shipping container home

building a shipping container home

go to step by step constuction

Remote accomodation is always a challenge in difficult terrain.
What follows is an example of using two conventional shipping containers to create 90 square meters of living space in dense rainforest adjoining World Heritage Rainforest. The facility, on a nature refuge is used for rainforest research. The terrain is extremely difficult and accessed via a narrow track made by woodcutters in 1928. The techniques are simple and require only very basic  skills. They produce a dry, durable ,vermin proof, comfortable, removable facility with a low ecological impact.

See also the excellent container home site: KTainer (external link)

Click on  any image for larger image.

new polycarbonate sheeting

Step by Step Construction


We cleared the 1928  timber access track  by hand using axes and dragging  the material, various distances into the surrounding bush. All mature trees were avoided, all stumps cut horizontal at ground level to prevent tyre spearing.
  Standard 6m (20') containers were taken down this trackone at a time, on the back of a small tilt truck, the kind used to carry a single car when they have broken down. These trucks are widely available and cheap to hire. At less than two tonnes the container could be maneuvered  down a narrow track  between large trees and slid off into a confined area under control,  with ease. In extreme terrain the smaller containers could even be dragged shorter distances behind a backhoe. Some internet companies  sell  wheels  you can attach to move by  hand  or  behind  a 4WD.

 In less severe terrain a 40' container might be better value, however the larger container at about 3.5 tonnes would require a much larger truck and a much better road. Unloading would also be a problem.
Shipping containers have wooden, not steel floors. It is important to leave some air space below them in wet environments. When stacking containers, most of the weight is carried by the steel frames around the ends of the container. If you wish to stack containers at right angles additional internal support for the bottom container may be required. Some containers have additional support along their side edges but they are hard to find.

 We used two 6m (20') containers placed 3m (10') apart.


The site, in Far North Queensland, is situated in dense tropical rainforest. The area has slippery red lateritic clays and gets about 6m of rain per year. The area has many snakes and troublesome white tail rats. It was decided to raise the containers onto 1.5m concrete stumps to keep them out of the wet, to keep them out of the splash and to keep rats and snakes out. We did not try to level the ground as it would break the protective root cover and result in erosion. 

 PVC plastic pipe with rebar steel was placed into 600mm diameter X 600mm deep holes. We used a dumpy level and string to get things level.

It is very important to get things level and to have the posts exactly where you need them - take as much time as needed for this.

The 8 holes and pipes were filled with concrete mixed on the spot one hole at a time. This took two days.

The PVC pipe is expensive - if you are not in a rush and are on level ground so that your posts are the same length more or less you can  make a mould for the concrete posts from a single length of PVC cut lengthwise in half, riveted down one side with a piano hinge and held on the other side with two luggage clamps. By coating the inside with some sump oil, the mould comes off easily , the downside is that you can only do one post per day. We are now using this successfully for fence posts -  10 so far and the mould shows no signs of wear.

The containers were lifted onto the posts by a small low profile rubber tracked crane in about 30min. The concrete posts proved to be very solid and stable. 

 We could also have used a backhoe or jacks.
It would also be possible to weld RHS steel sections onto the four corners and slide a smaller RHS section inside each. With predrilled holes you could slowly jack things up with a very simple jack from a 4 wheel drive vehicle on corner and one hole at a time. This method would, however result in more vibration as, in Australia, we found that in order to get the inner RHS to slide , you had to leave quite a gap. You might be able to lessen the vibration with a few hammered in wedges.

We joined the containers with galvanised C-section

We used a small angle grinder run off a small electrical generator to cut holes in the sides of the containers for large windows.


 Across the front of the two containers we erected 4 smaller diameter concrete posts and put an galvanised expanded metal mesh walkway. The walkway served four purposes.  
 It kept us from tracking mud into the dry living area. It helped keep snakes and rats out. It connected the two containers which were separated by 3m. Finally, in the high rainfall, it permitted the rain to fall straight through so no run off or splash into the dry container interior. In areas or normal rainfall the walkway could be made of less expensive material.  

To the walkway we added a set of prefab concrete steps. this makes it very easy to check for  the ubiquitous rainforest termites.

The containers were also joined together with galvanised C-section.

The windows had aluminium frames and used to belong to an old church.


Something you might no have thought of is that once the walls were cut , the roof got slightly wobbly so we bolted a 2.5m length of RHS steel across the top of the cut. We had screens made to fit the windows.


