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Living in a Shipping Container: The Pros and Cons

Oct 23, 2019

Shipping containers were originally invented to transport goods in a safer and more efficient way. Thanks to the visionary businessman Malcolm Mclean who saw the need for radical change and standardization in the way products were delivered from one port to the next, the first modern intermodal containers were used on April 26, 1956.

More than half a century ago, the Ideal X, known as the first commercially successful container ship, carried 58 shipping containers from the Port of Newark in New Jersey to the Port of Houston in Texas, in the United States.

Soon enough, shipping containers found other uses outside of being merely storage for dry goods, perishable goods, bulk liquids, and other types of products for transit across the globe. Now, the humble shipping container is also known as a dynamic construction material that can be used in building various kinds of structures. Currently, its most common use is for housing. 

Seattle-based Hybrid Architecture first coined the term “cargotecture,’ which they used to name the discipline of using recycled  ISO-certified shipping containers either entirely or partially for various structures. Cargotecture echoes the nature of prefab projects, sharing the feature of having to be shipped and requiring on-site assembly.

How It All Started

Thanks to the perpetual human need to innovate, other structures like commercial spaces and business hubs were being built using the sturdy steel boxes that have led to the steady emergence of cargotecture.

With excess containers built for the market due to shifting trade climates, some businessmen explored other uses for shipping containers. In the 1980s, shipping containers were transformed as materials that can be used for making buildings.

The first official shipping container home on record involves the pioneering mind of Phillip Clark. Clark filed a patent on the 23rd of November 1987 for the “method for converting one or more steel shipping containers into a habitable building.” 

This registered patent #US4854094A granted on August 8, 1989, indicated how shipping containers can be positioned on a weightbearing foundation to build a useful, habitable structure. In his patent, Clark stated how shipping containers are excellent as modular building materials, and that recycling shipping containers are economically suitable to make new homes. 

Clark might have been the first to officially file a patent for using shipping containers for buildings, but prior to its approval, likeminded people have seen its usefulness as a sturdy construction material. In fact, the production set of the film Space Rage used shipping containers to construct buildings seen onscreen back in 1985. 

Another example that can be cited is UK-based Architect Nicholas Lacey’s thesis back in the ’70s, where he has introduced the idea of finding new uses for shipping containers, specifically for transforming them into habitable buildings. After university, Architect Lacey worked with the Urban Space Management to make buildings out of shipping containers. 

Other earlier projects where shipping containers have officially been used as buildings date back to 1962. The Insbrandsten Company, Inc. has a patent called “combination shipping container showcase,” with Christopher Betjemann as its inventor. The patent claims that shipping containers are allowed to be utilized as exhibition booths by companies on tour to showcase their offerings. 

Currently, the practice of cargotecture can be viewed as a fascinating combination of emergency or temporary structures like exhibit booths, low-cost humanitarian housing, and pioneering architectural design.

What Is Cargotecture? 

Cargotecture is essentially the method of building structures out of steel intermodal shipping containers.  

The construction industry is evolving by adopting green initiatives that promote waste reduction to lessen our carbon footprint, and cargotecture is part of this movement as it endorses the use of sustainable materials. 

Overproduction on a global scale has left a massive number of shipping containers unused in many ports across the world. With the price of returning empty containers to their point of origin outweighing the cost of keeping them in their current locations, the practice of cargotecture allows these steel giants to be used for various projects such as housing, commercial buildings, habitable accommodations for various purposes, and many other types of building projects instead of going to waste.

The Pros 

Shipping containers are highly versatile building materials that offer a host of benefits, making them a great choice for repurposing into habitable structures. Check out some of the awesome benefits of living in a shipping container. 

Eco-friendly Houses 

One of cargotecture’s greatest advantages is its eco-friendliness. By constructing your home or building with reused shipping containers, you are essentially recycling unwanted products that will otherwise be scrapped or left to rust away.   

Standard 40-foot shipping containers weigh around 8,820 pounds, and it would take huge amounts of energy (8,000 kW to be exact, which is approximately the same amount of energy that an American household uses annually) to melt that much steel.  

On the other hand, the average energy consumption used to convert a steel shipping container into a habitable structure is just over 400 kW, which is 95% less than scrapping it altogether. Recycling containers to be used as materials for homes and other structures saves energy and reduces carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. 

Living in a shipping container can increase energy efficiency and reduce its overall usage, given the right insulation. Its material, as well as its reasonably small size, makes it ideal for comfortably getting through warm summers, as well as the biting cold of winter winds. 

Pest-Proof Homes 

Having wooden floors or internal frames makes traditional homes made with conventional techniques susceptible to pests like termites, which can cause irreparable damage to the building’s structural integrity. That’s not the case with shipping containers, as they’re made of steel that is highly resistant to pests such as bugs and other types of pests.

