I Wish I’d Known That…People Share Tips on Building a Shipping Container Home
So you’re set on building a new shipping container home? You have an idea of what it looks like and roughly where you want to put it. It isn’t a case of simply buying a number of containers and plonking them into place though – there are a number of things to consider in constructing a container home so that it is safe, secure and has all the amenities you need.
This post looks at the practicalities of building a shipping container home and shares tips from others who have ‘been there, done that’.
9 Container Home Tips That People Have Learned From Experience:
1. Do your research!
Building container homes is now a mature concept with many stunning designs out there to glean ideas from. There is also a lot of expertise and experience out there to save you time and energy as to what can be done and what can’t be done. By knowing what works and what doesn’t, you should be able to run your container home building project from beginning to end with very few hiccups.
Marek Kuziel built his shipping container home in New Zealand in 2009 and said that even with the best research, “Failures along the way are inevitable.” Isn’t it best to make a new mistake rather than the same one as hundreds of other people have done before you?
Marek went on to say, “There isn’t a silver bullet approach to research. I guess the more you know and learn about shipping container homes before you start making decisions will help you to fail less.”
So our advice is to firstly read as much as you can on the subject. If you know someone who has built a container home, have a chat with them. Speak to architects and design engineers who have done it before.
As with any new build, you should have a very good idea about the design of the home before any construction takes place. Steve is a computer programmer from Wisconsin in the United States, and has shared his experience of the highs and lows of building his own shipping container cabin.
Of the design of his new home, Steve said, “Figure out how much space you want, or really need, and start working up a floor plan. For the most part you will be limited to standard shipping container dimensions of 8ft x 20ft or 8ft x 40ft and multiples of these. The simplest arrangement of containers is to line them up as I did, but you are really only limited by your imagination and checkbook.”
For a permanent place of residence, seriously consider getting an architect or building engineer to help with the final plans so you know what you’re doing is safe and strong. Their job is to ensure that homes are safe, warm and legal, and they may be able to give practical insights into what you can do that you may never have thought about in the first place! Before you pay them a visit, you can use Google SketchUp to design your new home in 3-D.
3. Local planning authorities
Planners often have the powers to force you to tear your home down if you haven’t got clearance from the local authority to build your new home. Around the world, millions of dollars and countless dreams have disappeared because people have tried to circumvent local planning regulations or ignored them altogether!
New Zealander Brenda Kelly has long dreamed of building her own container home, and when she finally did it she saw that very small homes in New Zealand don’t need planning consent, so this is why she used a 20ft container for her new home. Even so she said, “If I was building a larger home that requires council consent then I wish I knew more about the application process for a building permit!”
Mads Møller from Danish architects Aarcgency pointed out that building codes and regulations are different in different countries. Mads said, “Building code! What is allowed? Every country has its own sets of rules and standards. This means a container house in US does not look like a container house in Denmark.”
4. Select your contractor
As the saying goes, “Too many cooks spoil the broth”. The same applies to container buildings – the fewer contractors involved in building the home the better. If you can have one main contractor then they can oversee the whole project from beginning to end.
Multiple contractors can clash and cause problems. What happens if the foundations are laid too slowly? The next contractor has to earn their money and may go off to do another job rather than wait around, and only work on your project when they are ready due to delays caused by the previous contractor.
Kam Kasravi built his container home in California, and said in retrospect, “The one thing we would have done differently would have been to find one contractor to help the whole process versus having one for getting and modifying the containers, and another to finish out the interior.”
Here at Gateway Container Sales we put you in touch with all of the people who have expertise in your local area. We can help ensure that you have one contractor from beginning to end and that you don’t fall foul of differing opinions of how to put your dream home or cabin together.
5. Lay your foundations
Gateway Container Sales recently published a blog post looking at your container home’s foundations. This is particularly important as the boxes are made of steel and if placed correctly they can last for decades, but on boggy, moist ground they can rust through quickly.
