Container House Design with Minimalist Grit - Part 1

Shipping containers belong in a dark, modern version of Dwell magazine featuring Frankenstein’s metro-modular castle. These corrugated units of space are all the rage in print, but they are underrepresented in reality. Point blank, there were no shipping container homes in the Oklahoma City metro in early 2014. That is when I received an email from a childhood friend.

He had heard that I was an architect practicing sustainable design and he wanted to team up to do something new. He had just returned to Oklahoma after living out west and in Asia for several years. Through his travels, he had learned a lot about living lightly and found that a minimalist lifestyle suited him well. He wanted some help designing a small house using recycled shipping containers as the main structure. Sounded interesting!

At the time there had been no other shipping container homes permitted by the Oklahoma City Planning Department. Being first is an adventure, but is kinda tough, since there were no examples nearby to research. We found inspiration online, and began capturing images and details to share. He had a strong start on this and a fundamental idea of his goals, which was very helpful. 


Pinterest is Champ for Container House Design Ideas

It was during this time I discovered that Pinterest is an invaluable tool for early design collaboration, especially for something as particular as shipping container houses. As part of the Pre-design Phase, before formal design work begins, I like to create a shared "board" with a new owner/client. Then, they and I can "pin" anything cool we see on Pinterest.

This shared board acts as a sort of “mood board”, giving me a glimpse into the project owner's particular tastes. It also serves as a point of departure for the design process, and we can talk through some of specific design examples we find. I also like to use Pinterest as a way to catalog design ideas that I want to pin for later reference. During this project, I established some new boards entitled Compact Living & Tiny House; Compact Interior Details, and probably some of the others I still refer to regularly.

Visit my Pinterest page and see my boards here. Please feel free to grab any pins that you like!  

Shipping Containers Do not Limit Imagination

Because of their utilitarian nature and basic form, shipping containers can make a wonderful house or just about anything. The best examples of shipping container architecture tend allow the exterior of the container to remain uncovered. They are designed to weather storms on the high seas, so design purists carefully integrate any exterior modifications to match the refined detail of the finished cubes. The most common modifications are typically windows, doors, exterior lighting, canopies, signs, and other functions critical to habitation. 

Photo credit: Glamour Schatz via / CC BY

Photo credit: 1ManekiNeko via / CC BY-ND

The dimensions of shipping containers (called "cubes" in the industry) are standardized so they can be stacked on ships. All shipping containers are 8'-0" wide. There are a couple options for both length and height. For this house we had to choose between 20'-0" and 40'-0" lengths, and  either an 8'-6" or 9'-6" height. 

The owner and I immediately agreed that the 9'-6" "high cube" type would be the best option for interior living space. The additional height would give us some flexibility for running interior systems like lighting and air-conditioning. It would give us more flexibility on insulating the space, as well. 

The first big decision was whether to use either the 20'-0" or 40'-0" length to design the home.

  • A 20' cube would provide about 140 square feet (SqFt) of finished space, after the walls were framed-out and insulated. Even with a sleeping loft - possible in the high-cube type, the owner and I agreed that he would need at least (2) of the 20'-0" containers.
  • A 40' cube would provide around 280 square feet of finished space. The owner decided that either option would be plenty of space for him. Now I needed to come up with a couple options to choose from. 

Initial Container Space Plan Concepts

With the options of either (2) 20'-0" containers or (1) 40' container, I began working through several options. My first thoughts were that the two smaller containers presented the most options for layouts on the site. Also, since they are a more manageable size, I had discovered that they might be able to be set on their foundations with a forklift.

The 40 foot option would require less modification, and perhaps be cheaper to finish overall. However, it would  also require a crane to set it in place.  

In addition to considering the pros and cons of these options, I needed to keep in mind that the owner wanted the house to have a large above-grade deck for the backyard space. This would mean that the container(s) would need to be elevated by at least 18 inches above grade.  

Below are the best options we put together for a (2) 20'-0" layout and (1) 40'-0" layout respectively.  

Option 1: 

This is the option for (2) 8'-0" x 20'-0" x 9'-6"H containers.

Option 2:

This is the option for (1) 8'-0" x 40'-0" x 9'-6"H containers.

Next time we will reflect on the notion of "rightsizing", discuss the building site chosen for the home, and dive into basic container modifications. 

Q: Both options above have advantages . Which one did you like best? 

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