How to Convert a Shipping Container into a Home: The Ins and Outs

An outsider would deem the issue on how to convert a shipping container into a home a simple and uncomplicated process. The difficulty level of which is almost on the same page as knowing where to shop for a shipping container and getting the right people to install electrical and plumbing fixtures and to cut holes for doors and windows.

But the reality is much different than the almost magical appearance of a modern house in your property even if you have all the money to make it appear so. For one, building shipping container homes is a relatively new concept and process, with only a few experienced and equipped contractors to get it done right.

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Nevertheless, it’s a venture worth looking into—only with much seriousness. Thankfully, with a few shipping container homeowners and builders who’ve been there and done that, we gain more solid footing on the subject.

Steps on How to Convert a Shipping Container into a Home

As with regular homes, a shipping container house undergoes several stages for it to be transformed into a truly habitable and comfortable living space. And unless you’re thinking of using a shipping container as some bare-bones temporary shelter, like a tent or as a storage area, slipshod planning or construction is pardonable.

And since considering shipping container homes can cost almost as much as—if not more than—traditional houses, it is prudent to go through the planning, construction, and inspection stages in detail. Otherwise, you would have been better off building a conventional dwelling from the start than having to deal with an unsafe and inconvenient structure.

Here’s what you need to accomplish with every stage:

Planning and Pre-Construction

There’s much wisdom in the saying ‘measure twice, cut once.’ If you want to keep costs at a minimum, finish the project on time, and execute up to standards, then serious planning is what you need. Considerations to make at this stage are the following:

  • Rules: What are your site and code limitations?
  • Design: How do you want your house to look like?
  • Budget: How much are you willing to spend and what is your ceiling?
  • Time: How long will the project take?

Knowing these things will help you set realistic expectations as well as anticipate and mitigate risks.

At this stage, the things you need to do are:

Step 1: Find shipping container resellers and shops that do modifications and interior fit-outs. Check out the shipping containers in photos or in person to get a feel of the space.

Step 2: Determine where you want the shipping container house to be built. Review the site and soil bearing capacity, and the passive heating and cooling elements you can take advantage of such as a clump of trees and sun and wind direction.

Step 3: Contact your local building or planning department and ask about zoning restrictions, maximum square footage for buildings and height limitations, and other building codes you need to adhere to. Learn also about the permits you need to secure. All these can vary per country and state.

Step 4: Have your shipping container house design done with the building codes; the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, etc. you want; and the budget considered. Create also a floor plan and site layout to visualize and check how things fit together.

Step 5: Get a rough estimate of how much the project is going to cost you, from the materials and professional services to permitting requirements. Talk to professionals (land surveyor, architects, civil engineer, mechanical engineer), potential contractors (electricians, plumbers, welders), and shipping container resellers.

Step 6: Create the house design, floor plan, and site layout in detail with the help of professionals. At the final planning stage, you will have determined how many shipping containers you will need and how they will be sectioned and reinforced with steel framing. Your insulation, electrical, plumbing, and other utility system requirements will also have been reviewed and designed up to code.

Step 7: Secure the permits you need. Requirements may include structural drawings, land survey, elevations, water treatment, energy code compliance, and soil report. Enlist also contractors you need for the project.

The planning stage is not a linear process. You might need to go back and forth a certain phase or two to get a clearer picture of things before you can finally advance to the next stage. The design and budget setting steps are particularly tricky, but all the meticulous planning is sure to make run things smoothly.

Construction

After having all the plans drafted and the permits secured, you can now confidently enter the construction phase. Here’s a picture of what happens at this point:

Step 1: Build the appropriate foundation where you intend to station your shipping container house.

Step 2: If you’re going for a small design, then have as much of the welding and reinforcing done off-site. With steel framing costing higher than wood framing and with shipping container resellers equipped for such modifications, it would be a wise move to entrust the steel framing process to the manufacturers. Do make sure a structural engineer or architect have reviewed the modifications.

Step 3: When the modified shipping containers arrive on site, they can be fastened onto the foundation.

Step 4: When it’s set in place, you can start installing the windows, doors, flashing, and skylight. Holes may have been pre-cut offsite. If cuts or holes are done on site, then you have to remember to reinforce them with steel framing.

Step 5: Install the interior framing as well as the insulation, electrical, plumbing, and heating and cooling systems.

Step 6: With all the utility and structural systems in place, the shipping container house is ready for inspection with a building official. Once the officer awards you the certificate of occupancy, you’re ready to move into your new home.

Final Thoughts

So, that’s how to convert a shipping container into a home. While it certainly looks like a lot of work, it remains to be a faster option to build a house than the conventional way.

And still, that certificate of occupancy you get for checking the requirements with your local building department and for coordinating with professionals means that your shipping container house is built up to code and is safe for your family.

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