A container house out of a shipping container?

We are very often asked if it is possible to live in a container. The answer is: yes, it is possible!

A ready-made solution that is inhabitable straight away is an office or sanitary container, and these are quite commonly used as offices or break rooms for example at worksites. During the last couple of years, it has also become even trendy in a way to build a fully functional apartment fully or mostly from shipping containers. Shipping containers as a way of living is still in its infancy, but abroad this phenomenon already even has its own name – cargotecture (cargo container architecture).

Container apartment in Spain
Photo: Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

Container houses have been built a lot as guest housing, summer condos, office spaces and as rentable spaces, but they have also been considered as a viable temporary solution for example for catastrophe areas and the shortage of accommodation for students, and they have also been used on many occasions for these purposes abroad. 

Ready-made student apartments may naturally sound more attractive than barrack-like containers, but they might not necessarily become available as often as new students arrive. All around the world, there are plenty of areas/spaces without city planning that are mainly used for nothing useful at the moment, and it could take decades before something is built on these areas.

There are about 24 million shipping containers that have been decommissioned from freight use. The containers are used for freight for about 10-15 years, after which most of them are still fully usable. Despite the expectations, one is faced with a quite stylish and practical living unit when one walks into a container apartment – much to one’s surprise. So, we will tell you more about shipping container apartments and show some examples from around the world in this blog post!  

Photo: Angel Schatz / (CC BY 2.0)

About building a container house

The most commonly chosen containers for container houses are 20′ and 40′ shipping containers. A 20′ container (about 6 x 2.5m) offers approximately 15m2 of space, whereas the floor area of a 40′ container (about 12 x 2.5m) is around 30m2. The basic DC model is 2.59m high, but both the 20′ and the 40′ container are also available as High Cube versions that are about 2.75m high. 

Thanks to the ISO standards, containers that are of similar size can very easily be stacked as well as combined next to each other, even by removing the walls between the containers. The containers can also be equipped with stairs, electricity, isolation, sewerage and so on. The blanks can also be cut into many different shapes. There are several other ways too that will allow you to modify containers to form an apartment unit of your liking. 

The block-like shape of the containers can also be a problem. If the containers aren’t stacked so that they align with each other, attaching the containers to one another in a sturdy way requires additional work straight away – designing, welding, cutting with an angle grinder, etc. Modifying the shape of the walls or making holes in them can also affect the structure and load capacity of the container. 

One should pay attention to the fact that the container needs to be joined to the power grid and sewer system if one is considering installing electricity and sewerage. Some solutions also utilize external toilet facilities. Some isolated containers already have electricity, radiators and so on. There have also been instances where solar panels have been used for the production of power for container households. 

Due to the weather conditions especially in northern Europe, more attention needs to be paid to isolation and draught-proofing than with traditional buildings made out of stone, wood etc.

Outside of a London container village made out of 40′ containers.
Photo: Wikipedia / (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Inside of the London container village
Photo: Wikipedia / (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The perks of a shipping container as an apartment 

  • Used containers in good condition, as well as new containers, are inexpensive
  • Shipping containers are often water- and fireproof
  • Containers can easily be modified to be more practical and personal
  • Containers are cheap blanks compared to traditional building materials and their costs
  • The size is practical, it is also possible to remove walls, combine containers, etc.
  • Durability – solid steel structure
  • Availability – containers are always readily available around the world – both new and used ones
  • Ecological – tons of steel is reused
  • Can be stacked and attached to one another
  • No need for solid foundations

Things to take into consideration with container houses

  • Heat – a shipping container requires better insulation than the traditional materials (stone, wood, etc.), especially in cold conditions 
  • Moisture – as such the shipping containers accumulate some moisture (condensation). This is another reason why the container needs to be well isolated and draught proofed. Ventilation between the isolation and the wall is important. 
  • Containers are heavy and separate equipment is needed for moving the containers
  • Connection to the power grid and the sewer system
  • At times, containers are used for transporting toxic materials, so used containers in particular need to be carefully cleaned
  • Modifications can affect the structure of the containers and thus also the load capacity of the container
Photo: Gustav’s / (CC BY 2.0)

Permits for building a container house

Just like all the other buildings, a container building requires a building permit and there needs to be permitted building volume left on the lot. The building needs a spot that has been zoned for housing and it needs to conform to the cityscape. Also, the opinions of the neighbours need to be taken into consideration. Containers can basically be used for building a block of flats as well, but a permanent permit requires accessibility. If the building has three or more floors, it should also have elevators as well as bathrooms that have been sized for disabled people. It is easier to get a temporary building permit compared to a permanent one. 

If one is considering a container house, it is a good idea to do proper research before one actually starts to act on the matter. One should also remember that living in a container will always feel like a barrack in some way, even though containers have been successfully used for year-round accommodation in many countries.

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