Steve’s Shipping Container Cabin

Guest Post by Steven Schneider

Truth be told, I didn’t choose to build with shipping containers because I like the look of them. I’m also not trying to save the planet by recycling them – not that there’s anything wrong with that. Rather, I felt forced into it by the continued theft and damage at my property in northern Wisconsin. What I really wanted was just a small log or timber frame cabin, but that was not to be.

I had long been planning to replace my old hunting shack with something a little bigger and nicer, but had been discouraged by an incident a couple of years ago, when someone broke into it and started a fire with a kerosene lantern. I was fortunate that they put it out with a fire extinguisher I had there and that no one got hurt, but that was the last straw. I began searching the net for ideas on building a more secure cabin, and was intrigued to find that others were using shipping containers. From a security standpoint it was near perfect – I just had to figure out how to make it work for me.

One of my main goals in designing the cabin was to keep it as simple as possible. Many of the shipping container cabins I have seen on the net are interesting from an architectural standpoint, but difficult for a non-professional like me to build – I’m actually a computer programmer by profession. I also wanted to limit the openings to just the original doors so the cabin could be completely secured when I wasn’t there.

The first thing I had to do was determine just how much space I really needed. This is where the Tiny House Blog was a great help, because I was able to see how other people designed and actually lived in their tiny houses. Most of the small house books I found at the Library and on Amazon didn’t have much in the way of < 500 square foot houses. After what seemed like hundreds of pencil and grid paper designs, I settled on a three container cabin with about 450 square feet of living space. I know this is somewhat larger than most tiny houses, but it fit my need for housing four to five people for a weekend.

When it came time to create the detailed drawings for the cabin, I turned to Google Sketchup. This is the most amazing piece of software an amateur can use to design a building. I’m not sure I could have completed this project without it. Since there really wasn’t an instruction manual for what I was doing, Sketchup allowed me to try myriad ideas without wasting any building materials. It also allowed me to virtually furnish the cabin, using the Google Warehouse site, and tweak the layout to my idea of perfection.

While building the cabin has been fun, it has been more time consuming than I thought it would be. I do believe that a conventional stick built structure would have been much easier to build, although then it wouldn’t have been as secure. As much as I like doing the work myself, I have had to hire a fair amount of it out; the foundation, roof, deck, insulation, and removing the interior walls. I could have done the roof and deck myself, but time was running out before the onset of winter both this year and last. Just about everything is done on the outside now, except for some siding on the exterior walls. Now I can focus my attention on the inside and hopefully have it completed by this summer.

Kent asked about permitting, and I’m very fortunate with regard to this. My building permit cost me a whopping $5, and there are no limits or inspections associated with it. When I applied for the permit I said it was for a cabin, but the tax inspector has since classified it as a storage building. I have tried to build everything as safely and correctly as possible, but I doubt it would meet code for a permanent residence.

The reaction from my neighbors and workmen has been mixed so far. When I first started the project, I did get some strange looks and a lot of questions about why I was doing it. As they’ve heard my explanation, and seen the cabin progress, I’m getting a lot more positive comments. For example, when the containers were delivered and set in place, several of the workers became very interested in the idea of containers for secure storage. A more distant neighbor tracked me down to ask where he could buy a 40 foot container for storage on his farm. One of the deck builders even said his parents were considering a shipping container cabin for themselves.

I’m sure one day I will be asked “Was it worth it”? I honestly don’t know how I will answer that. While I still long for a log cabin in the woods, the peace of mind when I lock up this cabin is priceless.

If you would like to see more details of the cabin and its construction, you can visit my blog at www.tincancabin.com. I’m more than happy to help anyone else who wants to build one of these.

34 Comments Steve’s Shipping Container Cabin

  1. Tara

    Great job Steven! I love your interior layout. I read that you expected about 4-5 per weekend, but I only saw the room w/ the bunk beds. Is there a loft that Ma & Pa would sleep in? Or would you use the fold out couch?

    Reply
    1. Steve

      Tara:
      I wish I had a loft, but I’m limited to the eight foot ceilings of the containers. My plan is to get an Ikea Beddinge sofa bed for my wife and I to sleep on.

      Reply
  2. Heather

    This is very nice indeed. I really like the floor plan as well. Looks great with the panels opened up. I think you have any break-ins licked. :)

    Reply
  3. ginmar

    Where did you get the shipping containers from? I want to use a shipping container on my garage foundation as a garage, but I’m finding more scams online than places to legitimately buy them.

