Guide to Building the Mythical Inexpensive Modern Prefab Shipping Container Home

Maziar Behrooz
Architect/Founder at MB Architecture

About Maziar Behrooz

The particular challenge (near impossibility) of using shipping containers to build homes.

Cutting and welding steel is a highly specialized trade. And in most cities in the US, especially those that are not close to ports, or that don't have a large commercial base, steelworkers are both hard to find and expensive to employ. For example, on Long Island, where there is a good commercial infrastructure and some nearby ports, the average hourly rate of a steel worker hovers around $40-$45 per hour (while an experienced wood framer might make around $20-$30 per hour). Right here is your first conflict: the inherent desire to use containers in order to lower cost, and the higher cost of working with steel.

To elaborate, with most shipping container designs, you would be cutting and removing parts of the container. This may include segments of the corrugated walls or roof, or the very heavy-gauge steel of its floor plate, or its giant doors. Then, when a piece of wall, for example, is removed, the opening has to be framed with steel extrusions (rectangular tubes); these are welded around the opening to maintain structural rigidity. All of this is both time-consuming and expensive - relative to cutting and nailing lumber.

In my experience fielding calls and emails from potential clients interested in these types of buildings, the public perception is that the transformation of shipping containers to homes or habitable spaces is easy and inexpensive. Because after all, in most people's eyes, the work 'is almost already done, and all you need to do, is add some interior finishes'. Just see this article in MSN which so mistakenly claims that container retrofits cost 'next to nothing'.

Let me break this mis-perception down in more detail, beyond just the expense of working with steel.

When building a conventional wood-framed house, once the foundation is in place, it is always surprising to see how quickly it gets framed and sheathed (sheathing is the exterior plywood that is attached to the framing). Sometimes within a few weeks, a whole house is framed and sheathed. Once this step is completed, we add building paper (or some sort of vapor barrier), doors and windows, siding and roofing (shingles, aluminum, etc.), and the house is framed and protected from weather.

At this stage, you have a completely sealed shell; ie a building that may look pretty finished on the outside, but is a construction site inside. All the work up to this point may constitute about 25% of the overall scope (both in cost and time). So you still have quite a bit to do, and lots of details to consider.

When you purchase a shipping container, you already have a shell equal to the weather-tight shell mentioned above (minus doors & windows). So you save a good few weeks - couple of months, maximum- of time not building this shell from scratch; and shipping containers being as inexpensive as they are, you have saved some money here.

But what about the rest? You still have 75% of the work required to turn this raw shell into a finished habitable space. The same 75% that you spend on turning your wood-framed shell into a nice home now have to be spent inside the shipping container shell. Yes, the same interior wood or steel studs that hold up your sheetrock and walls, the same insulation, the same electrical wiring, the same plumbing lines, the same windows and doors, wood flooring, bathroom tiles, plumbing fixture, heating units, air-conditioning units, electric panels, millwork, stairs, etc., etc.. You get the picture?

So expecting the cost of transforming a shipping container into a home to be negligibly small because "its already there", is clearly way off the mark!

And Even Worse

As though all this isn't enough of a cold shower on your dream of a cheap, stylish home, let me add another layer of complexity:

Most people who've renovated a home, an apartment or a building know well that the finishes that go into a house are really important! That is what you see and touch. The quality and feel of the flooring material, whether its wood, resin or concrete; the plumb-ness and smoothness of the walls, whether they are sheet-rocked, or covered with wood panels, tiles or wall paper; the tiles in the bathroom; cabinetry, doors, even your door handles, light switches and outlets -- all these have to be installed by qualified workmen, and their work has to be well-coordinated to avoid conflicts in design and construction.

If you are thinking about buying a shipping container and transforming it into a building, you should know well that the work ahead of you is similar to doing a gut renovation -- ie, turning a completely raw space into a finished one. But it's actually a little more complex with containers, because most contractors, and builders have never worked with them. So while a plumber, lets say, may know well how his/her plumbing lines could penetrate wood framing, and how penetrations in exterior walls should be sealed, they may not be as familiar with doing the same through a steel shell. Multiply this by everyone who will be working here, and a simple job as installing wood studs becomes a challenge - because you should not screw or nail the studs into the exterior steel shell of containers or you will compromise its water-proof skin.

In effect, what might happen on the job-site could be that, once the builder realizes that the work ahead might be much more time consuming than anticipated, they might decide to raise their fees in a way not anticipated by the owner; or worse, quit! Buyer beware!

But, if you are using a prefabrication company to do all this complicated work, aren't you then bypassing the difficulties pointed out above?

Yes and no. Yes, the prefabricated house is nearly finished inside and outside and delivered to your site. But it comes in large boxes which have to be craned into place, welded and sealed together. And, certain finishes that span from one container to container have to be installed on-site to avoid a seam (hardwood flooring is a good example); numbered and color-coded electrical and plumbing lines have to be connected; HVAC units have to be installed and connected to exterior compressors; bathrooms may need to be tiled and their fixtures installed..... etc. etc.. Remember the warning in chapter 3 [not posted here]? How does one find a qualified contractor who will agree to oversee the installation of a prefabricated home, which she may have never seen before, and give you a reasonable estimate for completing it? Essentially, you're asking them to keep their costs and profit down, while they take on a big risk - and its a risk for them, because it's likely that they have never worked with prefabricated buildings before.

Phew!! Is this enough to discourage you from anything prefab?

OK, so now let’s get into the crux of the matter. The mythical, inexpensive, modern and prefabricated container house (not a tiny home, DIY shack, or temporary structure): Does such a thing exist?

