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Sustainable Construction with Steel Shipping Containers

There’s an object that you’ve probably seen a million times on trains and barge boats but never thought twice about: steel shipping containers. The containers have just recently been generating attention as the ideal, inherently eco-friendly construction material.

Repurposing Shipping Containers

Repurposing these containers has become a growing trend as well as a social movement within the realms of modular construction, tiny houses and especially sustainable construction.

Global urbanization houses over half of the population. That’s over 4 billion people living in cities. According to the World Bank’s 2017 urban development research, that number is expected to hit 6 billion for a 1.5 times increase within the next 30 years. With such an increasingly fast-paced and developing world, it’s our job to lay a sustainable foundation for future generations.

These busy city-dwellers are generating also over 80% of global GDP. Along with the expanding cycle of productivity, they’re consuming 2/3 of the world’s energy and accounting for 70% of greenhouse emissions. With more people comes more buildings. With more buildings comes a greater need to design efficiently.

Designing cities for enhanced sustainability is key. At its core, this buzz word simply means embracing the preservation of our physical environment. With the growing need to expand and expand fast, we must look forward and plan ahead. City leaders must wisely guide the development of basic services, infrastructures and affordable housing with our grandchildren in mind.

 Carefully preserving the buildings that shape our cities is the foundation for shaping a healthier and more abundant future.

When it comes to preserving our environment, keeping the air fresh plays a huge role. While CO2 automobile emissions greatly add to the air’s toxicity, the built environments consume an excessive amount of energy as well.

Buildings account for a surprisingly high percentage of carbon emissions. It’s not just the vehicles that are toxifying our air. In developed countries the built environments account for over 40% of the energy consumption.

Using the United Kingdom as a reference point, the Innovate UK’s Technology Strategy Board conducted an environmental assessment in 2017. The building up and tearing down as well as the operational running of these buildings taxes our environment. Built environments account for:

  • 45% of UK carbon emissions (27% domestic, 18% non-domestic buildings)
  • 72% of domestic emissions from space heating and providing hot water
  • 32% of landfill waste comes from building and tearing down buildings
  • 13% of products delivered to construction sites are sent to landfills, unused

That’s a huge portion of emissions that’s worth looking into. As developers are further understanding the repercussions of hasty actions, we’re beginning to move forward more carefully. The concept of “building green” is still quite fresh. In 2005 only 2% of non-residential buildings were green[1]. That number has jumped to 41% just seven years later and up to 48% in 2015.

When you’re building green, energy efficiency becomes the focal point. Designers have to strategically cut back on those toxifying emissions. To build a sustainable future, we’ll need to build sustainable buildings that can meet our present needs for housing and working environments as well as our future needs. That list of built environment energy consumption should encourage us to look for better processes and materials.

Shipping containers enable sustainability 

If you’re a construction firm owner, an environmentally-conscious city planner, a tiny home dweller or a concerned citizen, you’ll want to know more about steel shipping containers.

Designed to ship loads of heavy material across the world, the steel shipping container became a globally-standardized transportation module in 1956[2]. They’re meant to withstand weather, weighty stacking and ocean travel.

Modular construction builders enjoy the easy stacking and prefabrication of the shipping containers. Tiny home people love these because at 150 square feet, they’re inherently tiny. Sustainability enthusiasts enjoy repurposing the box of steel as naturally recycled construction material.

Those who receive these massive shipments often give the containers to local building sites to avoid the cost of shipping it back. Now there’s about 30 million unused shipping containers all around the world. Using them in construction is a perfect way to recycle these outcasts.

The use of steel shipping containers is a growing trend that fits so many of society’s growing needs. These durable steel containers have become the latest trend for reuse construction material, especially in the tiny home movement. At 150 square feet of space, a single container easily doubles as your next simplistic home, retreat or office space.


This construction material is naturally a great addition to the green building movement. It’s recycled and repurposed. While repurposing these containers has only recently become popular, their building reuse goes back to the 1980s. The military would often utilize the structures as temporary offices, bunk houses or even showers when needed. Now the container architecture movement is evolving.


The versatility of steel shipping containers has sparked a global wave of creativity and imagination among designers. Stacking and designing these containers is like playing with heavy Legos. Anything from a high rise to a rustic cabin or spa retreat can be created. Within the construction realm, this growing movement is often referred to as cargo architecture or “cargotecture.”

With the global standardization, you’ll always know what you’re getting into with these containers. The most common container sizing will be 8 feet wide, 8 feet and 6 inches high, and either 20 or 40 feet long. This makes it really simple to find containers that stack together. If you want an especially high ceiling for your design, there’s also these “high cube” containers. The high cubes are 40 feet long, 8 feet wide, and then 9 feet and 6 inches high[3]. They’re rare, but they exist and lend some additional variation with cargo architecture.

In addition to the convenience and eco-friendly features, steel shipping containers are cheap building materials. A decent steel shipping container can easily be bought for $1,500 to $2,000.

The containers also extremely durable. They’re built to last through hard labor for at least 30 years. With that, most of them are left by the wayside at 10 years.[4]

They’re also inherently fireproof and make great post-disaster housing. Think hurricanes, tornado's, or earthquakes.  To say they can withstand a great deal of wear and tear is an understatement.


