Like it or not – Shipping Container Homes are coming to a lot near you!

30 Sep

My family is building a home using shipping containers as structure. When I started this project, I thought I’d just throw up a picture from time to time, interspersed with whatever rant I was currently on, to demonstrate “what a nut-case that idiot “Ronin” is.” But…

Not Ronin, but speaking of “Nuts…”

Editor’s note – July 19, 2010:

Since this was originally published, waaaay back at the beginnings of the blog, I’ve written a new ISBU book. You can learn much more about that book, here:

Introduction to Container Homes and Buildings

Okay, back to the post;

Over the past four months or so, we’ve attracted over 5,600 views, from people in almost 100 (96) countries eager to see what we’re doing. It kinda took me by surprise. I thought that people might find the build interesting, in an “off-topic” kinda way, but it’s taken hold of the entire blog, and now it seems that this blog is devoted to things ISBU.

Here in coastal Mississippi, we’ve been hit by storm after storm lately, almost like the hurricanes were lined up on rail cars and headed right for us. So, our attentions have been elsewhere, as we try to help those affected by the floods, the power outages, the lack of clean water, and the debris, so that things can get back to normal around here.

And I thought I’d take a break from writing about the house, to write about other things we’re seeing, that impressed us.

I’d thought to wander into the “world political,” for a post or two, looking at what Obama and McCain claim they are going to do for us, if they get elected. After all, whoever gets put into the driving seat is gonna steer the car for the next eight years, give or take.

But, (after literally tons of email telling me that my readers don’t care about my view of “politics…”) I’ve decided that there are enough people doing that, without Ronin piping in like a trained parrot, repeating every piece of juicy gossip about Barrack or Johnny Boy. Suffice to say, whoever it is, is gonna have his hands full, trying to get the ship back into the right lane, and get America headed back into the wind…

And “Energy” is gonna be a big piece of that puzzle. Climate change is gonna play hell with America. We’re used to being able to rush in and crank the thermostat whenever we want, to make our homes all comfy cozy, in spite of rising energy costs and the impact on the planet.

But those times are changing faster than the pump price on the gasoline you’re buying, to push that big SUV around town, as you ferry the kids to soccer practice, or head into the office.

What we need are alternatives to the lifestyle we’ve been led to believe is “normal,” so that we can be comfortable, without feeling like we’ve moved to some sparse monastery in the mountains, to live out our days in seclusion and poverty.

And I believe that ISBU homes are a part of that solution. So…

Okay, so this one in Utah is a tad bit “extreme…” But, that’s right. They’re coming, and you probably won’t be able to stop them!

But, you don’t need to get all “huffy and puffy!” Once they go up, and get the “skin” on, you won’t even know they’re ISBU structures. Until, that is… the next big storm or earthquake!

You see, in light of the recent failures of the housing market, the financial crisis death spiral, and the mortgage company “bail-outs,” people are actively looking for ways to find shelter, without the yoke of decades of exorbitant mortgage payments.

And that means “thinking out of the box.” Soon, McMansions will be a “fond memory,” and we’ll start living in energy-efficient homes tailored to our personal needs, and not the extravagant palaces we all dreamed about as kids, watching “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous!”

Growing up watching those shows led us to believe that the land we lived in was all “milk and honey,” and the measurement in the neighborhood began with square footage! Alas, all that square footage needs to be heated and cooled, and it needs to be maintained.

Enter the Chinese. For once, we should be happy that China is so ambitious! Why? Is our idea of what China is really like behind that wall, so inaccurate? I suspect that when we think of China, we think of strip-mall buffets, and…

But the reality is that China is on the move, big-time! China is a nation eager for expansion, and it’s gaining speed, as we read this. China’s growth is something that we in the west will have to watch carefully, because it’s going to change everything!

America’s pathetic standing as an exporter with China could be the solution to low cost housing! And, it might even be an unprecedented opportunity to go “Green” in a major league way!

If that sounds really stupid, I ask you to consider the following;

America is buying so much merchandise from other countries (like China) and exporting so little of it back to them that (based on several studies I’ve recently read) shipping containers are actually becoming an environmental hazard! Why is this? Well, apparently it’s cheaper to manufacture new shipping containers on the opposite side of the planet than it is to transport them (empty) back to where they originated.

Any drive along the coast of America will reveal that in port cities and areas around inland freight transit terminals, there are literally hundreds of thousands of empty containers piling up. The stacks start to resemble alien landscapes, with the ISBU’s often piled several containers high, to loom over the landscape like forgotten Sci-Fi movie sets.  In most of these repositories, there are commercial and residential neighborhoods living in the shadows these monsters cast, where the sun sometimes sets an hour earlier than in all the adjacent surrounding areas.

The shipping containers (called “ISBU’s,” or inter-modal steel building units) are familiar to almost everyone.

Along every rail line you can see them riding along, usually stacked two high on flatbed railroad cars, in caravans stretching for miles, or hauled along on flat-bed trailers behind tractors on our interstate highways. We see them so frequently that they’ve become a popular icon for stock film footage on the news channels, and their images are used for everything including illustrating every story about port security ever broadcast.

If you’ve been following along, you already know that ISBUs are manufactured of heavy-gauge Corten steel and are water-proof, fire resistant, impervious to bugs and built to hold cargo securely on the pitching deck of a ship. They’re designed to be rugged, resilient, durable, and impervious to most damage.

So, it isn’t hard to imagine that one day, while stuck at a railroad crossing, an architect staring at an impressive column of containers rolling by, suddenly saw the light-bulb flash on.

Hmmm… What have we here? It’s a solid steel, low cost, resource efficient, readily available, and incredibly ugly source of shelter. Ya think?

And that started the ball rolling. The first thing you have to do is make them “acceptable” to the neighbors. After all, nothing says “burning brands and pitchforks” like bringing an “industrial park” right into the middle of a residential neighborhood!

So architects work on plans and building techniques to make shipping container housing attractive and functional. They’re just “boxes,” people. It’s a blank slate. They don’t have to be square, or even flat-roofed – some are finished off with trussed roofs and interior and exterior finishes that make them look very much like conventional housing.

