While I love traditional tiny houses, I also enjoy seeing the weird and wonderful homes other tiny house builders come up with. In recent years, shipping container tiny houses have become more and more popular and I love seeing how creative people can get with these small spaces. In this article, we're going to explore what makes a shipping container a great starting point for a tiny house, what drawbacks shipping containers have, and how you can convert a shipping container into tiny house.
How to Build a Shipping Container Tiny House
Why Convert a Shipping Container Into a Tiny House?
At first glance, it might seem like building a shipping container tiny house would be significantly easier than building a regular tiny house from scratch. After all, the shell is already there. But if you know even a little bit about building tiny houses, you'll know there are pros and cons to almost every kind of material, method, and design you choose. It's the same with how to convert a shipping container to a tiny house; in some ways, they're superior to regular tiny houses and in other ways they're inferior. Let's take a look at some of the positives and negatives about using a shipping container as the shell of your tiny house.
Brenda Kelly's tiny house was so small it didn't need any building permission or council consent.
Image credit: Living Big In A Tiny House
The Pros of Creating a Shipping Container Tiny House
Shipping Containers are Cheap Shipping containers do not cost a lot of money – usually a few thousand dollars. If you're content keeping your tiny house relatively simple, you could build your shipping container home for not much more than this.
Recycling is Good for the Environment
If you want to build an environmentally-friendly home, re-using materials is one way to do that. That said, if the environment is truly your motivation, you might want to consider other options too. Hauling a huge metal box across the country isn't the most environmentally-friendly way of building your house!
Shipping Containers are Watertight, Durable, and Weather-resistant
As shipping containers are designed to be transported on ships, carry all kinds of objects, and travel long distances, they're pretty indestructible. Shipping containers should be able to withstand fire, water, earthquakes, and most other things you could throw at one.
Shipping Containers are Stackable
If you want a slightly larger tiny house or if you plan on growing your family, building a modular house that you can add to over time could be a smart move.
Shipping Container Tiny Houses Look Cool
I'm sure you've seen plenty of photos of quirky shipping container homes and hotels. No matter how you paint and arrange these large boxes, you're bound to end up with a home with a unique aesthetic. If you'd like a sleek and modern-looking tiny house, look no further.
You Can Build Your Shipping Container House in Less Time
Of course, with the shell already built, converting a shipping container into a tiny house is likely to take less time than building a tiny house from scratch.
Shipping Containers are Secure
Shipping containers are hard to break into and therefore make pretty safe homes. Yes, as you add windows, doors, and so on, you will make your house easier and easier to break into, but starting with something this robust will make any burglar's life harder.
This shipping container tiny house comes with a porch!
Image credit: Custom Container Living
The Cons of Houses Made from Storage Containers
Shipping Container Tiny Houses aren't as Cheap as You Might Think
While shipping containers themselves don't cost much, converting them into liveable homes isn't always cheap. If you plan to change the structure of your shipping container, by adding windows, doors, or partitions, you might need to work with an engineer who can ensure the container will remain structurally sound.
Shipping Containers are Narrow
Shipping containers are not very wide – usually 8 ft. Compared to a tiny house on a trailer, it's not that narrow, but that extra 0.5 ft or so can make a big difference. If you want complete control over the dimensions of your tiny house, a shipping container won't be the way to go.
Shipping Containers Can Get Very Hot
Because of solar heat gain, you'll need to find a way to keep the sun off the roof of your tiny house. This isn't impossible by any means, but it's something else to think about and incorporate into your plans. This issue works both ways; you'll also need to figure out the best way to insulate your shipping container.
How to Convert Your Own Shipping Container into a Tiny House
Step 1: Design Your Tiny House
The first step is decide what you'd like your home to be like. Decide which rooms you'd like, how they should connect to each other, how much space you'll need, and so on. Where will your windows go? How about your kitchen, your bathroom, and your bedroom(s)? Think about logistics too. You might like the look of small porthole windows but large French doors would let more light in. Placing your kitchen opposite your bathroom might look good on paper, but check there will be enough room to open your oven door or walk through the gap without bumping into the sides. Draw a floor plan, making sure to stick to the dimensions of standard shipping containers (8 x 20, 8 x 40, etc.). Have fun with this part and do a Google or Pinterest search for inspiration. Your main limitation (besides the dimensions!) is your own imagination.
