Sustainable Designs Using Shipping Containers
Aug 2020

Sustainable Designs Using Shipping Containers

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You never know what new design or architectural fads will strike next. A major influence in home and building design today is green innovations. Sustainable materials, fewer chemicals, buying local, and upcycling are all major trends that savvy home buyers look for today. As a result, home builders and architects have expanded their ideas for more outside-of-the-box thinking to appease their demanding eco-warrior clients. However, one of the fastest rising trends seems to be focusing on inside-the-box thinking, or more specifically, inside the crate.

Shipping containers have become the new approach to modular home building. Although it started way back in 1987, when the idea was patented by Phillip Clark, it has only recently caught on. Today, shipping container modifications are gaining popularity as a home building material and as commercial spaces around the world, including the trendy new Stackt Market in Toronto at Front and Bathurst. Here’s how sustainable designs using shipping containers work.

What are shipping containers?

You have probably seen shipping containers stacked on trains on their way to or from the docks in Canada. They are rectangular steel “crates” that average about 20 feet by 8 feet or 40 feet by 8 feet. Each container typically provides about 160 square feet to 320 square feet of living space with a ceiling height between 8.5 and 9.5 feet high.

Shipping Container Architecture

Shipping containers are green, sustainable building materials. As an actual form of modular building, the size allows containers to be used like massive Lego bricks. Builders can connect and stack them or use them as a standalone structure to create tiny homes or commercial spaces. As a result, they can often be built more quickly than traditional “stick-built” homes. These innovative architectural designs put the discarded steel to good use, saving it from landfill sites. The exceptionally durable material offers an almost ready-made structure that provides an ideal home building base and helps reduce demand on other building materials (such as bricks or wood) that may harm the environment. However, there are several steps to modify them, including dealing with potential issues such as toxic chemicals and poor insulation. The containers chosen for building are in optimum condition, free of dents and rust to ensure longer life and safety. Any dangerous substances are removed, including the wood flooring, and a non-toxic seal is applied to prevent any volatile chemicals from releasing into the air.

How Containers Transform into Habitable Space

There are a variety of approaches taken by builders. This can depend on their own building philosophy, but is often driven by specific client requests. Although there are a growing number of pre-built designs available for the shipping container home or commercial space, many tend to be customized. Because most clients are green-minded, they want their builders to incorporate as many eco-friendly materials and options as possible. The two most important steps of a container transformation are:

  1. Insulation:

    Because steel conducts heat, it can be quite uncomfortable without proper insulation. While many builders prefer spray foam insulation to fill the unusual grooved walls and effectively adhere to the steel, the eco-savvy client is not as keen on this approach. This is because spray foam uses polyurethane, which can off-gas toxic chemicals. As a result, there are some interesting alternatives, including straw bales. The bales are added to the exterior of the home using an ancient construction process. It uses an additional, recyclable material that would otherwise have to be burned or left to rot in the fields. Straw bales have R-values of up to R-35, which means it makes good sense overall as an insulating material. Builders add a small stem wall to protect the straw from the elements. The straw is plastered to avoid moisture accumulation. Another good thing about this option is it doesn’t take up space on the interior of the home, as all the work is done as an outer layer.

  2. Roofing:

    While the steel’s outer layer can suffice as a roof, it does require insulation below just like the walls. The outer steel is exceptionally durable and impermeable, keeping out the rain and snow. It is more waterproof compared to the plywood usually used for traditional home building. An extremely popular choice for the eco-friendly homeowner is adding a green or living roof. It not only looks wonderful but also is an excellent insulating method. Because flat roofs aren’t ideal in areas with snow, a small layer of rigid insulation with a pitch allows water to drain safely. For living roofs, a waterproof membrane is used as well as a growing medium encased by steel bars. This keeps the soil in place even if there are heavy rainstorms. People with living roofs grow all types of plant life, from grass to flowers and smaller bushes to whole vegetable gardens. Shipping container roofs make excellent rooftop decks.

Shipping Container Home Exteriors

Curb appeal is just as important for a shipping container home as any other home. That leaves many options open for exterior home finishes. Some of the most popular options include:

  • Enhancing the steel finish:

    For a more industrial modern look, many designers choose to use the steel siding as-is. However, it can then be enhanced using modern steel siding to add a more industrial look to the home. This can add more texture and colour contrast to create a unique look.

  • Traditional look:

    Using traditional sidings such as vinyl or aluminum offers a more “homey” look that helps the home blend into the neighbourhood.

  • Rustic:

    Wood pine or cedar cladding is very popular to create a rustic cabin look.

  • Sleek cedar:

    Painting the original exposed steel in sleek, deep colours such as black or grey combined with cedar siding creates an edgier look. This is a popular look used in contemporary home exteriors that works very well on a shipping container home.

  • More glass:

    Adding an entire wall of windows and sliding glass doors brings in more light to the home while providing more privacy on one side of the house. It’s also ultra-slick and modern while being more eco-friendly thanks to all the natural light.

Combinations of any of these finishes create a highly customized look.

The shipping container craze is not only suited to tiny homes but can be used to create any sized structure. Interesting mixtures of different sized containers, or using containers in combination with traditional builds is also possible. Shipping containers also make awesome outbuildings such as cottage bunkies, guest rooms, and home offices.

For more information on shipping container modifications, speak to our team at Sigma Container Corporation today.

Tom Bray is a freelance writer with over five years experience writing for online publications and over ten years in business and sales. He studied journalism and media and has written for various online outlets on multiple topics. His specialty subjects are shipping containers and transport logistics.

Tom’s passion for writing and transport logistics motivates him to provide frequent direct marketing content that can show you how a shipping container can be effectively utilized and modified to each person’s needs.

You can connect with Tom via email at