Open Frame Shipping Container Housing

You can buy just the frame of a shipping container and finish it however you want.
You can buy just the frame of a shipping container and finish it however you want.

“Shipping containers have their pros and cons. What if you can take the pros and leave the cons behind?

Ever hear of “open frame shipping container”? Basically it is the steel frame without the siding, roof, and floor. A base steel fame to build on that is solid as a …. well shipping container. They can also cost a lot less.

Here is one company I found that embraced the idea. They are building their own frames but you get the gist of it.
Give someone a solid frame and they can bolt/screw on their siding, floors and roof of choice. Saving heaps of money and using more friendly materials. I even found a couple available that are 3.3 meters wide (10 ft). Let the factories do what they do best to mass produce an affordable solid welded steel frame. The frame or base is the hard part of building a house for most people. It would make a lot easier (cheaper) for people to meet code. People have a hard time starting from ground zero so give them a base to build from, literally.

For my own self I have always looked for something portable or movable but not a trailer. It just doesn’t fit me. Let’s face it, we are and will continue to be a more mobile society in the future. People have built some amazing houses but if they move or sell it they get next to nothing for it. I’ll use my own self as a case in point. I bought a house that only had a shower. I did up the bathroom very nice. I put in marble tiles, nice fixtures, a spa bath, heated mirror and underfloor heating. I got some of that back when I sold the house but not all of it. So bottom line it was not a good investment of my funds but I did enjoy it immensely for a while. Bottom line I don’t want to repeat that mistake if I don’t have to.

So why not make it so you can move your house with you and not one of those POS (piece of s__t) mobile homes. It could be there is an economic turn down in your area you didn’t see coming or maybe you are ready to retire to the country or just want to move closer to the parents temporarily as they get older. Point is you can pack up your house and go. Now you may need to hire a container truck and trailer to move but that is cheaper and easier than starting completely over. Plus all the investment you made in your house in both sweat and money stays with you. You can even move to another country. But you might need to convert your 120V to 240V but you can do that for the whole house so nothing else new to buy. You can rent an empty piece of land cheaper than an apartment or house rent.

One more thought I had on the open frame shipping container. You could do your build in your driveway or backyard. Then when you are done you can move it to your initial location and move in.

Many people have an issue with funds when they try to build and maintain an existing residence at the same time. So for a young person living at home could do the build in their spare time at their parent’s house as it isn’t permanent then move on when it’s completed. A doable scenario as I don’t think it would infringe on many zoning laws, a home owner association in an upscale neighborhood could be an issue.

You can do anything from earthbag or straw-bale infill to wood. I originally had a thought a long time ago using vertical half round timber, cheaper than dimensional lumber but you need to be sure you have a strong base structure as it gets very heavy when it gets wet. I thought vertical as shorter lengths are cheaper.” [Check out T&G cabin siding.]

Image source: Dahlson Industries
I wonder how much customizing they would do? Ex: Floor joists? More studs where you specify?

Special thanks to Cliff, a long time reader, for this great idea. This looks very practical and I think it might catch on. It reminded me of a previous story about steel framed tiny houses.

24 thoughts on “Open Frame Shipping Container Housing”

  1. my use for them would be to stack them and finish the top with an overhang that afforded extra deck, Out a spiral staircase on one side and voila, instant elevated deck and View.

  2. Going to MEKA site all I see are finished models. Where are the blank slate, shells available?
    Why is it so hard to find just a shell container sized, steel framed shell?

  3. Another email from Cliff:
    Open frame shipping containers are a winner. It just works on so many levels. People can outsource as much as they want and do the rest themselves. If they want a trailer ok or just relocatable. It works well for a modular approach as well so if they set it up right they can easily expand in the future. It is for the little guys and not big business but big business will not ignore it for long. Where there is money potential they will go.

    I can see open frame shipping container parks much like trailer parks. People can rent a place to park but not the house itself. As the the numbers grow these type places will be created to fill the demand.
    The other plus is no one owns it, it is not copyrighted or patented but public domain. But there are those lowlifes that will try to lock it up. They always do. Existing small steel fabrication shops around the world have to love it. They can build a finished frame or a flat pack that can be shipped and assembled at the destination. It is like an erector set for a house. Not a full kit-set just the fame or base. Anything that can be used as infill from earthbag to cordwood can work. Anything from earthquakes to hurricanes are not an issue. Just build to need and you’ll be fine.

