|Shipping Container House Design with Minimalist Grit by Larry Lucas, AIA|
|About Larry Lucas, AIA|
|About Cisco Containers, L.L.C.|
|About 360 Engineering Group, PLLC|
|Architect||Larry Lucas, AIA|
|Shipping container modifications||Cisco Containers, L.L.C.|
|Structural engineer||360 Engineering Group, PLLC|
|Location||Oklahoma City, Oklahoma|
Josh McBee first saw a shipping container home online one day in late 2012. His one-bedroom apartment in Venice Beach, California was feeling progressively smaller, and the blue guest house he saw online made from a big metal box caught his attention.
“I saw the container guest house in Austin. It was 20 feet long, and I thought to myself, ‘I could live in that full-time,'” he said.
Four years and several moves later, he did just that. McBee is now one of the thousands who are using shipping containers to build homes, and the trend is expected to grow even more. According to Market Watch, shipping containers as homes are expected to increase globally by 6.5% annually from 2019 to 2025.
For McBee, the simplicity of the living area in a container and the low utility costs appealed to him the most.
McBee converted his walk-in closet in the one-bedroom in Venice Beach into his own personal bedroom, and rented out the bedroom to travelers through online couch-surfing and vacation rental sites in 2009. He supplemented his income as an industrial researcher and economic analyst through the rentals.
But that blue shipping container guest house he saw stuck with him. In 2013, he quit his job and spent six months traveling from Lisbon to Tokyo. “I knew I couldn’t go back to Los Angeles, and I couldn’t do a shipping container home there,” he said. “But I could do it in Oklahoma City.”
McBee had a large friend group that lived in Oklahoma and land there was cheap. In 2014, he purchased an empty lot in south Oklahoma City for $2,500, plus realtor costs. “I bought a lot for less than what you would pay for a used car,” he said. “When I moved to Oklahoma City, I went to an architect friend about how to make a container home. We made blueprints and got the correct permits from the city.”
McBee didn’t know anything about construction, but his architect friend knew a professional in neighboring Tulsa who specialized in converting shipping containers into office spaces for industrial operations. “He asked him if he could do it for residential purposes, and he said yes,” McBee said. “The guy got the box from Houston. Any port city is a hotbed to get those containers. Some people say there are over 1 million unused containers out there that can be used for projects like this.”
According to figures from PortTechnology.org, more than 17 million shipping containers are in circulation globally. Of those, more than 5 million are active, and in total, they make around 200 million trips a year, according to Billie Box.
McBee’s box is 40 feet long, 8 feet wide and 9 feet 5 inches tall. As most containers are only 8 feet 5 inches tall, McBee used the extra height for installation of heating and air and for a small attic space. The intermodal shipping container he bought was considered a “one-tripper,” meaning it only made one journey before being put into retirement.
“It had no dents or rust and the seals were still in good shape,” McBee said. “I got the box in 2015, and it was framed out with windows and doors in Tulsa. I had to hire a structural engineer to design the permanent foundation, which is what the city required,” McBee said. “The problem with some tiny houses is that they are usually on wheels, and Oklahoma City considers that to be technically a trailer, like in a trailer park.”
Once the foundation was set, the $4,900 intermodal container was delivered on June 5, 2015. McBee hired licensed professionals to install electric, heating, air conditioning, and plumbing, but did most of the build-out like drywall and the bathroom himself. He moved into the home in April 2016.
“My home is not a house,” he said. “It’s a container home. It’s still very much a big metal box that includes the trappings of a regular house. It has one bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen, a small attic, and a living area.”
The bedroom is separated from the kitchen and living area by a bathroom. McBee still uses his home to host travelers through Couchsurfing.com and AirBnB. Most of his guests sleep in the living room, which includes a full-size pull out bed. He also has a full-sized futon that can be folded out from under his own loft bed, which is like a bunk bed with only the top sleeping area.
“I can stay in the home and host guests at the same time,” McBee said. “The home is actually the same size as the average American hotel room. It’s just long and skinny instead of square.”
