What’s Best for Your Tiny Home Project – Shipping, Storage, or Conex Containers?

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The tiny home movement may be gathering more and more steam in recent times, but it is not a brand-new phenomenon. Flagbearers and intellectuals have been extolling the virtues of minimalist living for decades now. Lloyd Kahn and Lester Walker wrote about it in the 70s and 80s, and Sarah Susanka championed it and got the ball rolling in the 90s. But even revered writer-philosopher Henry David Thoreau explored a similar idea in the 80s. The economic impact of the great recession of 2008 and Jay Shafer’s work in building the tiny house on wheels has been credited as the genesis of the modern-day tiny home moment though. And, the idea takes root in financial prudence and one of the greatest American objectives – freedom.     

The idea of the minimalist living movement is to break free from the shackles of homeownership and the mortgages and high maintenance costs. You can also –

  • Save on utilities
  • Fix things up much more easily than in a traditional home
  • Learn to spend less on belongings as there’s nowhere to put them 
  • Reduce your carbon footprint
  • Learn to be more self-sustainable 
  • Take advantage of the large swathe of community living approaches from tiny homes to travel the country and explore instead 

If you are intrigued by the idea of joining in with the tiny home movement and are looking for the right solutions to help you build your own tiny home, you have come to the right place. Shipping containers have proven to be an effective solution for building interesting and creative tiny homes. Of course, the traditional tiny home is categorized as anything less than 400 sq. ft or 37 m2, people have been known to shrink that number down to below 100 sq. ft or even gone beyond the 400 sq. ft number in their search for the ideal tiny home to suit their specific needs. This article gives you a rundown of all the options you have at your disposal for building your own tiny home and answers the questions that come up most often on a project such as this. 

Which Container Should You Use? Conex Containers vs. Storage Containers vs. Shipping Containers 

Before delving any deeper into the meaning of these terms, let’s get something straight. All these containers are technically storage containers since they are all used to store things, and since they are typically used for shipping goods across the world by sea, they are also all commonly known as shipping containers. 

Conex Containers: The Conex container is the smallest container available. It was created by the US Armed Forces in the 50s to ensure supplies reached front lines in the Korean War. It was also widely used in the Vietnam War to great effect. Conex is an amalgam of the words ‘container’ and ‘express’ to signify the use of the primary attributes of these boxes. 

Shipping Containers: Also known as sea boxes and intermodal containers, these boxes come in various sizes and are used as intermodal containers for transporting goods from one country to the next by means of naval transport. They are usually made of strong metals like corrugated steel since they need to be rugged and tough to survive the long journeys on the high seas. 

Storage Containers: Typically, the phrase ‘storage container‘ is just another way to say shipping container; however, this may not always be the case. There are specific containers made purely for on-site storage rather than storage and transportation or used in road or rail transportation that doesn’t require walls of the same level robustness as shipping containers. Because of this, storage containers may be made from lighter or thinner metals or even non-metal materials based on their use. 

Building Blocks – How to Build your Tiny Home on Wheels

Shipping containers offer a solid base to build your dream tiny home. There are many reasons why shipping containers are the go-to options for tiny home projects. Here are some of the benefits of using containers for tiny homes – 

  • Durable: Shipping containers are built to last, and in the harshest conditions. If you do it right, you can build a container home that can withstand natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes. After all, lots of pitching, shaking, and strong gusts of winds are just par the course for life at sea.
  • Cost-effective: If you go down the used route, containers can be quite cost-effective for tiny home builders. Based on the size of the container you choose and how much it has been used, you could get a great deal. (more on the actual pricing of containers below) 
  • Convenient: It is much easier to convert a pre-existing structure to suit your needs than it is to build something from the ground up. Containers offer walls, a roof, and a floor to work from, so you have a solid starting point in your build.
  • Stackable: Multi-storey builds are in vogue, and containers are the perfect solution to make your tiered tiny home build dreams come true. This is because storage containers are typically of a universal size, which makes them so easy to stack on top of each other.  
  • Environment-friendly: Repurposing a used container is also a move that is good for the environment. You are essentially recycling these storage containers and extending their life cycle in one go by converting them into homes. 
  • Easy to Transport: These shipping containers are literally built for transport. You can easily find cranes with the right load-bearing capabilities and flat-bed trucks that are purpose-built to accommodate these containers regardless of the size you opt for. 
  • Aesthetically Pleasing: There’s something appealing about a shipping container’s smooth, clean lines and angular corners. You can integrate this aesthetic into your overall design and have fun with it. 
  • Secure: Since they are made of corrugated metal, these containers are extremely difficult to break into – a quality that any tiny-home owner, especially one who travels with their home, would appreciate. 

