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How to insulate a shipping container home?

SirKoda | Posted in Energy Efficiency and Durability on

I would like to understand how to best insulate a shipping container home. i am thinking of building on a pier system.

Specifically I am wondering about the double sided foil such as Radiant guard that comes in both permeable and vapor barrier. Which do I put on the inside and which goes on the outside. I live in the Seattle area Marine Zone 4-5.

What insulation do I use in combination with this radiant barrier on the inside or the outside. I want to add outside cladding to my container such as Cedar siding and will add a roof deck which will have drainage under it away from the roof therefore I am thinking I will be able to add insulation on top of the outside.

Should I use spray foam on the underside?

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  1. Expert Member

    I'd dissuade you from using shipping containers as a starting point for a home.

    1. WilliamDT | | #11

      and thousands of people who have built their homes around the globe with containers and are perfectly content with them would tell you to stifle and let the man do what he wants to do.

      1. Expert Member
        MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #16

        The man asked a question and I gave him an answer. Who cares if thousands of people do something stupid? That doesn't somehow make it a good idea.

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    To insulate any roof assembly, wall assembly, or floor assembly, start with insulation, not a radiant barrier. Here's a link to an article with more information: Radiant Barriers: A Solution in Search of a Problem.

    Steel shipping containers have low ceilings. To avoid thermal bridging through the steel (which happens if some of the insulation is interior and some of the insulation is exterior), as well as to avoid the low ceiling problem, all of your insulation should be on the exterior side of the shipping container. You end up building a house around the shipping container, which is expensive. My advice: Just build the house (without the shipping container).

    -- Martin Holladay

    1. WilliamDT | | #10

      thanks for the advice, but seeing that there are a sh't ton of people who have already built homes using them I dont think youre in a position to be instructing anyone to not use them.
      YOU may not like the idea...and thats fine...but your asinine view that they are taboo is whimsical to say the least given that...again...there are TONS of perfectly content people who have built their homes using them.
      for sh't sake, son...just watch a damned youtube video or two on the topic and quit pushing your own personal agenda.

      1. Expert Member
        MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #17

        Some advice:
        If you want to stick around you should probably dial back the insults a bit.

  3. charlie_sullivan | | #3

    My new favorite way to explain the irrational attraction to shipping containers is by analogy to the story of stone soup. If you haven't heard that story, it's about a hungry traveler who tells villagers that he can show them how to make soup from a stone. He gets them to boil water for him and he puts a (clean) stone it. He pretends it is becoming good soup, but suggests it would be even better if they added a little seasoning. Then maybe a few vegetables, and some beans, and so on until they have provided all the ingredients of a good soup. They are impressed at what a delicious soup he has made from a stone.

    The shipping container is just like that--a way to claim that you have made a house from waste materials, when in fact, you still need to do all the expensive things. And unlike stone soup, the shipping container constrains the design excessively, and costs real money.

    1. WilliamDT | | #9

      Tell this to all the folks who have ALREADY BUILT the damned things and are perfectly content with them.

  4. itserich | | #4

    What is frustrating to me is that for a large subset of people who pay any attention at all to energy efficiency, things like shipping container homes occupy a substantial amount of day to day time and thought.

    So many resources spent trying to make a bad idea seem reasonable, instead of talking about the very basics of say buying a fixer upper and tearing it down and putting it back together properly. Which could be a good idea in every city in America.

    1. WilliamDT | | #12

      absolute nonsense. just because YOU say its a bad idea doesnt make it so, friend.
      YOU may like the idea of a stick build and having to worry day and night about the wood rotting out from underneath your home...or worse...insects that bore....but for some of us we'd prefer having something a little more sound if we're going to dump a few hundred thousand $$$ into it.
      A bad idea is buying some sh't home that someone else has smoked in for 40 years, let their dogs shit and piss all over the wood floors and had termites eating their home from the bottom up.
      Ask my daughter about the stick built sh't house she just purchased for $200,000k that they thought was a solid home until they took possession and got to looking a little harder.
      I'll take building a new home using steel and concrete any day of the week.

  5. Jon_R | | #5

    I have one and agree with the above statements. Maybe they make sense if you value the security and air tightness. Or you can simplify some building permit issues. "High Cube" versions are preferred.

