Lots of people come to our site and see shipping container homes and fall in love with how incredible they look and also how affordable they are. But one question normally lingers in the background of their thoughts- ‘Is living in a shipping container home safe?’.
I’ve received quite a few emails about this as well. People use the word safe in many different contexts. For instance, I get emails from mothers asking if a shipping container home is safe for her family to live in. I also get emails from people who want to build a shipping container cabin to use in the wilderness and want to know if it’s safe from people breaking into it…
So today we’re going to look at exactly how safe shipping container homes are and whether you should be thinking about living in one.
Question: Do Shipping Container’s Container Harmful Chemicals?
The most common safety question people ask is do shipping containers contain harmful chemicals? I think a lot of these concerns come from a well wrote article over at Arch Daily on the pros and cons of living in a shipping container home.
If you haven’t ready to article yet it’s well worth the read.
For those of you too busy to read it Brian highlights two key concerns:
- Wooden Floors used in the majority of shipping containers are treated with hazardous chemical such as pesticides (this keeps pests away).
- Some shipping containers are coated in paint which contains harmful chemicals such as phosphorous and chromate.
Now, Brain rightly raises these concerns however like most things there is more to this than first meets the eye.
If you are purchasing and building your home with new shipping containers, then you don’t need to worry about these concerns because you can specify to your manufacturer that they don’t treat the floors and don’t coat the shipping containers with hazardous paint. Simple.
However using new shipping containers to build your home increases the cost and also depletes the environmental kudos you were gaining through re-cycled used shipping containers.
So, we now need to address second hand shipping containers. If you purchase your containers second hand then there is a good chance that Brian’s concerns hold true for your containers. They will very likely have been treated with these harmful chemical, so we can you do about it?
Firstly, you can contact the original manufacture of the container and enquire whether the floors have been treated with hazardous chemicals. To do this you can use your shipping containers unique identification number to track who manufactured the container- more about this here.
If your flooring has been treated with hazardous chemicals what can you do?
Well we spoke with Larry from Sea Container Cabin who converted his used shipping containers back in 2010.
To protect himself from the chemicals sprayed on the wooden floor he used a non-breathable flooring underlayment (see below).
This underlayment was laid straight over the original wooden flooring and then Larry laid his titles on-top of the underlayment.
If you want to be completely sure, you could even remove the original wooden flooring and replace it with marine plywood from your local hardware store.
Remove Harmful Paint Coating
Now onto the harmful paint coating which is often used on second hand containers. This coating is used to protect the container from saltwater whilst they are in transit across the ocean. It’s vital for containers when they are being used to transport cargo- but obviously not great when we are using these containers to build homes.
Again the first thing to do is contact the manufacturer of your shipping container and find out exactly what paint has been used (more on that above).
If your containers have been coated with harmful chemicals you will need to use spray foam insulation. You would need to spray this foam insulation on the internal walls of your container and doing so will create a complete vapour barrier. This will prevent any lingering fumes from harmful chemicals oozing inside your new shipping container home!
Question: Are Shipping Container Homes Hurricane Proof?
I’ve received emails from several people who live in natural disaster hot spots asking me if shipping container homes can withstand hurricanes.
These questions are no doubt inspired from the photo’s we has seen of hurricane Katrina. In the photos it shows wooden homes which have been completely annihilated by Katrina, however lying on top of the wood are completely intact shipping containers.
Shipping containers are designed to be stacked up to nine high when fully loaded with over 26 tons of cargo in each container. It’s not surprising these containers stood up to the test of Katrina.
We are now seeing a spate of shipping containers being used as emergency disaster housing- this is because they are so tough. The most well-known occurrence of this being in New York.
In April last year (2014) New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the Post-Disaster Housing Prototype Program. Guess which prototype won the program?
You guessed it… A Shipping Container Home.
New York aims to use shipping container homes as stackable apartments which can be used as post-disaster housing. The fact that these homes are stackable makes them perfect for densely populated areas such as New York.
You can read more about the post disaster housing program at the Daily Mail.
Whilst I’m not currently aware of any shipping container home which has faced a hurricane, we certainly know that shipping containers can withstand hurricanes.
We have already spoken about Todd Miller’s shipping container home in ourGraceville Container House: Case Study; however for those of you not aware he decided to build a shipping container home using 31 containers!
The home was placed on 9 meter deep micro-pile foundations, the piles were capped with concrete piers and the containers were then anchored down on top of these concrete piers. Whilst the house was featured on Grand Designs Australia Todd mentioned that his home was now cyclone proof due to the foundations and anchoring used.
What’s also interesting about this example is that he built his home is known flood planes in Queensland. The local planning authority approved the home to be built in this area because in Todd’s plans it showed that the home was flood proof.
Question: Are Shipping Container Homes Secure?
I have received this question a surprising amount of times. When I’ve dug a bit deeper and asked questions back, the people who tend to ask, ‘are they secure’, are planning on using them as a cabin in the wilderness. Hence they want to be able to leave their shipping container home for months on end without having to worry about whether someone has broken into it or not.
To answer this question let’s consider what a shipping container is originally built for. Shipping containers are made to be an air tight impenetrable storage solution which is used to transport goods around the world.
In fact when shipping containers were first used in the 1950’s the amount of ‘lost’ (stolen) cargo dropped significantly as we discussed in: A Complete History of the Shipping Container.
Before shipping containers, goods were placed on ships as break bulk cargo. This essentially means goods were either in sacks, crates or barrels. ‘Light-handed’ labourers were known to steal these goods and it was often known as the ‘price-of-shipping’. However when shipping containers came on the scene in the 1950’s the number of stolen goods dropped massively. This was because shipping containers could be locked by the owner before they were even loaded onto the ship.
So as standard, shipping containers are one of the most secure storage facilities you will come across. However when people convert the container into a home, they often cut away metal and change the structure of the container- hence reducing its security value.
A shipping container converted into a home is just as secure as a traditionally built home.
However, if you want to make your shipping container home even more secure, for instance if you are planning on using it as a cabin in a remote location- you should leave the original structure of the container in-tact.
To do this you would need to fit windows and doors behind the original shipping container doors.
This way when you leave your shipping container home- you can also lock the original shipping container door to seal your container up.
Then when you are staying over in your cabin, you can leave the original shipping container doors open to let light in, yet you will still have you retro-fitted windows and door closed, like a regular house.