ISBU’s are most commonly manufactured in two sizes – 8′ x 8′ x 20′ and 8′ x 8′ x 40′.

One container can form the basis for a low cost home (albeit compact) or perhaps emergency temporary housing following an earthquake or hurricane. And several containers can be combined as building blocks to create larger and more permanent structures. For example, five 40 foot units placed side by side with the side walls of the inner containers removed provides an open space 40′ x 40′ – 1,600 sq. ft of living area. And remember that containers are manufactured to be stacked as many as nine high without compromising their structural integrity so adding a second or third story isn’t a problem.

The possibilities are endless. Because they are just boxes, they lend themselves to many different possibilities; college dorms, artist loft space, shopping areas, Community Centers, jails, industrial parks, and more housing configurations than you could shake a welding rod at! You can line ISBU’s up, add on decks, cantilever them, add canopies, and achieve a finished design that can resemble anything you want; be it modern, traditional, or whimsical.

And, as much as we like to take credit for everything including sliced bread and spaghetti, Container housing is not an American innovation. Containers have been used in Europe, New Zealand, and many third-world countries for years. There are actually real places where people are far ahead of us in the number of completed projects and in innovative technology. So, we’d better step up to the plate and start taking a swing at it, huh? These guys did!

Suffice to say, the ISBU’s potential as a housing material fuel the thoughts and designs by architects and builders to use this steel resource to bring these ISBU beauties to your neighborhood.  Soon, I expect that prices for completed homes will fall to a level that will make ISBU homes much more appealing to American consumers. And when it does, we’re gonna say, loud and proud;


Right now, ISBU homes are mostly in the “do-it-yourself project” arena, but there are plans available in books and on the Internet.

And, there are plenty of people actually building homes using these steel building blocks, and documenting their progress for all to see. This blog is the home of one of those families.

So, I’ll try to keep the blog on track, and the political rants to a bare minimum.

And, I hope that you’ll stay tuned, as we continue to build our house.

And, don’t forget to sign my “Ted Nugent for President” petition! LOL!

“I don’t need a piece of paper or a court to tell me, a free citizen of a free country, that I can’t defend myself or my family while at the same time forcing me to pay for an armed security force to come along and clean up after something goes wrong. The most basic thing that makes me free and safe is my ability to protect myself from those who would try to take away my liberty or my life.” – Ted Nugent

Stay tuned… or else!

Okay, I’m asking you to get involved.

If I’ve helped you, informed you, educated you, or just entertained you… consider donating a few bucks to the blog, to help us survive and build. Our family needs a home. Our situation is dire. And yes, I’m begging…

I’m not going to waste bandwidth plastering pictures up of my wife in her sickbed… or my little 2 year old son. I’ve written about the circumstances here, already. And… if  you’ve been reading the blog, you already know how cute he is. He’s our source of JOY.

Help us keep moving forward. We’re running out of time.

46 Responses to “Like it or not – Shipping Container Homes are coming to a lot near you!”

  1. cab83 at 12:47 pm #

    Shipping containers as homes were mentioned in William Gibson’s science fiction (the Neuromancer trilogy) in the mid 1980’s. Of course, he was writing about a hypothetical future, so it figures. He called them ‘coffins’ and one advantage was that people could have their homes easily shipped from one place to another.

  2. renaissanceronin at 1:14 pm #

    Hi cab83,

    Actually, (this is gonna hurt…) we were BUILDING them in the late 70’s, in the mountains of California. LOL!

    And, I suppose if you used ONE, it’d resemble a coffin, but we teamed them up to double the space.

    Hell, we even buried them in the ground, to make them more “inconspicuous!” Talk about “coffins!

    And those very same container houses are still there, with families living in them, today.

    (insert “Applause” here! Thank You, thank you…) LOL!

    And, I loved the Neuromancer trilogy, BTW.


  3. Ashish at 12:24 am #

    Hmmm… I did wonder if you’d ran after Gustav all gun’s blazing screaming “YOU DON”T SCARE THE RONIN, BITCH!” Apparently you’re back! 😀

    And that chinese chick is hot! Do I get her free if I buy a Sherlock home? 😛

  4. renaissanceronin at 7:42 am #

    Ashish: First it was Gustav, and then Ike arrived right afterward. I thought for a while there we were gonna get a hurricane a week, until October! LOL!

    And maybe you can save up a few rupees to “buy” that Chinese girl, but with the US dollar devaluing like crazy, I sure can’t afford her! LOL!

    But, it’d sure make a good sales promotion, wouldn’t it? We’d have husbands lining up around the block, to “tour the model…

    Good to hear from you!


  5. rosie cubbin at 3:31 pm #

    I work for a firm that sells shipping containers to the general public as well as to companies. With only 1 in 5 containers arriving in the UK going back into actual shipping we have a lot of boxes to sell for domestic use.

    We are starting to do a lot of conversion work for housing and workshops/studios all made out of shipping containers. You featured the Travelodge in Uxbridge for example. There are exciting new projects going on all the time and I regularly read your blog as I find it a great source of new ideas. I have been trying to resource the ceramic paint featured in one of your previous posts as an alternative to the more traditional insulation of rockwool that we use here for example.

    I am confused though that in this blog you give the usual height of a shipping container as being 8ft rather than 8ft 6″. Is that a typo?

    Please keep mixing your views with your progress on building your home. It is really working for us here – and we will carry on reading and wishing you every success.

    Long live Ronin!

  6. renaissanceronin at 4:11 pm #

    Hi Rosie,

    We have the same situation, but here in America. For every five that come in, one “might” go back… LOL! Talk about a “trade imbalance!”

    As for dimensions, it’s like this;

    A typical 40′ container measures 40’x8’x8’6″ externally, but it actually only delivers 39’5+”x7’8+”x7’9+” of usable interior space.

    For the sake of generality, I round up to 8′ in discussions.