Korrie Scott of Lowell, Indiana, was one of McBee’s guests.
“The couch unfolds into a bed with plenty of room to sleep,” she said. “It’s a really cool, unique and clean home.”
Living in Oklahoma City means dealing with the threat of severe weather and tornadoes, but McBee said he has faith that his home can withstand destructive storms. “The cargo doors that came with the box are still operable and I can close them up. When they cut out the sliding doors for the back patio, we put those cut-outs on a rail like a barn door, so I can shut the whole thing up like a turtle,” he said.
Recently, McBee replaced the flooring in the home, but all in all, he said the entire project from start to finish cost approximately $61,000 to $70,000.
“I could have built a traditional house cheaper, but I wanted the durability and the lower energy costs,” McBee said. “I spend less than $25 a month on energy costs. And I wanted a smaller space. I’m not evangelical about tiny living, and I have nothing against anyone living in a big home. I did it because it makes me comfortable. – Business Insider
About Larry Lucas, AIA
Shipping containers belong in a dark, modern version of Dwell magazine featuring Frankenstein’s metro-modular castle. These corrugated units of space are all the rage in print, but they are underrepresented in reality. Point blank, there were no shipping container homes in the Oklahoma City metro in early 2014. That is when I received an email from a childhood friend.
He had heard that I was an architect practicing sustainable design and he wanted to team up to do something new. He had just returned to Oklahoma after living out west and in Asia for several years. Through his travels, he had learned a lot about living lightly and found that a minimalist lifestyle suited him well. He wanted some help designing a small house using recycled shipping containers as the main structure. Sounded interesting!
At the time there had been no other shipping container homes permitted by the Oklahoma City Planning Department. Being first is an adventure, but is kinda tough, since there were no examples nearby to research. We found inspiration online, and began capturing images and details to share. He had a strong start on this and a fundamental idea of his goals, which was very helpful.
Shipping Containers Do not Limit Imagination
Because of their utilitarian nature and basic form, shipping containers can make a wonderful house or just about anything. The best examples of shipping container architecture tend allow the exterior of the container to remain uncovered. They are designed to weather storms on the high seas, so design purists carefully integrate any exterior modifications to match the refined detail of the finished cubes. The most common modifications are typically windows, doors, exterior lighting, canopies, signs, and other functions critical to habitation.
The dimensions of shipping containers (called “cubes” in the industry) are standardized so they can be stacked on ships. All shipping containers are 8′-0″ wide. There are a couple options for both length and height. For this house we had to choose between 20′-0″ and 40′-0″ lengths, and either an 8′-6″ or 9′-6″ height.
The owner and I immediately agreed that the 9′-6″ “high cube” type would be the best option for interior living space. The additional height would give us some flexibility for running interior systems like lighting and air-conditioning. It would give us more flexibility on insulating the space, as well.
The first big decision was whether to use either the 20′-0″ or 40′-0″ length to design the home.
- A 20′ cube would provide about 140 square feet (SqFt) of finished space, after the walls were framed-out and insulated. Even with a sleeping loft – possible in the high-cube type, the owner and I agreed that he would need at least (2) of the 20′-0″ containers.
- A 40′ cube would provide around 280 square feet of finished space. The owner decided that either option would be plenty of space for him. Now I needed to come up with a couple options to choose from.
Initial Shipping Container House Floor Plan Concepts
With the options of either (2) 20′-0″ containers or (1) 40′ container, I began working through several options. My first thoughts were that the two smaller containers presented the most options for layouts on the site. Also, since they are a more manageable size, I had discovered that they might be able to be set on their foundations with a forklift.
The 40 foot option would require less modification, and perhaps be cheaper to finish overall. However, it would also require a crane to set it in place.
In addition to considering the pros and cons of these options, I needed to keep in mind that the owner wanted the house to have a large above-grade deck for the backyard space. This would mean that the container(s) would need to be elevated by at least 18 inches above grade.
