How to Modify a Shipping Container

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Building with shipping containers can be a fast, economical solution to housing problems.
Building with shipping containers can be a fast, economical solution to housing problems. (Image: Felipe Dupouy/Lifesize/Getty Images)

Modifying a shipping container into a home can save you time, money and materials. When a standard ISO shipping container is used for purposes other than shipping, it is referred to as an ISBU (Intermodal Steel Building Unit). They can withstand weather of all types and are referred to as “the safest superstructure for a home, school, office, apartment, dormitory, storage unit or emergency shelter,” by Containerhomes-info.com. The Corten steel used to make them is stronger than regular steel, won’t rust or corrode, and is mold resistant. They are affordable, versatile, help to reduce your carbon footprint, and can be quickly constructed and easily relocated.

Things You'll Need

  • Shipping container
  • Heavy machinery for delivery and setup (bulldozer, crane, etc.)
  • Posthole diggers
  • Concrete
  • 12-inch diameter by 18-inch long (minimum) cylindrical concrete forms
  • 1/2-inch diameter by 6-inch long (minimum) bolts
  • Wrenches
  • Table saw
  • 1-inch plywood sheets
  • Chalk line
  • Angle grinder
  • 2-inch wide by 1/8-inch thick (minimum) steel angle for framing rough wall openings
  • Welder
  • Miter saw
  • Wood or metal 2- by 4-inch studs
  • Power drill
  • Screws
  • Wall covering material (gypsum board, FRP or similar)
  • Pre-hung doors and windows

Installation

Locate and purchase a new or used shipping container. Coordinate the delivery and equipment needed for setup as needed. Most sellers offer these services.

Build a foundation to keep the container approximately 6-inches above the ground to avoid moisture corrosion. You can do this by digging with posthole diggers, inserting forms and pouring concrete to create 12-inch diameter by 18-inch deep concrete piers with 1/2-inch embedded bolts extruding approximately two inches above the top. The piers must be installed at a uniform height and should be approximately 12 inches below the ground surface. Backfill dirt as needed when the concrete dries.

Use heavy machinery to move the container into location on top of the concrete piers, and secure nuts to the embedded bolts with wrenches.

Construction

Remove all existing paneling or flooring, then repair and clean the interior of the container as needed.

Use a table saw to cut one-inch plywood sheets as needed to create a new sub-floor on top of the existing metal floor frame.

Snap chalk lines on the wall panels at all new door and window locations.

Cut through the panels on these lines with the angle grinder. Smooth all edges as needed.

Cut steel angles to the desired length with miter saw and insert them into openings from the exterior side to create trim for the doors and windows.

Weld the steel angles into place to form a metal trim lip and frame around each rough opening.

Build walls inside of the container with studs. Cut the studs to desired length using a miter saw. Attach one stud to the floor and ceiling of each wall to create the top and bottom plates. Then, start in the corner and attach studs onto these plates and the wall panels with screws at 24-inch intervals. Frame jambs and headers around the wall openings as needed.

Install the pre-hung doors and windows into the framed wall openings.

Install all of the electrical receptacles, switches and wiring. Coordinate with an electrician if necessary.

Insulate all of the walls with fiberglass, rigid foam or spray-on expanding foam insulation.

Attach the dry wall, or other wall covering material, to the studs with screws. Install interior wall, ceiling and floor finishes as desired.

Tips & Warnings

  • Coordinate with local building authorities as needed.
  • Research available methods for creating a suitable foundation. Verify the dimensions and desired method for attaching the container to the foundation prior to starting construction.
  • Research available methods for interior wall construction, insulation and finishes. The most ideal combinations are well insulated for their particular environment and utilize the smallest amount of interior wall depth as possible.
  • Install an HVAC wall/window unit by creating an opening for it, framed similar to a window. Create bracing using steel angles welded onto the exterior as needed.
  • Weld aluminum sheets onto exterior surfaces and cover with a ceramic based insulating paint for increased thermal performance. The exterior can be finished in a wide variety of alternative materials.
  • Solar panels can be installed onto the roof as a green energy solution.
  • Exercise caution when working with heavy machinery and power tools.

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