Dig Your Own ISBU Grave!

Okay, go ahead… Play ISBU Peek-A-Boo! NOT.


I ran this back in the early days of this blog WAY back. It was a “dressed up summary” of a speech that I’ve been giving for decades augmented with a few “scientific graphs”.

Then… I pulled the post as the guy (a P.E.) who did the calcs (graphs) I quoted didn’t want his information shared.

I’ve essentially said this over and over again, but now I’m going to make this a permanent, easy to find page.

Here we go;

Greetings, Campers!

As most of you know, my family is helping other families to build homes out of shipping containers.  I have some “experience” where these boxes are concerned, and I’m doing my best, to see that they get used to their fullest potential!

As this blog evolves, it’s become “a Corten Crusading Clearing House“…  and it seems that I’ve become known in the ISBU community as a “debunker.” It seems that I have no problem putting my size 10 boot in my mouth… er… um… dispelling myth after myth about this or that…

We don’t play no stinking “Idealistic crap that could never be built in a million years…” kinda nonsense.

We live in the real world, a world where we need REAL houses, that are affordable and (gasp!) buildable, by the common man. That means that we don’t feature “concept homes”, or homes that get built… solely so that the builder ends up on TV.

I don’t have $400 or $500 a square foot to build with.

And I’m betting that you don’t either. Do You? If you do… I have this bridge for sale… :)

Lately, I’m getting barraged with people asking that age-old question (again, and again, and again…):

“Can you show me how to bury a 40′ Shipping Container?”

I actually started counting. In the last year, I’ve been asked this over 200 times. Now, I’ve answered this question over and over again! I’ve done everything but “get the stinkin’ tattoo…”

(And that’s a “no-no” if you’re Jewish. Ink may be cool, but I’ll save it for you Gentiles…)   ;)

So, I just tell them this;

“Sure, I can show you how to bury one. But, you can’t LIVE in it! That would be suicide!”

Once more, for the record:

Shipping containers aren’t designed to be buried. The strength doesn’t come from the skin, it comes from the FRAME of the box.

Evidently, people don’t believe me, when I tell them that it’s a really stupid idea.

Unless you like digging your own grave… literally.

I’ll point out that guys like me (and other architects, architectural designers and structural engineers) make their living by providing design services to the “trades” – architects and builders. They also provide that same expertise to to homeowners, contractors, and builders in correcting various forms of structural failure.

I repeat: “… correcting various forms of structural failure.”

That said;

Let’s talk about burying containers.

Admit it, we’ve all seen people talking about it. Right?

“Can you really BURY a shipping container to make an underground structure, or a basement?”


There are a few reasons why this won’t work.

First, that box is made of metal. Corten Steel is a wonderful thing, but it will still corrode.  And that box is a carefully designed structural element, built to perform a specific task, a specific way.

Let’s start with corrosion;

Ever had to dig up an old buried steel fuel tank that has outlived it’s usefulness? After you attacked it with that backhoe, what did you find? You probably found a steel nightmare.

Even with cathodic protection to slow down the corrosive activity, you still have a light gauge metal box in the ground, subject to contact by soil and moisture.

Cathodic protection is sometimes achieved by putting a more active metal up against a less active metal, so that the more active metal corrodes, instead of the less active (in this case) steel tank.

Eventually, that steel container will indeed corrode. And then, what are you gonna do? Dig it up to fix it? Hmmm.

For more information about Cathodic Protection, look here:


Now let’s get to the good stuff; STRUCTURE.

When you dig that hole to drop that box into, you’re going to fill it back in, to cover your box up, right?

That means that you’ll be creating a load against that corrugated Corten Steel paneling.

Tests and simulations have proven time and again that the loads created exceed the design and strength of the materials.

The loads created by that soil (especially when it is moist or even -gasp!- wet) will exceed the strength of that steel paneling by almost double in the best case scenario.

Look I’ve personally I’ve seen this scheme fail. I’ve seen the aftermaths of the failures. I’ve even helped dig out and bury the bodies of the people living inside that buried shelter. I’ve prayed over the bodies. I’ve shed tears over this needless death.

Yet, naysayers will still try it.

They will claim that they have a scheme that will combat gravity, physics, and Mother Nature. I hear it almost daily. I have a stack of them in my email folder right now.

Will they accomplish their task? Probably not. And, most will fail, outright.

You CAN modify a container so that it can be used “underground”.

ANYTHING is possible if you throw enough money at it.

But why would you?

By the time you’ve reinforced that container (or series of containers) to withstand the loads created by covering it with soil (and in the bargain achieved  anything even remotely resembling “survivability”) you could have accomplished your mission easier and much more affordably using something like masonry or concrete.

It almost doesn’t matter how many time s I say this. People just see those Hobbit Houses, or those cool renders on Treehuggers, and blast away. In fact, haven’t I  even  detailed the construction of concrete retaining walls, to hold back the tide? Hmmm?

I hate to say that I told you so, but…


So give me and my email a break, huh? Stop asking. The answer isn’t going to change. Not from me, and certainly not from any card-carrying professional worth his/her salt.

And now back to our regularly scheduled program…

3 Responses to “Dig Your Own ISBU Grave!”


  1. I’m in the hole… and it’s wet in here… « The Life and Times of a "Renaissance Ronin" - December 17, 2010

    […] Dig Your Own ISBU Grave! […]

  2. Why you shouldn't bury a shipping container for a SHTF bunker - - August 21, 2013

    […] the containers. Don’t take my word for it, do some research specifically looking at the limitations and dangers of burying shipping containers for yourself instead of just looking at the cost […]

  3. Why you shouldn't bury a shipping container bunker for SHTF - November 15, 2013

    […] the containers. Don’t take my word for it, do some research specifically looking at the limitations and dangers of burying shipping containers for yourself instead of just looking at the cost […]

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