What Happened to the Shipping Container Home Trend?

Written by Posted On Thursday, 28 July 2016 07:31

Shipping container homes have been a huge housing trend for several years now. They started as emergency housing in areas like San Francisco, where skyrocketing home prices have made it virtually impossible for low-income people to obtain housing. As the years have gone by, though, they have been embraced by leading architects.

In fact, entire building complexes grace the skylines of major cities worldwide, from New York to Amsterdam, California to London, Houston to Mumbai. Painted bright primary colors and cantilevered over each other, they can be breath-taking as well as innovative. They’ve been used as student dorms (a great help in overcrowding), artist’s colonies, and vacation cottages.

So will they be the next big housing trend in your neighborhood? The fact that they are a trend worldwide is undeniable. The jury is still out on further market penetration, though, because opinion is divided about major aspects of the trend. Let’s look at the positive and negative aspects of shipping container homes.

Positive Aspects: Why the Trend Grew

They are eco-friendly.

Perhaps the #1 reason why shipping container homes are a trend is their eco-friendliness. They repurpose already existing materials. Shipping container homes can bemade of 80% recycled materials.

There are roughly 17 million shipping containers in the world; only 6 million are in use. That leaves 11 million shipping containers unused. The steel and other materials can be re-purposed into housing, making use of it — and environmentally saving the material that might be used for construction otherwise. A new wood house essentially puts out an order to cut down trees. A shipping container home does not. It also saves approximately 3,500 kg of steel through re-purposing.

They are inexpensive.

Shipping container homes can be quite cost-effective to build. They can be purchased and assembled for between $35,000 and $55,000. That is far less than the cost of most homes. Shipping containers, due to the world oversupply, can sometimes be obtained for free, which can lower the cost even further.

They are quick to build.

A person can easily build their own shipping container home, and it does not take months, as traditional homes do. Shipping containers are basically already in the shape of the house they will become, so the frame of the house is already there. Experts estimate that they can be built over several days if the component parts have been pre-cut.

They are easy to transport.

One of the great benefits for individual homeowners is that shipping container homes can be disassembled and shipped with relative ease. Certain types, in fact, are constructed so they can be folded and unfolded. If a couple wants to live in the Rocky Mountains now but think they may move to Florida to be near family eventually, this feature could make a shipping container home a nice idea.

They are versatile in size.

One of the reasons shipping containers became a trend is their versatility. As their use in large complexes shows, they can be used as building blocks and added to for more space. Many larger shipping container homes are large, and the size is created by adding several containers together. For family homes, that means that potential future additions in size can be accommodated easily.

Shipping Containers Stacked

Negative Aspects: Drawbacks in Cost, Infrastructure and Environmental Concerns

Heating and cooling can be expensive.

Shipping containers were not built with human comfort in mind. They were built with transporting goods across seas in mind! As a result, they do not come with insulation for human needs. They need to be insulated, which can be expensive, and sometimes that doesn't even do the job. This was a big deterrent for potential investors because heating and cooling is one of the biggest expenses for homeowners.

Heating and cooling costs for a steel structure can be very expensive, because steel absorbs heat and cold very easily. Large heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) structures are needed for multi-unit dwellings. One architect points out that a shipping container housing complex in India would be a“deathtrap” without extensive HVAC. That increases the environmental footprint.

They need structural reinforcement.

One of the most surprising negative aspects is the need to reinforce shipping container homes with more steel. This is a concern primarily for multifamily dwellings, because they need reinforcement to be on top of each other. But it also has implications if a family ever dreams of building up rather than horizontally. Although proponents often advance sturdy construction as a net positive, only part of a shipping container is sturdy. The roofs can be dented by a person walking on them.

They are difficult to maintain in good condition.

Shipping container houses are, well, shipping containers. Again, they were never designed for long-term use. They may deteriorate easily in weather. Also, rust may be a significant problem, especially is the container has dents or scratches. Just like in a car, these can be places for rust to start.

They aren’t entirely eco-friendly.

Yes, shipping container houses are eco-friendly in their potential for recycled materials used as housing. But again, they were not built with human living in mind…so they use some things that aren’t human-habitation or human-health friendly. Insulation may have been used that isn’t approved for humans. The paint could be bad for the environment and contain phosphorous, chromate, or lead. Most chillingly, they might have carried radioactive or poisonous-to-humans shipments in their former life. Traces from spillage may remain.

They aren’t necessarily inexpensive.

While shipping container homes can be cheaper, a number of them cost roughly the same as a traditional home. Some homes in Houston, for example, cost nearly $190,000. That’s because the cost of a good design, add-ons, and “home-like” interiors drives the total expense up.

The Net Result: More Practical Methods of Obtaining an Eco-Friendly Home


The shipping container home trend is certainly intriguing. But given the pro’s and cons, it isn’t easy to tell whether shipping container homes will stay around or be right for you or your clients. While shipping container homes are definitely a trend, the larger trend is toward green housing. Making homes environmentally friendly can be accomplished through many very doable methods, making shipping containers an unlikely up-and-coming trend in the next few years.

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Megan Wild

Hey there! I'm Megan, I'm a home improvement writer, blogger, and real estate investor and observer. Check out my posts for housing trends and latest happenings in U.S. and Pennsylvania!


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