    My plan - glue EPS foam to the exterior, add corrugated steel roofing on top and stucco (maybe synthetic) on the sides. No radiant barrier (other than painting everything white).

    1. WilliamDT | | #8

      same here.
      Laying out the design for a home using 7 containers. looking at insulating the hell out of the outside and using insulating siding as well.

      The reality is people are..and have been for some time..building homes out of containers and seem to be perfectly happy with them.
      All this naysaying is absolute nonsense.

  6. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #6

    To meet IRC code on a U-factor basis (the only approach that makes any sense at all for a steel structure) would need a continuous R28 or so under the bottom of the thing, and R35 on the top, and R15 on the walls.

    You won't get anywhere NEAR that kind of performance out of any type of radiant barrier product without a complicated set of layering with trapped air spaces. It's useless for this application in general, and even more so in your climate.

    If you can find a local source of reclaimed rigid foam, 5" of 2lb roofing polyiso on the bottom, 3" on the walls, and 6-7" on the top would work, and it would be cheaper & greener than spray foam solutions.

    In Seattle's 10 month heating season climate, using high solar reflectance finishes on the exterior would be moving in the wrong direction, lowering the average surface temperature, increasing energy use.

    1. Miles007 | | #18

      Thanks Dana. I understand both sides of the arguments above, so I won't get into that. I also enjoyed reading this Spotlight: Meanwhile, back to your reclaimed rigid foam idea. Any thoughts on how to attach it to the container, how to clad it, and how to keep the critters out? Particularly on the bottom.

  7. WilliamDT | | #7

    as I said elsewhere....heres the facts. TONS of people around the globe are ALREADY using shipping containers for homes. Im watching tons more in the process of building them. Ive yet to run across many who ARE living them now tossing fits of rage over not being happy with them.

    So I use a stick build for a little less and end up with a structural problem due to insects or other wood boring pests.
    Or...I build using a steel container, pay a little more and get a structure that is FAR more durable.
    I'll take door number 2, chuck.

    1. Trevor_Lambert | | #13

      Here are some more "facts". Very few people are using shipping containers for homes. I'm not seeing anyone in the process of building them. I've yet to run across a single person who either lives in a container home, or knows anyone who is.

      These facts have the exact same supporting evidence as your facts (i.e. none).

      For the same size and features, I think it'll cost more than a little extra to build using a steel container as a starting point. If this was really a good way to begin a home, then doesn't it make sense that someone would have started purpose building them for homes, and you wouldn't have to start out with a shipping container?

  8. FluxCapacitor | | #14

    Might not meet code, but seems like a decent product:

  9. Deleted | | #15


  10. Expert Member
    NICK KEENAN | | #19

    A shipping container takes the place of framing. In a modern home framing is not a significant cost, maybe 10% of the cost of the finished house if you include land. The shipping container makes the other 90% more expensive.

    1. Miles007 | | #20

      Thanks DC. I get that part.

      1. Expert Member
        MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #21


        To me the shipping container projects that have been the most effective are those that emphasize or celebrate the container. Hiding them with exterior insulation and cladding makes no sense when they provide so little else than their novel presence.

        If I was going to do a project with them I would detail the walls ceiling and roof so that all the necessary elements were inside, leaving the exterior exposed.

        1. Expert Member
          BILL WICHERS | | #22

          I’ve used them for utility buildings at remote telecom sites. They’re pretty good in regards to security and RFI/EMI performance.

          I don’t know why anyone would want to use them for a structure people would live in though. You’re pretty limited in dimensions, similar to a mobile home but with MUCH sturdier walls.


          1. Expert Member
            MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #23


            We are just finishing up building a live-fire training centre at our Fire Hall using three containers. They are great for things like that. Many of my neighbours have them scattered around their properties as sheds too.

          2. Expert Member
            BILL WICHERS | | #24

            My brother in law uses them for storage too. Kinda ugly, but they work.

            I like your idea using them for fire fighter training. What do you use to support the fire? Tack some scrap lumber onto the sides?


          3. Expert Member
            MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #25

            They have smoke machines and fire-pots you can turn on and off.

            The whole thing was built by volunteers and cost around 19k. We will recoup that by saving the cost of training our firefighters at other centres, and renting it to surrounding departments.

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