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Shipping container homes: Are they really less expensive? What does it take to build one?

When people think of shipping container homes, they may think of tiny houses. But they can actually be modern stunners!

Sweet Suite Home Builds Inc

Mansions, schools, restaurants, hotels and libraries have been built from shipping containers!

For real estate investors, imagine townhouse development, vacation rentals or added doors at an existing property.


That's what piqued my interest! So I decided to do some research. And of course my first question was...


What does it cost? And how is it different than traditional, wood-frame construction?

To learn more about the possibilities and potential hurdles, I looked at two examples of shipping container construction. One built in 100+ degree weather in Joshua Tree, California. And another built in sub-zero temperatures in Alberta, Canada.
Ben Uyeda

In Joshua Tree, California, Ben Uyeda chose to work with high cube containers.


When building with shipping containers there are different sizes to consider.


Standard size is: 40' x 8' x 8.5’.


High cube, like pictured above, are roughly the same size except with 9.5’ ceilings.


And you can also buy containers in varying lengths: 40-feet, 20-feet or 10-feet.


Uyeda began by flattening a plot of land and he poured a concrete slab foundation. He incorporated PVC and conduit into the slab so he could run plumbing and electric through the floor.


Here, in the northeastern United States and in Canada, you would need to dig a foundation. And that’s exactly what Laurie May Peroff and her team at Sweet Suite Home Builds did in Alberta.

Sweet Suite Home Builds Inc

Once a foundation is in place, you will need to use a crane and a few strong helpers to drop your containers into place. According to Uyeda’s video series, The Modern Home Project, you can position them within a half-inch accuracy.


When it comes to windows and doors - you are cutting through a metal box so it is a bit more advanced than wood frame construction.

It may be easier to do the cut-ins for windows and doors off-site, like Peroff's crew did. Or to hire someone who is experienced in metalworking to make the cuts for you.


Welding takes time and it is costly, but it is possible to carefully mark and cut your openings with a grinder.


Uyeda cut, framed and welded his openings on site.

You will need to add wood framing to support your openings, to create separate rooms and support the structure as the steel sheets around the container are only 1/8" thick. Think: floppy, sharp-edged sheet metal.

Next, you'll run plumbing, electrical and HVAC.


Uyeda's videos show that once you pull up the plywood floors of the container, there are steel beams running across. You can cut through beams as needed by simply using a grinder tool. Keep in mind, load-bearing elements need to be considered here.

Insulation is super important in shipping container construction because of how the metal heats up and cools down with the temperature outside.


In Canada, Peroff insulated the inside and the outside of this luxury shipping container home to protect the plumbing from freezing and to maintain a comfortable temperatures inside.

Now you're ready to add siding and interior finishes.


So what's it cost?


If you google "shipping container homes" you will see a lot of information about how inexpensive they are, but that may not be the case.

According to Peroff, shipping container construction cost her about $165-$175 per square foot, as compared to $150-$160 per square foot for a wood frame home. These numbers may vary depending on your architectural design and finishes. Peroff used 6 containers to create a 2,000-square-foot luxury home which sold for $747,000.


Uyeda also said that shipping container construction is more expensive than traditional building methods, by about 15-20%. Unless you are planning to do a lot of the work yourself.


Each individual container may cost $3,000-$5,000, not including transportation and placement on the job site.


Permits may also cost more.


Uyeda said his site survey, design, structural engineering plans and permits came to over $25,000 and it took him 4 months to get everything approved.

Keep in mind, this was in California which is a heavily regulated state, compared to elsewhere in the country. But you may still want to prepare for the possibility of higher costs and more time to get permits.


What are the benefits?


There are certainly many benefits to building a shipping container home. Environmentally, you can save upwards of 16 mature pine trees, according to Peroff.


You are also recycling or reusing the container, or giving it a second life.


Metal containers can also endure extreme weather. They resist mold, fire, termites, pests and rust, which could mean real savings when shopping for homeowners insurance.


With a metal frame, there is no settling. Meaning you shouldn't see stress cracks in your drywall, a common in new wood frame homes.


Container homes are also portable. Meaning you can have an experienced contractor build out your container home and ship it to you, ready to assemble.


What are the barriers?


In addition to advanced metalworking and load-bearing considerations, many local building code offices are often unfamiliar with shipping container construction. This may be why the permitting process can be a bit challenging and lengthy.


For example, Uyeda had to increase his planned container home floor plan to be over 700-square-feet to meet a minimum building size requirement. This forced him to buy an additional shipping container.


Probably the biggest complaint about shipping container homes I came across was insulation and temperature control. However, when done properly it can be tackled. Just look at these two examples! One home is an oasis in the blistering desert and another is thriving through bitter Canadian winters.


Questions?


Shipping container homes may attract a ton of buyers, if you build one for sale in your local market! Or they may also lure short-term renters if listed on AirBnB.

They're unique and fun! At least, that's what piqued my interest.


If there are any questions you may have about shipping container homes that were not answered here, please share them in the comments below as I would love to dive deeper on this topic!


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