    Reply
    1. Steve

      It depends if you are looking for new or used containers. I spent a lot of time looking for new containers about 2 years ago, and I couldn’t find any for a reasonable price. I eventually decided to special order 3 new containers from Dorothea Garrett at Cherokee West Enterprises (530-547-5408). She was very helpful to me as a container newbie at the time. You do have to be patient when ordering new containers though, as mine took several months to arrive.

      Another option is to look through CraigsList. I have seen several new and used containers for sale in my region, and even found a good local dealer that I will probably buy 2 more containers from in the future.

      I have a whole post on buying shipping containers on my blog that you might want to read.

      Reply
    1. mike

      Oh sorry, I found the info on your site. People probably thought you were nuts for not just making a full basement at that point. I love what you did.

      Reply
      1. Steve

        You’re right, a lot of people asked why I didn’t just do a basement. My main concern was the possibility of water ever getting into a basement. If there’s a lot of rain here, you don’t have to dig down very far to hit water. I did not want to have to deal with needing a sump pump especially since I’m not hooked up to the grid. I’s just one less thing that I have to worry about.

        I eventually plan on closing in the sides of the foundation with treated wood walls and use the space underneath for dry storage.

        Reply
        1. mike

          Nice; that is exactly the reason I like what you have done. As solid and strong as a foundation, but you don’t have to worry everytime 4+” of rain falls. Very nice…

          Reply
    2. Steve

      The walls go down about 5.5 to 6 feet below the surface. They were built with 8 foot forms on top of 6 inch footings for a total height of 8.5 feet. FYI, the frost depth at my cabin is around 5 feet.

      Reply
  4. Kari

    What a wonderful idea! Our neighbor’s cabin has been the target of continuous vandalism, like yours was. We are all at our wits end as there seems to be no stopping them from breaking in. This would do it!

    Reply
  5. SoPasCat

    Love what you did to your cabin; your design for interior looks homey & cozy. What I mostly are the container door. You can lock up your cabin, go away on a trip & not worry about getting robbed.

    Can you estimate how much this cost, I may want to build one in the future ?

    Happy Holidays :) !

    Reply
    1. Steve

      I figure it will cost me about $80/sq ft when complete and with furnishings. If I would have done everything myself, built with used containers, and used piers for the foundation, it would probably be more like $60/sq ft.

      Reply
  6. SoPasCat

    Thank you Steve.

    I was wondering, are those insulated containers ?

    What kind of containers would you suggest to folks if they wanted to build a small house but pay less then $80-60,000 building one ?

    Reply
    1. Steve

      The containers I bought were just the standard non-insulated type, although they are now insulated with spray foam.

      The type of containers really depends on the type and size of house that you want to build. If you want security like I have, and are limited to just the original openings, you would probably want to stick with 20′ containers. This gives you the greatest amount of potential window space compared to floor space, but is more expensive per square foot. 40′ containers are a better bargain in the $/sq ft department, but you would probably have to cut the exterior walls to install more windows or they would be too dark inside.

      For 80K I could easily build a 1,000 sq ft container cabin. The problem is if you are trying to build a real home out of them, with all the requisite codes, permits, septic system, etc., then the costs can skyrocket. I don’t even want to think of the headaches involved in building a container house.

      Reply
  7. tim gueguen

    A lot of the books of “small house plans” miss the mark. If anything under 2500 square feet is a small house, as one book I’ve seen implies, I’d hate to see their idea of a big house.

    Reply
  8. Schneb

    Just wondering–what did you do with the sections of wall you cut out to join the 3 containers? (assuming I’m correctly understanding how this went to together)

    And is there any useful space over the containers, under the roof? With a gable end opening, seems like you could tuck kayaks or such up in there.

    Love the idea of it–have thought about the break-in issue and that weighs substantially on the scales for planning purposes.

    Reply
    1. Steve

      All of the interior walls were removed, and I still have them. I had them cut into 4′ widths, so now I have a bunch of 4’x8′ metal panels piled up under my cabin. I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with them – any ideas?

      I do have some of space under the roof and might do something with it someday. I thought about those metal roof hatches that are used on flat roofs. They are secure and could be easily welded into the cabin roof. The only problem is the cost – $500 and up.

      My plan for more storage is to just get another container. I would like to get at least one more next summer to store my firewood, yard equipment, etc.

