What's New in City Design

Shipping Containers as Buildings

As interest in repurposing shipping (or cargo) containers for buildings, housing and other uses  grows, cities are developing new regulations for reuse and siting.

Benefits & Problems Addressed

Recycling & repurposing: Large, steel containers provide a sturdy, simple shell that is readily adaptable to a variety of uses & perform well under extreme weather conditions (earthquakes, hurricanes). Because they are shells, users can readily outfit with sustainable energy, water and HVAC systems. In some areas, rail cars are also of interest.

Modularity: Containers can be stacked and grouped in various ways for building design. They can also be reconfigured and adapted to changing demand since they need little foundation work.

Lower costs: Containers are low cost (between $1500 and $5000) and readily refurbished. 

Tips & Techniques

Getting started: Check your housing and building codes to see if containers are explicitly allowed or prohibited. Containers may be categorized as a building material rather than a pre-fabricated housing type.

Uses: Containers can be use for buildings (residential, small commercial), storage, playground shelters, camping cabins,  accessory or second dwelling units, pools. 

Where to buy containers: Containers are likely to be prevalent in cities with ports & intermodal freight operations. There is a growing list of companies specializing in procuring, retrofitting and delivering refurbished containers.

Zoning codes & regulations: Cities will look at the following for regulatory purposes: (1) Location in Commercial or Residential districts (where there are higher standards); (2) Load standards for structural integrity, including the state of welded edges that may be worn/weakened from use; (3) Exterior finishes that may preclude metal exteriors in residential areas; (4) Grading and site preparation for single story or stacked buildings; (5) Utilities & fire codes; (6)  Setbacks, including add-ons such as decks, porches and overhangs.

Hot Buttons: Residual solvents, pesticide and other toxic materials, cost and space for improvements, non-standard zoning and permitting, neighborhood pushback.


The Ultimate Guide to Shipping Container Homes: Home Tune-Up

Guidelines for Railroad Cars and Storage Containers Used as Buildings: Sacramento, CA US 

Image: Flickr/Angel Schatz