Using Shipping Containers in Houses and Other Buildings

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  1. The container itself
  2. Corrosion
  3. Zoning
  4. Heat
  5. Toxicity

1. The container itself

During the early years of the Roman Empire, Vitruvius wrote a textbook on architecture that specified three features that buildings should have:
  • Firmitas (firmness, strength, stability)
  • Utilitas (utility, correctness to purpose)
  • Venustas (beauty).

Shipping containers seem to be very successful in meeting the first two criteria. After all they are made to be stackable, made to last despite being shipped across oceans and continents. As for beauty, well to a certain extent that's up to you (and your architect) to achieve.

But besides meeting these general criteria, containers appear to offer several more specific benefits. In particular:

  • availability (the US has a surplus of them)
  • economy (I have seen used containers as low as $1500 in the USA)
  • malleability (for anyone who can weld and cut metal)
  • durability (they survive salt air and cranes)
  • portability (even across oceans)
  • modularity (a modernist idea...): for instance stackability (using proper hardware)
  • reusability (for environmental correctness)
  • transformability (see Lot/ek Mobile Dwelling Unit)
Several of these characteristics are especially important in light of the predicament that many consumers now find themselves in, namely the high cost of housing.

2. Corrosion

Shipping containers are designed to be air-tight on a ship and to endure salty ocean air, which is corrosive. Therefore they're coated with a zinc-laden paint which protects against the salty air.

Container homes are known to collect moisture from people's bodies when they are closed up. It's a good idea to have a good ventilation system.

3. The zoning and permits situation

Although containers should be perfectly usable in conventional residential situations especially when stacked, paired (as in the Berkeley market), and used to create an interior space using a roof kit (as in the 12-Container House), not to mention when they are used as mini-hotels, it also occurs to me that containers may be especially handy in situations where a foundation is not permitted, but a mobile structure is permitted. Weekend retreats, writer's sheds, and the like are ideal uses for container houses.

But, zoning and permits could be an issue. Anything that challenges the status quo can lead to zoning problem or a permitting problem. The status quo is established by wealthy people -- developers and bankers -- and the state, all of whom want big, expensive, wooden structures that don't last.

4. Heat

Steel conducts heat very well. Because of this, insulation is vital, either on the inside or outside of a container. If you look at how people are using containers, often they are inside of wood-frame homes and thus there is a natural opportunity to put the insulation inside the wood walls. The wooden structure's exterior also deflects heat.

5. Toxicity issues

Two items that must be dealt with as regards containers are the toxicity of whatever paint that was applied to the container and the toxicity of the chemical used to preserve the floor boards, which are often teak wood.

The paint may contain lead, like so many products from Asia. In these modern times, you should assume that all products coming from Asia have lead. Even vitamin supplements and children's toys have been found to contain it.

The same goes for other heavy metals. Documentaries have shown again and again that even basic products that are expected to be safe, like in one case a plastic blow-up globe, contain heavy metals e.g. green paint can mean mercury.