Thoughts on a shipping container house

A low cost and environmentally friendly house could be built out of shipping containers. Straw bale outer wall lining would provide a high level of insulation at low cost and minimal greenhouse impact. Walls between adjacent containers could be cut out to make the larger rooms. The main limitation is the builder's imagination.

Written 2009/04/15, modified 2016/07/06
Contact: email daveclarkecb@yahoo.com
This page was originally a section of Cost of Housing

Shipping container house

If I had a need for another house (and the enthusiasm to build one) I would like to make one based on three or four shipping contains joined together side-by-side with a roof over the top of all.

The crude 'sketch' below represents one layout that I thought would work fairly well. It shows a plan view of four 12m (40ft) shipping containers laid out side-by-side with the first two offset 3m from the last two. Shipping containers are 2.43m (8ft) wide and about the same in height.

Container 1
Container 2
Container 3
Container 4
The large grey rectangle represents the roof, which overhangs the walls on all four sides. The roof would be approximately 19m × 12.75m, covering an area of 240m2. The floor area of the containers would be 4 × 2.43m × 12m, a total of 117m2; I think this is fairly small by Australian house standards, but then I believe most Australian houses are considerably bigger than they need to be.

Internal container walls could be removed wherever a room width of greater than 2.4m was desired. A queen sized bed is 1.6m wide and 2.1m long, so 2.4m would make a very narrow main bedroom, but would be wide enough for a room containing a single bed, or for a bathroom or laundary, possibly a kitchen. For a lounge room, dining room, main bedroom you'd probably want to remove one of the walls and have double width, 4.8m.

The builder would probably weld strips of metal to join all containers to each other – top, bottom, and ends – on the outside, so preventing entry of vermin and draughts.
Example layout - simplified
3m × 5m
Main bedroom
3.8m × 5m
5.2m × 2.43m
4.2m × 2.43m
6m × 2.43m
6m × 5m
6m × 2.43m
Car port
3m × 5m

The example of a layout on the right is very much just to get a feel for the possibilities. It's detail is largely limited by my ability to use tables in the html language. There would, of course, be connecting doors between the two halves; there could be one between kitchen and bathroom, lounge and main bedroom, and another could connect the lounge with the passage between the bedrooms. The divider between kitchen and dinning room would only be partial.

The outside would be lined with straw-bale walls, rendered for weather-proofing as is standard procedure for straw-bale walls; this would keep the rain from the containers and so prevent rust, more importantly it would provide a high degree of insulation. The builder might use the open space at upper left as a patio and that at the lower right as a car port.


What would it all cost? I bought a 12m shipping container in 2003 for Aus$3200 including delivery; allowing for inflation four containers might now (2009) cost $16 000. Container price depends on quality; as the containers for this home would not need to be weather proof – mine was – you could buy quite badly battered ones at a lower price. A roof over the lot might be a further $10 000, less if you were to build it yourself. Straw-bale walls, windows, doors, cutting sections out of the inner container walls, ceiling and under-floor insulation, installing other internal walls, plumbing, painting, etc. — it would all depend on how much building was done by the owner and how much was done by professionals; your guess is probably as good as mine, but I'd take a stab at $10 000 to $20 000 very much depending on whether new or second hand materials were used and how much of the work was done by the owner. That's Aus$36 000 to $46 000 (Aus$40 000 = US$28 000 at the 2009/04 conversion rate) for the whole thing; a very cheap house.

Environmental advantages

Shipping containers are being retired all the time; probably every one that is bought for a purpose such as this is just one less that gets scrapped for the steel that is in it. (Clay bricks and concrete are greenhouse intensive and should be avoided as building materials if possible, they would not be needed in this home.) Given the straw-bale outer walls and supposing effective insulation in ceiling and under the floor, and supposing sensible passive solar placing of windows, the house could require little heating and cooling.


The straw-bales would be susceptible to rot if they get wet and probably to termite attack. The remainder of the house should have a very long life.


A detailed page on a shipping container 'house' based on two 6m containers and actually built in Australia's wet tropics is here.

The Conversation, Are shipping containers really the answer for affordable housing? Time for a reality check.