Sustainable Homes with Shipping Containers - Casas sustentables con contenedores - casas sustentáveis com contêineres

Sustainable Homes with Shipping Containers: An Ecological Alternative for Housing.

An increasing number of people are seeking to build sustainable homes using shipping containers as a potential way to generate new housing options and be more environmentally friendly. The growing global population, diminishing supplies of finite resources, and climate change are making many individuals more aware of their impact on the environment.

When we talk about sustainability in the context of construction, we generally refer to its most relevant subset, which is sustainable development. Sustainable development aims to build in a way that does not negatively affect future generations with pollution, reduced access to natural resources, etc.

In other words, it is about meeting the needs of people today without preventing future generations from satisfying their own needs. Concerned global citizens are seeking ways to reduce their carbon footprint and be more environmentally conscious. This, in turn, is leading many to explore more responsible and sustainable construction methods.

Using recycled materials or giving a second life to previously used materials are two excellent ways to achieve this. After all, if we can use materials we already have, it is less new material that we need to extract from the earth and transform into products. However, containers are not universally an ecological gold mine. They must be used correctly to have a net benefit.

Reasons to Seek Environmentally Friendly Options

In informal surveys we conducted, the second most common reason for choosing container construction was because it was perceived as environmentally friendly. This is a trend that is not exclusive to construction but has been gradually increasing in diverse areas of the global economy, such as transportation and food.

Even for those less concerned about the environment, practicing some minimalist ideas often leads to the same point. Minimalism goes against the Western notion that “more” is always better. Instead, one can gain efficiency and even happiness by minimizing the resources they use, the things they accumulate, and the decisions they make.

Waste Management Hierarchy

If we frame the waste and waste management ecosystem as a step, recycling often receives the most attention. This is likely because it requires minimal effort from individual users (although the process involves complex systems and supply chains).

Basically, recycling asks you to take things you are discarding and put them into a different container. But someone needs to collect those carefully sorted wastes, transport them, process them, and ultimately turn them into something useful.

As a result, recycling is actually the last step in a three-phase waste management hierarchy commonly known as the “Three Rs.”

The preferred order of implementation is: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

Together, they help conserve natural resources, landfill space, energy, and money. While we discuss this topic in relation to building sustainable homes with containers, it is important to focus not only on the containers themselves but also on all the other construction materials involved.

1. Reduce Your Consumption

First and foremost, the easiest way to reduce what is discarded is to use fewer things. This is sometimes called pre-cycling. It may require careful consideration to distinguish between needs and wants, but it saves the effort of having to seek alternatives for reuse or recycling later on. In the context of residential construction, this often manifests in the form of small houses. The exact criterion for what falls into the category of a ‘small house’ can be somewhat ambiguous, but the general idea is to focus on having a space large enough to meet your needs without excess.

But reducing the size of space is not the only form of reduction. Another option is to use fewer ‘things’ for the same space. For example, do you really need televisions in every room? Does your family really need multiple bathrooms, or with careful planning, would one be sufficient? While we have focused on the consumption of material goods, the argument can easily be applied to energy as well. In the end, the majority of energy in the world is still provided by finite resources such as oil, gas, and coal, which also contribute to pollution. By using more natural sunlight and fewer electric lights, utilizing shading and insulation to reduce heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) requirements, and adopting solar energy, you can substantially reduce energy consumption.

2. Reuse Existing Materials

Reuse, sometimes referred to as recycling, can be summed up by the saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” To understand how the concept of reuse fits into your life, you must first consider the lifecycle of a product. You start with the premise that everything is created with a purpose.

From there, after fulfilling that purpose, you have four options:

  1. Reuse the product for the same purpose again.
  2. Reuse the product for a new unrelated purpose.
  3. Recycle the product into another product or something else.
  4. Dispose of the product in the trash.

With containers, the first option often occurs even before you purchase them. Used containers have been used dozens, if not hundreds of times, before being put up for sale. The entire container system is based on the idea of reusing the same container multiple times, which is one of the reasons it was an improvement over traditional cargo handling methods.

