Customized Container Houses


The rapidly growing trend of CargoTecture (architecture based on cargo shipping containers) took commercial and residential construction markets by storm. Many are opting now for customized container houses. It all happened so fast, that in many countries and states, the local building codes and laws still lag behind the reality on the ground. That left aficionados of CargoTecture at the mercy of Local Authorities.  The same state of the matter (read it – lack of codification) can be also seen as the nonexistence of a generally accepted classification of container-based houses.

The first such attempt was made by the Container Home Association. They proposed the name ISBU (Intermodal Steel Building Unit) for the class of buildings characterized by steel-based structure and modular design. This very wide definition is basically related to structures built from used (often already retired from transport) cargo shipping containers for the purpose of housing. In fact, this was (and still is) a massive trend “fueled” by:

  1. Literally “zillions” of retired cargo shipping containers piled in ports, or simply shipped to poor countries (if not abandoned at their beaches).
  2. Massive need for cheap housing for populations in war-torn, man, or natural catastrophes destroyed areas.

Recently, this segment of the housing construction industry takes also root in developed countries. Some of the reasons for that are:

  1. Relatively low cost of container-based housing compared to traditional one.
  2. Growing Eco-consciousness of modern societies.

“Up-cycling” used containers by giving them “New Lives” is better than “Recycling” them in steel plants (the process takes a lot of energy) and far better than abandoning them as unwanted waste to rust on “someone’s backyard.

  1. The fashionability of the new trend.

After all, we are living in a society where “hotness” is the word of the day, although in this case (container-based houses) it has its true merits.

  1. Practicality

This is especially visible in the commercial construction business where the cost, “time-to-delivery” and “soundness” are objective values.

All these factors led to the creation of countless businesses addressing the growing needs for container-based housing structures. They literally mushroomed in South-Eastern Asia (especially China), however we can also see many companies operating in the Western World (US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand …).

CargoTecture - Concept of container-based structure: “Kondoh” by HoneyBox (British Columbia, Canada)

CargoTecture – Concept of container-based structure: “Kondoh” by HoneyBox (British Columbia, Canada)

Series of container-based townhouses

                                        Series of container-based townhouses: Lida Group (China)

This new housing construction industry largely expanded the initial concept of CargoTecture by introducing various classes of equivalent to cargo shipping container modules designed solely for the purpose of broadly understood housing. In other words, modules for habitable spaces (including residential housing), but also for offices, workspaces, commercial spaces (shops, kiosks, cafes, bars etc..), public spaces (hotels, field hospitals, libraries, dormitories, offices, toilets) and so on. All these new “boxes” share some aspects of similarity to ISO-specified cargo shipping containers

This includes:

  1. “Almost” standardized length (20ft or 40ft equivalent) is determined by some sort of “standardization” and need for compatibility, but also by transport requirements (they must be packed into ISO cargo shipping containers and then transported overseas and on land by using vast infrastructure built for cargo shipping containers. Note that widths are only “loosely” matching that of ISO containers while heights are in the range somewhere between those of Standard and High Cube ISO shipping containers.
  2. Steel frames. They have lower mechanical strength than that specified for ISO cargo shipping containers (the latter must withstand tremendous loads of stuffed cargo and be piled for transport ISO containers).
  3. The modular structure allows for lateral and vertical interconnection of several TEUs (Twenty Feet Equivalent Units) to form the final structure. This also includes features necessary to load and unload on the truck already assembled units for relocation.

But here the similarities end. New 1-TEU or 2-TEUs equivalent container-like construction blocks are designed and manufactured a way to facilitates their transport. They belong to three classes of structures:

Flat Pack container houses

They are very similar to cargo shipping containers (mostly to HC-versions). The major difference is that the frame of the flat-pack container is not permanently welded, but comes in pieces (corner posts and fittings, joists, purlins etc…) that are assembled on the site by the use of bolts and nuts. Similarly, walls are coming as panels (each panel is a sandwich of insulation material confined between two PPGI sheets of steel).

The whole module including the frame’s components, walls (w/doors and windows), roof, and all necessary hardware when packed for transport has the horizontal size determined by the footprint of the “container”, however, the vertical dimension is significantly reduced (about 45 to 50 cm  (1.5-to-1.6 ft)) what makes possible to fit 5 to 6 such modules to one 20ft cargo shipping container.