Now that you know what shipping containers bring to the table, the first thing you need to do is figure out the final design for your container-based tiny house. Do you want it to be made from a single container or multiple stacked containers? Do you want it to be portable or a permanent fixture? How many windows and doors do you want? Once your designs are sketched up, you can figure out the size of the container you need. 

Shipping Container Sizes and Ballpark Prices

  • 10-foot Conex Containers: Prices for used Conex containers can range from $1,000-$1,500.  
  • 20-foot Storage Containers: Used 20-foot shipping containers can cost $2,000-$3,000.
  • 24-foot Storage Containers: 24-foot storage containers retail from $2,500-$3,500 for pre-owned options.
  • 40-foot Storage Containers: The price of used full-sized 40-foot containers can range from $3,500- $5,500. 

Although the length of these containers varies, the width and height remain standard at 8 feet by 8.6 feet. The prices mentioned here are a ballpark, and new containers will be significantly more expensive, of course. You can find more accurate pricing for used shipping containers once you fill in details regarding your location, as availability will factor into the final price. Prices will also vary based on what modifications you want to be made to the container; if you want to opt for solutions with insulation pre-fit, walls and furniture pre-installed, and even windows, HVAC, and electricity wired up from the dealer or want to do it yourself. Delivery charges are also an important consideration when choosing a vendor to purchase your container from. One more crucial check you should perform before placing an order is for ISO rating. ISO-rated containers are certified, ensuring that you don’t get a sub-standard storage container.

Shipping, Moving and Installing Your Tiny Home Container

Whether you choose to equip your container-based tiny home with a permanent trailer platform featuring wheels and an axle so you can tow it wherever you wish, or mount it on a flat-bed for mobility, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. As long as your home isn’t longer than 40-feet, is under 8.5 feet in width, and less than 13.5 feet tall, you may not require a special permit to move it. Local rules and regulations change from state to state, so make sure to do your research before planning a move. You will also require a heavy-duty truck to handle the load of your trailer during the move. You can choose to do the transporting yourself or hire professional shipping services to do it. 

Regardless of the route you opt for to transport your home, one important thing to always remember to do is strap down all the items within the home and secure storage spaces. So lock or tie up cupboards and closets, ratchet down all your furniture, stow away delicate items, and secure electronic items and utilities like a fridge or washer as well. All the movement and jostling from transportation could lead to severe damage to your possessions if you don’t take this crucial step. 

If you do take care of the transport yourself, make sure to do your research on tiny-home friendly locations to park your home in. Furthermore, you should also do a visual inspection of the location you have narrowed down to ensure that it can take the weight of your home. Otherwise, you might find an uneven installation or even a situation where your tiny home gets bogged down in a damp or swampy area. Other things to consider include the availability of utilities, electric supply, water supply, and drainage facilities if you need them. Lastly, access to the site needs to be easy, or you won’t be able to drive your tiny home into position. 

Permits Required to Build a Tiny Home 

The permits and zonal clearances you may require for your shipping container tiny home will vary based on whether or not you choose to have a permanent mobile chassis, the size of the home, the location you want to install it in, and more. Whether you choose to build the home or buy a pre-fabricated one will also determine the laws it falls under. For a tiny mobile home that isn’t an RV, this resource from the Department of Housing and Urban Development is quite useful. You will need to clear your home for zoning laws, deed restrictions, and building codes and permits based on the type of home you choose to build and the state you are residing in. The building code permits are extremely crucial as certain safety parameters typically need to be met. Due diligence and regular conversations with the relevant authorities will go a long way in smoothening out the entire process. 

An architect and a structural engineering consultant are must-haves for a project that you are working on yourself, and when looking to fill these two positions, make sure you only consider candidates who have experience in building container-based tiny homes. If you want to avoid all this hassle, going down the route of a pre-fabricated home could prove to be the smarter choice.

Sophie Turner
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