Over the years I have read many articles and forum posts about shipping containers; how people want to use them or have tried to use them, what has worked and what hasn’t. It’s a topic that interests me for a few reasons, some of which I’ll cover below.
Shipping containers come in two sizes; 8’x20’ and 8’ by 40’. You can buy them new or used. Many of the used containers have been on ships sailing the ocean and are exposed to salt water, which means they may have rust. The US has an abundance of these. In the CNN video below, the reporter says we received 7 million containers into America, carrying goods, but only 2.5 million left, exporting goods. This means there is a huge amount of these things available. Most are near shipping ports, but many make their way inland via trains. Some businesses have sprung up due to the popularity of them.
They can be used for everything from a shed, essentially placed on property and left alone, to offices or emergency shelters during a hurricane or other natural disaster. They have also been used to make multi-level homes and even fallout shelters.
Building With Containers
There are several companies that will sell you a prefab house, or even build one for you out of containers. I list some below and almost all of them want your e-mail or phone number before you can get a quote. The pluses to building with shipping containers is that they are fire and mold resistant. You can be very creative in your designs, as you can see in Amazing Homes and Offices Built from Shipping Containers, which has roughly 46 pictures of some very cool and unique housing designs. 9 Cutting-Edge Modular Homes has 9 more designs. Just do a Google image search for cargo container homes and you’ll be amazed.
I have seen several projects that other prepper’s have done with shipping containers. This video is of a group that built a large shelter with two 40’ containers on each side and a large open middle space. They added a roof, which they will use for rain catchment.
Here is another video where they are using a 20’ container as an underground shelter. I have some concerns about the weight of the concrete which I’ll cover later. A warning on the video: the music is horrible in my opinion. You’ve been warned.
Since these types of structures are fairly new, many municipalities don’t really know what to do as far as building codes go, so I would look at your local zoning laws and talk to local officials. I have read that if you put in concrete footings and set the container on them, it may not be viewed as a permanent structure and can bypass some zoning restrictions and even taxes in some cases. Again, talk to your local officials! (Or completely pretend they don’t exist. It’s your call. Just sayin.)
This is one of the most often mentioned projects that I have seen on prepper forums. It can be done, but there are some things to keep in mind. Jack Spirko from The Survival Podcast did an excellent interview with a man who has done this. The interview is called Episode-560- Shipping Container Construction – The Good, Bad & Ugly.
For those of you who don’t listen to podcasts, if this subject interests you, I recommend you make an exception. One of the things they cover is the problem of weight on top of the container. You see, these containers are built to be stacked, on one top of the other. All the weight bearing is on the corners and the sides, not on the top. If memory serves, it takes 12“ of concrete and 3‘ of earth to stop radiation. Putting that much weight on top of a cargo container without reinforcing the inside walls and ceiling could likely cause it to collapse. In the Podcast, they explain how this is done, so I’m not going to cover it here. Another option with the concrete is to extend the concrete 2’ wider on each side. This should help displace some of the weight to the earth.
Another problem is water. These containers are made of steel and unless you do something to protect the metal, it will rust through over time. The way “Mike” from the interview said to approach this was to use a roll of EDPM rubber coating, overlapping by 6”. EDPM is the stuff that big stores with flat roofs use to coat the roof to waterproof them. He said to use a roll, but it looks like there is also a liquid rubber version of it as well. I’m not sure which option would be better. This is an expensive route, but if you’re trusting your life to it, the expense is justified to me.
He also said to place rough gravel under the container as well. He mentions also adding 6” of gravel to the sides. This would help with drainage as well as his main reason for it, which is keeping any creatures from chewing through the EDPM and exposing the bare metal to the soil, as once a creature hits the rocky gravel they’ll stop chewing.
You also need to keep the water table in mind. You don’t want to spend the time digging this huge hole to find you’re a foot below the waterline.
There are other topics explored, such as drainage and using a sump pump, and air filtration, but I’ll leave those for the podcast.
Shipping Container as a Shed
I have a couple different ideas on this, depending on if you want it seen or not. If you have a BOL (Bug Out Location) that is just raw land, having a 20’ by 8’ container could hold a lot of emergency preps. Having it out in the open, with no one to keep an eye on it, could be asking for Joe Dirtbag to break in to see what’s inside. I think if you wanted to hide this, one could dig a hole, say 6 or so feet deep and 22’ wide. Put rough gravel or something similar on the bottom to help with drainage, placing multiple concrete forms to keep the container above the trap rock by six inches or so.
Some of the container may show above ground. Use the same methods as above, using EDPM to protect it from moisture, burying it with only a foot or so of dirt on top of the container. This would greatly reduce the weight on the container, though adding some supports is still a good idea. Now plant whatever local vegetation is around to camouflage it. You’ll need to leave access to the door, but those could be hidden with some bushes that wouldn’t look out of place.
If you want to use it on land that you live on, I would say to add a roof of some kind to protect it and add a rain catchment system to it as well.
Some final thoughts
If I ever get to buy the acreage I dream of, I would like to set up a couple of storage containers and bunk houses for guests. I’d like to possibly have one buried as a storm shelter/storage. I also like the idea of putting them on concrete forms. That way it would be easier to make them mobile if needed.
Cost isn’t mentioned on most sites. I’ll list the sites below. They want your information to give you a quote. For a bare bones shipping container, I would expect to pay a minimum $2500 for a 8’x20’, and up to $5000, depending on quality. You also need to consider delivery and installation, especially if you’re burying it.
Shipping Container Resources
I have a bunch of resources. Some are companies that sell fully designed units and some sell just the containers. Others sell design plans. There are a few other resources listed as well. I looked through all of them, more to get an idea of what was possible. I’m pretty impressed with what some of these people have done.
Here is an article on Bob Vila’s site called Home Sweet Container, Steel shipping container homes are strong, safe, and eco-friendly.
Here are some sites that sell fully developed containers. Again, you’ll need to give them your info to get a quote but they’re good for ideas if nothing else.
Container Home Consultants is a blog on the subject. It looks like they may sell some plans and an eBook, but there are many free articles.
Here are a few companies that sell prebuild systems:
Here are two sites that just sell empty shipping containers:
Here are two sites that just sell plans:
I realize that this article has just scratched the surface but hopefully you walk away seeing more possibilities for shelter or storage.