2,500 sqft Shipping Container House, Houston, Texas

About Will Breaux
Shipping Container Homes FAQ by Will Breaux

Builder and OwnerWill Breaux
Area2500 sqft
LocationMcGowen street, Houston, Texas
PhotographyWill Breaux

Description by boredpanda

When it comes to building their dream home, people have a lot of different ideas. Some choose comfortable and small bungalows, others opt for luxurious mansions. However, there a handful of those to decide to ditch the traditional architecture and build something completely different, for instance, a container house. That’s exactly what designer Will Breaux did and now he’s a proud owner of a house built solely out of shipping containers.

His new home is located on McGowen street in Houston. According to the owner, his 11 container house is the most extensive structure of its kind. The shipping containers are piled on top of each other to create a three-story house, complete with a rooftop deck.

Breaux wanted to build his own shipping container house since the early 2000s, however, for a long time he struggled to find someone who would design the kind of house he wanted, so Breaux decided to do it himself.

“I began looking at projects that were being built that I liked. Ultimately, a designer with a home builder family was hired to design a 3 story townhouse to be built on the lot. After going round and round for months, I eventually had to fire that group because they weren’t willing to give me what I wanted. Thus, the journey to design my own house began around 2011,” the man wrote in his blog.

Breaux got the idea of a shipping container house in Texas many years ago before it was even a thing. Why containers? Well, the idea behind it is quite simple. “Shipping containers are strong, fireproof, long-lasting, hurricane resistant, and have common characteristics,” Breaux explains.

However, the man, who is not a professional builder, had no knowledge of what it would take to build his dream shipping container house. But he was determined to do whatever it takes. The first thing he did was to create a 3D sketch of the house. After long hours spent learning everything about constructing a house out of shipping containers, Breaux is now a proud owner of an impressive 2,500 square foot shipping container house. Now the house is almost completely furnished and looks just like Breaux had imagined it.

About Will Breaux

I am not a professional home builder, but I have worked in design for many years and have a long history with residential construction. I decided to build my own house many years ago, but it is only just now coming to fruition. Containers caught my eye as a method of construction and I played around with the idea of using that to build the house after seeing a few projects I liked featured online and in print around the world. This was several years ago before it was as common as it is now.

I read an article in Dwell magazine on the first Houston container home and was determined to find out as much as I could about the product and process. I had done a design for a town house, but knew I needed to make it more sophisticated, if I was to turn it into a real build. I taught myself Sketchup when it was still Google Sketchup and ultimately used that as the means to design the home using containers.

There is a large learning curve to using containers and it is not as easy as some make it sound. I did a ton of research, bought books, bought a container, worked on a very small container project, and more before ever diving into this process.

During the process of actually building the house, I have met many people that could have been resources for the build. Some are doing their own projects, some are interested in the idea. Many people stop by during the building process, so in an effort to have the information available to them (and not have the same conversation over and over), I have put the information into my blog.


Shipping Container Homes FAQ

Why shipping containers for construction?

Shipping containers are strong, fire proof, long lasting, hurricane resistant, and have common characteristics. The United States is currently importing more than we are exporting, which often means we have more containers coming in than going out. Many ports have containers stacked up as surplus. A brand new container can cost $9000 or more, while a used container that has a few overseas trips under its belt can be as little as $2000 in usable condition. They are designed to be transported, stacked, and locked down.

Is it cheaper to use shipping containers for construction?

It can be, but not always. While containers themselves are relatively inexpensive, the modification and engineering can exceed what standard construction might cost, especially in an area where construction costs are typically low. It is very likely that a project with 1-3 containers will cost less than standard construction. Going above that number, stacking, unique arrangements, open floor plans, and many other factors can make the price adjust to the level of standard construction or even much more. It is all design and experience dependent.

Where do I start to build with shipping containers?

The internet is filled with a wealth of information. Learn as much as you can about containers, how they are designed, how they work, and hire experts for the parts that are unique. Container construction is becoming more common so there is more information out there about it. However be careful the source. I have purchased a couple of self published books that were little more than references to other sources and common knowledge. Some could even be considered outright misleading. There are blogs written by “experts”, but nothing to back up the commentary (no pictures of projects, little to no references, nothing to substantiate the claims). Anyone can write about something, but if you choose to read it and utilize the information, make sure it is from a reliable source. Once you become more educated on the topic, visit existing projects. Austin, Las Vegas, and many other major cities have large scale container projects that are open to the public. If you have never built or are not a container expert, plan on visiting several places in person and hiring professionals. This can still be tricky but necessary.

You will want to become a container expert or at least attempt to be. If you are not willing to learn as much as you can, understand the terms and capabilities, or pay someone to do that for you; then container construction may not be for you.

Is a structural engineer required for a shipping container home?