    However, it should be noted that I strongly suggest people looking to build homes using ISBU’s purchase “high cube” containers, that are taller. These containers yield a ceiling height of 8’9+”.

    I am interested in the concept of using ceramic coatings to “insulate” my home, and we’ll test the theory here, pretty soon. I like the idea that you can save a lot of interior space, and even labor framing out your typical insulation walls.

    But the drawback (if the ceramic coatings actually perform as advertised) is that the coating is wicked expensive (about $100 a gallon), and adds about $5 a square foot to your construction costs. For “budget minded” builders, it’s almost out of reach.

    We’re trying to keep our build to about $45 a square foot. So far, we’re doing it.

    I have tons of test results and lab reports on CIS (ceramic insulative spray), and I’ll be happy to forward any information I’ve acquired, for your perusal. I’ve also been in several of the homes where CIS was used in lieu of insulation, and I can tell you that the coatings seem to do the job. The data is yours, if you want it. Just say the word.

    And, I’m glad that my “views” haven’t “put you off” the blog. There are those who wish I’d just write tech reports, I suspect. LOL!

    Thanks for your good wishes, and your comments!

    Keep ’em coming!


    • Rob at 1:26 am #

      I would like the data on the CIS (ceramic Insulative spray) and information on where and how to purchase or have made the

      ” lightweight concrete mixed with vermiculite looking styrofoam, that is being used to provide both an exterior finish and insulation at the same time. It looks promising and I’ve talked about it on the blog. But, it ends up being about a foot thick, when applied. I personally like the “massive” look, but some might find it a turn off.”

      or your link to where in the blog I can find the info.

      I have had one 40ft shipping container for about 3 years. We recently got a second one for the price to move the thing…about $600. I’m in the process of modifying one as a barn/ work shop. The other I’m attempting to insulate and put HVAC and electric.

      In the past I’ve moved the containers onto the pad using three 6 ton bottle hydrolic jacks, cutting long telephone pole sized trees and moving it …”like an Eygyptian”.

      Big challenge current is that I need to insulate the thing and for the back 12 feet or so (atleast), I really need the insulation to be on the outside.

      I had considered doing 3 inches of “soil mixture” and a green/ living roof. Or a foot or two of pink insulation with EPDM (pond liner) on top and reflective mylar to attempt to reflect heat radiation.

      I’ve thought about doing a straw bale outer wall on the south side (40ft) to help knock down the heat and leave my built-in’s in place…

      roof ventilation thingy…the silver kind of things…is also on the maybe list…. I wish I had the cash to make the roof reflective by covering it with solar panels.

      10 years ago I lived in a yurt in Idaho on land rented from a dog sled racer person. I loved the mortgage free, bill free existance. Now I’m saddled down with huge mortgage…but have atleast done it to preserve 10 acres of forest wild land…in the middle of east-coast surburbia.

      Happy to be able to recycle containers to use as barn/ shed ect. To beat the pain in ass regulations as far as building code. It would take two years and lots of paperwork for me to get a permit to build a simple shed, much less a barn.

      Thanks for all the info and reassurance that I’m not the only crazy person doing this…!

      • renaissanceronin at 2:20 pm #

        Hi Rob,

        I have a few test compilations that I’ve accumulated over the last few months. They’re large enough that I can’t post them here, but if you’ll send me an email address that will accept large attachments, I’ll be happy to forward them.

        I too have “muscled” ISBU’s via manpower, but it’s a bear, to be sure! I use a Lull now, whenever possible! 🙂

        Putting the insulation on the outside is the only way I advocate, when using ISBU’s. Have you considered spray foam?

        The green roof is a neat idea, but you’ll need to strengthen the roof skin to do it. It doesn’t seem like much, but that soil will get wet when it rains. And, you’ll be up there walking around. Corten Skin isn’t designed to carry a load, it’s just to keep stuff from falling out of the cargo box.

        You can use something as simple as a rebar grid to accomplish this task. 🙂

        Let me know how I can help, and keep us apprised of your project, huh?


  7. rosie cubbin at 12:32 pm #

    I would be really interested in all the stuff on CIS as well s any other research you have done/do that you think might be of use. It is really difficult to get independant views and it would really help us. So I look forward to them. We do quite a lot of conversion work here through our company so if every you would like to ask anything of us that you think we might be able to help with please just do.

    I love the fact that your blogs are so readable and personable. Although from a professional point of view I would probably read them for the tech aspect, from a personal point of view I read them because I like them!

  8. John Evans at 2:19 pm #

    Although there are many benefits, such as strength and affordability, for using freight containers as building blocks, there are things to be aware before converting ‘retired’ containers into homes.

    1. To meet quarantine requirements for bugs (non electric), container floors were normally ‘treated’ with powerful insecticides, typically’ copper chrome arsenate solutions.’
    a. There should be a ‘Timber Treatment Plate’, on the door of each container, showing the exact treatment used on that particular unit.
    2. Nobody knows what has been spilt inside a container during its working life, or if any spillages have been properly cleaned?
    3. After removal, scrap floors should be properly disposed of. Burning can releases harmful products including dioxins.
    4. A container’s internal paint system and sealants (used to fill gaps left after welding and around the floor periphery etc can, even after many years, release unpleasant smells and harmful fumes.

    It might be sensible to ‘refurbish’ the container internally (shot blast and paint) before ‘moving in’.

    If 9ft width is crucial for a bedroom, flip a 9.5ft high container (high cube) on its side. This would limit ceiling height to 8ft (or 8.5ft. if a ‘pallet-wide’ (over-width) container was used).

    Sometimes the price of a brand new container is not much more than the cost of a ten year old ‘used’ container.

    Currently (Autumn 2008), a brand new 20ft long x 9.5ft high x 8ft wide container (inspected by Lloyds Register or ABS) , with ‘non toxic’ floor, paint and sealant system, in your own choice of colour, should cost just under $3,000 ex works China, and 40ft under $5,000.

    Depending where you live, it might even be possible to get the container moved from China to USA/Europe for free (carrying cargo one way).

