The Truth Behind the Shipping Container Homes Craze

They’re sleek. They’re innovative. They’re metal. They’re eco-conscious and sustainable. Did we mention hip? It’s little wonder that shipping container homes have become a national obsession, threatening even to overtake traditional tiny homes in the hearts and imaginations of new homebuyers looking for something way out of the ordinary.

And best of all? They actually look easy to create. You’ve seen all of those seductive back-to-basics YouTube videos. You’ve watched a few heartwarming stories of simplified living on HGTV. Maybe, just maybe, you can build one of these babies yourself. Second home in the mountains, here we come!

But get ready for a truth bomb: It’s not as simple as it looks. You can’t just buy a shipping container, cut a window or two, and plop it down and start catching up on “Game of Thrones.” It’s a process. In fact, in almost all ways imaginable, it’s a job better left to the pros.,

So we found one to give us the real story behind the shipping container movement. Susan Fredman, chairman of Fredman Design Group and CEO of Stones Throw Builders, has designed over 40 homes — four using shipping containers — and has plans in the works for more.

Question: The home you designed in Union-Pier, MI, doesn’t look much like a shipping container at first or second glance. What was behind the idea for the design?

Susan Fredman: Typical shipping container homes can look foreign against the landscape. I own the property where the house sits and have built several other more traditional homes in the area. I wanted something that would blend well with the other homes, while still having that modern feel.

Q: Is there a secret to pulling that off?

SF: We used a combination of two shipping containers and traditional stick building. The shipping containers make up the kitchen, living, and dining room, side by side. The traditional building was done in the center.

Q: Why the center?

SF: You don’t have to do it that way, but it is the cheaper option. When you have a traditional foundation in the center, it is much easier (and cheaper) to run plumbing and electrical to the home.

Q: So you can’t just put a shipping container on a typical slab foundation?

SF: Oh no. There has to be foundation somewhere on the property. But there are plenty of options. We’ve put the shipping containers on piers. They’ll hold up for a long time — possibly forever — sitting like that.

Q: That sounds more complicated than the internet would lead us to believe.

SF: The first time I saw a shipping container design, I thought, “We’ve got to try this. Let’s see what we need to know to make this happen.” But none of it has really been what I would call easy. There’s a lot of learning that goes into building this way. It is a home, not a trailer. It is complicated.

Q: So it isn’t something anyone can just DIY?

SF: I wouldn’t recommend that. Right out of the gate every single part of it is heavy and awkward. You have to have a team of people and a heavy-duty crane just to move it around. And you can’t just cut into it. Everything has to be welded together. Definitely, a “do not try this at home.”

Q: Still, even if you’re going to have to hire a designer, shipping container homes are supposed to be cheaper to build than traditional homes, right?

SF: I disagree with that completely. Shipping container building is great for reducing waste and recycling material. That is what I’m in this for. But there is still a lot that goes into it.

Q: Speaking of that, where do you even find shipping containers? Does it matter which ones you use?

SF: We have a dealer in Chicago who sells us one-trip containers. We didn’t want to deal with them arriving broken or damaged. And too many trips means too many chances for not knowing what was in them. Multiple-use containers can be dented. The floors get stuff ground into them from the trips. We also look for “high boys.” They’re basically 9-foot-tall containers so we have a bit of extra ceiling space to work with.

Q: Can you paint the exterior of the container or add traditional drywall to the inside?

SF: You can, but we don’t. I leave them exposed with the original tagging and everything. You can see some of the shipping container inside the home, but I think it adds to the reduce and reuse feel of the thing.

Q: It looks great from the outside, but how does it feel being in the home? Does it ever get too cold or too loud?

SF: You would think so, but not at all. It is quiet and acoustically amazing. The house kind of holds you beautifully.

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