How to Build a Shipping Container Home on a Budget

It starts with the size. What kind of house do you want to build, a tiny house made from a single container, or a big home made by stacking and aligning multiple containers? The second stage of building a container home is determining the cost. How much budget have you allotted for your house?

Once you have determined the size of your home and the cost involved, you will have to start making the plans for the foundation, floor, roof, doors, and windows (you will have to cut the frames), insulation, installing utilities, painting, and decoration. In this article, we will be guiding you through a step by step process to build your own shipping container home. Let’s walk into the process of designing and customizing of shipping containers

Purchase the land

Just like the traditional home, you need a plot of land where you can erect your container home. 

In order to build a container home, you need a lot of space for storing the building materials, including the containers. You should have enough space to align the containers, usually double size of your containers and additional 10-20 ft space on your plot. The land where you are erecting your home should also be in level. There should be a good drainage system as well. Before you begin to stack containers, you should build a concrete foundation.

Different Types of Foundations for Container Homes

You are building a container home. “Do I need a foundation?” you might ask. The answer is: Yes, of course!

For a better support, the foundations for your shipping container home should be made of steel and concrete.

Basically, there are three types of foundations:

Traditional concrete block

Crawl space

Basement

What type of foundations you should use for your container home depends on various factors such as your building plans, the design, soil type, climate, presence of radon, and the type of bedrock.

Traditional concrete block: This is the most common type of foundation. The container is stacked on the concrete foundation and welded to the embedded steel reinforcements.

Crawl space: If you need extra storage, but cannot build a full basement, you can go for this option.

Basement: You can place a container under the ground and stack another above it. You can then use the underground container as the basement. This type of foundation will give you a spacious storage and living space. You should make a concrete block foundation for the container that’s underground.

The foundations for your container home has to follow the same protocol of the traditional home, however, you can forgo some codes. Just like in the traditional homes, you can have a crawl space and basement in your container home, however, the basic foundations should always be made from concrete.

Insulation and Weatherproofing

Containers are steel boxes, you need insulation to make them livable. Insulation can be as simple as applying a closed-cell foam layer to the exterior and interior as this will give a protection from heat, cold and moisture; or as complicated as installing drywall.

You might be wondering what kind of insulation is ideal for your container home. The type of insulation you should use depends on various things such as cost involved, the interior design, environment friendly, the climate and such more. The Ceramic Insulation can be a cheap solution because it cost less than fiberglass or foam insulation. Ceramic Insulation paint sticks against strong materials, thus, it protects the container from mold, mildew, and rust. Generally speaking, the cost of Ceramic Insulation Paint for a 40 feet container is just about $700.

You may install drywall for added insulation and to hide the corrugated steel, wiring, and foam. This will make your containers more like a home.

If you are located in a hot climate zone, you might have to use reflective paint on the exterior. You may use “cool roof” coating to reflect UV rays and prevent heat gain.

 You can finish the interior of your container home with the following insulation methods:

Fiberglass insulation

Fiberglass insulation is one of the common insulation methods in traditional homes. Fiberglass insulation is also widely used in container homes. The fiberglass is 3.5 inch thick and provides good protection against outside heat and cold and maintains indoor temperature. The fiberglass covers the ribbed sides of the walls as well as the electric wiring. With fiberglass insulation you have two options for surface finishing. 

Fiberglass insulation with plywood paneling: If you like wood framed interior, this can be a good choice. The fiberglass insulation is covered with Fiberglass Reinforced Panels plywood overlay. Wood surface provides easy cleaning.

Fiberglass insulation with hardie paneling: If you want fire proof and water proof wall surface, this is a great option. The Hardie Paneling is fire resistant and water resistant.

Plystyrene foam paneling

Plystyrene foam can be fixed on steel studs to provide insulation to the container homes. In order to give a good finish, the foam panels can be covered with plywood or hardie paneling. The plystyrene foam paneling is two inch thick. This insulation also covers ribbed sides and electrical wirings.

Spray Foam

Spray foam also provides good insulation to the container homes. The spray foam completely hides the ribs, plumbing and electrical wiring on the surface. Unlike fiberglass or polystyrene panels, spray foam does not leave any gaps between the wall and insulation. Therefore, there is no chance of condensation or moisture developing.

Why do you need insulation in the first place?

Heat Control: Since the containers are steel structure, they absorb and transmit heat and cold. Due to this temperature inside the container cannot be controlled if no insulation is used.

Humidity: If you are located in the temperate climate, moist interior air condenses against the steel. This will lead to rust forming.

Temperature: Steel is a good conductor of heat and cold. Insulation is needed to make the containers appropriate for human occupancy.

Roofing

The shipping container is made from corten steel that can stand harsh sea weather. Therefore, the container walls are very strong. The container the floor is also strong because it accommodates tons of cargo weight; however, the roof is not. The recommended weight for the roof is just 300 kg. You can stack 8 containers on top. The skeleton is very strong but the metal plates connecting the skeleton are weak. Whether you are building a home from a single container or stacking or aligning multiple containers to build a big house, you need to install roof because rain water might leak from the seams or rain water might build up on the roof and serious corrosion can occur.

You need to install a roof on your containers to make it a home, however, how do you fit a roof on your shipping container. What kind of roof you need it install depends on your personal choice, style, and cost involved. Some people go without installing a roof because they see this as a way to cut building cost. However, installing a roof and insulating it saves money in the long run.

