Look, if you don’t have at least one saved photo of a house’s interior from Pinterest, do you even use Pinterest?
It’s no secret that a lot of us hop on Pinterest to look for home design ideas on the off chance that we’ll one day be able to afford a house. Down payments? Best we can do is tree fiddy. Daydreaming? Absolutely free and you get to be sad about the economy once you snap back to reality.
The prohibitive costs of buying a home have helped make minimalist-aligned housing trends like tiny homes, van living, and yes, container homes popular. Because they’re already technically finished, container homes promise aspiring homeowners a cheaper alternative to traditional housing. The fact that they’re made from used shipping containers also adds to container homes’ appeal to the eco-conscious crowd.
But now that the hype is starting to die down, many architects have stepped forward to explain that container homes aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
The Appeal of Container Living
To understand why container homes aren’t all that awesome, we need to understand what makes them appealing in the first place. After all, it’s hard to highlight the cons of something if you don’t have a list of pros to compare it to. So, let’s go over that quick.
One of the obvious benefits of container houses is that they’re quick and easy to build. Think about where you’ve seen the most container homes in these past few years. Unless you’re a real estate agent, most of the container homes you’ve seen were likely at construction sites. Not as the actual houses being built, mind you, but as staff quarters for on-site workers.
This is because container homes are one of the fastest types of housing to build. You can easily get a fully finished container home within a few weeks and that wait time is getting shorter thanks to companies that specialize in building prefabricated container houses.
This speed is partly because you already have a shell to work with, the used shipping container itself. This leads to the second benefit of container homes: they’re cheap to build.
In fact, much like van living, there are a lot of people who document their process of building a container home online. Just take a look at this couple who both had no prior professional experience in building a house.
Container homeowners often have lower construction costs because of the lower barrier to entry when it comes to DIY-ing your own container house.
Since the houses are made from literal metal boxes used to ship tons of cargo across the sea, container homes are touted for their durability and eco-friendliness. Add to that the appeal of being able to have your house picked up like a dollhouse and moved to another site and you can see why a lot of people would opt for a container home.
Sounds like there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them, right? That depends on whether these pros justify the drawbacks for you.
Okay, so What’s Wrong With Container Homes?
Now, I’m no architect or engineer. But if there’s one person whose judgment you can trust on container housing’s cons, it’s Belinda Carr. With over a decade of experience in the field of architecture, this building scientist from Carr Builds LLC has been educating the public on the science behind buildings.
Her YouTube channel, which is named after herself, contains everything from technical how-tos for other engineers to discussions on the latest innovations in construction and engineering.
Carr takes a lot of the popular, cute ideas everyone on Pinterest loves and, as she puts it, “crushes your Pinterest dreams” by pointing out all the flaws in these designs.
One of her most controversial hot takes? The architect thinks shipping container homes are kind of a scam. Here are a few of the reasons why.
Container Homes Are Difficult to Heat and Cool
There’s nothing wrong with being a minimalist. Some of us can thrive even in the most snug living spaces. But when you’re already living in 20 feet by 8 feet metal box, adding insulation, plumbing, electric wiring, and all the other stuff that makes it possible for a container home to actually be livable can make things feel just a little too tight.
Okay, you think, that’s not a problem because I’m slapping a ton of them together to get the ultimate container house mansion that even Optimus Prime’s modular design can’t beat. That brings us to the next issue.
They’re Prone to Structural Issues
Container homes are strong, there’s no doubting it. That strength comes from the corrugated steel walls of the shipping container it’s made from. Corrugations are those folds that you see on the exterior and interior of shipping containers and cardboard boxes.
If you have one near you right now, try taking a peek at the edge of a cardboard box. You’ll notice the same corrugations that you’d find on shipping containers used on the interior of the box. This makes the cardboard box stiffer, letting it withstand your average UPS delivery.
That said, your average container home is only that strong for as long as you don’t mess with its corrugations. Every time you make a cut for a door or a window, your container home’s structural integrity takes a hit. This makes it necessary to reinforce cut areas which is the exact same thing you would have done if you just built a normal house in the first place.
Container Homes Can Be a Major Health Risk
While container homes are beloved for their recycling and reuse potential, what a lot of people forget to do is to do due diligence on what’s been inside their container homes. Companies aren’t always shipping safe stuff like Donald Trump teddy bears and fidget spinners.
