Shipping Container Housing

This section originally written by Reza Pouraghabagher

Shipping containers that were originally and currently used for over-ocean, over-road and over-rail shipment of bulk goods, and are now repurposed for residential occupancy and commercial storefront applications. This is especially useful in urban environments where space is more limited and the price of land is more a barrier to entry for prospective home owners and business developers. Shipping containers can be used as the main structure for efficiency dwellings or alternatively used as a basis of structure for contemporary architectural design.

Commercial Status:

Container availability is fairly consistent, but prices can fluctuate significantly from month to month, based upon the cost of fuel, steel, and general demand within the shipping industry. 20 ft containers can be delivered with a standard 20 ft “roll-back” tow truck – with a cost similar to that of vehicle towing, whereas, 40 ft containers typically require either a semi or a “roll-off” truck for delivery – with a cost ~ 3x tow truck fee. However, the ability to deliver is possible via 40 ft gooseneck trailer – for slightly more than a tow truck fee.

Favorable container prices (not including shipping) can be as follows: 20 ft-$1500 Refrigerated ~$4500 (non-operating) Refrigerated ~ $7500 (operating)

40 ft ~$2100 Refrigerated~ $4500 (non-operating) Refrigerated ~ $7500 (operating) Hi-cube – $2300

Implementation Issues:

If used for construction within city limits, local zoning and ordinances will apply. Prior to building a permanent structure, a professional certification of the foundation will be required with fee ownership of the property already obtained. Conventional financing will typically require an overall architect design at a minimum. Public acceptance will be cautious in more established neighborhoods, as containers may be initially looked upon as “trailer homes” until modern contemporary container structure designs are implemented within urban communities.


Building within city limits requires an understanding of various zoning ordinances and ingenuity when designing. Additionally, while a benefit of the containers is the ability to stack them (from a pre-engineered standpoint), access for a crane is also important to plan for in the beginning stages of development. Containers can be used for building in all climates. Refrigerated containers are pre-insulated and are more readily utilized for occupancy in hot and cold climates.

There are several types of standard containers, with the more common types listed in the specifications below:
SPECS Shipping ContainersExteriorInternalDoor OpeningsWeight
20ft.19’10½”8′8’6″19’3″7’8″7’9⅞”7’8″7’5″5050 lb
40ft.40′8′8’6″39’5″7’8″7’9⅞”7’8″7’5″8000 lb
40ft. HC40’8′9’6″39’5″7’8″8’10”7’8″8’5½”8775 lb
45ft. HC45’8′9’6″44’5″7’8″8’10”7’8″8’5½”9810 lb
20ft. Refrigerated19’10½”8′8’6″17’11”7’6″7’6″7’5″7’3″6503 lb
40ft. Refrigerated40′8′8’6″37’11”7’6″7’6″7’6″7’6″9750 lb
40ft. HC Refrigerated40′8′9’6″37’11”7’6″8’4″7’6″8’4″9590 lb

When designing and building multi-level container structures in limited urban spaces, the arrangement of each container is a very important factor, as it will influence the appearance AND:
  • maximize existing ground level space (tenant and/or customer parking)
  • allow for future expansion of structural additions (above ground outdoor decks)
  • dictate routing of plumbing and electrical facilities
  • optimize heating and cooling efficiency.
By cantilevering the additional levels, the appearance can be enhanced while also allowing for increased parking or landscaped areas on the ground level. Utilizing steel I-beams between levels not only creates an interstitial space for routing of utilities, but also facilitates the construction of decks for the upper levels, providing valuable access to outdoor space and enhanced views within a sprawling urban environment.

Stacking the containers directly on top of each other provides the most simple (construction) and inexpensive (initially) option for constructing multiple level container structures. This technique, while maximizing the cost upfront, may leave the tenants or customers feeling claustrophobic unless the space inside is transformed into “a world of it’s own”, where the interior walls and ceilings are modified to accommodate increased access between units. Since containers are made of steel at the walls and ceiling, the cutting and welding of steel is an important facet of the construction technique. If a goal of repurposing the structure to the maximum extent is set, then the final product can utilize the existing walls for doors, decks, and window shutters, providing a very contemporary and acceptable appearance even in the highest value developments.

Another advantage of containers is their portability. Consider the example of recently popular trailer park eateries in Austin TX that utilize vintage and new Airstream trailers that cost $10K to $40K each. A container can be delivered and picked up at any time at a fraction of the cost. Also, containers are stackable, thereby quickly creating multiple levels. Since the container roof is flat it, can be utilized as an additional extension of the space!


container project built by Jonathan Beall of Austin artisan copper business Sertodo Copper

Additional inks to some existing shipping container housing developments underway are below:

Container City I

Container City II “Shipping Container Architecture” Website

“Design Crave” Website

“This Shipping Container City Above an Old Grain Silo Is Actually a Dorm” – Gizmodo

“Jenga-Like Hotel made from Shipping Containers”

Container Bar, Austin TX

See also: article at Web Urbanist

Add YOUR company to the Resource list on this page…