    • Amber at 4:24 pm #

      I don’t know why a ‘9 ft. width’ is crucial. Is that for code? I had a bedroom that was 8X12 and lived in a vintage trailer that had less interior space than that. Also, I understand that new containers aren’t much more $$ than used but doesn’t the defeat the purpose? I though the whole point was to reuse these unsightly, wasteful containers that are already sitting soing nothing but taking up space?

      • renaissanceronin at 6:09 pm #

        Hi Amber,

        First; It isn’t “width” that’s important. It’s HEIGHT. You want the space in a High Cube container, for headroom.

        Second; If you’re being quoted prices that close together (new versus used) then you’re being gouged.

        Third; The point is to reduce the mountains of parked containers, and turn them into something usable, like shelter. I’ve never advocated ordering new containers from China, or anywhere else, although there are some that do. My intent is to use a commodity already parked on American Shores.

  9. renaissanceronin at 9:48 am #

    Hi John!

    This is great stuff! Thanks for contributing to the info pool!

    You’ve touched on several places where care and concern has to be well-aimed, in order to use a container as a “casa!”

    As you probably know, I advocate using concrete floors, so the wood flooring comes out anyway. My radiant heating system goes in, and then we pour over it.

    But, the people will howl: “That container flooring is teak! Throwing away good teak would be a real shame…”

    POISON! It will kill you. You can’t effectively encapsulate it! I’ve TRIED.

    And after “inspection and repair,” spraying a sealer on the container cavity pretty much removes all doubt about leaks and fumes. We ALWAYS do this. Everybody else should, too.

    And thanks for the tip about turning a High Cube container (9.5′ high) on it’s side, to get a larger room! I do this, but forgot to mention it! For “low ceiling” spaces, it’s a great way to gain a few extra square feet!

    In coastal Mississippi, we’re surrounded by containers, so they’re not as expensive as other places. So, I’m a big advocate of using “what’s already here,” but you’re absolutely right. In some places, a new container isn’t much more cash than a used one, and you’ll save a ton of labor, getting it ready to turn into your home!

    (Frankly, that STILL leaves a foul taste in my mouth.)

    John, I really appreciate your informed and well-thought-out comments! Thanks again, and feel free to jump in any time, and throw in your “two cents worth!” Yours is evidently worth a lot more! Thanks for helping! LOL!


  10. tompaul at 6:39 pm #

    This is a new topic, so i apologize if I have interrupted a thread.

    I am wondering if anyone has some knowledge about the burying of shipping containers as underground workshops, etc…

    My house is at the top of a steep hill and I would love a larger flat back yard. I am considering burying two or three hi-top 40 containers to use as a wood shop/music studio in the future, and thereby reducing the amount of fill I would need to buy.

    My concerns are cave-in and corrosion. I am sure there will be many more concerns along the way, if I proceed, but these two seem like deal breakers.

    Does anyone know how much weight the skin of the top of the container can support? What if I were to set a 9.5 ft on it’s side, would the side skin have the same strength?

    Is there a sealant that should be applied to the out surface before burying to ward-off corrosion? I know corten steel is tough, but how tough?

    Has anyone heard of this being done?


    • renaissanceronin at 7:44 pm #

      Hi Tom,

      I’ve spoken at length about making “underground shelters” out of shipping containers. I’ve done it several times.


      I can’t say it any more clearly than that. There are those that will tell you that a container skin is capable of withstanding the weight of a few feet of earth. It’s “possible,” if you do the math. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many containers “rupture” from the weight of wet soil and sod, after a heavy weather event, or burst due to another event, like an earthquake or a tornado.

      Set your container on your foundation, and then… An encasement of a few inches of concrete is enough to safeguard your new structure. Use REBAR!

      The nice thing about this process in your application, is that it will also provide “isolation” necessary for recording music.

      The containers will oxidize, not corrode. No rust. Corten steel isn’t going to fall victim to any rust failures.

      The skin is the same, all the way around the box. Remember that turning a container on it’s side, means removing the floor, and replacing it. It’s a task that I didn’t like much. You can’t just reuse the old floor, it’ll be too small, and too toxic, due to the chemicals that they treat them with to control pests.

      Consider coating your container on the outside with some kind of coating to slow down oxidation. There are several on the market, and you can find out about them at industrial supply companies.

      If you plan carefully, and work diligently, you’ll be quite pleased. I have a pal who has lived in his “underground container home” for decades without any major failure, or even leaks.

      Hope that helped!


    • Franklin Aguilar A. at 5:05 pm #

      Hi Tom,

      It’s Frank in Quito.

      I had some friends who were considering installing a firing range in a container underground. Th e military and police here are very ansy about who has guns and who doesn’. Like the US they insist that outlaws with guns are OK while older folks, families and run of the mill citizens are either inherently dangerous or outright too stupid to use them. So we go “underground.” Hasn’t happened yet and I doubt it will. Just a few months ago the president canceled all legal concealed carry permits. Get caught off your property or residence with e firearm and it’s five years in the clink. Unless, of course some politico likes your gun at which point everyone is happy to just walk away. Of curse they walk away with your gun. (MM ball costs over $30 per box here. I’m 63 and handicapped because of nerve damage to my legs from diabetes. I can’t take a beating. but I can “control my firearm. ” I hit what I’m aiming at.

      • renaissanceronin at 10:39 pm #

        Anyone simply “burying” a shipping container for any purpose, without seriously reinforcing it, is wasting a lot of time and energy, and jeopardizing their own life, and the lives of others.

        For the cost of building and reinforcing that “underground” ISBU Based structure, you could build something “real” out of other materials, far better suited to the job (and far more defensible). Even in Ecuador.

        It doesn’t matter how good a shot you are, when the ceiling comes down on your head. No amount of “reloading” will save you, especially if you’re handicapped.

        Ecuador can be a dangerous place.

        (Editor’s note: I’ve been there many time.)

        You get what you get. It goes with the territory.

        Good luck.

