping containers can be cheap, good for the environment and fast.

However, there are times when you absolutely should not use shipping containers to build your home.

The same goes for any building material, sometimes you just shouldn’t use it. For instance you wouldn’t build with wood in areas known for bad storms.

In this article I will outline some of the cases when you should absolutely not build a home using shipping containers.

Living In Coastal Areas

There are certain environmental conditions in which shipping containers don’t make the ideal building material for a home.

For example, anywhere on a coastline can be problematic for shipping containers homes.

Coastal Shipping Container HomeThis is because coastal areas have a large amount of salt in the air. The high salt content is caused by the salt spray from breaking waves. The spray is then blown inland by costal winds.

The salt then accelerates the corrosion process and can cause irreparable damage to shipping containers if left untreated.

The speed of corrosion of your shipping containers is accelerated depending on: the salt content in the air, temperature, and how long the metal surface stays wet.

The more salt, the warmer temperature and the longer your containers are damp for, the faster the corrosion will occur.

It’s claimed that sea air can corrode steel up to 10 miles in land.

Now, as you’re probably aware shipping containers are made from Cor-Ten steel. This helps to protect them against corrosion, it does not mean they are 100% rust proof.

Cor-Ten steel is still sensitive to high salt air environments and needs to be regularly treated to ensure it does not corrode.

You can treat it using specialist paint which helps provide a level of protection against corrosion.

I should also mention here that containers with dents, scuffs and cuts are most likely to corrode as they are exposed. So if you are building with used shipping containers you should immediately, seal, paint and rust proof the affected areas.

If you love the look of shipping containers and still want to build in a coastal area you can, however you need to make sure your containers are well maintained and have enough rust prevention paint applied at all times.

Lack of Local Skills

Welding Shipping ContainerNow clearly, this constraint is only applicable if you’re intending to build your container home using contractors.

If you intend to build your shipping container home yourself, then lack of local experience with shipping container construction is not a problem.

However, the majority of people building their own shipping container home will most likely need to contract in some external skills at some point during the build.

There are a lot of skills needed to build a container home (welding, insulation, structural engineering etc.) and it’s rare that any one person possesses all the skills needed. I spoke about this in my previous article, shipping container home contractors.

Therefore, you will need to contract these skills in during your build. If you’re unable to weld and there are no welders in your local community then your build is a non-starter!

Some of the skills required don’t need to be in your immediate local area. For instance, both architects and structural engineers can be distance based as they do not need daily access to the build.

You should make sure that before you attempt to build with shipping containers that you have access to the relevant skilled labor market.

If you don’t have access to contractors then shipping container home construction isn’t for you, unless you have a large budget and are willing to spend.

Seeking Large Open Plan Spaces

Large Open Plan RoomOne of the best things about building with a shipping container is that you already have a useable structure right away. You have walls, floor and a roof.

Now clearly you will want to cut into the container to make openings for your windows and doors and also to slightly change the layout.

That’s fine.

However, what you don’t want to do is remove too much steel from the containers.

When you remove steel from the containers, you will weaken the structural integrity of them. If you remove too much steel you will have to reinforce the containers with I-Beams.

This can be expensive, because not only will you need to purchase I-Beams, you will have to pay for a structural engineer to calculate the load bearing capabilities and requirements.

I can’t say how much it will cost, because it will vary significantly depending on the amount of modifications made and the size of the openings cut.

However I can say it’s something you should be aware of before starting your build.

Shipping container home builds work best when you use what you have and build spaces congruent with shipping containers.

When you start to look to build shapes and sizes which don’t conform to shipping containers you are going to rapidly increase the build cost.

Generally speaking if you’re looking to build a large open plan home, with unique shapes and sizes then shipping containers probably aren’t for you.

No Local Access to Containers

Shipping ContainersI’ve long advocated that one of the best reasons to build with shipping containers is the environmental benefit.

Tens of thousands of shipping containers lay abandoned in US ports alone.

With each container weighing around 3500KG.

This means each time a shipping container is used as a home, 3500KG of steel is recycled. Without them being used as homes, the containers would otherwise lay in ports rotting away.

Building homes with them gives them a second life.

So, if your reason to building a container home is to be eco-friendly, then you should only do so by sourcing shipping containers locally.

Why?

Importing containers from another state or country could outweigh any positive environmental benefits from recycling.

Now this isn’t to say you shouldn’t build using imported containers or new containers, you absolutely should and there are benefits to this. However if your soul purpose is to make an eco-build then I’d recommend only using locally sourced containers.

You should also read 15 Ways To Make Your Shipping Container Home More Eco-Friendly.

You Don’t Like Their ‘Style’

In my experience shipping container homes have a polarizing effect. Generally people either love them or they hate them.

As with many things this is just human nature as we express a preference, or lack of preference, for a certain thing.

Shipping container homes at their core tend to have an ‘industrial’ feel. In fact many people who build their own container home play on this and leave elements of the shipping container exposed to enhance this ‘industrial’ feel.

For these people it’s a key reason why they build with shipping containers; for instance Brenda Kelly in the video below.

However, some people just don’t like this style. If you’re one of these people I would recommend you don’t build with shipping containers.

Whilst you can certainly clad the shipping containers and change their external and internal appearances, if you fundamentally don’t like the shape and style of containers builds, I wouldn’t.

For instance if you didn’t like the appearance of a log home, you wouldn’t build a log home to clad it in bricks…

You can’t completely remove the ‘industrial’ feel of a shipping container home, so if you don’t like this style, then you’re going to be disappointed when you finish your build.

Summary

I hope this article has shown you that shipping containers shouldn’t be used in absolutely every build situation.

Like any building material, the relevant pros and cons of the building material should be weighed up in context with the local build environment.

Whilst I’m a huge advocate for shipping container home construction, I’m also honest about their shortcomings and I’ve tried my best to detail them in this article.

Some of the major shortcomings being: not to build in coastal areas without adequate protection, and also to be aware of local skilled labor shortages if you’re relying on contractors.

Are there any other reasons why you wouldn’t build with shipping containers? Let us know in the comments section below…


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Comments
  1. Ivan Klymchuk

    Are there any problems/concerns if I insulate the outside of the container, essentially having the container itself as the interior finish. I would consider spray foam on the entire exterior surface and then an exterior panel applied over that. Perhaps something like a Hardy board product.

    • Tom

      Hi Ivan,

      I’ve seen this done several times before, no problem providing the ventilation is adequate.

      Tom

  2. Ken Jackson

    Getting ready to start our build in NE OK. How necessary is it that we insulate the bottom of the containers? We are setting 2-45’s together on the ground and 1 on top.
    Thanks, Ken

    • Tom

      Hi Ken,

      You can build successfully without doing this, but it’s my preferred option…

      Tom

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