Shipping containers as housing

A discussion thread on using shipping containers as housing on Making Light turned up a fantastic wealth of material on the subject (it turns out that the world's imbalance of trade with China means that most ports have mountains of abandoned containers originating in China that no one wants to ship back there). Teresa Nielsen Hayden (who doubles as Boing Boing's comment-moderator) did a round-up post organzing dozens of links thematically. Clicktrance ahoy! Link

(Photo credit: Naomi Schiphorst's photo of student housing made from shipping containers in Amsterdam, found on Mimoa)


  1. A friend of mine lives in one of these shipping containers at the old NDSM shipping yard in Amsterdam(as pictured above). I’ve spent a night or two in there and they actually make for pretty nice student housing. Decently sized and prized and just a short ferry ride away from the central train station and the city centre.

    Official website:

  2. The Freitag flagship store is made of shipping containers as well. I think this is something we’ll see more of. You can put up decent housing really fast and quite cheaply with containers. There are tons them floating around, they are made to be easily moved, and the infrastructure to move them is already in place. There are many people working on ways to outfit them so they can be habitable quickly, and brought into disaster areas where people need shelter quick.

  3. The image reminds me of the place they house thousands of exiled robots in the I,Robot movie.

    Would FEMA be interested in converting containers to emergency shelter for people displaced by disaters?

  4. I like the idea of using shipping containers for housing but couldn’t some kind of natural setting be part of the plan if for no other reason than to break the monotony and dreariness of these residential area. It looks positively soviet, but if architects and planners would get out into the woods and fields, the mountains and rivers, maybe they’d nurture theirown biophilia and instead of a concret cobblestone streeet lined with nearly identical boxes (this as a result of someone with a degree in planning), why not a mountain of them, stacked and jumbled a bit, including trees and waterfalls and natural features of plants and ponds…The occasional rooftop garden is the weakest kind of acknowledgement of our human craving for proximity to nature..and yet architects design as if it’s something to merely tolerate until the feeling goes away, and then they go on designing yet another expensive denial of our instinctual desire for a window with a view of something natural.

  5. I think the best use ever of shipping containers would be in a giant game of Jenga played with forklifts.

  6. I know that it appeals to the Lego-lover in all of us, but shipping containers are actually poorly suited to adaptive re-use. They only work as just the lowest-performing shell for subsistence living (i.e., better than sleeping on open ground), or conversion to a mediocre product at a very high technological cost.

    The very design of a container — with a full-width/height door at one end — is a bitch to seal, and to cut into. Doors and windows are extremely tricky and labor intensive to install, since the walls are corrugated and load-bearing. The steel shell is a nightmare to insulate; it’s a serious thermal pendulum, and it booms like a drum. They’re much heavier than practical and can only be moved with specialized equipment.

    I know, I know — don’t rain on the colorful, building block parade! Full disclosure: I was trained as an architect.

  7. DogU4, here’s a description of a shipping container house built by an Earth Sciences department in a Queensland rainforest. Here’s a rumination on the subject in Mother Earth News, which thinks shipping container structures could be improved with some hay bale insulation.

    If you’ll follow the link in the entry, you’ll find a lot of other links to all kinds of container-built structures with all kinds of aesthetics.

    Shipping container housing originally came up on Making Light during a discussion of emergency housing in the wake of a catastrophic hurricane hitting NYC. Large, densely populated areas of Brooklyn would flood if NYC got hit by a serious storm surge. (Other parts of NYC would flood as well, but Brooklyn would get nailed.) The point of shipping containers is that they could be used to provide sturdy, decent, livable housing, quickly and inexpensively. A pleasant irregularity is all very well, but sometimes what you need is a whole lot of decent housing, fast.

    One more thing: You want to live in an apartment complex that has water running down through it and pooling in places? Fine. Your lookout. I have just one piece of advice: rent, don’t buy.

  8. My dad worked for a while on some of the army bases in the Falkland islands; they apparently also use shipping containers as accommodation as it was the easiest thing suitable for housing troops to transport out there during the war (when time was obviously of the essence).

    They’re not the most comfortable places to live though: many don’t have windows and due to their awkward size are difficult to insulate (necessary for the freezing Southern Atlantic climate) and to furnish.

