Building Tiny Houses From Shipping Containers: Pros and Cons

A shipping container is a standardised steel box that allows you to transport anything anywhere in the world. They come in many different sizes and are made from COR-TEN steel (weathering steel). Shipping containers can be used to create all kinds of structures such as tiny houses, office spaces and cabins. Since they are becoming popular in the Tiny Houses movement, we wanted to share some common pros and cons of building Tiny Houses from shipping containers.

Summary of ProsSummary of Cons
1. They Provide a Ready Made Structure to Build From1. They Require Heavy Duty Equipment and Skill
2. They Are Sturdy 2. They Can Be Challenging To Properly Insulate
3. They Are Eco Friendly3. There Can Be Condensation Problems
4. They Can Be Stacked, Combined and Moved4. They May Require Approval From An Engineer or Architect
5. You May Never Know What Was Shipping In Them
6. Some May Not Like The Look

Pros of Building Tiny Houses from Shipping Containers

1. They Provide a Ready Made Structure to Build From

Shipping containers are a great solution if you’re looking for a structure to work from. This can save you time and help you have a finished home sooner. They come in standard dimensions that you can plan your build from even before buying one. Standard container lengths are 20 and 40 foot, but you can get custom lengths too.

There are different grades of containers that you can buy. These range from grade A to grade C (and even D). Where grade A is practically a new shipping container, grade B may have some scrapes and dents and grade C may have some additional rust and holes. As such people usually got for grade A or B containers.

Keep in mind that the cost of shipping containers will depend on the grade of the container and your location.

2. They Are Sturdy

Since shipping containers are by design made to withstand heavy loads and rough handling they make for sturdy structures. As mentioned above, they are made from COR-TEN steel which is a weathering steel that allows the container to withstand harsh conditions and elemental erosion.

CORT-EN steel rusts differently from normal steel as it creates a protective patina that keeps the steel strong as it rusts. Because they are durable and can withstand harsh environments they can be ideal in places with high risks of earthquakes and hurricanes. Moreover, as they’re made from steel, they can make for instant lockable secure spaces that can easily keep thieves out.

3. They Are Eco Friendly

There is a surplus of containers in many countries that import more than they export. As such, shipping containers are not too difficult to get a hold of. Using them for house construction is eco friendly as it means that you’re recycling and up-cycling steel rather than using new materials for your whole build.

Although steel is one of the most recyclable materials out there, using a shipping container means that you save a considerable amount of energy that would otherwise be used to melt down the container for other purposes. You would also be saving a shipping container from possible abandonment.

4. They Can Be Stacked, Combined and Moved

Shipping containers can be easily pulled out, lifted and transported even if they’re not initially placed on a wheeled structure. What’s cool is that there’s flexibility in the way they can be arranged. As such they are very modular and mobile.

They can be stacked and placed next to each other (even if not combined) to create multi-storied or larger living spaces. The options of what you can do with shipping containers is virtually endless! See some of the videos below for inspiration.

You can even build your container home offsite and have it delivered to your desired location later. This will usually happen if you’re commissioning someone else to build.

Cons of Building Tiny Houses from Shipping Containers

1. They Require Heavy Duty Equipment and Skill

You will need to rent or buy heavy equipment to deliver them to your site and move them into place. If you’re self building, you will need strong power tools (such as an angle grinder) to cut the steel for doors, windows, wiring etc. and know how to weld things into place.

Building Tiny Houses from shipping containers can be challenging if you’re thinking of building yourself. This is because there is a lot of steel work involved which is more difficult than working with wood. So if you’ve never worked with steel before you may want to do some training.

The “Welding For Dummies” book by Steven Robert Farnsworth and “Metalworking – Doing it Better: Machining, Welding, Fabricating” book by Tom Lipton may help you get started.

2. They Can Be Challenging To Properly Insulate

It can take a lot of energy and engineering to get a shipping container properly insulated when you’ve cut holes for doors and windows. As such, shipping containers may be more suited for moderate climates. Make sure to do your research and take into consideration your climate and budget.

Shipping Containers may make a better workshop or storage space since they can be left unheated.

3. There Can Be Condensation Problems

A shipping container is just a box made out of steel. During the night (or colder climates) the steel can get pretty cold. Having people inside cooking, breathing and showering creates humidity inside the container. So having hot humid air inside of the container and cold air outside will create condensation inside. Having condensation (water) inside a shipping container home can cause some problems. The biggest is mold, which can result in health problems as well as damage to the interior.

Check out this video by Duca and Roberta who talk about this issue and some of their solutions for solving condensation problems in their shipping container.

4. They May Require Approval From An Engineer or Architect

The structural characteristics of a container can change when cutting into it. As such, you may require building approval from an engineer or architect before you can start building. This especially applies if you’re stacking containers or building more complicated structures with them. In some cases your planning permission may be denied.

5. You May Never Know What Was Shipping In Them

Since you cannot get shipping manifests for used containers which show what was transported in them, it can be impossible to know what was shipped in them during their lifetime. To help prevent the possibility of buying containers that shipped toxic or harmful substances (such as nuclear waste) people typically go for newer shipping containers. However, newer containers usually cost more than older ones.

6. Some May Not Like The Look

Aesthetics come down to personal taste really. Shipping Container homes have a unique modern look which some may find unappealing. So consider your taste and those around you before committing.


What do you think?

Let us know in the comments below what you think about using shipping / sea containers for building Tiny Houses. Would you live in one yourself? Do you already own one? We would love to hear from you.

Here are some books that may help you get started with designing your very own shipping container Tiny House.

Books On Shipping Container Homes:

For more inspiration make sure to check out some of the Tiny House shipping container videos below.



Inspirational Homes Built Using Multiple Shipping Containers:

(Click here to jump back to Pros 4. They Can Be Stacked, Combined and Moved)



Tiny House Shipping Container Timelapses:

Timelapse video by YouTuber Alex Chegne showing how he built his shipping container tiny house.
Timelapse video by YouTube channel PortaPad showing a transformation of a regular shipping container into an off-grid tiny house cabin.

If you’re in search of your very own Tiny House, then you might be interested in our post on Pre-built Tiny Houses For Sale Online right now.



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