Flat-Pack type of Customized Container Houses

Advantage of Flat-Pack type of Customized Container Houses – they can be folded and packed into small volumes easily for overseas transport (note the availability of lifting holes in corner fittings). Source: MoneyBox Steel Structure Engineering Co., Ltd. (Guangzhou, China).

The name “Flat Pack” (FP) reflects the shape of the packed for the transport of disassembled container structure.  Once the packed container reaches the destination site, it can be quickly assembled in just a few hours with the help of a few pairs of hands and typical tools (for simple, one-level structures no extra lifting equipment is needed). Just to give an idea – the weight of one pack varies between 1,000 to 1,500 kg (2,200 lbs to 3,300 lbs) so the transporting truck should have lifting equipment.

The package comes with assembling instructions and materials (text, video), usually, the manufacturer also offers online support. If further help is needed, at the customer’s cost, most manufacturers also offer technical on-site support. But frankly, the whole set-up process of a few ground-level modules is well within the DIY capabilities of average-skilled customers. Only complex multi-level designs and/or tough terrain may require qualified construction workers.

Simplified concept of the Flat-Pack module’s structure and its assembling process.

Simplified concept of the Flat-Pack module’s structure and its assembling process. Source: Safe Way Co. Ltd (Suzhou, China)

Note also, that once the customized container module is fully assembled, due to its compact size closely matching that of cargo shipping containers, it can be easily transported by trucks without the need to take it apart. The fitting corners have to lift holes (similar to cargo shipping containers), so if needed, they can be easily loaded onto the container’s truck for relocation.

Relocation single container house.

Relocation of single 1-TEU FP container house. Source: Zhongjie Jinchen Import & Export Trade Co. Ltd (Tianjin, China).

Flat Pack containers are the most popular “building blocks” largely dominating today’s CargoTecture (next on the list are probably modified ISO-cargo shipping containers). From single-module units to most amazing multi-module and multi-level architectural marvels, they became not only practical but also fashionable solutions for all kinds of housing applications. Affordable cost, variety of available configurations, portability, and especially valuable – easiness of construction on hard-to-access areas in nature, make them much sought solutions in the contemporary construction market.

Compared to ISO Cargo shipping containers (steel box and plywood floor), the structure of customized ones designed for housing applications is much more complex, as it can be seen below:

Detailed structure of customized container module.

The detailed structure of 1-TEU customized container module. Source: FANGDA Yuancheng Environmental Protection Technology Co., Ltd. (Chengdu, China)

By adding several container modules (side-by-side and/or on top of each other), it is possible to meet even demanding expectations. Below is an example of fully furnished Customized Container house assembled from two 40ft-equivalent (correspondingly 4 x 1- TEU modules).

Floorplan customized container

Floorplan – Source: Mei-Zong Housing Technology Co., Ltd. (Foshan, China)

Container Bedroom with working corner.

Bedroom with a working corner. Source: Mei-Zong Housing Technology Co., Ltd. (Foshan, China)

Container Home Kitchen  
Kitchen – Source: Mei-Zong Housing Technology Co., Ltd. (Foshan, China)

Container home bathroom.

Amazingly spacious bathroom. Source: Mei-Zong Housing Technology Co., Ltd. (Foshan, China)

Just these two 40ft-equivalent customized containers created a very homey, warm, and comfortable living environment for the family with a child.  But this is just an idea, of what can be achieved in terms of living space and comfort but also architecturally by combining together more FP-containers together.


Expandable Container Houses


The major limitation of single 1-TEU container houses is their limited living area (about 13.8 m2/ 148 sq. feet interior). Good for many commercial applications as well as weekend retreats, countryside cabins, etc… they can rarely meet the living requirements of a single 2+1 family. Obviously, nothing prevents anybody to order two or three 1-TEU or 2-TEU modules to significantly expand living space as well as to add a deck to seasonally extend the living space outdoors.  Typically, the 3-TEU modules customized container structure designed for the family will come with interior walls, and doors as well as fully functional areas like the kitchen and bathroom with supporting electrical and plumbing installations.

