Shipping Container Homes: How to Live Cheap & Chic - Republic of Green

Shipping Container Homes: How to Live Cheap & Chic

Live in a shipping container home? That’s not something your average person has ever considered doing. However, in San Francisco, the average price for a small, one-bedroom apartment is priced at almost $3,500 a month, and in general, the average cost of living in the city is over 60% higher than the national average. So, while the Bay Area certainly has several benefits and advantages, the cost of housing is often considered prohibitive unless you’re pulling in a six-figure salary. This has lead people to consider creative solutions such how to “upcycle” underutilized, inexpensive materials into actual living quarters. And some of these container homes are downright chic!

What Are Shipping Container Homes?

Our increasingly globalized economy depends on shipping goods around the world, and cargo ships by far move the largest amount of goods from one continent to the other. There are an estimated 17 million shipping containers in the world, and only 6-7 million of those are currently in use. That means that around 10 million shipping containers are sitting unused in docks around the world.

Back in 1987, a man named Phillip Clark filed a patent to turn used steel shipping containers into inhabitable areas. Since that time, thousands of people have upcycled used shipping containers into beautiful, modern homes. From multi-story mansions to tiny homes in the woods, shipping containers have been used to design a wide variety of different housing alternatives in all different types of climates.

Benefits of Living in a Container Home

There are several environmental and economic advantages associated with shipping container homes. Below, we look at some of the most obvious benefits.

  • Each shipping container recycles over 7,000 pounds of steel that might have ended up in a landfill or rotting away at some abandoned port. Furthermore, by upcycling used shipping containers for a home, we obviously use much less lumber, cement, brick, and other building materials that would otherwise have been necessary for the construction of a home.
  • Shipping container homes are also generally much less expensive than traditionally built homes. Two 40-foot shipping containers would give you around 600 square feet of interior space, and the shipping containers themselves usually cost between $1,000 and $5,000 dollars, depending on how old they are and the shape that they´re in. While it can be expensive to ship empty containers across the country, in the San Francisco area, shipping costs are drastically reduced due to the proximity to nearby ports. You can find a complete list of different companies in the Bay area who sell used shipping containers here.
  • Lastly, shipping container homes can be quickly built, and thus offer a relatively inexpensive and environmentally friendly housing alternative that can often be constructed in only a few weeks’ time. In one city in Amsterdam, over 250 college dorms rooms or residences were built on a university campus from used shipping containers in under four months.
Shipping Container Home

Sierra Nevada 1 Bedroom Container Home With Covered Deck by Simple Terra. Price: Under $40,000.

How Much Do Shipping Container Homes Cost?

While you could potentially find a couple of used shipping containers for under $5,000 dollars, there is a lot more work (and expense) associated with converting shipping containers into livable spaces. You will have to put the shipping containers on a foundation, install insulation and utilities, incorporate walls and a roof, along with other interior design work.

One website estimates that if you contracted all of the work out to a professional contractor with experience in adapting shipping container homes, you could expect to spend around $15,000 dollars.

In the Bay Area, Boxhouse* was a company that specialized in transforming some of the more than 2 million shipping containers that flow through the Port of Oakland each year into livable dwellings for local residents. For people who are into DIY projects, they sold a barebones shipping container model for just $9,000 dollars. This model included the container itself along with the window and door cut out and framed, exterior paint, insulation for the walls, floor and ceiling and 2×4 framing. With a little bit of work, you could have a simple shipping container home for under $10,000 dollars.

Even if you are not good with a hammer and want to purchase a completely finished shipping container home, Boxhouse also offered a “luxury” model for just under $50,000 dollars. The “boxouse deluxe” included 1kw of solar power, an integrated trailer, voice controlled devices, windows that transform from transparent to opaque, remote controlled projector screen/ room divide, automatic utility servicing, and an interior design that included a kitchenette, shower, and bedroom. With the average home price in the Oakland area over $750,000 dollars, shipping container homes are certainly some of the most affordable housing options available.

Where Can You Put a Container Home in the Bay Area?

As with tiny homes, one of the biggest challenges associated with container homes in the Bay Area is related to where to put them. There are several zoning laws and other housing ordinances that make it difficult for alternative housing strategies like shipping container homes to thrive.

If you want to rent a shipping container home before actually purchasing and remodeling one of your own, you might be able to find a spot at “Containertopia” a small village of shipping container homes in Oakland. Rent is only $600 dollars a month.

While the Bay area generally does not have zoning laws that are friendly towards shipping container homes, there are examples of the local housing commissions granting permission for shipping container homes. As shipping container homes become more mainstream as an affordable and green housing alternative, zoning laws should become more accepting and tolerant.

While you could try to build a small shipping container home and hope not to be caught, you can find a good introduction to state building codes and shipping container construction here.

Shipping Container Home Builders in the Bay Area

Here are some of the local contractors and builders offer shipping container homes in the Bay Area.

  • Urban Bloc: This company has built several shipping container homes and businesses in the Bay area, including Red Bay Coffee Shop in Oakland and Humphry Slocombe Shipping Container Ice Cream store.
  • Taynr: In nearby Sacramento, Taynr designs and builds studios, single family, multi-family and even commercial buildings out of used shipping containers.
  • Honomobo: This company operates throughout much of the western part of the United States and has a wide variety of modular home designs built from used shipping containers.

* Update: Boxouse, unfortunately, has closed its doors.

More Reading On Alternative Housing:


Top Image Credit: Gosselin Group. Shipping Container Home designed by architect Adam Kalkin.

Tobias Roberts

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