More than a box: turning shipping containers into container homes
Container home basics
Container homes are, very simply, homes made out of shipping containers – typically they are the container’s second use after it’s been used for international goods transfer.
Container homes are up to 8’ in width on the inside, allowing a usable interior space of about 7’. They could be up to 8’ 6” high and typically come in lengths of either 20’ or 40’.
The shipping container provides a simple structure for the walls, floor, and ceiling. To make the container a home requires additions by a skilled builder, such as insulation, windows, doors, heating, ventilation, plumbing, and electricity.
The beauty of shipping container homes in Canada is that they’re effectively being recycled. There’s a housing market crisis and an excess of shipping containers from terminal vendors – so it makes sense to use them for the creation of affordable housing!
The quickest structures in the tightest spaces
One of the greatest things about container homes is the flexibility and ease of installation. They are technically a home on a foundation, so when built to building code regulations, they can easily receive a building permit without the complications facing tiny homes on wheels.
Much of the time, container homes can be installed in tight backyard spaces using a crane. A permanent foundation must have been pre-installed, allowing the container to be lowered into place.
The foundation could be any type permitted by your local by-laws (these vary across the country). Since the container’s shell is already built, you’re essentially ‘finishing’ it, which is less disruptive and expensive than building the shell from scratch on your site. It also means most of the construction work will continue inside the home, while you can continue to enjoy your backyard.
For example, Ballance Containers “built a summer staff residence using our B160 bachelor unit (1×20′ container). The container was brought over on a barge and pulled up a hill onto the island by backhoes.”
In terms of passing Building Code inspections as well, delivering the shell first could be an advantage. The container home can be delivered at the first inspection stage. You’ll then finish it on-site, inviting the inspector back at the relevant intervals.
This makes the entire process simpler. When you’re installing the container home at locations where a permit is required, the shell is delivered at the first inspection stage.
What makes container homes in Canada so low-cost?
Shipping containers are an extremely effective way to develop low-cost ADUs. But why are the prices so low? What’s different about them?
Well, let’s start at the beginning. Canada imports more than it exports in shipping containers. As a result, a good number of them sit empty at the docks, eventually rusting away.
Instead of leaving them to this fate, container home builders purchase them from the docks and have them delivered to their workshops. The prices are negotiated with the harbour authorities and shipping companies, but might cost under $10,000 each (plus taxes, delivery, restoration, paint, rust-proofing, etc.).
The result is a floor, four walls and a roof for substantially less than a wooden frame, stone or brick.
What does it take to convert a shipping container into a home?
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Canada tends to get a little chilly between November and March. The summer months, just starting to dawn on us now, also bring heatwaves and days well over 30 degrees celsius.
Sitting in a bare metal box only amplifies the situation. When the sun’s shining, the interior becomes unbearably (and perhaps dangerously) hot. In the snow, it’ll quite literally freeze. As such, insulation is an absolute must.
There are so many options when it comes to container home insulation. Most builders will use a type of spray foam or fibreglass, but blanket-type and other methods are just as effective.
Handy tip: Insulation is categorised by R-value. In Ontario, you typically need an absolute minimum of R-19, although R-22, R-24, or R-35 are each more effective than the last.
Home Depot geographical R-value resource
Your interior walls are where the container really becomes a home. Once the insulation’s in, the builder will install drywall and interior siding.
Tongue-and-groove and shiplap are popular options among tiny container home owners. They’re relatively simple for builders to install and create a cosy atmosphere.
One of Targetbox’s shipping container tiny homes, shown above, shows this perfectly. “Many Canadians assume that shipping container tiny homes can’t be comfortable, but TargetBox’s 40-foot tiny home has room for comfort and much more. This tiny home was outfitted with spray foam insulation and finished with charming white panelling to give the owner a laid-back cottage feel.”
Handy tip: Using a light, such as a shade of white, helps illuminate the space and make it feel more welcoming.
Air exchange, heating and cooling
Your HVAC (or mini-version of this system) is vital in a container home (as it is in any tiny home and just about any other building).
Methods of circulating air ensure you’re always breathing fresh oxygen and help disperse moisture, keeping the interior less humid.
At the same time, while insulation helps maintain an interior temperature, it isn’t perfect. You’ll still need a heating and cooling system as you would in any regular house.
Heating/cooling systems tend to be one and the same, with heat pumps and forced air systems working as both a source of warmth and air conditioning. If you’re on a budget, you could ignore the AC (mini-split) and accept that some summer nights are going to get rather toasty.