Below are the best options we put together for a (2) 20′-0″ layout and (1) 40′-0″ layout respectively.
This is the option for (2) 8′-0″ x 20′-0″ x 9′-6″H containers.
This is the option for (1) 8′-0″ x 40′-0″ x 9′-6″H containers.
As an architect, it is always a challenge to put myself into the mind of my clients. Even though, I like to think of myself as broad generalist – not specializing in one particular type of architecture – my favorite kind of work is residential design. I really love the scale and details, but I most enjoy helping others live a more concerted life.
Transferring another person’s vision and allowing room for their identity to thrive is what it takes to design a home. This is harder than you might imagine, but it is very rewarding when you get it right! Serving another person in this way is not a one way street, and the best residential designs are a product of a team effort.
During the Pre-Design phase, I ask a lot of questions and get to know the owner. I also conduct the background research into an particular kind/type of construction that may be unique to the project. For this particular home, I learned that shipping container homes drift slightly from the intent of most ultra-modern architecture. Beyond the simplicity of style, shipping container architecture packs itself into a form meant to carry goods across the ocean. This strikes me as a cross between adaptive reuse and modular construction, while at a small scale.
Urban Infill Construction is Green
When designing for a practicing Minimalist, less is more. The owner’s immediate goals were to design, build, and inhabit a home that was perfectly scaled to his minimalist preferences. I could tell that he wanted to build simply, and stay conscious of the budget. He had purchased a (50’ x 140’) vacant lot in southeast Oklahoma City, in a humble neighborhood adjacent to the railroad corridor. Except for his vacant lot, the dead-end street was lined with smaller, efficient wood-framed homes built during or just after WWII. There is a large trailer park development immediately south.
The cost of the lot was a very good deal, and as far as site selection, total construction budget, and goals he had found a good fit. I liked the fact that he would be injecting interest into this quaint family neighborhood, and rebuilding where a house had once stood before. In addition to returning the neighborhood density to its optimal level, mixed housing options and good design further strengthen our urban fabric. I was definitely in, and I had some questions.
I began to wonder how were were going to integrate this new kind of home into an everyday, local neighborhood. How do you make it fit aesthetically? Would the city permitting department even allow it as a dwelling? I made a quick call. Beyond that I wondered how do you insulate, or install doors and windows? There were lots of good questions at first, but we needed to figure out a conceptual site arrangement.
Arranging Shipping Containers on the Building Site
We have a couple floor plan options to consider. At first, I was convinced that the two smaller 20’-0” length “high-cubes” (9’-6” height) would be the right option. This gave us lots of interesting ways to arrange them on the site. We looked at an “L” and “T” configuration, and I also considered how we might separate them and build a wood-frame structure between them to create more space.
Although, the owner allowed my analysis of the options for (2) containers, he had a feeling all along that a single 40-footer would require less technical detailing and modifications. In the end, he was right. The singular container option was the simplest idea, and would be the best option to learn more about this kind of residential construction. In his words, “…I want this first project to be as simple as possible, a sort of bare bones attempt just to get it out there and start living in it and demonstrate the possibilities.”
No matter what kind of home you are building the orientation to the sun matters most. For long, skinny homes, the east-west orientation is typically preferred, especially in warmer latitudes. This orientation allows the home’s long south side to gather sunlight all day in winter months when the sun stays lower to the horizon, and it exposes less vertical surface to to sun when it travels high overhead in the summer months.
Since his site was only 50’-0” wide, a 40’-0” container would simply not fit with the required side-yard setbacks, should we want to orient it with the long axis east-west best for winter solar gain. But, should we face the diminutive 8’-0” wide end elevation toward the street? This just did not feel right.
The site analysis revealed that there were some well-established trees along the western property line, to help with the mid-to-late afternoon sun during periods of overheating (when the ambient temperature + additional solar gain cause the most discomfort). After sketching out some quick options for the 40’-0” length shipping container, we found that the site allowed a very compelling layout that seemed to help the container home to integrate into the neighborhood.