This 312 sq ft house uses a traditional tiny house layout
Image credit: Custom Container Living
Step 2: Speak to an Engineer
If your design will require removing any part of any wall, and particularly any part of the two longer, load-bearing walls, you'll want to speak to an expert to ensure that your shipping container will remain structurally sound. The last thing you want to do is create a building that's not safe. Step 3: Finish Your Design Once you know what is and isn't going to be possible, finalize your design. Consider the details like insulation, flooring, how you'll get rid of waste, framing, electricity, and so on. Consulting Tiny House Decisions will help you to weigh up the different options.
Brenda Kelly's 20 ft shipping container conversion pushes the limits of what's possible with a tiny space.
Image credit: Living Big In A Tiny House
Step 4: Prepare Your Land
Assuming you've found somewhere to park your tiny house, the next steps are to level it, create a foundation, and decide how or if your container will be elevated from the ground. While it's best to consult with an expert, particularly if you'll be using multiple storage containers, you'll probably consider options like a concrete slab, steel plates, concrete piers, or concrete strips. You should also ensure there's a clear path for your shipping container to be delivered.
Step 5: Choose and Buy Your Shipping Container
Note: It may be sensible to buy your shipping container earlier in the process; it depends how long it will take it to be delivered. You can choose from used, one-trip, and new shipping containers. Obviously, if you buy a used container, it's important that it is of a good enough quality to be turned into a house. You should arrange a pre-purchase inspection to look for rust, unpleasant smells, and so on. You might also like to find out what the container has been used for. For more guidance on choosing and sourcing shipping containers, read How To Purchase Your Shipping Containers.
Step 6: Receive Your Container
You will probably need to hire a crane, company, or forklift to move your shipping container for you. Alternatively, your shipping container supplier might be able to handle the delivery and positioning for you, but make sure to ask and arrange this ahead of time. If you do need to arrange this yourself, make sure whatever equipment you book can handle the weight of a container. You should also consider how you will secure your shipping container to the foundation, by welding or hooking them into place, for example. If you bought a used shipping container, now would also be a good time to give it a thorough wash!
Image credit: Steve at Tin Can Cabin
Step 7: Connect Your Containers
If your design involves more than one container, this is the point at which you'd hook them up. You could use clamps, welding, or bolts, depending on how permanent you want the connection to be. Step 8: Add Any Structural Reinforcements Needed Defer to your engineer on this one but, if you're removing any part of the container, you should first add reinforcements to prevent any structural issues.
Step 9: Cut Your Openings
Again, assuming you know what you're doing, you can start cutting out windows, doors, and other parts of the walls to begin to transform your container into a home. Depending on your skills, you might want to hire someone to do this for you. As you are cutting your container, you might remove some of its anti-corrosive paint, so you may need to re-treat it. If by cutting in your openings, you create any gaps, make sure to seal them to protect the inside of the house from the elements.
The Container Tiny House was made from a 40ft high cube container (320 sq ft).
Image credit: Walker Wilderness Enterprises
Step 10: Remove the Flooring
The floors of most shipping containers have been treated with harsh chemicals. You should make up your own mind as to how you feel about this, but you will probably want to remove the flooring or add a subfloor to protect yourself from these chemicals. If you do, you might like to consider getting a high cube container, which will give you a bit of extra headspace.
Step 11: Frame, Sheath, And Add Insulation and the Floor
Add your framing and insulation and cover with interior ‘walls'. Depending on where you live, you'll probably want to insulate your shipping container tiny house. Which type of insulation you use – spray foam, panels, etc. – will also depend where you live.For more information on this, read Tiny House Decisions. To maximize your use of the space, you could decide to add the insulation to the outside of the container.
Image credit: Steve at Tin Can Cabin
Step 12: Add the Electric
Step 13: Decorate and Move in
Now your shipping container tiny house is pretty much ready to go, you can add all the optional extras like a kitchen, a bathroom, perhaps a composting toilet, and so on. You can also decorate and add your own touch to your new home. This is the fun bit!
The modern interior of Stephan Busley's shipping container home, which cost just $10,000 to build.
Image credit: Container Home Plans
Now that you know how to convert a shipping container into a tiny house
Now that you know more about what converting a shipping container entails, you can make a more informed decision as to whether or not it's for you. Before committing, I'd suggest doing lots more research and speaking to some tiny house builders who have gone before you. I'll leave you with some resources to get you started:
This site has articles on everything you could possibly want to know about converting a shipping container into a tiny house.
This paid guide takes you through the process of building your own shipping container tiny house.
Tin Can Cabin is a blog of ideas, plans, and techniques from a guy called Steve that he put together as he built his shipping container cabin in northern Wisconsin. For more on the pros and cons of shipping container tiny houses, read his article The Shipping Container Cabin in Perspective. How to Build also gives you a more in-depth look at houses made from storage containers.