It's not everyday that someone dreams of living in shipping container homes, or working in shipping container offices. When a client proposed to James Whitaker the idea of constructing a shipping container office, the London-based architect was initially skeptical. For Whitaker, they brought to mind his childhood in Liverpool, where he’d see piles of shipping containers awaiting long-haul journeys over the Atlantic—not so much the foundation for a home or business. Then he remembered an experiment from his school days. “You put a small grain of salt on the end of a thread of cotton and dangle it into a saline solution,” Whitaker recalled. “Over the next few days, that grain of salt acts as a catalyst and draws the salt from the solution, growing a wonderful crystal.”
Ultimately that office was never built, but the analogy stuck: Even the simplest structure can form the basis for an extraordinary project. Whitaker finally realized this concept with Starburst House in California’s Joshua Tree National Park—a testament to the possibilities of thoughtfully designed shipping-container homes.
Here, some of our favorite projects that show how a shipping container can serve as the small grains for a sustainable, eco-friendly dream home—from multi-resident container buildings to a DIY tiny house in the middle of the mountains.
The Pacific Bin — Devon Loerop
Built from five shipping containers, the Pacific Bin is a shipping-container house situated in the forests of the Cascade Mountains, just an hour from Seattle. Devon Loerop, who designed the vacation home with his mom, Tammi Loerop, explained that their goal was to create an experiential-based rental home that allowed guests to unplug from their busy lives and connect with friends and family in a peaceful environment.
Using five shipping containers, they were able to accomplish their goal of incorporating nature into the design, with soaring picture windows in each room, while keeping the container home cost to a minimum.
Container Studio — Maziar Behrooz, MB Architecture
A studio in the woods on the East End of Long Island, the award-winning Container Studio features 900 square feet of sun-drenched space and a double-height ceiling. While the Hamptons enjoy a swelling population of seasonal residents, many of whom live in palatial mansions, the Container Studio was built for an artist looking for a compact creative space close to her Hamptons home.
Combining functionality and design, MB Architecture utilized two shipping containers (for $2,500 each), perched over a nine-foot foundation cellar. The result is an airy, dreamy studio at a fraction of the price of a traditional house.
Starburst House — Whitaker Studio
Situated on a 10-acre plot of land in Joshua Tree National Park, the Starburst House is a custom container home nestled into the rocky mountainside. Formed out of 21 shipping containers, the three-bedroom home features 2,000 square feet, including a spacious kitchen and a living room.
Whitaker oriented each container to enhance the views across the landscape, adjust the intensity of light entering the house, and provide the residents with some privacy. Boosting the eco-friendy vibe, a carport roofed in solar panels serves as the house power supply.
Casa Oruga (Caterpillar House) — Sebastián Irarrázaval
In the foothills of the Andes Mountains, outside Santiago, Chile, Casa Oruga is a modern home that demonstrates the possibilities of combining design-forward architecture and economical shipping containers.
Built by architect Sebastián Irarrázaval, the 3,700-square-foot home is beautifully integrated into the rugged natural landscape, where, importantly, local regulations prohibit buildings above 1,000 meters. Made from 12 shipping containers, including one open-top container for a small swimming pool, the interior is expansive, industrial, and light-filled, with sweeping views of the surrounding slopes.
Måns Tham Container Home — Måns Tham Arkitektkontor
On a lake outside Stockholm, Swedish architect Måns Tham constructed an off-the-grid, industrial-chic home using eight recycled shipping containers, removing the walls between containers to maximize the living spaces. With an upper level larger than the entrance level, the structure corresponds with the V-shaped natural canyon of the site. The interior is likewise sustainable, featuring salvaged parts like timber planks, metal boards, and staircases.
C-Home Hudson — LOT-EK
Located in Claverack, just outside the bedroom community of Hudson, New York, C-Home Hudson is a pre-fabricated, high quality modular home made from six upcycled 40-foot shipping containers. With over 1,920 square feet of space, the single-family home features an open layout with a living room, dining room, and kitchen on the ground level, and two-bedroom suites on the level above, each accessible by its own staircase and with a full bathroom and walk-in closet.
Large glass walls provide cross-light and ventilation, with large decks to expand the open living space into the natural surroundings.