  9. Kickstart — they’re about $20K new, FOB. You can buy a used one at most major harbors for about 1/4 of that in good condition. If they have damage (say, a badly dented corner or a door with issues), you might be able to get one for free. However, moving one is a serious bitch. You’ll need a freight company that specializes in moving them to do it. Getting a container from the Oakland Terminal delivered to say, just a few miles away in Oakland or Emeryville would cost somewhere around $500-$600. And you’d better like where they put it, as you can’t move it again without a specialized über-forklift.

  10. These things definitely wouldn’t be safe during a hurricane or a tornado, though. Just look at what happens with mobile homes.

  11. These are a lot stronger and heavier than mobile homes. They would not be torn apart by a hurricane or tornado. If they were moved by the storm, a standard house would’ve been destroyed, too.

    Imagine a semi (tractor-trailer) being tossed around. That’s pretty close in weight. If the storm is picking up that, it’s gonna rip the roof right off your house.

    Construction-wise, they’re made to be stacked, and made to handle short drops and serious weight. So very little is going to actually penetrate the walls or crush them.

    I’d say that, anchored properly, they’re probably safer than a standard house. Not more comfortable, without serious changes, but safer.

  12. I’m gonna have to eat my words a little: I looked up the tare weight of a 40′ shipping container and it’s about 8,000 to 9,000 pounds. That’s a good bit less than a semi; they’re more like 26,000 pounds.

    It’s still a ton of weight, and their construction is still much, much stronger than a mobile home. (Plus hopefully they would be anchored to the ground!)

  13. A few thoughts.

    Yes, you need windows and likely a roof mounted A.C., vents, cooking exhaust. Water, sewage and power/phone will need openings, too. Oh, and a back door/fire exit!

    VERY labor intensive to have someone with a torch or saw cut the openings.

    Use shaped cutting charges instead. Just like they use to cut the support girders when imploding a building.

    A lot less labor, a lot less skill (assuming prefabbed shaped charges) and a lot less time involved in making the openings.

    Blow the holes, slide in the prefabbed modules for A.C. windows, doors, et al. Bolt them in, seal them against the elements, Move it out and bring in the next container.

    While the containers are being fabbed, the concrete slabs are being poured (if need be), water, sewage, power, phone or cable TV or fiber optic (fiber would be my choice for long term) is being laid at the disaster site, utilizing in situ infrastructure as much as possible. If the phone switch or cable hub is still there and working, you don’t need to bring in satellites or a new switch. BIG semi-mounted generators will handle the electrical needs until the site can be hooked up to the national grid.

    It ain’t the Ritz by a long shot. Beats the hell out of a tent, though. Particularly when you have a door you can lock from the inside.

    If there’s a big enough family, there would be special side by side versions to add more space. Heck, maximize lot usage and stack them in a 2 X 2 or 3 X 3 configuration. Most people could deal with a short flight of stairs. If they can’t, they get a bottom unit.

  14. The whole point, tho’, is that adaptive reuse of containers for most of these applications is pointless, since there are far better choices available. Shipping containers were intended for one thing only: to securely transport inanimate objects for great distances by ship and/or train. What’s sensible about temporary housing that requires a ship or train, plus a specialized crane or jumbo forklift to be able to move the damned thing?! Temporary or emergency housing needs to be able to get to where it’s needed. Shipping containers are a major bitch to move.

    This zeal for making one thing out of another is novel and eye-catching and all, but it’s ass-backwards from a form-following-function program. It’s as silly as taking a 55-gallon drum, having someone cut the top off and scribe a curvilinear line around a third of the circumference, and build a padded, leather-lined seat into it. Can it be done? Absolutely. Is it an interesting thought-exercise? Yeah, for about 5 minutes. Should it actually be done? Probably not. Is it cost-effective? Nope. Will it produce a superior or even adequate chair? Not even slightly.

  15. Gee whiz, Brico, what don’t you understand about “reuse” in “reduce, reuse, recycle?” Those three magic words will fix everything, even if they require doing totally impractical, costly, and sometimes even more environmentally-damaging things!

  16. I think using these as disaster housing might not be that bad of an idea. If you had a stockpile of clean containers ready to go, you could potentially pack them with water, food, and other necessary supplies, and ship them to the disaster area. While they are a pain for the individual to move, it’s fairly standard to mount wheels and a pin on them and tow them with a semi. Run the containers down, unload, send the tractors back up for another load, rinse, repeat.

    On a side note, it seems odd to me that there are huge stockpiles of these sitting around. They’re made out of steel, and the commercial/industrial metal recycling business is booming. If there’s little to no market for the empty containers as-is, why aren’t they being scrapped and recycled?