Once we had put wooden decking on the C-section joining the containers, we repeated the process of C-section and flooring at roof level. We wanted to have a large sitting out area with which to view the rainforest. By elevating this area we got more light, caught more breeze and were above the normal flight level of the small number of evening mosquitoes.


On the inside wall of each container we cut out a "conventional" door. 


The whole top area is used for sitting out, drying clothes, projects. We bought three small and very cheap portable carports to cover the roof area. First, the rainforest leaves are very hard on paint so the plastic roof area deflects this. Second, we have attached 2 X 6m lengths of 90mm PVC plastic storm water pipe to collect drinking water. Third, the plastic roofing reduces the noise of the intense tropical downpours. Fourth, the roofing makes the lower floor, cooking, area nearly waterproof.


water tank

We used rain off the plastic carport roofs to fill a plastic water tank

  screens for large doors

  We screened the large container doors with aluminium mesh to give ventilation but discourage white-tail rats

door detail 

Basically we welded  a rectangular frame out of RHS and attached it where we wanted a door. Next we used an angle grinder to cut out the part of the wall inside the frame. To this cut out we attached a second smaller RHS frame and welded the cut out to it. Between the two frames we attached a couple of stainless steel hinges and a clasp for a padlock.
This will become out main (mostly dry) entrance. The smallest and cheapest angle grinder worked best for cutting doors / windows  in the conainer.We used RHS to make secure, lockable entrance doors from the decking area. We prefabricated the external and internal RHS frames - take care to line up the containers ribs to get flat areas and note the rib spacing  differs from container to container , marked it up then cut the doorway. We then laid the cut-outs on the internal frame, makked them and cut to fit - this was harder than expected because the rib spacing pattern affects both where you place a door and the ultimate door size!

 gravel on track 

Due to the extreme rainfall we had to put some local gravel on the track.  There are frequent  drainages across the track to drain water away  and reduce water velocity, the result  - no  erosion and all weather access.  We always travel at low speed in low range with the Landrover while under the canopy, a gentle footprint keeps the track in top shape. Prior to the gravel we had a trip in and slid off the track all we needed was about 2 hours of  dry weather and we would have the grip to get out - four days later, eating Wheatabix and peanut paste , the rain finally gave us a break and wee decided gravel was a good idea.

research centre 

This year we had exceptionally high rainfall. The containers stayed dry and free of insects or vermin despite an astounding 8m of intense tropical rain!

Our research centre completed. The idea is to build something simple and liveable. We are very satisfied with the shipping containers.

Then on March 20, 2006 came Cyclone Larry, Category 5 with local wind gusts to 283kmh!

  The roof was severely damaged but the shipping containers suffered no damage despite the huge winds and falling branches.

  Many large branches fell on the roof but inside remained watertight.

 We replaced the damaged roof with a steel Shadeshed. It was pretty easy to erect and the pieces were light enough to lift by hand. Notice how most of the background leaves have been blown away!

The Shadeshed is attached to the shipping containers by chains in each corner, visible along the line of the white tarp shown below.

Our new guttering to the water tank was much better and we decided to draw water from just one side of the roof.

  Water from the other side of the roof is currently piped to the ground and drains away. The potential is there to double our water supply but so far the water supply is more than adequate.


Our post Cyclone Larry Rainforest Retreat.

On February 3, 2011 Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi Category 5 passed over the stucture. In the severe winds, the Shadeshed shifted and twisted slightly but the chains attaching it to the roof held. 

We used a small car jack to reposition the Shadeshed, It was simply a matter of loostening the chains and raising one corner a few centimetres. 

The twisted Shadeshed, under tension simply popped back into its original shape and position.

Two Category 5 cyclones in five years is enough - no more please!

The large cargo doors of the containers will have a simple wooden frame erected across them to which we will attach fly screen. In the rainforest  a dry area and maximum ventilation are the key to comfort.

interior detail

view June 2011

Most recently...we have now replaced the moss covered vinyl tarps on the sides with polycarbonate sheets in order to block spray from the rain and let light in to assist with drying out.

Our rainforest research facility cost us about $16,000 AUS all up including two containers, trucking the containers some 500km, screening in the cargo doors, steel, cement, sand and gravel, nuts, bolts,three carports, C-section, screens, timber, decking oil and painting - the lot.

 We have 30sqm of totally dry sleepng area, 15sqm of mostly dry cooking area and 45sqm of covered sitting out area -  a total of 90sqm undercover. 

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