Are Shipping Container Homes Sustainable?

Tin Can Cabin

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If you do a search for "shipping container" on Apartment Therapy, you'll come across all kinds of shipping container architecture, from a single-container guesthouse to an impressive 8-container family home, an 86-container Travelodge to an entire "city" built with containers. It seems a lot of people turn to shipping containers in hopes of a budget- and eco-friendly solution for custom building, but one container homeowner — who just finished building his own — actually makes a case against building one if those are your primary reasons.

Steve, a computer programmer and hobbyist designer, started writing the Tin Can Cabin blog to document the process of building his dream container cabin in Wisconsin. But after the experience, and having built other cabins more traditionally, he wants other aspiring container owners to think long and hard about going the same route.

In this recent post, Steve asserted there were only two good reasons for building with a shipping container: for added security, and to make an architectural statement. He cautioned against the typical eco-home fantasies of living simply and building cheaply using salvaged materials. To all the people considering shipping containers for cost effectiveness and telling him, "I can build a container cabin for $20/sq foot" or "your cabin is overbuilt and too expensive," he countered:

Both of these comments are true if you don’t mind living in a shack more appropriate for a third world refugee camp. I’ve seen shipping container “cabins” with no insulation, the wrong insulation, raw plywood flooring, no wallboard or paneling, no roof, no foundation, and no utilities. If all you want is a metal box lying on the ground then yes, shipping container construction can be both easy and cheap.

But once you factor in the costs of local permitting, transporting and craning in a container, welding and reinforcing, wiring and plumbing, and framing for flooring and insulation, the price per square foot of a container home is on par with (if not more than) a conventionally built home — even if you were able to score your container for free. And Steve only gives figures and scenarios for a simple cabin like his; an elaborate multi-container home would cost much more.

As far as choosing a container home for environmental reasons, he thinks if you want to build sustainably, you should "build small and insulate well."

Read the pros and cons on Tin Can Cabin — and once you understand what you're getting into, check out the rest of the blog for pictures, sketches, plans, and other great resources on building your own container cabin.

(Image credits: Tin Can Cabin)

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