Yes and yes. You have probably seen YouTube videos with people doing their own projects, cutting container walls, grinding away, telling you how easy it is to modify containers. Keep in mind that as soon as you make one cut in any part of a container, you have altered the structural integrity. Containers are designed to work as a whole and when you change the whole of the structure, even with just one cut, you have changed the structure. Any cuts or modifications have to be made up with adding structural support back in to compensate for them. Yes, you could stack 8 containers high just like they do on the ocean liners. But once you factor in windows, doors, access, or stairs; you now need to make up for that with structural modifications and additions. Even just leaving container doors in an open configuration must be accounted for, since they are designed to stack and ship with the doors closed. Most cities require a structural engineer to approve or stamp a plan anyway. Using containers makes it more difficult to find a qualified structural engineer to work on the project. Plenty of people are interested in working on it (I hired someone with no container experience at first, but they had to resign after they realized it was over their head), but fewer have done projects with them. If you were working with one or two containers and not in an area with strict permitting, or planning on not stacking them, then you could probably duplicate parts of a good design and get the structural you need for simple modifications. I have one container with nothing stacked on top, that was approved to have much of one wall cut out without adding any substantial beams to it. I am not going to risk a multi level structure on guesses though. You shouldn’t either.

Can you use a standard foundation for shipping container home?

Maybe. Containers are a little heavier than standard stick construction. IF you are going one or two stories, chances are you will be using a standard foundation. If you are going beyond that, then you will likely need helical piers or something similar to deal with the weight and the shearing effects of wind on a tall, heavy structure. I was not familiar with helical piers prior to this project. It seemed like a good idea when I heard about it, but it did complicate things and add to the expense. However in the long run, it will be a much more stable foundation. Not only do they provide a more solid footing for the structure to rest upon, but they also prevent lift in a situation where high winds may push on a tall structure causing a more vertical force upwards.

Is shipping container home permitted with the city?

Yes, of course it is. Contrary to what you may have heard, the city of Houston allows container construction. It is viewed as steel construction, so as long as an appropriate structural plan is included, then it will be approved and permitted like any other structure. There is really only one additional step with a container structure for permitting and that is having a steel inspection. They simply verify that the fabrication was done to match the approved structural plans. You wouldn’t need this for wood, but the city requires third party inspection for steel since they are not experts in welds and metal gauges, for example.

Is it going to get hot in a shipping container home in the Houston heat?

Yes. Just like any other metal surface, it will get hot when the sun is on it and it is 100 degrees outside. But just like all of the other houses and structures that use metal, that can be mitigated. This is just like using metal siding or roofing. Insulation on the inside, a thermal break, and an appropriate coating on the outside will reduce or eliminate any heat transfer to the inside.

I have seen shipping containers stacked and turned all sorts of ways. Are shipping containers like Lego blocks?

No. They are designed to stack as a whole unit, in one orientation, on top of each other, with specific locking mechanisms. You can do this up to 8 tall on a stable foundation, using the proper locking, and there will be no issues. However, as soon as you start cutting, turning, staggering, cantilevering, or anything outside of the way they were designed; you must have an engineer and it must be analyzed. The crazy shapes and structures you have seen online often required EXTENSIVE engineering and added structure to make it look simple.

Are the shipping containers floors toxic? Don’t you have to remove all of the shipping containers flooring?

No. There is a ton of controversy around this. Most of it is not based in fact. Containers, just like everything else that is imported, are under regulation. We do not allow the importation of items using toxic substances in their production without loads of warnings. Containers are no different. There are ways to possibly track what was carried, but I would not rely on that. If you are very concerned about this, then one trippers may be more your speed. For at least the last 15 years (but really longer than that), the pesticides possibly used in older container flooring have been regulated and some banned. With the US being the largest importer of products worldwide, containers are not going to be made with a material that we ban. That is not to say that chemicals weren’t potentially transported in a container you might buy. But that is no different from anything else. As these containers are used, your car, your food, your kid’s toys are all transported in these same containers that potentially carried other chemicals on another trip. The risk is relatively low and there are ways to eliminate direct contact with the flooring anyway. Epoxy coating is the most common way.

Where can I get a construction loan or traditional mortgage to build a shipping container house?

Probably not. Why? It all goes back to appraisers (which is mostly a scam in my opinion) and they don’t have many rules they have to follow. In some markets you will be at the mercy of the appraisal company that the lender chooses. The process is designed to protect the lender and the appraisers are supposed to be independent, using similar methods. But I’ve seen the same home swing 30% in value based on a couple of factors. You can get a lender on board and even get approved for a mortgage but the appraiser will likely be the monkey wrench thrown in for this type of construction. I experienced this. An appraiser has a very broad way that they can assign a value to a home, but the most common way is to find a comparable or comp. Even with this, they just have to have a similar square footage, quality, and neighborhood. It is preferable to have a similar construction method, but there are no hard fast rules about this. You can read the Fannie Mae / Freddie Mac appraisal requirements for that type of mortgage and container houses are specifically mentioned as being allowed. However if the appraiser insists on finding another container house as a comp and there isn’t one within half a mile of you, it’s dead in the water. I tried arguing this and got nowhere. There is no legitimate way to search for a comp based on it being a container structure. So if the appraiser insists on this and does not view it as steel construction (like the city does for construction), then you have to be really lucky to have a comp that they will use. There are some builders who build this way and either back door it or have a relationship with a lender to make it work. I have heard of this but never found anyone who successfully completed a project this way outside of a tiny home (which can be funded differently if it’s mobile). So maybe you are the one to change this, but many others have come before and been unsuccessful in getting traditional financing for a container home build that converts to a mortgage.

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