Shipping Container Cabin – Is it a good idea?

The world of home and cabin building has evolved a lot since the frontier days.  It used to be that cabins were typically log building built with simple tools by everyday folks on the frontier.  Now, cabins can be anything from a small log home in the woods to an extravagant vacation home on the lake.

These days, there are many options for how to build your cabin.  Log cabins are still really popular, and they’re getting bigger and fancier all the time.  But people are also building cabins out of lots of other materials.  From traditional construction methods using stud framing and wood sheeting to eco-friendly methods using natural products including even dirt and grass, cabin construction materials have branched out considerably.  One interesting method of cabin construction in recent years the use of shipping containers to build modular cabins.  Do shipping containers make for good cabins?  I think they do, and here’s why. 

Cabin Security

It’s hard to build out of tougher material than solid steel.

These containers are made to withstand a real beating.  The only way in or out of these shipping containers is through any doors or windows you put in them.  You’re not dealing with thin plywood and drywall.  Your walls are made of steel.  Because of that, they’re easy and inexpensive to secure.

If you want some ideas for cabin security, you can check out my article here.

Eco Friendliness

Using shipping containers as a construction material is actually really eco friendly.  In fact, a poll done by found that eco friendliness is the number 2 reason that people use shipping containers to build homes.  Number 1 was cost which we’ll talk about in a minute.

There are a lot of shipping containers in the world.  In fact, the number of shipping containers out there is approaching 20 million.  And almost 2/3 of them aren’t being used.  That’s a lot of trash!

A standard shipping container contains almost 4 tons of steel (about 3500 kg) that will just go to waste if not recycled or reused.  Recycling processes use a lot of energy which typically means burning fuel.  It’s also really expensive which is why companies just let these containers sit idle instead of recycling them.  The best way to handle these excess shipping containers, is to reuse them for something.  Well, cabin building is one great use for these excess retired shipping containers.

Total Cost

Shipping container cabins aren’t always cheap to build, but they’re usually a lot less expensive than building a comparable cabin through some other means.

The shipping container itself will cost you anywhere from $1,500 to $8,000 depending on its condition.  Even if you’re using a builder to modify the container and turn it into a cabin for you, the total cost of a nice shipping container cabin can be easily kept under $40,000.  It would be really tough to build much of a cabin for $40,000 unless you do it yourself using materials from the cabin site.  And then you’re looking at a long build time.

And if you’re using contractors to build your cabin, the cost can be substantial just go get the builder and their equipment to a remote cabin site to do the work.  With a shipping container cabin, you don’t have to do that.  You can bring the shipping container to them and then just place it at the cabin site when it’s all done.  Which brings me to my next point.

Off-site Construction

One of the really neat aspects of shipping container construction for cabins is that most of the construction work can be done off-site.  Moving a shipping container isn’t that complicated.  We do it every day…  Plus, you’re going to have to use a truck to deliver the shipping container to your cabin site at some point anyway.  You might as well do all your construction work first so you don’t have to worry about construction work at the cabin site.

Another cool thing about shipping container cabins is that they can be used to build large modular cabins.  By modular, I mean that you can have multiple containers built separately they you’ll assemble on site and that will fit together nicely.  So you don’t have to limit yourself to a single container.  You can build your cabin in sections that will all be connected together when you deliver them to your cabin site.

Quick Build Time

With shipping container cabins, the structure of the cabin comes prebuilt.  The amount of construction work involved in converting a shipping container into a cabin depends entirely on what you want.

The basic work needed is stuff like cutting a door and windows into the container.  There will be some framing work needed for the door and windows.  But beyond that you can customize it however you want.  You just won’t have to wait through the long periods of building the actual structure like you would at a cabin.

Another thing that speeds up the build time is that you can pour a foundation while you’re building the rest of the cabin.  If you’re building off-site, then you don’t have to wait to excavate, pour, and cure your foundation before beginning any other work.  You can have your cabin completely constructed while doing the site prep and foundation work.

All of this speeds up the process of construction dramatically.

That said, if you want to do a lot of exterior customization to make your shipping container cabin look like something other than a shipping container, that work will need to be done on-site and after the foundation is poured and the container set in place.  However, you’ll be able to start using the shipping container cabin to stay in very quickly compared to the time-frame required for building at a cabin.

Virtually Indestructible

If you want a cabin that will last longer than you will without tons of maintenance and repairs, a shipping container cabin is a great way to go.

Shipping containers are built to withstand all sorts of conditions.  As a structure, they’re earthquake, fire, tornado, and hurricane resistant.  And as far as lifespan goes, shipping containers can very easily outlast the 50-year lifespan that our building codes are written for today.

Some people are even using shipping containers for underground bunkers.  We’re not talking about bunkers and emergency preparedness here.  However, placing one container below ground as a basement for your shipping container cabin can be a good idea.  It will give you a very well-protected place to go in the event of bad weather or other adverse conditions.

Low Utility Cost and Usage

With some insulation and good windows, your shipping container can actually save you money on your utilities.  If you use a good, high quality insulation for your shipping container cabin, you should be able to maintain it at a consistent temperature pretty easily because of its size and layout.  That means you won’t have to do much heating and cooling, which are some of the biggest consumers of power.

You could do the same in any other cabin, but the cost would be much greater.  Insulating a larger cabin or house using high-quality insulation gets pricey, and if you have tall ceilings you get large open spaces that increase your heating and cooling costs.  That’s why you can minimize your power consumptions pretty easily without a ton of building expense with shipping container cabins.

Some Things to Keep in Mind

Building Codes and Permitting

Your shipping container cabin will be subject to all of the same building permitting as any other cabin in your area.  So before you begin buying any materials for your shipping container cabin, make sure you reach out to your county office.  They are the ones that can give you approval to build your cabin out of shipping containers.  In most cases, shipping containers exceed the local building code requirements.  But you may have to convince your county of that.  Fortunately, there is beginning to be a precedent for shipping container building.  You can definitely get some great examples to provide if needed.

Getting a shipping container to your cabin site

Before you start making plans to build a shipping container cabin at your property, make sure that you can actually get one to your cabin site.  There’s a bit that goes into getting a shipping container there.  Specifically, a semi truck is going to need to be able to haul the container to the location.  If the roads leading to your property aren’t adequate for this type of truck, you may not be able to get your cabin to your site.  Likewise, if your cabin site is in the middle of a 20-acre forest without good access from the road, it’ll be tough to deliver your shipping container cabin.

Use a contractor with experience

Building a cabin out of a shipping container has some different considerations than building using traditional methods.  If you can find one, it’s best to use a contractor that has experience building shipping container homes.  If you can’t find one in your area, just make sure you feel confident in your contractor’s ability to work with steel as well as other more traditional building materials.


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