  17. I’m surprised this wasn’t posted yet:

    Container City is based in the UK, did a lot of projects, mostly studios and some youth centres.

    A lot of the installation times says 1-10 days or so, I don’t know if they make them, and the installation time is just then setting them all up at the location site, or what.

  18. As a soldier in the IDF, i lived in quite a few of those.
    saying it’s hard to transport is ridiculous! Containers are MEANT to be transported. all you need is a truck and a small crane.
    As a private citizen it’s hard to come by, but for government agencies this equipment is easily available en masse.

    In Israel, most outposts are manned on rotation. every few months the occupying company takes all it’s stuff and moves to another one (or to a training camp). that means that ALL of the equipment, from shirts and sleeping bags, to machine guns, is stored in shpping containers, and can be easily moved in a few hours.

    now, i personally lived in containers, and i must say it’s rather nice. the main problems are insulation and sound (it reverberates like hell!). but is sure as hell beats a tent!!!

  19. oren wrote “saying it’s hard to transport is ridiculous! Containers are MEANT to be transported. all you need is a truck and a small crane.”

    What kind of truck and “small crane” does it take to move a 20′ x 8′ x 8′, 2-1/2 ton container? It requires a truck with a trailer at least 8′ wide (the maximum legal width for trailers is 8’6″) and mounting points to match the container. The “small crane” has to be able to lift a 2-1/2 ton empty container on and off, which is no “small crane”. If you have the infrastructure that can provide a semi truck with a trailer that will accommodate a container, and a freestanding crane, then the odds are that you are already spending more just to site the container than it would cost to ship in and erect a truly portable shelter, much less make it livable. Siting a container is a lot more complicated for civilians to have done than you think. Yes, containers are “meant to be transported” — by container ship and rail, lifted on an off by huge overhead hoists.

    The point is that temporary housing is already available in much more practical, portable, livable forms, which don’t require extensive and expensive modifications to be made livable. This is a classic case of “making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”, just because it seems like a design solution.

  20. bricology, the whole point is to use it as a temporary shelter.
    now, a functioning government can easily haul in dozens of loaded trucks from each available loading dock in just a few hours. i’ve seen ’em pack all of our containers, even in tight places such as this
    hell, i’ve seen an entire artillery battalion load up on very big trucks in just a few hours…

    now, you mentioned that it’ll be cheaper to build a “truly portable shelter”. i’m intrigued. what IS a truly portable shelter? i’ve never seen a shelter that is big enough to house 4-6 people safely, yet small enough to be easily transported.

    oh, and this is how one looks on the inside:

  21. How are these units kept temperate? I live in southern California and the thought of being in one of these in the summer time makes my mouth dry. I imagine roasted to death in it…

    David B.

  22. Hey,

    I live in these containers at NDSM. It aren’t old containers. They just look like old containers. In fact, it are pre-fab houses made to live in. The are made in the Czech Republic and transported to Amsterdam.

    And to keep the house temperate we have airconditioning.


  23. Bricology, there are trailers designed to carry the containers; they’ve been in use for decades. They have rails down the center to support the container and wheels in the back. Towed by semis. The cranes to offload them are made in drivable versions, too; 2.5 tons isn’t very much for heavy equipment to handle. Yes, it’s more cumbersome than moving a mobile home or travel trailer with wheels attached, but it’s also a safer (more sound) structure. That’s a trade-off; I don’t know if there’s a way around it without blowing the budget.

    It isn’t an ideal solution, but I can see it’s got promise. I don’t know of any ideal solutions out there yet.

    Oh, and your idea of making a chair from a 55-gallon drum sounds really cool. I’d pay you $200 for one! How can I order it? ;-)

  24. I have seen some of these containers towed by 1-ton diesel pickups on fifth wheel trailers. Just wanted to point out that a semi is not necessarily required to transport one of these containers.

  25. Good point; 2.5 tons is well within the towing capacity of most full-size pickups. Even a 1/2 ton truck frequently has a 9,000 pound towing capacity.

    A 1-ton truck can have a 16,000 pound (8-ton) towing capacity.

  26. Bricology (and I’m sorry for responding months late): the argument for shipping containers is that they already exist in vast surplus quantities. When you say “practical, portable, livable forms,” do you mean house trailers? Because that’s the real alternative. In a real crisis, none of those clever ideas for prefab emergency housing people have come up with are going to be used. We’re going to use off-the-shelf units.

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