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  • Writer's pictureDuff Bangs


What is the fascination with converting shipping containers in housing and buildings? It seems over the last decade or two, there has been a surge in the use and popularity of using shipping containers as buildings. Even Starbucks has jumped on the bandwagon and has created several drive-thrus with stacked shipping containers.

In this blog post, we will dive into what shipping containers are, sizes, and some advantages and disadvantages of using them as architecture.

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First, what is a shipping container?

A shipping container is a structurally rigid steel box used for shipping materials and goods around the world. These containers are designed in such a way that they can be stacked several units high on a large freight ship to be shipped across oceans and can also be placed on a flatbed trailer and shipped on land by a semi truck.

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Before we get into using containers as architecture, let's discuss the sizes.


In general, there are three basic sizes of shipping containers. These sizes are dictated by highway and road constraints. For example, the maximum width for vehicles without special permits on US roadways is 8'-6". So typical shipping container widths are 8'.

Here are the typical container sizes:


Width: 8'

Height: 8'-6"

Length: 10'


Width: 8'

Height: 8'-6"

Length: 20'


Width: 8'

Height: 8'-6"

Length: 40'

Beyond these sizes, there are a range of other options from high cubes to longer units.


So why are shipping containers so popular and why are so many people using them for housing and buildings? To answer this, let's discuss some advantages.


There are millions of shipping containers being shipped around the world. After being shipped so many times, the containers will go into retirement. While not being used for shipping anymore, they may be more than satisfactory for building needs. With such an abundance, many people are selling these containers for very cheap. Sometimes used shipping containers can sell for as cheap as couple thousand dollars.


The structure is built in. Shipping containers are composed of a tube steel frames with a corrugated steel skin. This is essentially the framework of a building. With a little more work, other building amenities can be added such as doors, windows, insulation, mechanical, plumbing, electrical and other finish work.


Since these containers are shipped on the ocean across the world, they need to be able to keep water out to protect the contents. These steel boxes a mostly sealed with the exception of the door opening. These doors are typically seal with gaskets and create the weather tight seal when shut.


Again, to protect the contents of the shipping containers, measures need to be taken to keep humidity and salty air out. For similar reasons as above, gaskets can added to the doors to further keep air and moisture out.


Shipping containers are meant to be stacked.

Each corner has a very cool interlocking device that allows shipping containers to be connected. This corner also allows the containers to be lifted by cranes and other machinery as well as to be locked down to a flatbed trailer.

This stacking nature of these containers can be utilized during their life as architecture. There are many examples of container houses being stacked 2-3 units high. And container buildings be stacked 5 units and higher.


With all these great advantages, there does come some drawbacks to using containers as architecture.


Some shipping containers contain chemicals or lead in the paint to increase longevity. Keep in mind, these containers are shipped across the world on large ships and are exposed to harsh wet and salty climates on the sea and ocean environments. Nasty chemicals can be added to the paint. Sometimes this may not be an issue if left alone. However, precautions may need to be taken when working with or removing this paint.


This may not be an issue but it is something to consider. Sometimes chemicals can be shipped inside these containers. The metal walls and roof can most likely be scrubbed down or the paint remover completely ( see above). However, the floors ( typically constructed of wood) may absorb these chemicals.

The floors can be cleaned or replaced completely if needed.


Similar to above, the wood itself most likely does not pose a hazard however, the wood can be treated with chemicals to preserve and protect from harsh ocean climates. This may or may not be an issue, just something to consider.

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Even with the protective paint coatings, these shipping containers can eventually be susceptible to rust. If one is looking for a shipping container to use for a building, it's best to find one with very little or no rust. However, some very minimal surface rust may be desirable for that patina look.


In their original form, these shipping containers are incredibly strong. The skin is composed of a corrugated steel which creates a significant structural rigidity.

Once holes for windows, doors or other penetrations are punched into the skin of these boxes, measures will need to be taken to reinforce these openings.


With the advantages and disadvantages out of the way, let's take a look at some examples of containers used as architecture.

Like all design there is an intricate balance between form and function. Some container buildings celebrate the fact that these are industrial boxes and they show off their original utilitarian skin.

While others try everything they can to hide the fact that these boxes sit months at sea on giant boats. In some cases, they will completely hide the chipping container skin with siding or drywall.

Image courtesy of FBM Architects

Check out more shipping container ideas on the modFORM Pinterest page

There is so many more great examples and so much more to write about shipping containers. Hopefully, this gives you a brief introduction to the fascinating world is using shipping containers as architecture.

Thanks for reading and please leave a comment below.

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