Depending on where you want to site your container home, you may need different foundations due to the type of ground it is sited on. You should really consult a building engineer about this.
Where concrete piers are usually the best (and cheapest) option you may need a pad or even piles as a foundation for the containers depending on the substrate you’re putting it on. Either way, Steve from Wisconsin said in his experience, “If you decide on some type of poured concrete foundation, then you should plan on embedding steel plates into the concrete where the container corner blocks will rest. This will allow the containers to be welded directly to the concrete foundation.”
In welding it down it shouldn’t move no matter what happens. Unless you’re building a container houseboat, you really don’t want to look out the window one morning to see the scenery’s changed!
Whatever the climate of the region or country you’re setting up your shipping container home in, you must remember that they are only steel boxes and have no insulation whatsoever. This means without added insulation, it will be as hot or cold inside as it is outside. In hotter parts of Australia you could be sitting in a 40C oven in summer! Insulation keeps the temperature down when it gets too hot and keeps it warm when the outside gets cool too.
Condensation is another issue – with the differing temperatures that you will experience, this can form on the walls. Ultimately, water rusts containers and having a consistent temperature within should prevent condensation from attacking your home from the inside out.
Raquel Izurzu is an architect from James & Mau who designed and built the world famous Manifesto House in Chile. She said of the project, “We wish we’d known in cold countries above all, you need to ensure you have proper insulation to protect against condensation.”
Another thing to consider about insulation is that many planning authorities around the world demand that new homes are insulated to certain standards and won’t give you planning consent unless you have designed the insulation into the building from the start.
7. Cutting holes in it?
Containers are a ‘monocoque’ structure, that is, they get their strength from the structural integrity of their walls, pillars and doors. So if you cut a hole in them, perhaps for a window or to remove an internal wall to add space within the building, you’re taking away part of its robustness.
A good container supplier like Gateway Container Sales will ensure that while modifying your container for construction they will put in steel frames where they have cut a hole. This will ensure that the box doesn’t buckle when the cut is made.
Dan Sparks runs a shipping container home design company and he said of this issue, “I think understanding how the structural integrity of them works is very important- i.e. the two long walls are both load bearing and bracing so if you were to cut a hole in one it needs to be compensated.”
With the correct bracing in place the container can still be added to others on site, perhaps with one side taken off for a double width room.
8. Don’t forget plumbing and utilities!
Unless you’re imitating the Pompidou Centre in Paris, plumbing and utilities look best hidden away! Kelly Davies from Travis Price architects in Washington DC built a shipping container apartment complex, and only after construction of the building realised they should have cut holes for plumbing and electricity! She said of her mistake, “ONE thing that would have made a big difference would have been to have all of the plumbing chases cut out of the container floors and ceilings to easily run pipe once they were stacked.”
When building a home from traditional materials, ducting and so on is factored into the design of the house from the start. Containers are pre-built units and such issues are easy to forget at the design stage. It is often cheaper and easier to cut the holes before taking the boxes onto the site rather than preparing them on-site during the first fix stage. In some cases the first fix stage can be done at the workshop as part of the preparations so all plumbing and mains electric is in place before the container is even taken to its final home. Have a chat with us at Gateway Container Sales to see what exactly we can do at the workshops before the container is delivered.
9. To build or not to build a roof?
Steve from Wisconsin pointed out that you may not need a roof at all, as the shipping container is designed to withstand even the harshest weather conditions with no problems at all! However, some people need to feel that they live in a cabin not a box, and since you can add insulation to the roof as well it saves space on the inside of the home in that regard too. Steve said, “Depending on where you build, and how / if your containers are combined, you may not even need a roof. If you do need a roof, or just want one for appearance sake, it’s really not that hard to build one.”
Done your container home research & ready to take the next steps?
Then get in touch with our team of experts at Gateway Container Sales. We have good relationships with experts who can help you design and build your container home in just the way you want, and to the specifications you require. We can help you take the next steps toward building the shipping container home of your dreams!