Ugh! Shipping Containers and Building Codes.

do believe that this is probably of greatest concern for us containerists (besides coming up with a cool home design!): passing building code inspections. I will try to help with some information you can use to better your odds of obtaining a building permit and passing code. Use this information at your own risk and discretion, I am not responsible for any failures or mishaps.

It’s obvious to anyone out there that an undamaged, unmodified shipping container vs. a house (in just about any situation) where sturdiness and rigidity are scrutinized, the container would win hands down. If forced to at gunpoint, I would rather shove mounds of padding into a shipping container and ride out a trip over the Niagra Falls than a traditional house–I would have a greater chance of making it. Yeah, I know, a silly scenario; but it’s to make a point about how incredibly strong a shipping container really is. So why wouldn’t it pass inspection if used for a home, right? The answer that would blanket most situations would be: because the use of shipping containers for homes is not a common thing and the inspectors generally do not know where to begin. A lot of inspectors are former contractors themselves, so they are very familiar with what the essentials are in public safety and compliance to the Uniform Building Code; but most aren’t familiar with what could compromise the structure of a shipping container in a residential application. Most inspectors would have to use common sense and existing codes for reference. Don’t hold me to this, but there is a code book for ISBU’s (shipping containers used for residences and businesses) either beginning to circulate or about to circulate to the municipalities across the United States; but not a standard yet.

An unlikely hero is Peter DeMaria. We containerists are familiar him because he is the superstar architect in Manhattan Beach, CA who got an 8-container home to fly in one of the strictest areas in the U.S.–the Redondo Beach home that I drove by in my video. If you look up the keywords “container home” on Google and hypothetically, you only get 3 results, the DeMaria home will be one of the results–guaranteed. It’s a flagship home for the ambitious owner-builders and architects out there who want to use shipping containers as a building component. The home could be as important to containerists as case law is to lawyers; used as a key reference for which viability and feasibility can be demonstrated. We shall see.

For now, there are ways to improve your odds for obtaining a building permit and ultimately, passing code inspection. Easiest approach is to speak to officials in the local offices governing your area. If you get a positive response to your plans, then that is a step in the right direction. It’s hard to say what the local building department will say to you at this stage, because the acceptance and understanding of the utilization of containers for homes is still embryonic. There are many variations of temporary housing utilizing shipping containers for disaster relief and in the military; but generally, those are just converted containers and not a component of a larger structure like most of us want to create.

Shipping container homes, when presented to people unfamiliar with the concept, allude to trailers and cheap housing–something any community probably wouldn’t want to see built, of course: Not in my backyard! Yes, that is close-minded to not be receptive to a container home–especially a cool one, but it’s the mountain we must climb.

I found a great document which gives you a guideline to follow when approaching a building department for a permit or approval:

Code Approval Advice for Alternative Building Methods (.pdf format)

Another way around this whole code issue is to target an area where alternative building is allowed. I am familiar with several areas out west. Places with no Alternative Owner Builder (AOB) codes:

  • Mendocino County, California
  • Nevada County, California
  • Humboldt County, California
  • Island County, Washington
  • Cochise County, Arizona (although things may have changed here, double-check)

There are havens from code like federal trust land, university land, reservations, other countries, etc. You will have to do your homework. To this day, you can still find states here in the U.S. that have counties with zero building restrictions. Hunt around. Moving to build your dream container home seems radical, but you live once, right?

Here are a couple of resources you may find helpful in your quest:

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