The Pros and Cons of Building with Shipping Containers


The invention of standardized shipping containers has been central to boosting global trade in the second half of the 20th century. Eight feet wide by 8.5 feet high, and either 20 or 40 feet long, the steel shipping container has been the globally standardized transportation module since 1956. It has made a major contribution to global commerce and dramatically reduced the cost of long distance trade.

Today, there are roughly 36 million shipping containers in the world, and on any given day, there are between five and six million shipping containers on the high seas, transporting everything from chips to dishwashers. Extrapolate, and that adds up to approximately 120 million containers packed with cargo traversing the oceans every year, with an estimated value of more than $4 trillion (based on 2013 figures). 

However, costs of shipping empty containers back to their origin are high, so often times the containers sit unused in ports. If one lives near a port with abundant containers, then the energy required to transport the steel container to a local building site will be lower than an inland location, far from the port. Today, it would just be cheaper to have your goods shipped in a brand new container from China, especially given the trade deficit. In fact, hundreds of thousands of containers sit unused in yards around the world. Melting these containers uses about 8000 kWh of energy, while refurbishing one into a building uses just about 400 kWh. This is the reason that container architecture has become all the rage in recent years. 

Since container architecture has recently become a fierce debate, we thought we'd list the Pros and Cons of using container architecture.


Green Building: Containers are eco-friendly, as they are re-purposed into homes instead of being melted down. A large amount of cargo containers are discarded in ports across the globe because of one way shipments. Reusing a single 40' container upcycles about 3500kg of steel and saves about 8000 kWh that would otherwise be needed to melt it down. Repurposing it only uses about 400 kWh. Using containers also prevents the use of bricks and cement. The cement industry is one of the biggest producers of CO2 and bricks essentially make the natural materials they are made of, inert. 



Cost Effective: In India, Shipping containers typically cost only Rs. 60,00 – 100,000 depending on their size. They're are already the perfect shape to be repurposed into homes, so a home built out of them is a minimum of 30% cheaper than a same sized home built in brick and mortar. The structural work is also minimal, reducing the cost further. This can be put to very good use.





Structural stability: Containers are also “virtually indestructible”. Shipping containers are designed to bear heavy loads, withstand harsh climatic conditions, as well as rough seas and can also easily be stacked one on top of the other to create multi-story homes. Their structural stability makes such homes earthquake and hurricane proof, which makes them extremely safe for natural disaster-prone areas.




Ease/speed of Construction: Building a housing structure out of a shipping container takes roughly 2-3 weeks in comparison to brick and mortar structure which takes around 4-6 months to make. Most structures can be assembled within a day or so, if all the pieces have been cut off site which is in equivalence to prefabricated structures. 





Off Site Construction: Container homes can be built off site and then delivered to your land ready to move in to.Sometimes a plot of land isn’t suitable to build on.In this case, one can get the shipping container home made at a local workshop and then the finished product can be delivered to the plot of land.






Safety: A major problem with remote and rural infrastructure is the risk of break-ins. Containers need a blowtorch or dynamite to break into, and are too heavy to lift up and make-off with without anyone noticing. This contributes to making it a safe structure for use in remote areas. 







Insulation and Heat Control: Shipping containers are large steel boxes meaning that they absorb and transmit heat and cold very well. This leads to the problem of controlling the temperature inside. This can be solved by using the correct type of insulation and paint although it can also lead to non-environmentally friendly solutions like energy consuming ACs. Insulation can also further reduce the already limited interior space of the container. In order to increase space, multiple structures can be joined together on-site.




Refurbishing: Many used shipping containers are old and nearing the end of their life span. Used containers tend to rust quickly because they have been scratched or dented while serving their primary function. Such dents and scratches have to be refurbished correctly by your contractor. If the container is re-painted every few years, it can last a minimum of 20 years and much more. 




Ecological Footprint: Using disused containers as building blocks is an effective way of recycling them, but the eco footprint of these homes is still larger than it appears at first glance. Before these homes can be habitable, the entire container must be sandblasted, the flooring needs to be replaced or sealed and all the openings need to be cut with a torch. There are also carbon emissions associated with transport and assembling. You have to ensure that your contractor is disposing this waste produced correctly.



Health Hazards: Shipping containers are not intended for human habitation and are thus made using non human friendly elements like chromate, phosphorous, and lead-based paints used on the walls,arsenic and chromium used sometimes to infuse the wooden floors of the container in order to deter pest infestation. You have to ensure your contractor is dealing with these hazards before constructing your building with a container.




Using New Containers: Using new containers to build your container house goes against the entire practice of container recycling! A lot of container home manufacturers will propose buying brand new containers from China so that they aren't dented and will cost only slightly more. However, this defeats the whole purpose of using a container in the first place, which is to reuse an old container, while saving the amount of carbon emissions and resourced associated with building a new brick and mortar building. 






The Conclusion:

Building a shipping container home can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. One of the biggest advantages of building your home using shipping containers it the cost saving aspects and their mobility. Also, they can be built with incredible speed. Not only are they cheap and quick to build, but they are also environmentally friendly; for every shipping container up cycled we are saving around 3500KG of steel. However, just like with traditional home building, one should make sure they have the right amount of information before building out of a shipping container.

Also read our page on why we specifically use containers at Aadhan: 


Here are some more good reads for further information on the pros and cons of using shipping containers for homes and things to keep in mind during the making of these unique homes:

Off-grid hipping container houses

Container Houses around the world

Tips to know before building a container home abroad

24 Container homes around the world

An architects take on building with containers  

Pros and Cons of building with containers -

Pros and cons on container architecture: Jets on Green

Pros and Cons of container arhitecture: Arch Daily