The second option is the focus of this section. The idea is that at some point, a used container will reach the end of its lifespan. It’s a bit worn, scratched, and maybe even dented. It has traveled the world multiple times and has the scars to prove it. The owner makes an economic decision that trying to repair it once again is no longer a valuable use of money. But is it now just waste, taking up space like a pile of debris? Not at all!

Instead, with recycling, the old container that is no longer useful for its purpose can be repurposed into something more valuable. Recycling requires less energy to process, which means what we already have available can be repaired or transformed into raw material to create something new. And as an additional benefit, it requires a smaller quantity of other materials, such as wood and concrete, than would otherwise be needed.

Building sustainable homes with used containers not only helps the environment through recycling but also means that additional materials like bricks and concrete are not required. Reusing a container as a building material is actually a way to reset the clock and give a second life to that cargo box.

The requirements for surviving transoceanic journeys filled with cargo are much more stringent than those needed to serve as a dwelling or office. There is still plenty of life left in those containers for entrepreneurial individuals who can see their potential. And there’s nothing stopping them from being recycled either. Containers can contribute even further during the construction process. For example, any cutouts made to create space for doors and windows can be used to create things like awnings or shutters.

3. Recycle Waste into Something New

As mentioned earlier, recycling is preferable to sending something to a landfill, but waste prevention (through reduction and reuse) is even better. However, if you’ve already taken the steps of Reduce and Reuse and still have something left over, it’s time to consider recycling.

Recycling typically involves a chemical or mechanical process that breaks down a product into its raw materials or constituent elements. In most cases, it’s not something you can do at home, and it requires energy to complete. The result is a new material. Some materials can be recycled almost indefinitely, and the new materials are essentially the same as those in the original material. Think of broken glass being turned into new glass or crushed soda cans being made into new soda cans. However, eventually, trace elements present in the material start to accumulate in concentration to the point where the item can no longer be recycled for its original use. That’s where downcycling comes in.

Downcycling still results in creating a new product but one with less value than the primary product. An example is recycled paper that, after several iterations, eventually needs to be converted into cardboard as the paper fibers become too short to produce regular paper.

You can recycle old containers to create new containers or downcycle them into lower-grade steel material. Either way, a significant amount of energy is required to convert them into molten steel and manufacture new products. For this reason, container recycling often isn’t economically viable, which is why you see stacks of cargo containers in various places. In most cases, they’re worth more as a cargo container than as scrap until they’re completely rusted and full of holes.

Remember to also consider other construction materials, and know that not everything can be recycled. Some materials, if they can’t be reused, generally need to be disposed of. If you can’t purchase products made with recycled materials, you can at least try to use things that are recyclable.

Availability of Empty Containers for Container Homes

There are millions of containers in the world, but only a fraction of them are in service and actively being used. Many of the remaining containers are being wasted in ports and storage yards worldwide. Using one of these existing shipping containers as a base for sustainable container homes is a great example of recycling or adaptive reuse.

With so many containers stacked in yards, scrapyards, and ports, there is a large number of containers available for purchase and conversion into your next home. While it’s difficult to track the exact number of existing containers, we can infer that there are plenty of them. And logic tells us that each year, more containers reach the end of their lifespan, creating a new additional supply of empty containers.

Since containers are commodities, their prices depend on the laws of supply and demand. Until you see a significant increase in the cost of used containers, you can be sure that there is a large quantity of them available.


Containers are an excellent way to recycle a product that generates a lot of waste and, instead of allowing it to deteriorate, can be used as construction materials. While there are a number of other reasons why you might choose to use containers in your next construction project, their ability to increase the sustainability of the project is certainly among them.

Additionally, remember that we have a collective responsibility to address sustainability holistically. Container recycling and reuse are just one part of the overall solution. It’s also important to consider sustainable construction practices at every stage of the project, from material selection to energy efficiency and proper construction waste management.

Container homes are a viable option for people seeking a more sustainable approach to construction, but like any construction project, it’s crucial to conduct thorough research, plan carefully, and ensure the project meets local requirements and building regulations.

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