Not all containers are created equal. So what IS important when you are looking for a container to use as a home?
Containers come in 4 sizes: 20′ Regular, 40′ Regular, 20′ High Cube, and 40′ High Cube. For living, I would only consider a High Cube. A regular cube is 8′-6″ high on the outside, and the interior is 8′. At first, this seems fine but when you get to working with it that dimension shrinks and begins to feel too tight. High Cubes are 9′-6″ high on the outside, 9′ on the interior. When you get done working with the container the ceiling ends up in the 8′-3″ range. This feels great. So my recommendation is to look for a 40′ or 20′ High Cube.
Next your options are either refurbished containers or “one trippers”. This is pretty self explanatory. Refurbished containers have been used a lot but have been repainted, repaired and worked on. This can be a fine way to go, if the work is done well. A “one tripper” has only been used once. It comes to the U.S. full of stuff then if it is purchased by you as one tripper. I like these. If you buy a refurbished container, ensure that you buy from a reputable source.
Even amongst “one trippers” you have to be discerning. Every container has a number and every one is an individual. I recommend seeing the container first hand and amongst its peers. In a stack of containers, you will see variation between all one tripper high cubes. Some will have more dents (not necessarily bad), some might have a puncture (bad), some might smell (what if a barrel of pickles exploded on the way over from Europe?). So a trip to the container yard is a must.
Some containers are “Corten”, a type of steel. It is different than mild steel. Both will rust, but Corten will be slower because it has a corrosion retardant rust process (a process of deterioration which begins to protect the steel underneath). It is more hearty than mild steel.
I read on the internet that containers are dangerous to live in because they are coated with lead paint at the factory of origion. I did not like that information, so we had our container checked for lead. In the instance of our container NO LEAD was present. This is not to say that no container has lead. But we check every container that we use and have it third party certified. We would recommend you do that before buying one, or buy from a trusted source that guarantees no lead.
I also read that pesticides/insecticides/preservatives are used to treat the plywood floor of shipping containers. I think this is true. The first container we purchased to build with smelled like a canvas tarp. Not particularly pleasant or unpleasant to me, but I did not like the idea of breathing it or walking on it. So we coated the plywood with a double coat of sealant, concealing it from the inside of the living area. Then we built up the floor with 3-1/2″ of foam insulation then 3/4″ plywood then 3/4″ Hardwood floor. No smell, I am walking on hardwood, and I have the piece of mind that insects meet with an inhospitable barrier.
As a parting note, one advantage of a container is the fact that it is watertight, so if you are looking at a refurbished one you might inquire about that aspect. The roof is most important.
Written by Sam Austin. Sam holds a Master’s in Architecture from the University of Colorado-Denver and has been practicing architecture since 1992. He specializes in residential design and has completed more than 200 homes in the Boulder area and beyond. For 17 years, he has designed beautiful modern custom homes and is renowned for his use of reclaimed materials.