  11. russel at 8:51 pm #

    Ok I have researched a couple weeks but am yet to discover the best way to affix windows and doors. I am imagining myself wearing out a dozen or so cheap grinders cutting window and door holes of three side by side steel 40 footers and screwing and gluing wood stud headers into the units to support windows. Iplan to leave the upper 12 inches of unaltered walls and leave all the corners sound as well as 2/3 of all the walls interior walls between the units.. I have no torch , no welder but am extremely gifted with lumber and bolt/ washers and glue. also concrete and hammer drills. I might rent a masonry saw.

    I am also brainstorming , short of renting a crane , how to place these onto the j hooks I am putting in my slab and further how to maybe someday add a second floor. I like the idea of cement stuccoing for added insulation and economically hiding the inherent ugliness of the units.

    I have a 24×30 slab that i am going to plant 3 40 footers on and then support the far ends on piers -for ease in plumbing the completed system.

    • renaissanceronin at 9:48 am #

      Hi Russel,

      Let me take a minute to address some of your issues;

      First, just rent a plasma cutter. It’ll slice thru the container like butter. You can find them at home improvements stores, and they’re cheap to rent. If you can’t find one, then rent a “metal” circular saw (a circular saw made for cutting metal). You can make pretty precise cuts with one, just like you would wood, but it’s (a) noisy, (b) exhausting, and (c) you’re gonna go thru some blades. 🙂

      Then after you’ve made your rough openings in the corrugation, frame them with steel.

      2″ tube steel will make a pretty decent subframe (sub-assembly) spanning from top to bottom rail, to frame in your rough opening.

      I build “boxes” the size of my rough opening, out of 1/4th inch steel sheet, slide them into the tube-steel framed rough openings and then weld them up. (Sure, it’s overkill, but in my case, it’s because I have several sheets of 1/4th inch steel laying around.)

      Yes… It’s tedious and time consuming, but it works. And, all the grinding of welds afterward is great punishment for a kid who stayed out after curfew! 🙂

      You’re just making a “box” to slide your jambs/windows into. You’ll “attach” with screws or bolts, from steel to lumber. These will need to be welded, so consider hiring a welder for the day, to pop them in for you. I’ve seen other “methods” i.e. making lumber “sandwiches ” to insert into the rough openings, but they don’t last, and they aren’t durable enough for me. Your mileage may vary.

      If you can back a flatbed up to the slab, you can actually winch the box off the flatbed and onto the slab. I’ve seen guys use winches, come-alongs, and pipe, too. My way is to use a Lull to pick it up and position it, after dragging it off. Slide it off onto steel pipe (to use them as “rollers”) and then use the Lull to push it into place. Then, use the Lull to lift it up so you can remove the rollers, one at a time. It take a little practice, but it works. And what’s better is that most constructions companies have at least one, so they’re easy to find and schedule.

      Another way is to simply run shackles (heavy duty) thru the corner “points” and then attach straps to them running from one short side to the other. (You’ll have a container with U-shaped straps at both ends, not running the entire length of the box.) Now, use a pair of Lulls, or even tractors, to grasp the straps, and lift them up. Careful jockeying will get you real close to where you need to be. I’ve moved containers like this a few times. It just takes good communication, and attention to detail.

      I have a project that will be in the “container placement” mode, soon. Stay tuned, because I’ll post photos and technique, for doing exactly what I’ve just described.

      I’ve seen lightweight concrete mixed with vermiculite looking styrofoam, that is being used to provide both an exterior finish and insulation at the same time. It looks promising and I’ve talked about it on the blog. But, it ends up being about a foot thick, when applied. I personally like the “massive” look, but some might find it a turn off.

      Adding a second floor mean putting more containers up top or just building up with “sticks.” But, if you’re gonna use “traditional construction,” you’re gonna want to involve an engineer. Managing the asymmetrical loads placed on the container “edges” can be tricky.

      And really think about that second floor NOW. You don’t want to build a perfectly good roof, only to have to tear it off later, to “build up!” Consider making your roof “recyclable by design,” so you can reuse it later.

      Sono tubes make great piers, and are easy and inexpensive to pour. Make sure you know where your frost line is, and add steel (rebar) to the piers to make them strong and durable.

      Good luck with your project! Keep us posted!

      BTW: If you cannot get your flatbed up next to the slab, well… you’re screwed. Then, you’re gonna spend those big dollars for a crane to set the boxes in their final resting places. A Lull can only do so much, and even an empty container is more than 20 men (or more, depending on the size of your containers) can handle…

      I watched 50 guys try to move a 40′ box “by themselves.” If it hadn’t made my back hurt so much just to watch the sheer spectacle of it, I would have laughed like I was at a Lewis Black appearance! 🙂

      BTW: They failed. 😦

      • Allen Chase at 8:13 am #

        I am ignorant here what is a Lull?

        • renaissanceronin at 12:58 pm #

          Hi Allen,

          A “Lull” isn’t anything more than a big hydraulic forklift, on tires. It’s most commonly used for material handling, like in the roofing trade, to hoist shingles up to a rooftop.

          The larger Lulls can lift thousands of pounds, and hoist them up over 30 feet.

          A pair of Lulls can easily set a container on top of another one “in the field.” In container yards, a special container collar is used, and ONE Lull hoists those boxes around.

          I use them whenever possible, because they’re far cheaper than a crane.

  12. Jason at 11:18 am #

    How much of the side corrigated steel can be cut away without destroying the structural integrity?

    • renaissanceronin at 12:31 pm #

      Hi Jason,

      Although it lends (minimally) to structural integrity by providing tension on the frame (which is where ALL the strength of a shipping container is designed and derived from), remember that the Corten steel siding is just that. Siding. It’s purpose is to keep cargo in, and the elements (and critters) out. Much of that surface area can be removed without damaging the frames ability to remain sturdy and resistant to wind, water, and the neighbors… :).

