What’s wrong with shipping container housing? Everything.

Shipping containers (and this is merely my opinion), along with A-Frames, Earthships, underground housing, and narrow tiny homes with sleeping lofts reached by vertical ladder — make for lousy housing. Here’s the case against the former, demonstrable evidence that many (maybe most) architects have their heads up their asses:

“…It’s not hard to see the appeal. Shipping containers look exactly like building blocks, which is the primary medium (other than dirt) that most architects started working with. You can buy used ones for about $1,600 a pop, which seems like a steal for housing. Doing that also feels very environmentally conscious, because you’re taking something that already exists and reusing it for a different purpose. For these reasons, architects in particular are drawn to the idea of using shipping containers as housing for poor people — as is the case with this plan for a skyscraper made of them, which just won a design competition for low-income housing in Mumbai.

There’s just one problem: Shipping containers turn out to be a uniquely poor building block for human shelter. Mark Hogan, a San Francisco architect who has worked with shipping containers in the past, just wrote a succinct manifesto about why you should really, really not use shipping containers for housing.

For one thing: A building made of corrugated steel is going to be a miserable residence, especially in a place as hot as Mumbai. You could add insulation and a ventilation system — but that would make a box that already has awkwardly low ceilings even smaller. You could add windows — but that would require cutting through steel walls, which takes specialized equipment, and a contractor who knows how to use that equipment.…”



Sent in by John Michael Linck

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:

9 Responses to What’s wrong with shipping container housing? Everything.

  1. Being a builder for over forty years, I agree 100%. Like living in a can. Maybe they are inexpensive to purchase but to correctly insulate, wire and install plumbing and make them habitable is not an easy task, and you still have a shipping container.But what really struck a note was "tiny, narrow houses with a sleeping loft" . This form of building seems all the rage among the small house movement. As temporary shelter, maybe a case could be made for them,but as full time housing it carries the great idea of small housing to the extreme.

  2. It's funny how architects often think that this kind of thing is suitable for "poor people" to live in. As I think the original writer pointed out, in a Mumbai summer a cooling failure would not just be miserable – it would be lethal. Assuming that the elevators had also failed, you would be cooked before you could get out. I suppose if the inhabitants were really poor, this would not matter much.

  3. I realize this only addresses one of your points, but I'm surprised that refrigerated containers ("reefers") at not used more often, if at all, in container buildings.

  4. While I fully agree that container designs are not cost effective or even utilitarian for volume housing, the following link does demonstrate some interesting real world implementations. The blue guest house was on a home tour I attended and was cooled effectively with a mini-split. Container Housing Link

  5. just a reflection on "narrow tiny homes with sleeping lofts reached by vertical ladder — make for lousy housing"

    i understand your point here, lloyd – it's not something everyone should expect to be a great house, but for me it's a way to live in a home i built myself. back in your day you were able to buy property with a modest income…i think today that's much tougher to do in desirable areas. i also agree with your insight that nowadays living in economically depressed cities is a great value, perhaps similar to "the country" 40 years ago…but for those of us not wanting to live in the city, tiny homes are a good step. my wife, 1-year old son, and i are doing fine in our 8×18 cabin on our friend's property. you're right that it's crazy narrow and a slight imposition to go up a ladder – some day we'll go bigger for sure – but for now it's not bad!

  6. I also agree. The only way that it will work is if you put the insulation and weatherproofing on the outside of the boxes. After you finish the inside as well there are no cost advantages that I can see. Now if they came 10'x10' or larger and a body could find some effective yet simple but reflective spray on barrier then you might have a chance.

  7. Perhaps we should be restricting the usage of storage containers for residential purposes then? But for the people who don't even have a home to begin with, I don't think that we can hardly deprive them of low ceilings and heat if they don't have any other alternative.

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