“Containers make lousy houses.”

I thought this comment was worth bringing front and center. Also, I don’t necessarily endorse or love everything I put up on this blog. I put up stuff that I find interesting.

“Anonymous has left a new comment on your post “Tiny Homes: Container Housing in Salt Lake City”:

I get in trouble from container zealots when I say this, but I owned a container for over ten years—and they make lousy houses. They are short, hard to insulate, hard to cut doors and windows in, have flat roofs that leak, they are noisy and wet inside due to condensation, and, in general, make very good containers and very poor houses.

   When somebody makes a “house” from a container, they usually have to build a miniature stick built house inside, with framing, insulation, and interior walls. Due to the fact that ordinary carpenters dont have the metalworking skills, this usually costs MORE than if you just built a little house from whatever materials are locally used and local workers are fluent in- wood, concrete, brick, adobe, you name it.
Me, I am a metalworker, and, periodically, I get paid to cut windows in one, or weld tabs for studs, or drill holes for wiring or stovepipes, and I will continue to take their money…


About Lloyd Kahn

Lloyd Kahn started building his own home in the early '60s and went on to publish books showing homeowners how they could build their own homes with their own hands. He got his start in publishing by working as the shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog with Stewart Brand in the late '60s. He has since authored six highly-graphic books on homemade building, all of which are interrelated. The books, "The Shelter Library Of Building Books," include Shelter, Shelter II (1978), Home Work (2004), Builders of the Pacific Coast (2008), Tiny Homes (2012), and Tiny Homes on the Move (2014). Lloyd operates from Northern California studio built of recycled lumber, set in the midst of a vegetable garden, and hooked into the world via five Mac computers. You can check out videos (one with over 450,000 views) on Lloyd by doing a search on YouTube:

15 Responses to “Containers make lousy houses.”

  1. me..nver been fan of flat roofs, and container houses = flat roof….seems to me, sooner or later = leaks..

    i do like looking at the great variety folks have designed them in to, however, none of it seems cheap. to me, that would have been a big reason to use them. the making of a wooden house inside a container, doesn't seem cost effective or time effective.

    one thing is, it may be sturdier/more able to stand up to storms/wind etc?

  2. A lot depends on the container you buy. Most buy the cheapest they can get, and these are cheap for a reason.

    Buying a good quality container is the only sane thing to do if you plan to live in it, or them for multiple container homes…insulating them is rather simple if not cheap. Spray foam…closed cell. Pricey, but again if you are going to live in it, it only makes sense.
    I can rent a plasma cutter for 45 dollars a day…it cuts like a hot knife through butter, and it doesn't take a genius. Some chalk, a straight edge, and a tape measure is all you need for window and door openings.

    Learning to work with the materials you have is a key in any good home build, obviously if you choose a container as your base structure, learning a few skills with metal is needed…but it really isn't any more complicated than wood, just different tools.
    I live in Florida, the sun and radiant heat are an issue…i would have to build a structure similar to a carport to shelter and shade a shipping container home…or any non standard house really, even a mobile home or RV.

    People see these alternative housing options as a cheaper way of having a home…this is just not true. Even tiny homes have a price per sq. ft. equal to, or exceeding a standard house…the savings is in not having so many sq. ft. and the cost to run a smaller home.

  3. @Anonymous. As shipping based houses become more common, there's another benefit for folks who live in tornado country, they will be much easier to insure than conventional construction due to their sturdiness. I've heard of tornadoes moving containers around close to the ground but never actually picking one up. I can see them being used for ground floors with faux sheathing with conventional construction upper floor with the lower floor as the storm shelter. There are several container based buildings around my area of Central Texas, almost all of them have a roof attached for rainwater harvest(of course).

  4. I just recently began to appreciate the virtue of the container house. Until now, I'd always been on the side of the shed-builders, scrap woodworkers, and brickmasons. But there is at least one extremely useful niche for the container: home base, on cheap land, that you can walk away from for years, and it will stay impervious to the elements, or more importantly for me in a urban setting, against inquisitive strangers. I can fit my life in a 40' container. I can buy vacant land in my rust belt city for less than $1k per quarter acre. I have bought three houses here, each for less than $4k (they contain way more than $4k in material, let alone the architectural and land value — go figure). But I cannot secure these houses and walk away from them to travel without a lot of money and a lot of trust and human connections that I don't have. With a container, covered in vines, with a little ventilation — no worries. Now to build a wooden house and sheltering high tunnel that unfold from the container, for those times when I am home!

  5. well, the durability/impervious to tornadoes/wind/etc, are something i wondered about..and, i could see that as a HUGE benefit..

    but re the insulation, spray on..myself, i don't like the idea of a spray on/foaming up to fill cracks insulation..i always worry about offgasing/degradation and such. Urea Formaldehyde turned out to be a huge problem (it was a similar type product)..

  6. I suppose, with a probable future where even many non-summer daytime temps are likely going to exceed 100 to 110F in many locales, that many folks are going to be moving to earth-sheltered dwellings for the coolth, a-la Earth Ships. Shipping containers may well prove to be a viable option for such construction.

  7. One note to think about before jumping on the idea of buying a container ~ Make sure, and more sure that whatever commodities were shipped in said container were not haz-mat ~ Any chemicals can and do spill and slop all over the inside of these in shipment, be it a ship or tractor trailer ~ It pays to make sure not only that the interior of these are clean, but that any residue has been professionally cleaned out ~ Don't expect Bob down the street to do the cleaning for you, make sure either the shipping company has them clean, or a professional cleaning company has done the job. The thot of having fumes leaking into the interior of a home is just terrible, but if the container hasn't been taken care of, its a real possibility

  8. I've often wondered if containers would actually make good homes. However, I'm betting properly clean ones would make great, very secure, storage sheds, especially for people who wouldn't be resident all the time. It's a real consideration for those who want to leave expensive equipment or supplies on site.

  9. a thing i have wondered about re containers as living space….i seem to recal being told that metal attracts cold, and heat? wouldnt this (if correct) make them less then ideal? would there be a requirement for increased insulation? more cost? etc?

    also, something i like about the idea of a wood house, or as near as possible to wood house, is i often hear folks say it "breathes"…

    am guessing the container house would not "breathe"?

  10. I am not really anonymous-
    Anyway- I am assuming that you, Lloyd, have read A Pattern Language, by Chris Alexander, which is a book that discusses what makes a human being feel comfortable in architecture.
    And, if you consider a container, it breaks pretty much every Pattern.
    Everything that makes a house cozy, and comfortable, and soulful, the inherent restrictions of a container makes impossible.
    Differing ceiling heights, window seats, open stairs, on on down the list.

    There are great houses built from containers- it requires reworking the container on a major scale.


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