For many potential customers, the mentioned limit can be addressed by Expandable Container Houses. The whole idea is still based on 1-TEU container (as the core) with attached sides and foldable container-like extensions offering additional living space. In difference to Flat-Pack container (FPC) houses, Expandable Container (EC) houses usually come with welded frames and attached (although folded) two side extensions. That’s why they are often called “Three in One” container houses.

Concept of the 3-in-1 Expandable Container house.

Concept of the 3-in-1 Expandable Container house. Source: Safe House (Suzhou, China)

Floorplan of a typical 20ft-based 3-in-1 Expandable Container house. China)

Floorplan of a typical 20ft-based 3-in-1 Expandable Container house. Source: Safe House (Suzhou, China)

Typical shape of deployed 3-in-1 Expandable Container house.


The typical shape of deployed 3-in-1 Expandable Container house. Source: Safe Way (Suzhou, China)

The 20ft (1-TEU)-based models are probably the most popular EC-houses. With an interior surface of about 35 square meters (about 377 sq. ft) they can offer decent living conditions with all advantages of (low cost and short set-up time) of container-based houses. The 40ft-based Expandable models will double the available space to about 70 square meters (750 sq. ft) which makes them even more attractive.

Dimensions of ECs vary between manufacturers, so we can only provide typical values (here for the 20ft-equivalent expandable unit)

Expendable Container Home-Size-Table

The living space is determined by the width of the expanded sections and largely depends on the width and height of the central section. Note that the height of the central container limits the vertical dimension of the folding sides making the roof and floor and so it defines the size of the extra footprint.

The typical EC-house is built around its central section of the size of the fully deployed 1-TEU customized container.  This concept allows for pre-installation at the factory of such vital elements as a bathroom (shower, toilet, vanity w/sink…) as well as crucial components of the kitchen (sink, plumbing, etc..), which enormously speeds up settling time in terrain. In fact, Expandable Container houses are sort of “Instant Houses”, ready to move in very shortly from the time they arrived at the factory at their location. EC houses come with all features typical for Flat Pack containers including thermal insulation (EPS. Rock-wool/PU sandwich panels), finished floors (MgO, fiber-cement, plywood/vinyl, ceramic tiles…), electrical installation, plumbing, windows, doors, and interior walls. Additionally, manufacturers can offer different roofs, add porches, patios etc…

Expendable Container-house interior fully furnished.

Note that EC-houses are also available in standardized 40ft (2 TEUs) and customized 30ft versions.

As it may sound unrealistic, the following video can serve as proof!

Folding Container houses

Compare to FP Containers, the Customized Folding containers represent a higher integration level.  In their packed-for-transport form, the main frame is already assembled (together with the roof, long side walls, and floor) so they can be deployed on the site in a very short time. Yet, thanks to the ability to fold along lateral mid-section frames (hinges), when packed, they keep a low profile, ideal for transport. As a matter of fact, their package has pretty much a similar size and volume as the typical Flat Pack container.

Concept of Folding Customized Container house

Concept of Folding Customized Container house (note that the pile of folded containers includes three modules). Source: OK Prefab House Co. Ltd. (Guangzhou, China)

While Folding Container (FC) structures can be also used for multi-modular housing, their main advantage (foldability and coming with it low profile in transport as well as very short disassembling/assembling time) is precious in commercial applications. In other words, FC modules are great candidates for all temporary structures for example exhibition rooms, reception centers, offices, meeting rooms etc., where “mobility” is a highly valuable asset. By the nature of possible applications, mostly, these will be single 1-TEU-compatible modules. They will also be of interest as temporary shelters in areas of natural disasters.

Note that Folding customized containers (similar as their Flat Pack cousins) come with all the features necessary for habitable spaces like insulated walls, ceiling, and floor, windows (typically with protecting grid), doors, floor (MgO or fiber-cement with finish), electrical installations, etc…

Structure of the Customized Folding Container.China).

Structure of the Customized Folding Container. Source: MoneyBox Steel Structures Eng. Co. Ltd, Guangzhou, China).

Folding containers have a similar size as Flat Pack TEU modules, weigh around 1,300 kg (2,900 lbs) and have the strength that allows them to be used in 2-floors structures. It may be interesting to note that when folded, up to 8 FC containers can be loaded in one 40ft High Cube ISO cargo shipping container.


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