The hot trend of shipping container homes fulfills many design desires: living simply, lessening clutter, being environmentally conscious, building a home on a budget and the chance to do something totally modern and different that makes your neighbors’ jaws drop.

But there are other practical aspects to living in a shipping container home. Your house is fireproof and low maintenance. You can live in a container home almost anywhere, and lock it up when you’re away. Even better, smaller container homes can move with you. Shipping container homes can be modular: You can stack two or three or more as needed. 

The Previous Life of a Shipping Container Home

Shipping containers are made of steel and built to withstand weather, heavy stacking and ocean travel. While their lifespan can easily be 30 years, most shipping companies use them considerably less before putting them out to pasture. A typical shipping container work lifespan is 10 years or less.

Because of this, there are reportedly 30 million unused shipping containers sitting around. A decent one can be bought for as little as $2,000.

Shipping Container Home Plans

The standard container measure 8 feet wide and 8 feet 6 inches high, and comes in lengths of 20 or 40 feet. A third option, which may be harder to find, offers higher ceilings; it’s called the high cube. A high cube container measures 40 feet long and is 9 feet 6 inches high.

While a shipping container home plan of 150 square feet is really small, the beauty of working with storage containers is the ability to group them to create a bigger space. The 8747 House (above), overlooking the James River in Springfield, Mo., uses several cargo containers.

Shipping Container Home Challenges

Before you head out to buy a plot of land and build your dream container home, you’ll need to ask yourself the following questions to avoid potential issues.

Do I need a permit?

You will probably need several. Some areas don’t allow residential construction using shipping containers, so check with your local planning department first.

What is the weather like where I want to build?

Insulating a shipping container can be tricky. Bigger issues include extreme weather changes that can lead to interior moisture condensation, and windy areas that can create noise problems.

How am I going to get the container onto the property?

An empty 20-foot container can weigh almost 5,000 pounds. You’ll probably need to have it delivered. Make sure a large truck can enter your property easily and place it on site,or you’ll have to deal with very expensive cranes to lift the container into place.

What was the previous life of the container?

Buyer beware: The contents of many containers are often sprayed with pesticides for ocean travel. Worse, some shipping containers for sale previously transported toxic chemicals that will ruin your chances of creating a green home. Do your research on the previous life of the shipping container you’re choosing.

Will I need an architect or engineer?

If you’re making cuts and major changes to your container, it’s probably a good idea to consult with experts. The long, vertical walls on a container are load bearing and will need reinforcement if cut out for windows or doors. Planning for electrical and plumbing requires professionals, especially to pass permit and planning requirements.

If this all sounds too complicated, go with a prefabricated storage container home. Several companies create prefab storage container homes for all budgets. HyBrid Architecture offers prefab container homes starting at $29,500. The c192 Nomad model above has a base price of $59,500; it’s made from a 24-foot container and has 192 square feet of living space.

While the thought of living in a cargo container house sounds great, certain creature comforts are necessary to make it worthwhile. After all, the goal of a container home is not to make the owner feel like a stowaway in a box.

Here are some shipping container homes that are well designed and comfortable enough to feel more like a home and less like — well, a shipping container. Some ignore the concept of simple, small living by going over the top, but they’re stunning and innovative enough to be worth a look.

Studio Arte Nomad Living, Portugal

Studio Arte creates small container homes as perfect weekend getaways or guesthouses. The interiors are modern and vibrant. Plenty of windows and sliders are incorporated to expand the space to the outdoors.

Cargo Container House, California

Set in a beautiful forest setting, this project, designed by Modulus, cost about $250,000 and used six stacked cargo containers. The feeling is more treehouse than shipping container.

Modern Shipping Container Cabin, Colorado

This stunning home by Tomecek Studio goes well beyond a cabin. It houses two bedrooms, two baths and separate guest quarters using a total of seven containers.

Weekend Surf Shack, New Zealand

MRTN Architects designed this container house to be a vacation home that takes advantage of the outdoors. Almost entirely off the grid, the roof is designed to be a water-collection system.

Viña del Mar Apartments, Chile

The firm James and Mau is well known for its innovative container homes. This apartment project is built on a terraced hillside overlooking the city and coast of Viña del Mar. Each apartment has its own outdoor living area with integrated cargo containers as part of the floor plan.

Container Guest House, Texas

This backyard guesthouse by Poteet Architects uses a 40-foot-long container offering 320 square feet of groovy interior space, including a wet bar and bathroom.

Casa Incubo, Costa Rica

This 4,300-square-foot home and work space is made from eight containers. Maria Jose Trejos designed the space to maximize natural air ventilation and light, with windows and skylights throughout to reduce the use of electricity.

Maison Conteneur, Canada

What makes this container home by Collections Dubreuil most spectacular are the interiors. The corrugated steel walls remind you that you’re in a container, but the house is designed to be as luxurious as a standard home.

Wood panels add a rustic look to the second level of the home. The homeowner can enjoy a soak in the freestanding bathtub with the custom glass garage doors open to bring the outdoors in.

Jaora Shipping Container House, Australia

This ambitious home by Ziegler Build took 31 shipping containers to build and has more than 6,000 square feet of living space. The master bath above is housed in a container of its own.

Home Contained, Missouri

Debbie Glassberg says she sees homes where others see containers. She built this home from five containers; it has 2,600 square feet of retro-modern design, including environmentally conscious options such as geothermal heating, plant foam insulation, solar power and a green rooftop.

Art Studio, New York

Conceived by architect Maziar Behrooz for a client who wanted an art studio for under $60,000, the minimalist space was built from two 40-foot containers that cost $2,500 each, delivered. The split-level studio is bright and spacious at 840 square feet.

Caterpillar House, Chile

It’s hard to believe that such an iconic, contemporary house by Sebastian Irarrazaval was built from 12 containers in order to stick to a reasonable budget. The home’s interiors and views overlooking the city of Santiago feels like a million bucks.

Containers of Hope, Costa Rica

This shipping container home was built out of two containers for $40,000 with enough room (1,000 square feet) for the family that commissioned Benjamin Garcia Saxe to build it. The architect hopes to expand his affordable container living project to other parts of the world.

Which shipping container house would you live in?