Container Homes – Pros, Cons & Cost Comparison
Container homes are exactly what they sound like; homes made from the steel shipping containers that you see carrying goods everywhere on trains, trucks, and ships. From these giant Lego blocks, people are building homes of all shapes and sizes.
The smallest container makes a tiny box of a home at about 100 square feet of floor space. Eight larger containers together can make a two-storey house at about 1400 square feet. Hundreds of container micro-apartments together can make a huge apartment building.
Why are shipping containers being used to make homes, studios, cabins, and offices? Well, with about 14 million ‘out-of-service’ containers in the world, there are lots of them available. And playing with giant blocks has a definite appeal!
Besides trendiness, interest in container homes is also part of a wider interest in saving money with prefabricated and modular homes. Many potential homeowners are looking for lower construction and maintenance costs. There is also a perception that container homes are contributing to recycling.
Could a container home be a good choice for you? Here are some pros and cons to consider.
- Prefab: Many container homes are available as prefabricated modular homes, making construction time shorter. Some companies advertise delivery within 10 weeks! Most of the building code inspections are done at the factory, which makes things simpler and quicker. Or if you are designing a custom home or building a do-it-yourself project, the container gives you a fun prebuilt structure to work with.
- Ease of transport and siting: A worldwide system exists for moving containers around, and once they reach your site they are relatively simple to set in place on a prepared foundation.
- Predictable cost: Most of the work is completed on a factory floor for a fixed price. Delivery to the site, site preparation, foundation, assembly, and utility connections are the only variable costs. That said, container homes are not always less expensive. Estimates vary, and some put the savings at 5-10%, depending on what you’re comparing against.
- Recycling: The environmental appeal of a container home is the idea that you are re-using a leftover product of the shipping industry to make a home. This can be a good thing, but as we will see, it’s not always true or the best thing.
Some of the advantages, like short construction time and predictable pricing, are the same for all prefabricated and modular homes, not just those made with shipping containers. But container homes benefit uniquely from the worldwide infrastructure built to move shipping containers. Even container home skeptics admit they can be very useful in situations where local building expertise is lacking, or for emergency shelters that can be easily and quickly moved. In these scenarios, the versatility of container transport is a huge advantage.
Container homes are often marketed as being environmentally friendly because they are said to be made from used containers, thus conserving metal resources. There are lots of old shipping containers out there, no longer in circulation, and repurposing them into homes has strong appeal. But is a container home really the best use of a container, from a sustainability perspective? Many would disagree.
- Not effective recycling: Most factory-built container homes are built from ‘one-use’ containers that have only had a single trip. These containers tend to be in good shape, without dents or rust, so they are nice for building with, instead of containers that have gone ‘out-of-service’ and may be damaged from years of use. Taking a box with lots of shipping life out of service after a single use isn’t really effective recycling. And there is way more steel in a container than you need to build a house – if recycled as steel it could make enough steel studs for 14 framed houses the same size.
- Structural issues: A shipping container is very strong at the corners, but the roof is not that strong, so typically you need to built another roof over it, especially where there will be snow. Also, the corrugated steel walls are important to the strength of the structure. This means anywhere you cut out a large window or door opening requires new reinforcement. And when they are stacked together to make larger homes, welded (expensive) reinforcement is needed wherever two containers join at a spot that is not a corner. Any later renovations require significant engineering and welding.
- What was in that container? It’s often not possible to know what has been shipped in a used container – anything from harmless consumer goods to hazardous industrial materials – or what the container has been through. And the paints and finishes used on containers are industrial; intended for shipping, not residential homes, so they could contain lead and toxic pesticides.
- Space and shape are quite limiting in containers and can quickly be consumed by plumbing, HVAC, insulation and other systems. A container was designed to fit on a train, which means it’s narrow, and ordinary furniture doesn’t fit right. A standard container is also only 8’6” high, which doesn’t leave much headroom after insulation and wiring are installed.
- Not great insulation: The narrow shape of a shipping container doesn’t lend itself to insulating the exterior very well. To avoid using up interior space, a relatively thin layer of insulation with a high R-value per inch, such as polyurethane spray foam, is often used. Although spray foam is an effective and airtight insulator, the blowing agents used in many brands of spray foam are powerful greenhouse gases, which have a worse impact on climate change than other kinds of insulation. To make a really well-insulated wall, it would be better to build outward for more wall thickness and use a more environmentally sustainable kind of insulation. But then what use is a heavy corrugated steel exterior if it’s buried in insulation?
So what will a container home cost? It depends on so many factors, including size and type of finishes, that every example will be different. There is a report of a simple shipping container home self-built by an engineer in Canada for only $20,000. But a pre-manufactured container home has a price tag that looks more like a regular home.
Here is one example. Honomobo is a builder of pre-designed, factory built container homes based in Edmonton, Canada. They create homes using one to eight containers, with high quality finishes. Their largest model, HO8, is a two-storey home with just over 1400 square feet of floor area.
Estimated cost of construction for two example homes.
You might love to have a container home because you like the idea, the look of it, the chance to play with blocks in a do-it-yourself design, or the quick delivery time for a manufactured model. But don’t assume it will cost less, or that it’s necessarily more environmentally sustainable.