Virginie Stolz, cofounder and CEO of c-Home USA, the New York architecture and design studio that built C-Home modules, explained that C-Home modules are made to provide strength, durability, and a modern industrial aesthetic. As they’re prefabricated and ready to move in, a new home can be ready in half the time compared to normal construction methods.
The Hilda L. Solis Care First Village — NAC Architecture.
In downtown Los Angeles, architecture firms NAC Architecture and Bernards constructed an environmentally friendly residential complex to provide housing for the city’s growing population of people experiencing homelessness. Using locally sourced, repurposed building materials, the entire project was completed in just six months.
It features 132 permanent container homes and and 100 temporary units with a full private bathroom for each resident. The Village includes a common building with a commercial kitchen, dining area, laundry facilities, and administrative spaces, as well as landscaped courtyards, a dog park, and parking spots for staff and residents. It’s an impressive example of how shipping containers can form the basis for multifamily homes and complexes.
The Scenic Orchard — Emily & Gabriel Broomfield
In the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, siblings Emily and Gabriel Broomfield transformed a used shipping container, formerly dedicated to storing lawn equipment, into a cozy, modern tiny home. With floor-to-ceiling windows, guests of the Scenic Orchard feel connected to the surrounding trees and rolling hills. The Broomfields extended the living space of the property with an outdoor patio replete with a hot tub and custom gas fire pit.
Squirrel Park — Allford Hall Monaghan Morris
Built by Smith Design Company, with a home design by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, Squirrel Park is comprised of four single-family homes—all made from modified shipping containers. Each home offers around 1,400 square feet of living space. The sunny, minimalist interiors, with light wood floors and paneled walls, create a playful contrast with the modern, industrial-exterior aesthetic. Said Wade Scaramucci, director of AHMM’s Oklahoma City office, “We found the most honest aesthetic was combining a mixture of things we could find off the shelf—such as millwork, linings, and flooring—while also celebrating the container’s industrial past.”
FAQs: How long do shipping-container homes last?
Melissa McFadgen, principal architect at NAC Architecture, estimates 25 to 50 years. “A life span of a shipping container used for cargo at sea can be 10 to 12 years. Consider that, at sea, the shipping containers are subjected to the harshest conditions of the elements and use. When maintained and implemented properly, the life span can be extended significantly.”
Overall the life span depends on the environment they’re in and how well they’re maintained. Explained Whitaker, “The Forth Bridge in Scotland is made out of steel and still working 134 years after completion.”
Wade Scaramucci, director of AHMM’s Oklahoma City office, said, “I’d expect them to last indefinitely, as long as usual building maintenance is performed. Given the containers have already been around the world a few times, they are already on their second life.”
What are the drawbacks to shipping-container homes?
The size of container structures is the most obvious drawback. “A shipping container is typically quite narrow, eight feet—not a great size for living in,” said Whitaker. “People sometimes get around this by putting containers next to each other, but then there is [the issue of] how to join them.”
McFadgen noted that there can be logistical challenges. “The base shipping container module is not conceived with the need of running electrical or plumbing infrastructure within and between units,” she said.
Scaramucci added, “There is also some rigor required to make the most of the container structural system, in order to keep them cost-effective.”
Do container homes get hot?
Not necessarily. Says Whitaker, “There’s no real reason why they should get hotter than any other building if properly insulated and ventilated. If attention isn’t paid to the local climate, and the design tailored accordingly, then a container is as susceptible to overheating or cooling, just as any other building.”
McFadgen echoed that sentiment and explained how they improved the heating/cooling performance in their shipping container village. “In the Hilda L. Solis Care First Village, we chose to use an exterior circulation system that shielded much of the units from direct solar heat gain and promoted interactions between the residents.”
Is it really cheaper to build a shipping-container home?
In terms of materials, a shipping-container house can be similar in price to a traditional home, considering all the customization needed to make it liveable. That said, there are some economic advantages.
Explained McFadgen, “The real cost advantage of modular systems is in the pace of construction where on-site mobilization time can be minimized. There are situations where on-site time can be very costly, on tight sites where logistics are challenging or where project sequencing is excessively complex. Modular construction has the benefit of the site development and the modular construction happening simultaneously versus one following the other like the typical construction sequence.”