  13. MrFriendly at 10:32 pm #

    What I have come across in looking into building a container home is not info on the tools needed to build one
    How thick is the metal in a shipping container
    Not just the walls being 14 gauge
    What is the rest of the container made from
    If i have to find out want kind of welder to use to weld these together knowing the thickness of the metal would help

    I have seen a few posts on other sites and they are using very low powered welders like a miller 180 That would be great for the walls but what about the rest of the container like the beams

    If any one has the info of all the metal thickness in a shipping container that would be great

  14. Rafael Contreras at 7:38 pm #

    I am getting a 20 ‘ container for my farm. Should I make 6 concrete bases 8″ deep and one foot high? Or just lay atop 24 bricks distributed on two ends and at center? Or just lay down a base of cement 8’X20’ ????
    Please help
    Rafael in South Florida

    • renaissanceronin at 8:23 pm #

      Hi Raf,

      Wait! Hold the bus! Take a pill! Chill, dude! 🙂

      Do this instead:

      Get some Sonotube casings. It’s just big, round cardboard tubes. It comes in many sizes, but for your purposes, get some that measures about 2′ in diameter.

      I have no idea what you’re going to put in that container, so we may as well prepare for war…

      Don’t get the cardboard tubes at Home Depot or Lowes

      Go to a concrete supplier, and get REAL Sonotubes. Why? Because the Home Depot brand ranges in size, so that they can ship them slipped inside each other to save shipping costs. You may end up with several different diameter columns. Doesn’t sound like a big deal, until you run out of concrete before you are through filling them up. Yikes!

      Get the commercial grade, if you can afford it. Why? Because that tubing has a poly-fiber coating that will help it withstand long periods of rainfall, say about 72 hours. Where you are, when it rains, it pours. I know, I used to live down there.

      Whatever grade of tube you buy, you need (6) of these tubes, three feet long. The standard tubing comes in 12′ lengths. Buy two, and cut ’em up.

      The principle behind the Sonotube is that the tube itself is one single ‘side’ and therefore the internal pressure is exerted evenly across the entire surface of the tube. The strength of the circle is well documented, so I don’t have to school you on that, suffice to say that’s the reason you don’t have to worry about any pressure or ‘flex’.

      These puppies will be strong, strong, strong…

      Dig (6) holes two feet deep, in (2) rows, 8′ apart, o.c. (3) holes each (on center) spaced 10′ apart o.c. along the outside edges of your container. Shove the sonotubes into them. They should stick up about a foot if you’ve done it right. Make sure they are all level and at the same height.

      Now, find some scrap rebar to shove down into them, to reinforce the pilings that you’re about to create.

      Find some 1/4th inch steel plate, and cut yourself (6) 12″ x 12″ squares. Now, take a scrap piece of rebar, about 18 inches long, and bend it until you have a 12″ x 6″ “L”. Weld the top of that “L” to the bottom of the steel square plate’s bottom. Now, do it (5) more times.

      Once you’ve done that, fill those sonotubes up. It’ll take about a ‘smidge’ over third of a yard of concrete to fill each piling. Actually, you’ll need just over two yards of concrete to accomplish your mission. (2.1 yards) to be exact…

      When they’re full, shove one of those “L-based Plates” you fabbed down into each piling, until the steel plate sits into the top of the concrete. Don’t bury it. You’ll need that steel face later. All you’ve basically done is connected a homemade J-bolt to a steel plate, to anchor it into the concrete.

      Now you have (6) steel reinforced concrete pilings, just waiting to accept the weight of your container.

      When they’re nice and dry, set your container on top of the pilings. Don’t just dump it on them, use a little “tact and diplomacy.” A 20′ box can be moved with a LULL, easy. Just pick it up widthwise, and gently put it in place. I’ve seen guys set ’em with tractor buckets, but it takes some doing. Get a LULL. Trust me.

      Once you have it where you like it, make sure that it’s level… and then WELD the container to the steel plates in the concrete piling tops. It ain’t going ANYWHERE, now.

      Now, not only does your new 20′ box have a dandy connection to the pilings and the earth, you have a nice lip on the edge of those pilings to use, to build a deck off of.

      If you want, throw in a few more pilings to support the other side of that deck, and you’re all set for whatever comes at you!

      Except for the tubes and the steel, this is mostly labor. You can do this in a weekend, easy. It’s beefier than the way you were headed, but I guarantee you that you’ll find it more suitable.

      And for a couple of hundred bucks and some sweat, your box is sitting pretty, forever.


  15. Shane Pulak at 3:23 pm #

    Hello Ronin and fellow enthusiasts. I just currently started a new job at a Renewable Energy Company in Florida which has strong ties to Latin and South America and we are in the process of Creating a community in a reclaimed area of Colombia. I have some designs which I would like to summit and discuss with regards to load bearing and roof construction. The Government of Colombia has requested for 190 homes with decentralized power. If anyone would like to discuss and offer advice I would very much appreciate it.


    • renaissanceronin at 5:28 pm #

      Hi Shane,

      This opportunity sounds like the clusters of “stand alone” Container Homes that we’ve built for families in far off, “exotic and desolate” places like … um… er… Wyoming. 🙂

      Actually, we’ve scattered them to the proverbial wind and there are already several standing in several nations, in remote locations far from a reliable grid power network.

      Feel free to “point and post” and try these designs out here. The goal of RenaissanceRonin is to house families, no matter WHERE they are.

      But, seeing how we’ve recently been treated by “consulting groups from Florida…” please be understanding if we’re “cautious and skeptical.” 😉

      Perhaps you could start by defining your objectives, and give us an idea of scale…

      If we can help, we will. The greatest gifts to any family, (beyond safe water, food, and air) are safety and sustainability.


  16. Shane Pulak at 5:56 pm #

    Thanks for the Reply Ronin

    We are not a consulting firm we are a company in Clear Water Florida, bu I read the whole story about the shister you encounter and I feel for your situation. We are a company which promotes people, planet and profit. Tell me have you downloaded (free) Google Sketchup? if you could email me with your email via your email so we can traverse a little more freely or perhaps your on skype?

    I would like to know more about the homes in Wyoming?

