The history of shipping containers might be shorter than you’d suspect. It was 1956 when Malcolm McLean created the idea as a way to ease several aspects of international commerce. McLean, in turn, probably never suspected his invention would appear in the American space western film Space Rage as the basis of buildings set some 200 years into the future. 

In 1987, a patent was filed for a method of converting shipping containers into habitable living quarters–the first “official” record of the concept–though there was mention of the idea going back to the 1970s. The idea gained momentum as the new millenium approached as a possible office solution, and California architect Peter DeMaria completed the first shipping container home a decade later in 2007.

Tiny home corollary

The idea of simplified living in smaller spaces is currently gaining its own momentum. Tiny homes appeal to many who want to economize or downsize, in town or country, as primary or vacation homes

Similarly, prefabricated homes have been popular for similar reasons of simplicity and economy. Combine that with the modular ideas of Canadian-Isreali architect Moshe Safdie and his Habitat 67, and the shipping container makes perfect sense as a melange of tiny and prefab.

Building block beauties

The essence of a shipping container home touches something elemental with anyone’s inner designer. Place a pile of blocks in front of any toddler and there’s a good chance experiments in stacking and building will ensue. Think of container homes as the adult version. 

There are an estimated 14 million out-of-service shipping containers worldwide, ripe for repurposing. From the simplest single-container conversion to complex multi-level, multi-box dwellings, the humble banana hauler can be recycled into elegant abodes with plenty of industrial and modernist appeal.

Image via Nicolás Buollosa on Flickr

A filling solution

Some of the benefits of a living space built around a shipping container dovetail seamlessly with the needs of contemporary society. Basement apartment conversions are a traditional way to add rental income potential to a home. Infill homes are a contemporary alternative, and an idea that capitalizes on the modularity offered by shipping containers. Whether you need an in-law suite, rental unit, or home office, it may be worth exploring the container as a construction basis.

Image via Patrick Minero on Unsplash

The fine print

A shipping container structure has the advantage of being instantly enclosed. It offers protection from the elements from the moment it’s placed. Since a container is radically different from a typical home construction project, it might be tempting to think such a structure could be exempt from building regulations. While much depends on where you build and local bylaws, chances are you won’t be able to sidestep the bureaucratic aspects of building. 

You may need to consider aspects such as: 

  • ground stability;
  • drainage; 
  • snow loading;
  • wind resistance;
  • structural safety;
  • site plans; 
  • interior layout; 
  • door and window installations; and
  • electrical permits, including special code requirements.
Image via Container Homes Daily

You’ll be working with standard shapes and sizes with narrow widths and low ceilings. Insulation and bracing requirements may also steal precious inches of living space, but designs are flexible when you consider you can add another container. 

There might be some clever irony that these rectangular cuboids represent outside-the-box thinking, but there is practical and aesthetic potential for those inclined to find it. Not everyone may be cut out for shipping container living, but for some it may be the answer to questions not yet asked.


Posted by Teri-Lynn Jones on


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