By rotating the container on the site we created a strong delineation between front and back yards and streamlined vehicular arrival. We could also take advantage of the low-angle sun for wintertime morning solar gain. Finally, the front of the cube facing toward the NE would never receive direct sun, which would limit overheating in the summer months and work well for his collection of colorful concert posters and graphic art.
Rightsizing American Homes
Although the notion of rightsizing has long been embraced by environmentalists and other sustainable-minded it has become really cool in recent years. Shipping container homes have not always been a thing, you know. The American dream has changed a lot since the expression came into wide use. In the 1950’s, the average American home was slightly smaller than 1,000 square feet (SqFt). You know the cute little house with a white picket fence ? Through the rest of the twentieth century the size of our homes inflated, growing to around 1,500 SqFt in the 1970s and around 2,200 SqFt by the year 2000. We hit critical mass in 2013, when the average size of our new homes exceeded 2,500 SqFt. Fortunately we have been on a downward trajectory since then.
The Tiny House Movement is a product of the real estate bust and The Great Recession. When you are overextended and lose your home, you have to learn to live within your means very quickly! During this time many of us realized that the American dream should be about experiencing and doing rather than having and accumulating.
In 2013 my wife and I chose to downsize from our 2,600 SqFt, 1974 rustic-ranch style home to a more affordable 1,500 SqFt, 1955 post-war bungalow in the same neighborhood. We were planning to start a family and we wanted to reduce our expenses, so that she could stay home with the baby. I like to think of this kind of smart thinking as rightsizing. We chose to live within our means, so that we could enjoy life a little more.
Of course, trends in our culture dictate that anything worthwhile be taken to the max. In an effort to be free from large mortgages, many folks went as small as possible. Can you imagine moving from a 2,500 SqFt McMansion down to a 250 SqFt trailer parked behind McDonalds? This was the kind of radical change happening 10 years ago. Now we have Tiny Houses on wheels, small house books over-filling the library shelves, and several television shows showcasing little cuties of all kinds. How small you go is really up to you.
Rightsizing or Income with ADUs
We are also seeing a shift in local politics across the country – though faster in more progressive urban areas. Micro-Cottages, Granny-flats, and Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) are becoming adopted as an approved method to increase the density in historic district revitalization and Smart Growth, in general.
The cities of Austin and Seattle have some example programs worth exploring.
Seattle’s Guide to Building a Backyard Cottage has some nice ADU examples in a variety of configurations.
Austin’s Alley Flat Initiative has taken a sustainable approach to allow homeowners to build an accessory dwelling unit for rental income or housing for extended family.
This kind of work has a similar impact to the shipping container home in Oklahoma City. In the right configuration and good detailing, shipping containers might serve as excellent ADUs in established neighborhoods. They can also serve an wonderful backyard guest houses, studios, pool structures, and other creative uses.
Minimalist or Average
Inevitably, you will have to make the decision on how small your rightsized home should be. For my shipping container property owner, his minimalist inclinations did not include any concessions regarding space. 270 SqFt is a lot of room, when you don’t keep the things in your life that are 1) not useful, or 2) not beautiful. That is the biggest lesson I learned from my work with him, and it is something that I am reminded of in my daily life.
Fortunately the site layout reinforced the owner’s ideal of minimalism for the home. He had a vision that this project was going to only be the first project of more to come. Next time we will dive into basic container modifications. I also want to introduce you to the property owner and share more about his plans for “growing” more of these container homes. There might be one just for you!
Here are a few interior pictures from the “lived in” container home.
Unique Foundation Design
First, lets look at how our foundation design coordinates with the integral structure of a shipping container. Since the owner wanted to elevate the container, we had to make some decisions about how to support it. At a preliminary plan inspection with the city permitting department, we learned that we needed to have a structural engineer’s design and certification for this type of concrete stem-wall foundation. Essentially, anything that is not a slab-on-grade (with the city’s pre-approved minimum reinforcing) has to be engineered.
