Shipping containers built into homes

House and condo affordability issues in Canada have resulted in people looking for different methods to build housing more cheaply. The biggest worldwide trend has been to use and convert shipping container to affordable accommodations. In Canada, some real challenges lie behind the process of turning shipping containers into tiny homes. Real estate agents have seen some clients search for lots that are not developed so they can build with shipping containers. These lots are usually very small pieces of land in cities.

One of the biggest advantages, involving the perspective of recycling and environmental sustainability, it that using shipping containers is a  very good initiative. Many containers are on a one-way journey, mostly originating from overseas, to the developed nations. These containers are gently used and often  just once for shipping and then end up being used as storage or portable office spaces.

Some Toronto companies are now offering to build container homes. You can find some interesting designs and floorplans which turn containers into housing. But the reality isn’t always as straightforward as these plans suggest. What are the main challenges to consider in Canada because of our weather.

Youtube videos and online photos emphasise the benefits of recycling containers to build homes. But, a number of conditions must be met to ensure the house is structurally sound.

Shipping container sizes in relation to people.

The design requires cutting through the walls to put in windows or doors, it affects the structural integrity of the container. Plus insulation must be added in Canada. Structural engineers will be needed to develop an engineering drawing to ensure the house will be structurally sound. There is a cost associated with the addition, as with any other type of construction such as steel-frame housing, timber-frame housing or brick-and-tile housing.

Further, many engineers are wary of signing off on used shipping containers, because it is more difficult to assess the structural state of these. They most often recommend using a brand-new container. This is another added cost, as the price of a small used container starts at $2,500 for a smaller used container and larger sized units can cost close to $8,000 new.

Previous use which affects health and safety concerns arise when it cannot be known what was shipped using a second-hand container. But they can be cleaned and new clothing can be installed.

Use of harsh chemicals (which may have left invisible traces) were shipped in a container, one would not want to do some major cleaning and replacement on those units. Making sure chemicals where not used adds to the challenges of using a second-hand container. This is because tracing the cargos and journeys end-to-end across the full container lifecycle is almost impossible

Housing built from shipping containers is limited by the size in some situations. They are roughly 2.25m wide internally and commonly come in two lengths: 6m or 12m. Major changes in structures can increase the livable space.

One also needs to take into account internal stud work to put in drywalls, which can further reduce the width. A 2.25m width is already quite small for any room other than a shower or a bathroom.

To give an idea of how small, a king-sized bed is 1.83m wide. So there will very limited room to put tables and other furniture..

container with windows
Shipping container with windows installed and unit being installed.

If two containers are cut to create a 4.7m wide room, the space becomes large and can be used for many purposes. If you need a smaller width, you need to build a stud wall. That is another added cost. Hence, the options for customising the container home are very limited if it is to remain affordable.

Insulation is a very critical element of a comfortable lifestyle. The building code as well as the local by-laws or council are very conscious of insulation standards.

The shipping container is a basically a large steel box. Physics says steel will get hot in summer and cold in winter. To counter these natural effects, the container is usually insulated with spray foam.

Now, the question is where to insulate: on the exterior, or the interior, or both? Exterior insulation will be better because this will prevent the heat or cold reaching the metal and keep the internal environment comfortable. But putting external insulation on a container means having a stud wall frame or similar arrangement to hold the insulation in place, so that’s an additional building cost.

Special paints are another option and it does offer some degree of insulation. Note, though, that most “before and after” studies have taken a dark-coloured container (such as green, red or blue) and shown the benefit when painting it with a white ceramic paint. The reduction in temperature is partly due to using white paint.

Container housing may be a viable alternative accommodation option. But it can be hard to know whether it will be significantly cheaper than any other ways of building a home without doing considerable research into what the housing requirements and design will involve.

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