Why do you need a roof when the container already has a roof?

Having a roof means you can insulate from inside. Insulation maintains the interior temperature. When you have a roof, your container home will have an overhang, which will keep the rain from running down on your windows. The roof will remove the necessity of installing a drip bar above the windows.

If you have decided to install a roof, here are a few various considerations for different roof styles

Shed roof

The shed style roof is basically a sloped roof. Many people use this style roof because it is cheap, simple to build and takes a short time to install. There is also another advantage of shed style roof. You can install solar panels easily. The shed style roof is installed by building a truss. The truss is built by welding steels across the container and covering with shingles, galvanized metal sheets or coated steel sheets. You also need to cover the truss with bracing in order to protect from strong wind.

Gable roof

Many people go with gable style because gable style roof is normally associated with traditional home and by having gable roof, you can style your container home as a traditional home. The gable roof has a unique triangle look. Since gable roof is a slope roof, it provides good water drainage. This will ultimately extend life of your roof because there will be no leaks. Gable roof also creates more space in the ceiling.

First of all you, need to build a truss by welding steels on your container, and then you need to cover the roof creating slopes on both sides. You can use shingles, galvanized metal sheets or coated steel sheets to cover the roof.

Flat roof

Since the container already has a flat covering on the top, many people think that letting the roof remain flat will be more appropriate. You can go with flat roof, however, not installing a proper roof or not covering the top covering of the container will make your house susceptible to harsh weather and rain.  You can spread tarpaulin sheet on the roof of the container and then overlay with asphalt.

Floor Plans

The container floor is seaworthy, heavily treated 28mm thick plywood. The container floors are usually made from birch, teak or keruing plywood laminates. The floor can withstand tons of weight internally, is very durable and resistant to water. During the cargo shipping, floors are likely to be damaged. There could be gauges, cracks, holes and missing layers. Therefore many container home builders like to remove the original wooden flooring and replace it with marine plywood from their local hardware store.

There is also another reason to replace the floors.  In most cases, the floor is filled with toxins like arsenic and chromium in order to prevent the spread of deadly diseases or infestation of insects that are not natural to the new location. Sometimes shipping containers are coated in paint that contains chemicals like as phosphorous and chromate which are considered hazardous to humans.

During the building process, some people prefer to sand the floor before coating with ceramic paint or cover with other flooring materials. Sanding is not recommended because it releases toxic substance such as ethylene dibromide, phosphine, formaldehyde, cyanide, methyl bromide, ethylene oxide, sulfuryl fluoride and chloropicrin into the air.

If you don’t touch the floor you are fine, as long as you don’t remove the coating with power tools which creates dust. The dust is harmful. You can coat the plywood with an industrial epoxy or polyurethane paint, which completely seals the chemicals and off-gassing into the floor making the container a safe place to live.

Here are some options for shipping container flooring:

Steel Overlay

Installing steel sheet over the existing wood floor is one of the popular floor modifications in container homes. The steel sheets are usually 3-5 mm. The sheets are welded at the edges and the seams.

Vinyl Floor Covering

The vinyl floor is a great flooring option because it is durable and easy to clean. Vinyl is also fire retardant and oil resistant. Vinyl floor covering is available as a solid sheet that is rolled out and glued to the container floor.

Commercial Carpet Tile

If you are looking for a cheap option for container floors, commercial carpet tiles is for you. You can glue 18 by 18 inches tiles on the container floor. These tiles are made from 100 percent recycled polyester.

Sidewall Modification

There are different kinds of container, some have doors at both end, some containers have collapsible sides, and some are open tops. Because of the variation in the shape, size and the material, you can easily modify the containers to fit your purpose.

Windows and Doors

If you want to build a proper home from shipping containers, you will have to cut the frames for doors and windows. This is not as easy as it sounds.

How do you cut through steel? Here are some suggestions that might give you some ideas if you want to have windows and doors in your container house.

Cutting disk: While cutting the structure, there will be a lot of sparks. Also, expect shards and shreds of metal flying everywhere. Always wear protection for your eyes and remove all flammable objects.

Sawzall: You can use a reciprocating saw, also called “Sawzall” to make windows and doors on the walls of the steel containers.

Plasma cutter: There are some drawbacks of plasma cutter such as it is an expensive method, the tips burn out easily, they require an air compressor and sometimes a special plug or outlet. However, the plasma cutter is the right tool to make windows and doors easily. If you don’t own one a cutting disk will be fine.

Adding a door to your container

When you search the internet looking for DIY ideas, you will find that most of the people say it is easy. Whether the work is easy or not, you will know only when you try yourself. Let’s get started with adding doors. But before you begin, you need to have the right tools and have a clear idea on what kind of door you want. Your door can be a sliding door, open roll up door, or swinging door.

Cut the hole on the wall based on the size of your door.

Weld the door frame.

Install the door

Paint the frame

Note: you can use a readymade door kit or create your own.

How to install glass windows in a container

The cargo container home has some restriction on window installation. You will have to choose a small and simple window, and try to avoid bay windows. The container gives a great flexibility; however, it also puts restrictions on innovations. Here is an easy guide to install windows.

Purchase a window.

Take the measurement of the window you have purchased, mark the area on your container wall where you want to install the window.

Cut the hole on the wall.

Build a window frame; you can either use metal frame or wooden frame. Attach the frame on the newly cut hole.

Install the window into the frame and fasten tightly with screws or nail the window on the frame.

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