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Community and Q&A

Revisiting Shipping-Container Homes

margie_ly | Posted in General Questions on

Let me start by saying I did read this article:

I’ve been trying to build a 1000, sq. ft. energy efficient house since the beginning of 2021. Talk about bad timing. Add to that the fact that I’m in one of the most expensive building markets around–Jackson Hole, WY (climate zone 7).

My first look was at a custom built, superinsulated panelized structure, built with a slab foundation. Excavation quotes were outlandish and total project cost came in at close to $1 million.

Second exploration was a fully modular house, built offsite to manage costs, and optimized for resiliency. And then when I was about to proceed to design phase in November of this past year, they told me they needed to increase the price of the model I was looking at by 33%.

So I start wondering if I can build a house on piers to minimize site costs. And a container home seems like a logical pairing with piers, plus it’s naturally fire resistant. Is it a perfect solution? Certainly not. But I’m wondering if it becomes a more reasonable option in 2022 given extraordinary development costs in some areas, resiliency considerations, etc. It’s also a house that can be pretty easily pick up and moved.

Bottom line, I’m curious if there’s been any change in thinking from many of the experts on here since the “What’s Wrong” article was written several years ago.

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  1. GBA Editor
    Kiley Jacques | | #1

    Take a look at these units I wrote about recently; they did everything right, building science wise: Converted Shipping Containers Provide Safety During the Pandemic.

  2. Expert Member


    Kiley's example is a good one of where containers work well - as single units where the width and height restrictions aren't important. Where things get complicated is in joining a series of them together to provide the space people expect in a typical single family house.

    If you go down that road be prepared to engage a structural engineer, an experienced designer who can make the detailing necessary meet current building codes, and re-think or reinvent all the standard details builders take for granted. My suspicion is that nothing significant has changed, and that they still only make sense when it's something you want to do as an aesthetic statement.

  3. andy_ | | #3

    One more light rain on your parade...because of the supply chain issues shipping container prices spiked this past year. Even poor condition used ones are more than double what they were, if you can even get them right now.

  4. Expert Member
    NICK KEENAN | | #4

    Here's your homework: find out how much framing contributes to the cost of a typical home build. Then find out how much things like mechanicals, plumbing, electrical, insulation and interior finishes contribute. Then price out water and sewer connection -- or drilling a well and digging a septic system -- and electrical connection. Framing is a miniscule part of the cost of a house, the things on the second part of the list are the lion's share. They are all going to be more expensive when you try to do them in a shipping container. I can't even think how you'd run plumbing in a shipping container in a cold climate like Jackson Hole.

    Used 40' containers are going for about $4K near me. For the price of three you could buy a 24x24 garage kit which I think would give you a better start on a small house. Although for the same reasons you'd probably be better off starting with something meant as a house.

    There's a time-honored tradition of putting up a shell, getting a roof over your head and then basically camping in it as you finish the rest of the house as time and money allow. I knew a lot of people who did that in the 1980's and 90's in Washington, DC, you could buy an old Victorian rowhouse for next to nothing. They all had stories of sleeping on the one section of floor that was solid and under the one section of roof that didn't leak, using the one outlet and the one faucet that worked. A lot of those guys stuck with it and finished their houses, and quite a few sold them for a lot of money when they were done. So it's possible. But I'd recommend starting with the shell of a house at least.

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