Until recently, there were basically two ways to get more space out of your home: build up or build out.
Home additions come at a steep price, however, with some online remodeling calculators estimating costs in the range of $20,000 to $70,000 per room. Others figure that adding a 400-square-foot space could empty your wallet of up to $100,000.
But there’s a more affordable option gaining traction: Upcycling a shipping container in your backyard instead of building an extension onto your home.
Whether you want extra space for a home office, kids’ playroom, yoga studio, cigar room, or crafting area, you can save time and money by investing in a container room instead. And as long as your city regulations allow it, the possibilities are endless.
Shipping containers are energy-efficient, flexible, and watertight. Here’s what you need to know about expanding your living space by literally thinking outside (or inside?) the box.
Get more space without the renovation headaches
If you’ve ever lived through a renovation, you know what a pain it can be. Purchasing a shipping container that can be transformed into anything you want cuts down on a lot of hassle, says Katalina Klein, a Realtor® and president of Kubed Living, a Los Angeles–based design company specializing in predesigned and custom shipping container structures.
“We’ve gotten a lot of interest in home additions, and I think there’s a huge advantage to having something plopped into your backyard,” says Klein, who launched her company three years ago.
Plus, these structures arrive from the factory at least 60% to 70% finished, she adds.
“When you build something attached to your home, you have to try to keep the noise and dust from coming in, which is sort of a nightmare,” Klein says. “This way, while you’re doing the grading and prepping the site with a foundation, your unit is being done in factory, and then it gets craned right in, so the entire process is a lot faster.”
Shipping containers are ideal for sustainability
Peter DeMaria has been designing cargo container–based projects since 2004, and he’s credited with being the first architect to adapt the cargo container into a code-compliant building solution in the U.S.
Reusing shipping containers in their original form is a great way to help save the planet, he says.
“There’s a coolness factor about it. Some people aren’t content with separating their plastic and glass bottles from the rest of the trash,” says DeMaria, owner of DeMaria Design, which has offices in Los Angeles and Austin, TX. He’s also chief design officer at HBG Steel. “They want to make a bigger mark, and this is one way to go.”
When interior designer Tamaryn Sullivan ran out of space to house her decorative sewing business, her contractor father, Sean, realized he could create a solution.
“He had a shipping container at his workshop that he used for storage, so we made a studio out of it for my business, and that led to a super exciting concept to start designing little studios for any purpose: yoga, gym, pool cabana, mother-in-law suite, or anything you can think of,” recalls Sullivan, who now co-owns Tiny Studios with her father in Venice, FL.
“Most used shipping containers literally sit in a lot and may not get used again,” says Sullivan. “Recycling them to create another living space is a great idea, because these structures are very sturdy and sound.”
Shipping containers are affordable
For a 20-by-8-foot structure that doesn’t have a kitchen or bathroom, expect to pay in the upper $30,000 range, estimates Klein. Add a sliding glass wall, and you’ll fork out an additional $10,000.
“If you’re looking at something really cute with bedroom, bath, and kitchen, you could come in at $85,000 or more,” says Klein.
Sullivan’s units range from $30,000 to $98,000, depending on upgrades and customizations. Each container comes with standard hookups for sewage, water, and power.
Of course, the more customized a container is, the more it costs, DeMaria notes.
Shipping containers are durable and add value to your home
Another advantage of shipping containers is their durability. They’re made of heavy-gauge steel, which is not prone to termites, mold, or fire, says DeMaria.
“One of our thoughts when we first started down this path is: How do we change buildings toward more of a European mindset where we’re building for generations, not just for a 50-year life span?” he says.
A container addition can also boost your property value, adds Klein.
“Extra space is extra space,” she says. “You may not be able to count it exactly at the same price per square foot as your house, but it does add to the value of the home if it’s conforming and permitted.”
The design possibilities are endless
From wine cellars to photography studios, the only limit with a shipping container is your imagination.
It takes about eight to 12 weeks for Sullivan’s team to build a container studio, complete with kitchen and bath.
“Installation is pretty easy. There are shipping container kits you can buy that come in panels, so you can just pop up on the walls and then drywall it out after you put these foam boards in,” she explains. “You can do so much with them; it’s basically like working with Legos.”
Sullivan likes to use luxury vinyl plank flooring because it’s durable and has lots of flex, and she suggests cladding the container with composite wood, or Hardie board siding if you don’t like the look of the corrugated metal walls.
You’ll need to hang tough during the permitting process
While local regulations vary wildly across the country, most areas aren’t quite sure what to make of shipping containers as living space, says Klein. The permitting process can take six to nine months depending on the municipality, she explains.
Homeowners need to be patient if they want a cargo container addition, DeMaria adds.
“Most local building authorities don’t know how to handle these projects,” he explains. “It’s all in the code book, but you’ll need an architect or engineer who can walk them through it and show how it complies with the code so they know it’s safe.”
But for homeowners craving more space, a shipping container might just be worth the wait.
“Working with shipping containers is full of challenges and surprises,” DeMaria says. “It’s in its infancy right now, and I think it’s got some incredible potential ahead.”