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container home block

Container homes and modular building are a 21st century trend worth watching. Here are some reasons why this trend is emerging, with some compelling examples.


I have said many times that I should have been a contractor so I could try out all these cool and environmentally light building methods on my clients. If I ever buy land again and build, I will have a hard time deciding how! I think upcycling a shipping container into a home would be one of the most gratifying transformations, though.

The US loves stuff from China. All that stuff comes across the Pacific Ocean in steel shipping containers piled by the dozens onto barges. When they get here and are emptied, they become more stuff (read: garbage), because US companies do not reuse them for export. What’s up with that?! Well, never mind.

Steel is green

That surplus, though, is where creative, frugal, environmentally aware people can score the shell of a new home. Steel is one of the greenest building materials you can find. It is constantly recycled instead of being manufactured from raw materials.

Shipping containers are also durable. They are built to withstand the ocean’s salt, waves and wind for a voyage of at least two weeks. They will last for decades, or maybe even centuries! They are easy to find and very inexpensive. What’s not to love about them?

Dwell recently published a very clear article on how to shop for a shipping container.

shipping container small home


Your creative beast can be unleashed with a shipping container. Maybe you like the aged look of the rust and ding of the older ones. Maybe you prefer the design of a shipping company’s logo. Maybe it doesn’t matter, because you want to cover the outside anyway. I like the exterior. I’d like to show it off, not cover it up. And I would probably not go for rust and dents. But that’s me!

The interior can be anything you want it to be. Over a layer of insulation, and plumbing and electrical infrastructure, you can be as whimsical or conservative as you like. Using more salvaged and recycled materials would keep in the spirit of green design, but maybe you want a stark contrast between the outside and inside. It’s an art project! What do you want to say with your shipping container home?

Here are comprehensive instructions on the nitty gritty of converting a steel box into a livable space.


“Container City” in the Tower Hamlets borough of East London, UK. (image: Cmglee)

Five upcycled beauties

Now that we got the how-to out of the way, it’s time to design your new digs. Let these examples inspire you.

In this home designed by Adam Kalkin, twelve shipping containers are used as rooms opening out onto a large living space. Grand staircases take residents to the second floor.

See what an interior designer will do with a shipping container. Oh my. Stunning is the only word I can come up with.

A low-slung and wide open beach house in New Zealand brings a feeling of serenity.

High in the Rocky Mountains above Boulder, CO, two shipping containers are connected by a living area in a smaller version of Kalkin’s idea.

This university dorm in Johannesburg, South Africa is 11 stories high, 4 of which are shipping containers. The remaining floors are retired grain silos. Talk about upcycling!

Not just for homes

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Start small in your backyard. The smaller containers can be transformed successfully into offices, studios and guesthouses, too. They can even be used for retail, galleries or coffee shops. Unleash your imagination, and see what beauty it can create from a ‘lowly’ shipping container!

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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.