Reality Check #1 - its not the same everywhere

In my experience, if you are located in a region where costs of conventional construction are high, then by pre-fabricating your house in a lower-cost region and shipping it to your site, you will see some cost benefits. The exact amount of savings depends on where you live and what the costs of construction are in your region. For example, if, in your town, you can build conventionally at $100 per square foot, a prefab container project would be a tough sell, because good quality prefabs are hardly less expensive than that -and are often much higher. But in places where the same building would cost $400 per square foot or higher, you will see a clear cost savings using prefab.

Now, whichever region, high cost or low, that you live in, a common advantage of prefabricating is the reduction in time of construction. This itself is a valuable distinction of prefab and a good incentive to explore it as an option. For example, our Bard College Media Lab, located in the middle of Bard's campus, was installed in one day (technically four hours!). Campus life was hardly impacted by construction traffic, noise and dust. And within a few days the building was fully operational. 

Reality Check #2 - there's definitely a learning curve and it's not a DIY project for beginner builders

But the cost saving mentioned above isn’t easy to achieve. In fact, if you’re a homeowner with no experience in design and construction, and are looking to hire a contractor who, presumably, has never worked with containers before, building such a project may be fraught with cost and time overruns — see my previous article. Homeowners would do better to work with prefab factories, or with professionals who offer specific prefab services (then, make sure you read pointer #3 below).

For professionals who are considering the use of containers to build homes: in my estimation, a sustainable business model requires that you avoid individual custom-designed homes (unless time and money is of no consequence) and aim for design and fabrication that can be repeated, ie., mass produced. Then:

Don’t stray too far from from these (nearly) self-evident pointers:

1. Design a simple plan.

Containers have incredible structural value. They can be stacked 6 high with no additional structure; and can easily withstand the impact of wind-born debris. Don’t negate this; rather, exploit it. Design a floor plan that works with containers’ inherent structural strengths. Unless you’ve been around the block on this a few times, avoid cantilevers and large cuts; let the corners rest on corners; if you stack them irregularly as though they're LEGOs, make sure you have a reliable team of experts to engineer, fabricate, deliver and install; then, expect high costs. See our Bard Media Lab floor plan and it’s efficient configuration; not only was it a runner-up in Dwell Magazine’s prefab of 2018, but it was quite affordable.

2. Create an adaptable and repeatable template.

From your simply-designed floor plan, create a template that can be modified, updated and repeatedly used in all your prefab projects. With each installation, you improve the product, fine-tune its engineering, remove inefficiencies, understand pricing, and optimize delivery and installation....rather than starting the whole process from scratch each time. Simply put, go for mass production instead of one-offs. Our 4 bedroom container house template, for example, has thus far yielded designs for homes, a media lab, an animal rescue facility, shared apartments, dormitories and hotels.

3. Prefabricate — and only in the right factory.

Prefabricate in a factory that BOTH builds AND installs. During the lifting of containers, they may twist or buckle and be off-kilter when dropped into position. This may result in drywall cracks, window leaks, or door and windows getting stuck. Who will assume the responsibility of fixing these? The factory will point the finger at the crane operator who may have had no training in lifting and dropping a whole house into place; and the local builder will rightly point the finger at the factory. Avoid this by finding an outfit that assumes responsibility for their product til its dropped and sealed. Or better yet: create this factory!

Make sure, the factory you work with will coordinate delivery, inspection reports and code-compliance with your local Building Department. If they don’t assume full responsibility for delivery, craning, and installing, then, they may not be the right partner.

4. Local zoning or building departments may be a breeze or a nightmare to deal with.

Make sure you have researched and comply with zoning laws and comply with or exceed building codes. This can be very tricky. As a homeowner, make sure you’ve hired professionals. As an architect, call the DOB and research zoning before you accept the commission. In our case, we have received approval from our State's Department of State; this has helped us immensely with local authorities.

Also, keep in mind that most localities require inspections during construction. In case of off-site construction, third-party inspectors must visit the factory and generate reports for submission to the local building department. Your factory must coordinate this process.

5. Sounds easy, but this is a tough one: Find the right local contractor.

Find a capable local contractor and coordinate communication between them and the factory. The problem here is that a single low-cost house is hardly an incentive for a contractor. To absorb themselves in the intricacies of such a project, especially in the early stages of drawing review, they need to appreciate being on the forefront of a transformative industry, and be prepared for a whole lot of future prefab work. The wrong contractor tends to brush off research and communication, until the boxes have arrived — at which point they are suddenly confronted with unanticipated conditions. The right contractor will review your drawings carefully, submit questions, call the factory, discuss delivery and craning, and generally understand what to expect.

6- Stay involved through 100% completion.

This should be standard operating procedure and is pretty self-explanatory.

About Maziar Behrooz

Architect/Founder at MB Architecture


We are an award-winning integrated architecture, design, and consulting firm based in the Hamptons and Manhattan, New York.

We have helped envision, design and build a diverse range of structures, spaces and projects.


We are guided by simplicity. It helps us break down complex problems and achieve efficient solutions -whatever the givens.

Environmentally, our goal, in parallel with that of the AIA is to reduce the energy usage of buildings 50% by the year 2050.


Maziar Behrooz is an architect and the founder of his eponymous multi-disciplinary, award-winning firm --with offices in Manhattan and East Hampton.

He has designed and built across a broad spectrum of building types, from efficient affordable homes to private residences, technology and art-related projects, and museums and public spaces.

Maziar is an Advisory Board Member at the Tulane School of Architecture, and a guest curator at the Parrish Museum of Art. He is a graduate of Tulane, and Cornell Schools of Architecture and the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies. His work has been exhibited at the Parrish Museum Road Show, the Outsider Art Fair, the Australian Maritime Museum, and the Salomon Contemporary.

Address7 Newtown Ln, East Hampton, NY 11937, United States
Phone+1 631-329-2983

Guide to Building the Mythical Inexpensive Modern Prefab Shipping Container Home