Some of the items shipped across oceans are harmful pesticides like neonic pesticides which target the nervous systems of insects, birds, and even people. Neonic pesticides have been shown to cause neurological impairments in early life (read: small children, babies, the unborn). That’s not exactly the kind of risk you’d want to take when building a home, especially if you plan on having children.
You’re Probably Better of Getting a Traditional House
Belinda Carr points out that unless you’re building your container home near the coast where you have easy access to used shipping containers, the costs of transporting one might not be enough to justify building a container home. This is especially true if you live further inland or in desert areas where the idea of living in a metal box that’s hard to cool and hard to heat becomes even less appealing.
Maybe living in a shipping container house by the sea wouldn’t be so great either. Shipping containers are made of metal. The sea provides winds with constant water and salt as ammunition for destroying your house.
Despite your best intentions, corrosion will be your worst enemy. While corten steel, a rust-resistant metal commonly used for shipping containers, is a thing, let’s face it: you still see rusted shipping containers.
All in all, shipping container homes aren’t the best housing solution if you’re looking for a forever home that’s truly eco-friendly. Cue the “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” meme.
Jokes aside though, there are already existing eco-friendly housing options that have been in use for hundreds, if not thousands of years, before people got fancy ideas about shipping containers.
Other Eco-Friendly Housing Solutions
Rammed Earth Houses
Rammed earth houses are exactly what they sound like. It’s a ton of dirt packed tightly to create a perfectly smooth wall. I know, it doesn’t sound like the most stable construction method compared to traditional houses made with wood or steel beams.
But rammed earth constructions stretch back thousands of years and is one of the oldest traditional building methods for many cultures across the world. For example, Atalaya Castle in southern Spain is a 12th-century fortress made of rammed earth. That’s centuries of fortress-ing with only tightly packed dirt.
Not only is it strong enough to last you a few centuries, a major consideration if you’re a recently turned vampire looking to find your forever castle, but its material is both a great temperature and sound insulator.
Rammed earth tends to stay cool throughout the day and warm throughout the night. You also don’t get that hollow echoing sound that’s common in concrete houses as rammed earth absorbs soundwaves.
If you’re looking for a more Shire-like experience, a cob house might be right up your alley.
Cob houses are another earth-based building technique, similar to rammed earth building. Unlike rammed earth though, cob uses mud as its medium. An alternative name for it is “layered mud” because its building material is a mixture of clay sand, and straw.
If there are Europeans reading this, it’s a lot like medieval houses that use wattle and daub where wattle, a lattice of wooden strips, is covered with layers of mud and dung to create a wall. It offers much of the same benefits as rammed earth does and, if we go by this study on the environmental and cost benefits of cob housing, results in fewer carbon emissions while being a potentially better option for rural housing in the global south.
At this point, you’ve probably noticed that other, more practical eco-friendly housing alternatives are often just ancient building techniques. This brings us to our last option.
Literally Whatever Is the Local Vernacular Architecture
Vernacular architecture refers to a style of architecture that’s locally developed. Many old homes are built in the vernacular style of a certain country or region. These styles are characterized by their use of local materials, no-frills design, and optimization for their specific use and the local climate.
A good example of this is the vernacular styles of New Orleans where raised basement houses became popular in the early 20th century as floods became more common in New Orleans neighborhoods that have low elevations.
Look a little further outside the U.S. and you see the same trend popping up: houses used to be built as a response to the local environment. In Southeast Asian countries, where the climate is often humid and prone to torrential rains, houses are traditionally built on stilts and have high roofs with long eaves to help keep the interior of the house cool and direct rainwater away from the house.
These days, a lot of new houses are just copypasted concrete boxes or Pinterest dream homes that don’t adapt to the climate of the region they’re built in. This makes a house’s internal temperatures harder to regulate versus if you had a more locally adapted home built. It forces you to turn on the AC and the heating more than you would with a traditional home. Not very eco-friendly.
Despite the latest innovations in engineering and architecture, it might be worth it to re-evaluate older modes of building and living that keep us in sync with our environment. The future of eco-friendly housing might just be in our past.