Over the last 10 years, steel use in housing and non-residential construction has significantly grown. It’s one of the most sustainable building materials in the world. The American Institute of Steel Construction found that U.S.-produced structural steel contains 93.3% recycled steel scrap.

There’s several other qualities that steel one of the most ideal construction materials:

  • Top Recycled Material:According to the Steel Recycling Institute, steel ranks at the top throughout North America with over 58 million tons recycled. It’s followed by paper, aluminum, glass and plastic.
  • Unlimited Life Cycle:According to the Steel Recycling Institute, steel has the ability to be continuously reused without losing durability or strength.
  • Reduced CO2 Emissions:Using recycled steel saves 80% of CO2 emissions.
  • Cheaper To Produce:Steel costs three to four times less to produce than aluminum.

Steel is already a recycled and eco-friendly material. That makes steel shipping container repurposing an exponential win for the eco-friendly cause. Not only can you save money using these, but you can make a difference and progress an environmental movement.


In addition to helping the environment, these steel containers can help people take control of their financial crises. Approximately 76% of Americans[5] are living paycheck to paycheck and spending between 1/3 and 1/2 of their income just to put a roof over their heads. That adds up to about 15 years of someone’s lifetime spent working just to pay for that huge house.

Why should shipping containers be considered as an alternative building material? We asked Ted Elsasser of Southwest Sustainable Builders for his expert opinion, here's what he said:
Shipping containers used for residential construction make sense for a building material because,
    a. Their is an abundance of them on the planet.
    b. Steel is very recyclable and easily adapted.
    c. Because the container is a rectangular unit, the design process is very fun for everyone. An endless variety of configurations.
    d. Can be a fast process.
Typical American homes are about 2,600 square feet of space. Now the Tiny Home movement encourages people to go against the flow and downsize. People are purposely moving into homes between 100 and 400 square feet of space. It has served as a highly empowering transition for many people, as well as more time and freedom.

Sleek and compact, steel shipping containers fit the bill. Instead of leaving these containers to rot all around the world wherever they’re distributed, we can successfully repurpose them. For many people, this convenient construction material has become a modern office space, getaway retreat or home.

Sustainability saves money, provides jobs

We’ve been building buildings for a long time. Within cities especially, it’s important to maintain the quality as well as the sustainability. They need to be designed in a way that will last through generations and minimize environmental damage.

What's the most striking fact you learned when getting into sustainable building?

"The most striking fact about sustainable building is that not much is new. Most techniques and materials have been used for centuries with great success. What we can alternative today was most likely standard 100 years ago. - Ted Elsasser"

Aside from helping the planet, purposely designing energy-efficient buildings will help cut costs. Think about that energy bill that comes in every month. Aside from being conscious of switching off the lights when you leave, there are some bigger ways to make your residential energy more efficient.

Building green means designing your home with a clear intention to be energy efficient. The idea of “building green” is still very new. Development researchers are surprised at how quickly the trend has grown.

Building Green

When contractors or firm managers have experience in the growing market of sustainability design, they can join a market of opportunities. The green construction market hit $145 billion for a single year in 2015.

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) conducted a study predicting that the green construction will generate $190.3 billion in labor earning by 2018. That will contribute $303.5 billion contribution to the national Gross Domestic Product[6]. That’s great for everyone.

Not only are these sustainable buildings making money and improving the economy, but they’re also providing jobs. In 2015 the growing market provided 2.3 million jobs. According to the USGBC, green construction will account for over 3.3 million jobs in the U.S. alone by 2018. That’s over one third of the whole construction industry. That’s a long way from that measly 2% back in 2005.

Sustainability construction moves forward

More construction firms are catching on and redefining their mission statements. In 2015 the World Green Building Trends found that 51% of firms have committed to adding more sustainability elements to over 60% of their work.

Is it really possible to get people to embrace alternative housing materials?

"Yes. 1st way is to show how much less $$ the operating costs will be over a simple five year period. 2nd reason is to give them what they want, just make it look like what their ideological vision is of a house/building. Appeal to their tastes, (or lack of it).  - Ted Elsasser"

When it comes to sustainable construction materials, biodegradable, recycled and sustainable materials are key. Now designers are getting creative. There’s a number of trending green construction technologies and strategies[7]  that have been gaining grounds in recent years.

  • Storm-water management
  • Water Reuse and supply technologies
  • Using sustainable construction materials
  • Storage solutions
  • Green architecture with cross-ventilation
  • Low-emittance windows and smart glass
  • Zero-energy buildings
  • Cool roofs

Aside from following a clear conscience, there are several practical reasons why a construction company would want to incorporate sustainability.


Building green has tons of advantages that are appealing to both businesses and environmentally-friendly citizens. Even if some of the construction technologies cost more upfront, companies will still reap long-term benefits. As these sustainable construction technologies are developed further on a wide-scale, they allow for more affordable distribution.

The same World Green Building survey revealed that firms move forward for some high-ranking social reasons such as greater health and productivity. When it comes to environment reasons, energy savings tops the list. Again, think about that energy bill and all of those built environment emissions.

With fun trends like the steel shipping containers, sustainability is becoming popularized and even “hip” in several regions. If you’re looking for a “something bigger” to be a part of, jump on board and help solve the puzzle of sustainability.


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