      Reply
  9. kevin

    I’m impressed. This is one of the best looking container dwellings I have seen. Though, on the security front, someone with an 18v battery-op sawzall could cut through the metal side walls in a blink.

    Reply
    1. Steve

      You are correct, anyone with the right tools will be able to get in. My guess is that it would take about 15 minutes to cut a hole large enough to fit through, which happens to be about 14 minutes and 59 seconds longer than it took someone to kick in my previous cabin door. It’s also a very loud process that few criminals would want to do – I do have some neighbors nearby. The most practical way to break in would actually be a cutting torch on the locks – quiet and fast.

      To be honest though, I’m less worried about a determined thief than I am the bored teenagers looking for a place to drink and fool around. And if anyone actually goes through all that effort to break in, it’s not like I have anything of real value in there anyways.

      Reply
  10. Liam56

    You’re a genius as far as I’m concerned. I have been looking at and thinking about cabins for the past twenty years. Unfortuneately we have the same problem with security in this state that you have in yours. If someone can’t break into the place and mess it up for you, they’ll burn it down…sometimes both.

    I gave your page a quick parusal because I am on my way out the door this morning. If not already reflected on this site….and I dont know if it is or not and I am afraid that by the time I am able to get back here to look, the informaiton will be gone, can I get your building plans? If so, how can I obtain them from you?

    I dont want to put my e-mail address on here because I am a very famous public figure…nah…I’m not really….but I don’t wanna put my address out there either. You would’nt believe the stuff people I’ve never heard of send to my internet mailbox…If the informaiton is already here and it will be here for another six or so months I will appreciate it.

    Thanks for your site. Most other sites relative to shipping container cabins are published by achitects that cater to peta tree huggers instead of the average hunter/fisherman/guy that just likes to be in the mountains/woods.

    Reply
    1. Steve

      Liam:

      If you would like to contact me, just go to my website and there is a contact page there. That will allow us to correspond privately through email. I look forward to hearing from you.

      Steve

      Reply
  11. Dan Sokol

    Steve,

    Regarding the leftover 4×8 panels, how about using them to make a storage shed? Create a frame using L channel and weld the panels into place. Adding a door would be easy and, presto! – totally secure storage.

    Dan

    Reply
  12. Steve

    Steve,
    My wife and i have been talking about a cabin for a long time (15+ years), but like you we have had some concern about people breaking in. So this is a great idea and some thing i am seriously concidering. Would you mind if i asked what state this cabin is in? You have done a awsome job and the more i look at the pic’s above the more i just want to stop looking at other and build one like this. Thanks for sharing

    Steve

    Reply
  13. Jeremiah

    Congratulations! I actually have been kicking around the same concept for years now.

    Don’t get me wrong, you did a fantastic job, I just wonder what your ‘lessons learned’ have been, and if you would have done anything different if you did it over again?

    Specifically, I am thinking (maybe) I would have flipped the middle container around to face the rear direction to have a backdoor and window in the back- This would give visibility and access in the back area, and possibly the ability to open all the doors further?
    Again, you are way further than me, and if your cabin was in my ideal area I would buy it in a second, so please don’t take that the wrong way.
    BTW how do you hold the doors open?

    THANKS FOR THE IDEAS AND FOOD FOR THOUGHT:)

    Reply
  14. Robert

    This is a great building! Who would ever think to break into it? For added affect you can order a sign to put on the site of the container to read “Waste Treatment Facility”. I really like this design. I would probably have opted to make a basement though for more living/storage space. Can I somehow speak to you about this design? Email me if possible.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  15. Will

    The wheels are spinning! Thanks for the ideas and actually following through with your plan. It is so cool to see the actual finished product. Well done, sir!

    Reply
  16. Ben

    Looks great — very imposing and secure-looking when closed up, but really blends in nicely with the surroundings.

    Reply
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  18. heceta

    I am very interested in building a cabin similar to yours. My skill level sounds similar to yours so my confidence is high for some aspects. That all said, I am curious how you supported the container once the sides were removed. This is one thing that has me worried as I consider my plans.

    Reply
  19. janine

    Absoluely fantastic… we want to build a small cottage for our autistic son to live in on our property so he can be independent yet have us nearby if he needs us. i had looked at many alternatives, caravan, train carriage, bus, prefab house and yes a shipping container. you’ve convinced me the container is the way to go . i can get mine starting at $3000AUD so it’s now very do-able

    Reply

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