When Should I Not Build With Shipping Containers?

Posted By: August 14, 2017 In Guides

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

Shipping container homes have become increasingly popular over the last decade, and we’ve covered a few of the reasons why.

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

The same goes for any almost building material.  There are situations in which certain materials and constructions techniques are not bet suited.  Yes, with enough time and money you can ‘make it work’, but it may not be the ideal solution.  For instance, you might not want to build with wood in areas known for bad storms.

In this article, we’ll outline a few cases that are not an ideal application for 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 coastal winds.

Salt accelerates the metal corrosion process and can cause irreparable damage to shipping containers if left untreated.  In addition, damp air and warm temperatures are also contributing factors to metal corrosion.

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

As you’re probably aware, most shipping containers are made from Cor-Ten steel. This material is designed to develop an outer weathered layer that protects the underlying steel against corrosion.  While Cor-Ten steel does reduce corrosion, it is not 100% rust proof.

Cor-Ten steel is still sensitive to high salt air environments and needs regular attention to reduce corrosion.  This includes prevention of water pooling and ideally using a corrosion preventing coating.

Note that containers with dents, scuffs and cuts are more likely to corrode as they have areas with bare metal exposed. If you are building with used shipping containers, you should immediately, seal, paint, and rust proof the affected areas.

If you love the idea of shipping container structures and still want to use them 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.

Shipping containers are, after all, designed primarily to be used on ships crossing the ocean.  Doing this is hard on them, and today’s new containers quickly become tomorrow’s rusty old containers without proper maintenance.

Lack of Local Skills

Welding Shipping ContainerThis constraint is only applicable if you’re intending to have contractors build your container home.

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

However, a majority of people building their own shipping container home will still likely need some contractor help during their project.

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

Some of these skills are irrespective of if the home is traditional construction or not, while others are influenced quite a bit by your home being build using a shipping container.  All things being equal though, a contractor who has worked with containers before, or at least with steel buildings, is better suited to help you.

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.  Although, it’s best to find professionals in your region, as their government licenses may only allow them to work in the same state/area.

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

If you don’t have access to experienced contractors then shipping container home construction may not be for you, unless you are willing to pay to have experts travel in from out of town.

Seeking Large Open Plan Spaces

Large Open Plan RoomOne of the best things about building with a shipping container is that on day one, you already have a usable weather-tight structure. You have walls, floor and a roof.

Most people will want to cut into the container to make openings for a few windows and doors.  That’s fine.

However, what you don’t want to do is remove too much steel from the containers.  Doing so weakens the structural integrity of the container and will require additional structural support.

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

The cost of this can vary significantly depending on the number of modifications made and the size of the openings cut.  We’re not saying it’s impossible, but it’s something you should be aware of before starting your build.

Shipping container home builds work best when your room spaces don’t exceed the dimensions of the containers they are in.

When you 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 may not be for you unless you’re prepared to pay quite a bit to get that ‘container look’.

No Local Access to Containers

Shipping ContainersWe’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 thousands of pounds.

This means that each time a shipping container is used for a home, tons of steel are recycled that would otherwise lay in ports rotting away.

Building homes with them gives them a second life.

So, if your part of your reason for 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.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t build using imported containers or new containers.  In fact, there are benefits to this. However, if your sole purpose is to make an eco-friendly structure, sourcing containers from a great distance may defeat the purpose.  In this case, look for the closest suitable containers to you.

You Don’t Like Their ‘Style’

Shipping container buildings often 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 idea or style.

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

For these people, it’s a key reason why they build with shipping containers.  Brenda Kelly discussed this preference in the video below:

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

You can certainly clad the exterior of shipping containers and change their internal appearances to the point that it’s not evident that a container lies underneath.  However, if you fundamentally don’t like the shape and style of containers builds, it’s not a good or efficient idea to start with a container.

For instance, if you didn’t like the appearance of a log home, you wouldn’t build a log home only to clad it in bricks.  While it’s possible, it’s not prudent.

Summary

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

While we are huge advocates for shipping container building construction, we’re also honest about their shortcomings and know they aren’t the best choice for every situation.

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

Comments
  1. 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

  2. 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

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