To support the 40’-0” high cube our design concept was simply three independent, parallel stem walls. To add some drama to the design, the stem walls were “V” shaped at the top, with the center point being 1’-6” lower than the bearing points on the sides. At these (6) bearing points the engineer specified embedded steel plates, and a pretty cool layout for the reinforcing. The container would be welded to the these plates once it was set in place by a crane. The “V” shape also gave us some room to to route potential pipes and wires, as well as allowing some elbow room for insulating under the floor.
Kudos to 360 Engineering Group, PLLC in Tulsa for assuring our concept came to life in the most economical way!
Shipping Container Integral Structural System
For a 40′-0″ high-cube container there are (4) integral bearing points at the bottom and top corners. These corner bearing points have holes for locking one container to the next for secure transport. They can also be used to attach crane rigging and swing containers over obstacles or onto raised foundations – like this container house.
Containers are designed to span their entire length without intermediate support. An unmodified container acts as tubular beam, and top, bottom, and sides work in synergy to allow a full-length unsupported span.
In our design’s development, we chose to add a center support. We were going to be modifying the container by removing some sections in the corrugated sidewalls. Although there is a chance that the tube steel frames that surround any modified openings would make up the lost strength and stability, structural logic dictated that dividing the effective length of the span half would be the best way to make this home really sturdy.
The following diagrams are for a standard 20′-0″ container.
Shipping Container Modifications
Shipping containers are made to haul heavy loads and are pretty darn strong until you begin removing large sections of the side or roof panels. Tulsa shipping container modifier Michael Cisco of Cisco Containers, LLC, completed all the modifications on this container, and installed the windows and doors before shipping it to Oklahoma City.
The owner and I both enjoyed the experience working with him on a custom project. We quickly learned that if you can dream it up, Michael and his team can do it. I still follow his work on Facebook and Instagram and am continually impressed by the quality of their work. Here are a couple shop photos of the finished container before it was shipped to the site.
Who is this man behind the curtain? My answer: someone pretty good at living with a light footprint on the earth! In this way he is everyone’s brother, and a smart one too. Being able to rightsize one’s home instead of becoming house poor is a lesson we all should consider before wasting a lot of money.
Josh and I grew up in the same church together, were both Poteau Pirates, and both Oklahoma Sooners. I have been advertising this post series as containing “minimalist grit” and I just trusted my gut on that word selection. I think it get this sense of him from the fact that he is willing to get his hands dirty while exploring non-conventional ideas through to completion.
During our work together in the design process, Josh set up his website and blog to unlock the process of designing and building his own home. As the narrator to the process, his practical perspective resonates deeper into why minimalism works for him. It is not just about having less stuff. It is about taking an active role in the “living” part of life, and the independence that comes from making and doing for oneself.
About Larry Lucas, AIA
Larry Lucas, AIA, CPHC, LEED AP, is the architect with a green heart. His background in sustainability and community-based design give him a unique vantage point.
I am passionate about projects that empower others to renew their homes, neighborhoods, and downtowns from the inside out. I believe that community-wide transformation begins inside each of our hearts and leads us to offer a hand or give back to our community. My work with the Colorado Main Street Program allows me to work alongside those who embody this ideal. My blog “Green Heart Town” is a forum to cultivate this unique perspective.
About Cisco Containers, L.L.C.
Experience is a valuable asset. Specializing in modifications for over 10 years we have learned the craft of working with containers. It has led us to projects big and small. We like to express to customers that we are willing to do as little or all that is needed to fit their project needs. Our in-house design capabilities can turn your ideas into a quality finished product. Take a look at the projects below. Please feel free to contact us to discuss your project.
|Address||17515 E Admiral Pl, Tulsa, OK 74116, United States|
About 360 Engineering Group, PLLC
|Address||1201 E 3rd St, Tulsa, OK 74120, United States|
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
|Address||800 Dean A McGee Ave, Oklahoma City, OK 73106, United States|
|Address||429 Houston St, Manhattan, KS 66502, United States|