Reduced Total Construction Expenses 

While your total spend will still depend on the location, your design choices, and the size of your construction project,  building homes using shipping containers is proven to be a more affordable option in most cases. 

The standardized shape and make of shipping containers enable people on a budget to get construction projects going while allowing the work to be more predictable in terms of process and pricing. This means you must have the container delivered to the location, do site preparations, create its foundation, and complete its assembly. 

On average, choosing shipping containers will allow you to save an average of up to 30% on total costs compared to building structures with typical brick and mortar. There will be compromises, but you can most definitely upgrade its features so you can get what you truly need out of it. To maximize costs, work with the shipping container’s design, and not against it.

Quicker Construction 

Traditional buildings and structures can take months or even years to erect. Using shipping containers requires shorter build time, and will probably only take between two to three weeks in total. This is because a lot of container homes are already prefabricated modular homes, and can even be built faster since building code inspections are completed at the factory. 

If you’re taking the do-it-yourself route, you can play around with the prebuilt structures and customize layouts by stacking containers or putting them together to maximize living spaces. However, there’s a lot of modifications required when you use cargotecture. Depending on the design, you may need to add steel reinforcements. Heating and cooling can also be a major issue, so you definitely need to have a temperature control strategy in mind.

Structural Stability and Durability

Shipping containers are made of steel, designed for the purpose of carrying massive loads of cargo across rough waters, and tough road conditions. This makes them extremely durable and sturdy.

Homes or other types of structures made from steel shipping containers are well-suited for locations that are most likely to be hit by strong hurricanes, earthquakes, or typhoons. Cargotecture done right allows structurally sound buildings to thrive in various types of environments.

Fuss-free Off-Site Construction and Transport 

Shipping containers are a perfect choice for land that is not entirely suitable to build on. The structure can be assembled in a factory or workshop and then delivered directly to the site. There’s an established system for moving containers from one location to the next, so it’s an especially great option for those looking to have habitable structures in remote areas. 

Magnets for Wall Fixtures, No Need for Screws or Nails 

Bare shipping container homes are essentially big hunks of metal, so you do not need to use drills to screw on fixtures, or drive holes into the wall by hammering in nails. Skip the agony of figuring out measurements or accidentally screwing down a wall fixture in the wrong location, which could damage walls unnecessarily. You can simply use magnets to stick light items like calendars, whiteboards, or small to medium-sized frames to the wall.

The Cons

There are also a few drawbacks to living in shipping containers.

Confusing Building Codes

Some local governments and building officials find it difficult to categorize container homes and structures. You may initially encounter some difficulties in obtaining a permit. Steel structures are widely accepted for industrial use but are still not prevalently used for commonplace construction projects like homes or commercial buildings. 

Container buildings are growing in popularity, but to ensure that you will not be booted out of your location from noncompliance, check with your local government first before starting on your cargotecture project. You might need to employ some alterations and modifications in your design to comply with the rules in your chosen location.

Hiring Experienced Cargotecture Contractors 

It could be a challenge to find a team who has experience with building homes made of shipping containers or cargotecture in general since it’s a fairly new trend in housing and construction. The best thing you can do at this point if you cannot locate experienced cargotecture contractors in your area is to be very specific with the results you want and to be hands-on in checking the project’s progress to ensure that everything is going smoothly.

Acoustics Issues 

Acoustics can be an issue if you live in a “bare” shipping container. Raindrops may sound aggressive, touching parts of your house will possibly create slight disturbances, and sounds from inside the structure may be amplified. 

But acoustic issues can easily be solved by using proper roofing and walling methods that will work with the container’s overall structure.   

Shipping containers have uniform sizes ranging from 8 ft., 10 ft., 20 ft., and 40 ft. They also have different uses, so there are many variants available. Some people might find that ceilings are too low, or that there will be issues with the flow and transition between different sections of the home.  

As we have mentioned earlier, the best solution to optimize living in spaces with limited shapes and dimensions like shipping containers is to work with its design, and not against it. There are still numerous customization options that can make your container home unique enough to address your needs. The secret to maximizing shipping container living spaces lies in proper planning.

Temperature Regulation Issues

There might be some issues with internal temperature regulation when you choose to construct with shipping containers since they’re made of steel. This is not a pressing concern once you’ve installed the right kind of insulation for your space, with consideration to the prevailing climate of your chosen site.


Now that we have listed the pros and cons of cargotecture, you may have noticed that its few cons are easy to resolve given the right resources. Its enormous benefits outweigh its disadvantages.

Constructing homes and other types of structures with shipping containers is an ideal and affordable solution to those wanting flexibility and speed. Discover how BSL Containers and BSL Interchange can help you on container leasing, and all your other shipping container needs.