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How to Build a Shipping Container Home

12.12.2013 - Posted by Updated On 12.12.2013    

There are a lot of reasons that people build homes out of shipping containers, ranging from the very practical reasons, to the very creative reasons. No matter that your agenda is there are a lot of industry experts, literature, and tools designed for shipping container homes that can help to get you started.

While reading this article, please keep in mind that just like building a traditional home, each container home is unique to the home owner and location and this should be taking as a rough timeline for your project, not a “fixed in stone” execution manual.

1. Planning, Design, and Permits

As with any type of construction or renovation project, it’s better to take a step back and design the end product before you start. If you already have a piece of land in mind, check with the local authorities to see if there are any specific requirements for new construction in the area. If there are, it will be required that you comply with those guidelines or you won’t be able to build your container home.

Once you have the local guidelines in hand you can begin designing your container home. At this point you may want to consult with a local expert or architect, or if you have existing knowledge in this area you may be able to tackle everything as a DIY or weekend warrior project. Be sure to consider electrical and water service. Even if you plan to build your home off the grid, if you or anyone in the future wants to finance the property these features will most likely be required.

After you have your plans fully laid out you will most likely need to submit them to the local building inspector so that they can verify that everything is safe and complaint with the local regulations. Given that it’s a home built from shipping containers you may need to provide some extra education on the subject, depending on how comfortable the inspector is with container housing.

2. Foundation and Building

A strong foundation is the key to any long standing structure. Without it, you could be left with uneven floors, leaks, and long terms problems that will require more and more money to fix both the symptoms and the core problem itself.

Depending on what the climate and soil composition is like where you’re building, there are several different types of foundation that you can build. Most times you’ll want to stick with the standard type of foundation for the area, either a traditional block foundation with a basement or crawlspace, concrete pillars, or a full concrete pad. These two articles outline the basic process in laying a foundation for a shipping container building.

3. Buying the Containers, Modifications and Pre-Fabrication Work

There are many places on the internet and in your local area that sell shipping containers, and it's best to find affordable containers near you, or the mill that will be doing the modification work to save on travel costs. Of course, we recommend starting your search for shipping containers for sale on ContainerAuction.com.

Again, depending on the location of your project and the scope of build out that you’re working towards, it could make sense to have some of the container modification work done off site. Just as modular housing is completed in a factory type setting to keep the cost low, it’s possible to have the basic components of your container home built in a factory setting to achieve the same benefit. The up-side to this type of construction is that all of the people, tools, and equipment are on-site; so nothing has to be moved to your location, only to be moved back again at a later time. This is especially beneficial if your home is building assembled in a remote location like the mountains or desert.

Interior framing of walls, doors, and cabinetry work is good to install in a factory, however there will be little shifting and stress during the transportation phase, so it’s best to only rough in the walls and not completely finish any drywall or plaster.

shipping container prefab work

Along with the walls, it’s very cost effective to install any heating and cooling duct work, electrical and plumbing services, and insulation into the container at the factory or mill. All of these services can be roughed in based on the designs and tied into the electrical grid and water services once on-site.

One of the important things to remember is that if you do work off of your building site, the original strength of the container could be changed with the sides or floors are cut. As long as the rails and corners are unaltered, you should be safe; however take extra precautions when moving the containers at all times.

4. Transportation, Setting, and Securing to the Foundation

Transporting your container home will most likely be done with a standard 40’ flatbed truck or chassis, and you’ll need a crane or large forklift onsite to take the containers off the truck. If you plan on building a two story structure you will need a crane on site without a doubt. The crane will allow you to hold the container level, in position while welding the castings and rails to the foundation and ground floor containers.

shipping container delivery with a crane

5. Windows, Doors, and Finishing Work

Once the shipping container home is securely fastened to the permanent foundation you can begin to install the windows, doors, and then finish off the interior walls.

Windows and doors should be given special attention when installing because it’s not advised to use wooden frames for either. Given the frame and steel walls are much more rigid, many of our container builders and architects will advise you to use steel frames for both the windows and doors. The steel structure will securely hold everything in place with more strength, and won’t rot or decay in the future.

The interior walls can be finished out just as they would in a traditional stick built home. Once the doors and windows are in place drywall can be installed to cover the wood or aluminium framed walls and close off the individual rooms.

All that’s left before the final inspection and (hopefully) approval are installing the interior fixtures, flooring, and furniture.

6. Inspections and Final Occupancy Permit

During the course of the construction the township or municipality may require periodic, stages inspections for the foundation, electrical, and plumbing. The final occupancy permit comes once all of the components of the house are compliant with the local requirements. As long as you’ve followed the original design that was approved prior to construction there should be no problem with having your shipping container home approved for residence.



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