Other options to discuss with your builder include wood stoves and plug-in space heaters. Box air conditioners from the windows are also an option, but these use up significant amounts of space.
Handy tip: There must be some method of circulating air, even if it’s just a desk fan and open windows (although this isn’t suitable for winter). Otherwise, you’ll see dampness and related problems in your home.
There are many things to consider when it comes to the electrical system. For example, do you want pot lights? A fan in the ceiling? Where should the outlets go? What about space for a TV? Make sure you discuss these requirements with your builder before the project gets too far underway.
It’s also worth mentioning solar panels here. Going off-grid helps navigate certain legislative areas in some municipalities, and it’s a great option for powering most of your appliances.
Electrical wiring is also one of the most critical points of inspection during the permit process.
By nature of a shipping container, your kitchen will be long and narrow. It often also merges with the living space, providing an open cooking/relaxing area.
Container homes could come with a fully functioning modern kitchen, complete with an oven, microwave, cooktop, kettle, and more. If you find yourself needing to save space or energy, you might find yourself scaling back on these. For instance, you could use an air fryer and a single-ring plug-in cooktop or outdoor propane stove instead.
Handy tip: A bar space with stools is a great way to maximise space in a tiny container home. It’s a functional eating area but could be used for work, study, or other projects throughout the rest of the day. The stools also mean chairs don’t get in the way.
The bathroom itself could be any size. If you’re constructing a tiny container home, it’ll be small by necessity.
There aren’t any particular design limitations other than the size. Provided your site preparation includes grey and black water channels and a drainage/septic system, you can hook up a sink, shower, and even a standard flushing toilet (a luxury in the tiny home world!).
Off-grid options are still a possibility if you choose! These include composting or incinerating toilets and grey water holding totes.
Handy tip: Using a sliding barn door as your bathroom door saves an awful lot of space!
You don’t need to have siding on your container home – at least, not in most places. Some municipalities may require you to ensure it’s pleasant to look at to avoid upsetting the neighbours, and your builder will certainly be able to handle that.
It’s often possible to leave the metal sides of the container bare, giving your home that industrial-style appearance. The interior insulation prevents most of the heat transfer.
If you prefer, you could side the entire structure with wooden siding. Some customers use small wooden frames and offcuts to add subtle design changes at a low cost.
Handy tip: Ensure your container home is nice to look at and matches the surrounding buildings and environment as much as you feel necessary.
You’ll see many container homes and tiny homes in Canada with patio doors of some kind. It’s a luxury well worth considering.
With a large glass pane in the centre, you get much more light and you can see outside. It’s basically an extra window.
Handy tip: The more light you can get into your container, the more home-y it’ll feel.
You don’t need an outside deck by any means, and this is probably something you’d get installed after the container home has been built.
An outside deck expands the livable space and makes the entire container feel even more roomy. Of course, it’s not going to see much use in winter, but in summer you’ll have the option to cook outdoors, sit with friends, and otherwise enjoy the sunshine.
Handy tip: Use proper foundations for the deck’s pillar posts. It doesn’t take much, but it goes a long way to keep the structure strong, sturdy, and rot-resistant.
Possibilities of container homes
Finally, let’s chat about the many possibilities that container homes bring.
- You can combine multiple containers (with the correct frames and reinforcement) or build onto the frame to change the shape. For example, the Rockbox slanted roof home (Half Johnson) allows for solar panels and a sleeping space.
- Shipping containers are stackable and strong. In other words, you can use them to create large or multi-dwelling units or plan for future expansions.
- They’re shippable by truck or train. This reduces expenses and means you can quickly put up ‘communities’, such as temporary accommodation for isolated projects or after natural disasters like wildfires or floods.
- Container homes can be installed on trailers, as the example above from Insula Containers, making them tiny homes on wheels. This is appropriate for certain RV parks.
Container home permits
If you’re wondering about the legalities of putting a home like this on your property, check your local by-laws first. Municipalities vary widely in their approach to container homes. Some outright ban anything that started as a shipping container. Some welcome these homes as ADUs and garden suites. And some may just need a little convincing with a nice set of architectural drawings.
As Eric from Ballance Containers explains, “Our container homes can be built as mobile (moveable) units or on permanent foundations following the proper permits. We find it interesting to navigate the red tape in each municipality or by zoning type – the rules are always different!”
“For instance, many municipalities may not allow tiny homes on wheels, yet Bill 23 and the government’s encouragement of ADUs means tiny homes on permanent foundations are an excellent solution.”
Container homes are a great route when it comes to buying tiny homes in Canada, highlighting the beauty of simple minimalistic lifestyles.