Shipping Container Homes Basics for Beginners


Shipping container homes basics will help you decide whether it is a good solution for you or not. Let’s start from the beginning:

ISO Shipping Containers

Standard ISO shipping containers used by the transport industry come in three generic lengths correspondingly:

  •  10ft (2.99m)
  •  20ft (6.06m)
  •  40ft (12.2m)

All of them are 8.0 ft (2.44 m) wide and 8.5 ft (2.59m) high. Those are General Purpose (GP) containers. Within the same sets of lengths, there are also taller units called High-Cube (HC) containers. They have the same footprints but with a height of 9.5ft (2.89 m), they are 1 foot taller.

Just for reference, there are a few more ISO-standardized lengths like 30ft and 45ft (both also coming in HC versions). They are however  much less popular than the 10ft, 20ft, and 40ft units.

The minimum interior dimensions a slightly lower:

  • Maximum Gross Weight Rating (GWR) of a 10ft container limit is  22,400 lbs (10,160kg) while for 20ft and 40ft containers is limit is 67,200 lbs (30480kg).
  • The Maximum Payload is determined by containers’ dry weights – about 5,100lbs (2,300kg) for 20ft containers and 8,270 lbs (3,750 kg) for 40ft ones.
  • Containers’ Exterior Dimensions ISO 668 standard regulates Maximum GWR. Requirements of interoperability and safety are crucial and strict! In contrast, internal dimensions and dry weights may vary between manufacturers.
  • Made from Steel ( standard shipping containers are made from usually CorTen). The frame counts 4 weight-bearing corner beams with 4 extra reinforcing beams are equally spaced in between. Siding is built with 60 mils to 120 mils (1.5mm -to 3mm) thick corrugated steel panels reinforcing the container’s structural strength. The floor is typically made from 1” (27mm) plywood supported on steel cross-bearers located 12” apart.

Most popular types of Cargo Shipping Containers


Out of several types of shipping containers. The most interesting for use as construction blocks (storage, office, utility, or habitable space) are:

a) Solid Storage (Dry) Containers

They leave the manufacturing plant as rigid, welded, ready-to-use structures with one or two side door(s). Available on the secondary market as used or so-called “One-Trip” containers they will make an excellent choice for local storages, sheds, garages, etc… Their adaptation for more demanding habitable spaces may be costly and time-consuming. If chosen, then High Cube versions are preferable due to higher interior headroom.

b) Flat Rack (Flat Pack) Containers

They are designed as collapsible (folding) units. The ability to remove one or both long side walls simplifies the process of loading heavy machinery. It also allows for the transport of goods that may exceed the interior’s width of standard Dry Containers (about 7’8”). Note that some Flat Rack containers are built as non-collapsible (they come without side walls). Obviously, the latter wouldn’t be of big interest as building blocks for the construction industry.

c) Others

Just for completeness let’s also mention the existence of several specialized containers like Open Top Containers, Open Sides Containers (doors on the long side(s)), Refrigerated Containers, Thermal Containers, Tank Containers, Car Containers and so on…

Standard Shipping Containers (also known as ISO Containers or shortly Containers) are designed for the transport of goods. To avoid confusion with the new class of “habitable” shipping containers, whenever necessary, we will call them Cargo Containers.

Customized Shipping Containers

Shipping container homes basics include the knowledge of customization of shipping containers. It was just a matter of time to see manufacturers jumping on the bandwagon of this new, and frankly – very promising business. The whole idea was simple. Instead of recycling used containers into working or living spaces (what in fact may be quite laborious and costly) let’s offer customers brand new “shipping”. They are containers specifically designed for such purpose.

The idea took the world by storm!
Customized “Shipping” Containers are very close “cousins” of ISO-specified cargo ones. The most important difference is that they are NOT designed for the transport of cargo, but as “habitable” spaces. Also, almost exclusively, they are built as Flat-Pack (foldable) units. They share however several similarities that make them look like cargo shipping containers.

Their external lengths are kept very close to 20ft and 40 ft ISO standards. For this reason, they are often referred to as 1 TEU (one Twenty feet Equivalent Unit) and correspondingly the 40ft unit as 2 (two) TEUs. However, their width and height are usually increased to the range correspondingly 8.0ft – 9.2ft (W) and 8.5ft to 9.85ft (H) reflecting what’s expected from working and living spaces.

Characteristics of Customized “Shipping” Container(s)

You need to know the characteristics of cargo containers as a part of shipping container homes basics:

  • This new class of Customized “Shipping” Container Houses can be characterized as follows:a) They are prefabricated (in other words designed and manufactured off-site) with numerous standard floor-plans customers can choose from. However, indifference to other prefabricated houses:
  • b) They are built-in form of very regular blocks that can be attached to each other in limitless horizontal and vertical architectural configurations;
  • c) Metal is used to make them (steel) which makes them strong and self-supporting (no need for complex foundations);
  • d) They are easily portable (if there is a need to move them to another location).

And indifference to Cargo Shipping Containers

  • e) They are originally designed as living spaces with numerous versions of the floorplan to choose from (Cargo SC has to be adapted to the standards of habitable space).

Residential Standard for minimum Floor-Ceiling Height

Note that residential building code specifies minimum floor-to-ceiling height as 2.1m (6’11”), although usually the 2.4m (7’10”) height is considered as the desirable height. While such limits are mostly acceptable for utility rooms, bathrooms, walk-in closets, etc… When it comes to living areas (salon, living, dining rooms…, the typical ceiling height across the US is in the range from 8ft -to-9ft (2.4m -to-2.7m).

The standard ISO containers, with their internal height of just about 7’10” (2.39m) may not meet these requirements and certainly will not meet expectations. Keep in mind that adding residential-type floor and ceiling will further limit already tight interior headroom in cargo containers.

It is important to note that the dry weight of Customized “Shipping” Containers is significantly lower compared to their industrial counterparts (slightly below 4,000 lbs /1800 kg). The main reason – they are not designed to carry tens of tons of cargo and withstand the weight of fully loaded containers piled on top of each other.

Summary of shipping container homes basics 

Summarizing: The Customization of this new class of “Shipping”-type Containers means not only a bit different dimensions better reflecting requirements for habitable spaces. It also means interior and exterior “finish” adequate for working and/or residential spaces. That includes insulation, the composition of metal and glass for sidewalls, larger windows, plumbing, electrical installations, etc… Some “built-in”, features increase their functionality.

The number of possible functions and configurations of Customized “Shipping” Containers is almost limitless.

Starting with single-module structures like kiosks, booths, cabins, huts, offices, utility rooms, small weekend houses, etc. They may also be large multi-module residential structures and public buildings.

The name “Shipping” (in quotation marks) we use here, only as a reference to their roots (Cargo Shipping Containers). Otherwise  they would be referred to as Customized Container Houses (CCH).

 How safe are shipping container homes

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