Two main reasons people motivate for wanting to use containers in home design, is the 'speed of construction' and 'low cost'

Is the use of shipping containers a good idea in house design?

Is the use of shipping containers a good idea in house design?

Written by Raymond Smith

This is the question I asked myself after having received numerous requests to use steel shipping containers in house design. I have decided to explore the possibility and see for myself if it is an option that I would consider.

Two main reasons people motivate for wanting to use containers in home design, is the ‘speed of construction’ and ‘low cost’. Further to this, some say they like the ‘look’ and that they believe it is environmentally friendly, being a recyclable product.

Journey of a container

The journey of a shipping container usually starts in the port of Shanghai China, about 8 494 nautical miles from Durban harbour in South Africa. By the time a container docks from its origin, it is drenched with sea salt and the mystery of its cargo. The latter could be anything from fertilizer to poison, how would one know? Most containers are used for a number of years before retiring them as they become structurally unsound. There are also one-trip containers.

Sizes of the ISO shipping containers are problematic, particularly the height and width. They are available in 10 feet (3 meters) for about R 10 000; 20 feet (6 meters) for about R 14 000 and 40 feet (12 meters lengths) for about R19 000. Delivery is excluded. The width is always 7 feet 8 inches (2,34 meters) and so is the height at 7 feet 10 inches (2,44 meters).

Considering that these are internal dimensions which still require insulation and a ceiling, you end up with a very low ceiling of less than 2,4 meters. The width being 2,3 meters is equally restrictive as the walls require fire resistant board, insulation and drywalling to meet the national building regulation minimum standards. This means that you always need to cut and join containers together which requires welding and then there is the issue of waterproofing the inserted windows and doors and treating it all against rust.

Thinking through the construction process, which still requires concrete footings, cladding, plumbing and other services as per normal, you may build quickly, but considering that architecture is about structural strength, fit for the purpose of living in, comfort, delight and durability to feel safe for years to come, I am not convinced that it is a good idea.

Construction and procedures

To follow a responsible procedure, the containers would have to be decontaminated and sandblasted in a factory, treated against rust and refinished after all the cutting and welding is done and then transported to site to do the final assembly and fitting of services.

I can see the use on a farm or roadworks as temporary accommodation and storage, but not as a home. Lately, I see many rusted containers being delivered to sites, with owner-builders and small contractors attempting to ‘salvage a house at sea’, so to speak. The end result seldom echoes Pinterest’s aspiration.

Comparing the method to a standard brick and mortar structure – the wall type which reigns supreme in all the regions of South Africa, not only in terms of thermal performance, but also flexibility of design, durability, comfort and aesthetics – there is no argument. From an economical or environmental perspective, it is not an investment. You will need to build three or four of these in the lifespan of a brick-and-mortar structure. Build once, build properly and don’t waste your money.

The verdict

In conclusion, containers have a place, but out of context, they are lost at sea.