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In this era of being environmentally aware, reducing waste, recycling and upcycling everything around us, cutting CO2 and fuel consumption with reduced transportation, and not wanting to waste building materials, it’s no wonder shipping containers are high on the list of green building materials.

From backyard sheds to multi-story shopping centers, designers, architects and builders are thinking outside the box (ha ha ha) and using retired shipping containers as the base of many eco-friendly structures.

What are shipping containers?

These durable steel containers are key players in global trade. Merchandise in great quantity moves around the world in them via ship, road and rail. They are designed to stack over eight high and interlock, and they are built to withstand hurricanes. The width is 8’, and lengths vary from 8’ to over 50’. The 20’ and 40’ lengths are most commonly used in home construction.

Post-shipping uses for shipper containers

A shipping container can also be used as a studio, shed, summer home, temporary or emergency shelter after a natural disaster, an office on a construction site, worker housing, a portable tiny house (it can be moved around the world!), foot or cycling bridge, or outdoor bathroom or shower. Anywhere you need a building, a shipping container can probably be modified to meet the need. Dormitories and shopping centers have already been built with them!

Sustainability, practicality, and the shipping container

Shipping containers are easy on the environment. Being recycled, their embodied energy is low. When you bring one to a job site, you reduce the need for traditional building materials sourced far from the job, transported over thousands of miles to be sold in a store with heating and cooling bills. By using a shipping container, you avoid that environmental impact.

Versatile shipping containers

Aside from their green attributes, shipping containers are versatile, being able to be stacked on top of each other at 90-degree angles or cantilevered for an overhang. These modular pieces can be put together in unique shapes. When I was a kid, I was constantly building houses with Lego® blocks. The idea of creating with shipping containers brings back those creative days!

First steps in shipping container construction

Building a home with shipping containers is different than traditional construction. First of all, you need to find out if your local building codes and/or covenants allow them. They may be prohibited. Make sure you can get a building permit, too.

If it’s a go, find where to buy them. This is a good place to start. Do some googling for information, and find people who have built with them (positive and negative experiences). Once you have located containers within your budget, design your space on paper, and get your container or containers delivered. Speaking of money, shipping containers are relatively inexpensive compared to conventional building materials and styles.

Considerations in shipping container construction

Things to be aware of, aside from legalities, are that steel conducts heat, so it will need to be heavily insulated and sealed to be comfortable and energy efficient. In humid regions, the interior can rust if the container is not sealed completely. You don’t know what was transported in your containers, and it may have been toxic. Sandblast the interior to remove residues. You may want to remove and replace the wood floor, because it was probably treated with pesticides to repel insects. Check your container for damage. Welds might be cracked and large dents may need work.

You might need to find a contractor who has worked with shipping containers before, unless you are a contractor/handy person/designer/architect. On-site work is different than regular construction, too. Containers are put into place with cranes, so first you have to make sure a crane can access your property. Then there is a lot of cutting and welding of steel, which is a specialty. These are all things you will have to take into consideration in your budget. A cheap container may not be such a bargain, so do a LOT of homework beforehand!

Low-carbon footprints, unique structures

But if you are ready for an interesting project and want a one-of-a-kind home or office, build with shipping containers! As this method gains in popularity, more and more information is available, mistakes have been made, and you will be able to find reliable guidance. Most of all, have fun and enjoy your low carbon footprint structure! See my shipping container structures Pinterest board for some of the process and design ideas!

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.