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The pros and cons of owning a shipping container home

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This shipping container home design by Adam Kalkin consists of two buildings connected with a walkway. Peter Aaron/Otto

Global supply chain disruptions have sent the cost of constructing a shipping container home through the roof, but that isn’t deterring its biggest supporters from promoting the building type.

Homes built from shipping containers may not be on every block, but they still have a devoted following that flocks to the material because of its sustainability, low maintenance exterior, and safety features. But these homes aren’t without their homeowner headaches, either.

Aspiring shipping container owners are dealing with more than higher costs; they are sometimes met with pushback from zoning boards and limitations on how far you can customize a space compared with more common stick-frame, lumber construction.

“Customers are paying an exorbitant amount of money for used equipment right now,’’ said Thomas Fry, owner of Shipping Containers of New England. Consumer prices are up about 35 percent this year on new shipping containers and rose 75 percent on used, Fry added.

Even though the experts interviewed for this story estimate that millions of unused containers are available around the globe at any given moment, the shipping crunch heavily affected prices, and the extraordinary increase in consumer spending over the course of the pandemic put greater pressure on supply chains. Those supply chains often rely on sending goods from China to the United States, where most shipping containers are manufactured, but rather than put unused containers up for sale, many shipping companies sent empty ones back across the Pacific Ocean to pick up more goods.

Tim Steele, owner of Tim Steele Design, said the typical price for a used one jumped from $5,000 to $7,000 in a year. “I have seen these prices fluctuate before, and they will probably go back down,’’ added Steele, who works only in New York. “But I’ve been doing this for 11 years, [and] I’ve never seen a $7,000 container before.’’

A single container home can start at around $80,000, and a two-container would be in the $140,000 range, Steele said. “We are building a large custom home that may end up costing $750,000, but that is a luxury home.’’

That’s still relatively affordable compared with lumber costs, which have fallen in recent months but were up earlier this year to the point of adding an average of nearly $36,000 to the cost of building a single-family home, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

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BEFORE: A crane lowers a shipping container into place. —Tim Steele
Tim-Steele-Container-Home-Installation-After
AFTER: The finished home by Tim Steele is clad in a wooden rain screen facade. —Tim Steele

One often needs multiple containers to reach the home size many clients desire, Fry said. There are also standard build-out costs that go with adding insulation, window and door carve-outs, and interior framing.

A single container Fry usually sells for homebuilding typically clocks in at roughly 300 square feet. Some prospective home buyers like that size, given the trend toward tiny homes of up to 500 square feet. Others may even want to combine several containers to get something closer to a full-sized home.

“The main con is the flip side of one of the main advantages,’’ Steele said. “It’s an eight-foot-wide dimension, so it is something to contend with. You can open them up, and, structurally, they still hold together well, but you’ve got to cut them up to achieve that.’’

Money isn’t the only potential deterrent. Long story short: Don’t expect your local historical preservation committee to welcome with open arms a shipping container home amid a neighborhood of Victorian brownstones.

“Cost is only one factor. Cultural acceptance is another,’’ said Mahesh Daas, president of Boston Architectural College. “So no matter how affordable these might be, if they’re not handled in a certain way, they might not be accepted.’’

Some may laud shipping containers for their sustainability. Others may view them as corrugated metal eyesores.

“It’s not for everyone,’’ Steele said.

But there are several reasons why people continue to hop aboard the shipping container craze. Sustainability is a leading driver for some clients, as the process repurposes metal containers.

Costs may be higher now, but a shipping container home is more affordable than a stick-build, according to Steele. Given that the steel box acts as the load-bearing frame, a container home can use less expensive lumber that isn’t engineered, Fry said.

Maintenance and upkeep also cost less in the long run if you plan accordingly. Depending on what the container goes through, its lifespan can be as much as 10 to 20 years, or it may be as few as three to four years, Daas said. “These are steel structures, and that means they’re prone to rusting, denting, bending, and all kinds of things.’’

Some of this can be easily prevented with something as simple as applying a zinc paint coat to slow down the rusting process and add decades to a shipping container’s lifespan.

“You cannot use the containers just the way they are in an architectural setting,’’ Daas said. “You will have to add thermal insulation, and you’ll have to add the material exterior and interior finishes, and so on and so forth. Depending on what you do with it, they can be as durable as any other steel structure.’’

Durability is one thing, but the cool factor of a shipping container house is also a major — at times, the only — factor for some home buyers, according to architect Adam Kalkin, whose home designs using shipping containers have been featured in everything from The New York Times to actress Diane Keaton’s contemporary design book, “House.’’

He previously collaborated with coffee brand Illy on the Push Button House,’’ a five-room home built from a shipping container that stays true to the company’s focus on sustainability and innovation.

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Adam Kalkin’s “Push Button House.” — Peter Aaron/Otto

“Some people want to live in cool houses, while others want to live in the most conventional thing they can find,’’ Kalkin said. “A lot of it has to do with marketing and messaging and that kind of stuff.’’

There can even be a security advantage to living in a storage container home. Builders weld the steel containers to the foundation, making these builds suitable storm shelters compared with lumber-built homes, which are often vulnerable to hurricanes and tornadoes. On the home security front, Fry is able to maintain solid steel slides that go over windows, doors, and other openings — making the home look like just a random container sitting in a lot when its residents aren’t home. Admittedly, that security feature would fool intruders only on smaller, single-box shipping container homes rather than a larger build.

“We don’t generally see things in the world getting better. A lot of people are tired of big homes, big expenses, and massive time consumption with maintenance,’’ Fry said. “A great way to mitigate that is a container home. The thing is a steel box. What else do you need to do to it? It can sit there a long time with virtually no maintenance.’’

See more photos of container homes below:

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