    I want specially to know about strengthening strucures once you take the skin out (placing two boxes together to create a larger room 16×40) I believe that once you take out the skin then strength is compromised as I want to stack another container on top so to have 2 floors, but I believe the box on top will not be on good enough support..

    Thanks again

    • renaissanceronin at 6:07 pm #

      Shane, I have SketchUp.

      If you’re in “Clearwater…” you’re within 50 miles of “the alleged shyster.” Oy.

      I’m not sure where “Clear Water” is…

      I was thinking that you were an ISBU consulting company (apparently incorrectly?) because your website offers consulting services to companies and individuals, ranging from “feasibility studies to analysis”, here:

      And you offer “Cargo Structures” (ISO Shipping Container Homes) here:

      I’m familiar with almost all of the projects you use in your PDF document (on your “Cargo Structures” page)… and in some cases I personally know the principals… Which of these projects did your company participate in?

      Here’s the “Reader’s Digest” condensed version of “everything you never wanted to know about container skin”;

      The skin has almost NO contribution to the potential strength of an ISBU Shipping Container. The frame does ALL the load work. The skin is just to hold the cargo in. I’m going to generalize, but the ONLY primary place/time that a container’s skin contributes to the strength of a container is when racking or shear forces are involved.

      For example; this is exactly why one shouldn’t bury a container without reinforcing it. The skin isn’t designed to take a load.

      Contact me off-blog, and we’ll talk…


  17. tom gordon at 7:16 am #

    Very interesting blog,you certainly sound like you know what your talking about.

    I am planning to build a bar in bangkok the main structure will have a 40ft square footprint.

    Three floors the first two will be two pairs of 40ft ISBUs on top of each other an parallel with the top floor being five side by side spanning the legs so from the end it will look like an N leaving a 40ft by 24 ft space underneath. Based on what I’ve read on your blog you wouldn’t have any concerns about the structural integrity,would you?


    • renaissanceronin at 1:45 pm #

      Hi Tom,

      ISBUs make fast, strong structures, if you use then the way they are intended.

      “You must RESPECT the BOX.”

      ISBU’s are strong AT THE CORNERS. They aren’t designed to carry loads along the long axis.

      So, when you stack them in “opposing” directions, you have to reinforce those long rails to enable them to carry the weight you’re adding to the top.

      Does this make sense?

      You’ll need to add support to those containers carrying that top floor load. If you don’t, your building will start to SAG in the middle, from that load on top. Engineered Columns every 8 feet on center would work splendidly, and then I’d actually add steel to the top of those container rails to sit your new top floor on, for extra strength. A ton of gyrating Thai’s can shake a building to it’s foundation… if they’re playing something cool, like Aerosmith! 😉

      It’s pretty simple, and quite doable.


  18. Franklin Aguilar A. at 4:56 pm #

    HI, I am moving to the Western slope of the Andes in Ecuador about 100 miles from Quito. I have a piece o land that is a bit over 75 acres. I am hoping to create a development and educational foundation for the benefit of the local population. I have decided to try containers for all operations at “The Farm” as the property is currently called. That is; I intend to row bamboo and create a world class bamboo information and manufacturing school. There will be some on site housing and some commercial activities that will all be housed in containers including a school for the children of the workers. I have just purchased an oxy-acetylene cutting torch and I intend to do all the cutting myself.

    I do have a number of questions.

    The first is how to construct the concrete pilings on which to sit the containers. I am dealing with a volcanic ash soil and we have a lot of rain. What’s “a lot?” roughly 10 feet per year (3 meters) between January and March. But since there will be children int eh school I want them to be very safe. I have some other considerations too; If I decide to put a second story how do I separate the containers vertically to allow service to the upper container from the bottom? I want to make a “U” shaped commercial area with an open center for parking or a garden area. The enclosed area would be 40 feet by 40 feet. This would require putting one support column for the corners where the uprights meet the base container. Now the base is scheduled to be 2 containers deep. The center walls will be removed for extra space. The open areas at the corners of the “U” will be 8 feet wide and 16 feet deep. They will be used for Water storage and pressure pumps and water heaters for the complex.another area will be used to house and auxillary generator. The power here is unreliable in all three ways – quite often there simply isn’t any electricity, When there is the frequency and voltage are always variable. Being this far from a population center in a Third World country eliminates most concerns regarding building codes. but i grew up as a Gringo adn I value my life as well as those of th workers. So we will be installing 3 wire grounded electrical systems by the US Electrical Code.

    There will be one large peak roof over the entire container group.

    How to build the concrete supports – How deep to dig the hole blow ground level? How large to pour the footer? Depth of the Footer? I want to make the footer top 2 feet above the ground. What is the surface area of the support?

    Any information or sources or ideas would be greatly appreciated.


    • renaissanceronin at 5:13 pm #

      Hi Franklin,

      It sounds like an impressive project. I’ve actually described how to create pilings, in this very comment section, so if you’ll scan down, you’ll see what I have to say.

      Second, you’re not asking “generic” questions, you’re asking “specific engineering questions” which require specific answers.

      I do sometimes consult into projects, as do many other specialists in this field. I urge you to explore that path, to avoid making any mistakes that may cause loss of life or limb.

      I’ve sent you an email with more information. I look forward to hearing more about your cool project!


    • Jason at 4:28 pm #

      I think the building inspectors a re just scared to even try to under stand what I am trying to ask the.. They will not even return my calls. I have made some plans on poured footers 24 x 24 x 8 inches thick then use cono tubes as you suggested. I am in a area of hurricanes being located in wilmington nc .. I have two 20 foot containers I just purchased I want to separet them around 20 feet apart then put attic trusses on top running the 20 foot way .. Do you have any advice that may help me with building inspectors or should I hire an engineer to draw up some plans and who would you suggest ?? Thanks for any info. my email is

      • renaissanceronin at 4:43 pm #

        Hi Jason,

        P&Z can be a real pain, that’s for sure.

        What you’re trying to do isn’t even that hard. The problem in Wilmington is that you’re “just a guy.” I’ve had some run-ins with those guys before.

        20′ is a BIG gap, for what you’re trying to do with 20′ ISBUs. Consider narrowing it to 16′.

        The connections for the truss system are easy, and I can show you how to do that. The engineering stamp, on the other hand is an issue that you’ll probably have to address if you want to “walk this project thru” to completion.

        Get hold of ME, at my consulting site, for the connections for the trusses. And, I’ll hook you up with a local structural engineer that can help you solve your paperwork dilemma, so those P&Z Nazis will take you seriously.


    • pauldada at 12:17 am #

      Franklin–If you intend to make stuff out of bamboo, check out It’s an eco-forward school in Bali which
      is built from bamboo, some of it by the primary school kids. It
      will knock you on your ass. But the bamboo is so cool, so ready
      to take any possible form, that putting containers on the same
      site will make them even clunkier and more pedestrian looking
      than they already are. A box is a box is a box, no matter how
      you decorate its exterior.

      In general, the only place that containers work as housing is
      somewhere that doesn’t have building inspectors. Which includes most of the world. But if you want to live in town, buy a cheap house. Or wait till 2012 and buy the same house even cheaper. There will be quite a few to choose from.

      • renaissanceronin at 1:29 pm #


        While the “Green School” is cool, I’m more interested in the architecture used there, than the DOGMA that they’ve embedded in the curriculum. After a lot of investigation, I suspect the reasons behind the school included a bunch of teachers simply wanting to live in Bali. And, for “greenies” in principal, they were wearing an awful lot of polyester and nylon…

        Some of the Japanese Bamboo projects make it pale by comparison, BTW… Or, even the “paper tube” building projects”…

        Check this one out:

        (Sure, I admit you can’t “harvest” the paper tubes from the ground, you have to MAKE them first…)

        When I think “green” it doesn’t include man-made fibers woven into suits and tie, for “uniform wear” (by the administrators of the Green School) on the beaches of Bali. If they aren’t flexible enough to “go native”, I wonder how flexible they can be… 😉

        In fact, the entire project struck me more as a commune, than a learning center. I grew up with old hippies that would be smiling from ear to ear…

        But, I take exception to the statement that “”putting containers on the same site will make them even clunkier and more pedestrian looking that they already are. A box is a box, no matter how you decorate it’s exterior…”

        IF you can’t take something as simple as “a box”, and transform it into something pleasant to both eye and task… you lack imagination and ambition, and thus… you’re the “wrong man for the job.”

        And while it’s been a tough road to getting ISBUs in to the housing mainstream, people are coming around. In the meantime, MANY of us are quite content to build without inspectors trying to tell us how to live our lives…

        And, we don’t want to settle for devalued “cheap houses” (in a failing real estate market, as the economy slowly crushes us), that perpetuate the myth that you can only live like everyone else… or else.

        BTW: Bamboo makes great siding for an ISBU… and “patio covers”, too…

  19. Honie at 9:02 am #

    I have been searching high and low for information like this. First of all thanks a ton. I do have sone questions though. I live in Wilmington, NC, and I am in desperate need of a shipping container home asap. I have not been able to find any type of useful information on how to get a project like building one started. What type of bank would loan me money to build one? Or would I have to pay cash outright? Do these types of homes have to have foundations? How do I find out if a buried home is even legal where I live? I need tons of help.

    • renaissanceronin at 1:46 pm #

      Hi Honie,

      Forget about bank loans. Building an “alternative home” isn’t conducive to a banker conversation that doesn’t include laughter… aimed at YOU.

      They’ll fund the production of McMansions that no-one wants, but they won’t fund the building of a small sustainable home, that makes sense… Go figure.

      So, you’ll be building “out of pocket.” That’s okay, lot’s of people are doing it. It IS possible.

      Container homes need foundations, just like every other kind of housing. You can put them on slabs, pilings, or piers… easy as pie. 😉

      But “buried?” Forget it. Containers aren’t designed to be buried. Unless you know what you’re doing, and you’re prepared to spend a lot of extra money, there are better ways to build “stealth homes.”

      If you have an ongoing project, or are seriously thinking about “beginning the adventure,” contact me at work:

      Container Home Consultants

      or email me at:

      I can insure that you get a good start toward building that home you crave!


    • Jason at 3:49 pm #

      I to live in Wilmington nc and I think it would almost be impossible to bury a shipping container,, the water level would be to high In my opinion.. It would probably be lifted out of the ground like a ship when high water came.. This is one of the reasons there’s not basements in this area.

      • renaissanceronin at 3:58 pm #

        And even if you “could” bury it… it’d eventually collapse and KILL YOU.

  20. Tosin at 10:22 pm #

    Hi all,

    I’m looking to develop a 20-25 room hotel utilizing ISBUs. Can anybody recommend designers who could draw up various schemes and submit a proposal?

    And is there any emprical evidence of the cost/time savings-labor, construction, energy, etc- from ISBU vs. traditional methods?

    In the next two to three months, I’m looking to develop a business plan for this hotel and pitch the idea to various investors. If anybody can assist, I’d appreciate it.

    • renaissanceronin at 8:50 am #

      Hi Tosin,

      First, despite the “naysayers”, the real money savings in building using any module based construction is in the labor. And, over the last thirty some odd years, I’ve found that the savings are indeed significant. Remember that in any “project build” of this size, the ISBUs will be converted into housing in a warehouse environment, where costs and labor can be closely controlled, and waste reduced to a bare minimum. Actual site “assembly” time is dramatically reduced. Setting a container every fifteen minutes is standard, in my part of the world. That means that an entire complex can go up in DAYS.

      I’ll assume that you’re talking about building a multi-level hotel? What’s the expected client base? Motel 6, or the Ritz, or inbetween? How many units per floor? What’s the basic square footage per unit? What’s the basic feel of the hotel going to be? Do you have a “theme?” What’s the location? Beachfront? Mountains? City?

      You can contact my firm, here:

      Container Home Consultants, Inc.

      if you’d like to pursue this further!

      I look forward to hearing more about your project!



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