    You can build a steel frame to satisfy any building code or inspector. In a way it is a building code buster. You don’t circumvent it, you run over it like a tank using it’s own rules to do it.

  4. From Todd:
    “The open container makes more sense [than using old containers]. I bring in ocean going containers from Asia. Some are totally eroded from sea salt air and others pristine. The open container takes all the stress out of buying a container that you later learn is compromised. Containers in marine air can erode quickly. Hawaii has 1/2 eroded containers all over the islands. Structural integrity is key and I’d prefer starting with the open container form.”

  5. You could put the mechanical unit right next to the main container home with a 1″-3″ gap between the buildings so technically they are separate structures. After you pass the inspections then you could fix up the doorway with a rubber seal and rain shield. Architects and engineers in New Zealand will know the details there.

  6. Owen

    Thinking straw bale what can you put between the straw and the steel members to provide a thermal break to reduce moisture from condensing on the steel getting on the straw?

    Also If you did your dimensions on the frame right your bales would just fall right in place and the bales would be non load bearing. The speed at which you could put up a structure would be off the scale. With steel tube trusses a large overhang would not be difficult.

    I have one question for the expert. How would the plaster hold up in a physical move of the structure? It would be inexpensive to fix but how much fixing might there be?

    • This doesn’t lend itself well to bales if you plan on moving it later. Bales are really bulky. For New Zealand sheeps wool is the way to go. Some type of wood siding would be best because plaster would be prone to cracking when moved.

  7. Owen

    I know people who had a custom trailer made to build a house on. I am sure the same people who built the trailer could fabricate a frame much cheaper and faster. No undercarriage expense or complexity. I consider this a hybrid or best of breed solution. It’s not pure anything but a smarter way to get there.

    • That’s another good idea — build the frame and trailer locally as one unit. LOTS of shops can make trailers and weld frames. The price should be very competitive because they don’t need to use such large size steel members as shipping containers. And, they don’t have to transport a bulky cargo long distances. You’d be creating local jobs and yet still able to do the bulk of the work yourself to keep the cost down.

      • Owen

        The potential exists for the components or members to be manufactured in one place and then shipped to your physical location. You can then assemble it much like an erector set and call a welder in to actually weld the joints of the assembled unit in place. A shipping container is built to an engineered international standard known set of specs. If having your own built I would think it prudent to consult with a structural engineer but this in more in your area of expertise. I would agree there is no shortage of steel fabricator shops in most parts of the world who can do the job quite nicely.

        • One other point is you can look for good clean recycled steel. You can find steel I beams, square tube, and angle iron that would be overkill. But you can pick this kind of stuff up at a steel recyclers and the cost is often per pound.

        • My guess is most people will not want to be limited to standard shipping container sizes. They will want frames that match the size of home they actually need. So local or regional custom fabricators may be the best option for many people.

  8. Obviously this topic has me energized. Here’s my latest thought. Many novice builders have trouble getting framing square on a tiny house on wheels. Buying an open frame design would ensure a high level of precision that would make adding windows, doors, etc. much easier.

    If you’re after dirt cheap housing then use salvaged wood and other local materials and build in a non-code area.

  9. Another comment from Cliff:
    Owen, I found this and thought you might find it useful. How is your Chinese? This is a company that builds container homes. I am sure you can have something completed to a certain point and then they stop and ship. It is not so much customization as stopping short of final completion.

    Wow, look at the bracing on that thing. Building officials would love to see houses built this strong. That’s another point in favor of this eventually becoming very common and/or the standard. Get it certified from an approved fabricator and you’re good to go on the framing inspection. Of course you’d still have to have use an approved foundation, get the mechanicals inspected, etc. If you bought a standard unit with the mechanicals already installed then the inspector could get to the donut shop that much sooner. (Just kidding. I actually get along very well with building officials for the most part.)

  10. More comments from Cliff:
    Basically the Open Frame Shipping Container is providing a nice set of bones to build on. All the engineering and strength is where you need it, at the core.

    A person can wrap it in anything they want or what is locally available to them. But the core will be rock solid or at least steel solid certified to a standard.

    I am glad you see the empowerment options it gives people. People have been building on trailers but this is a better option I think. No tires, brakes, or licensing required but can still be moved.

    I pulled horse trailers for years, with living moving cargo. I am sure most people don’t have much experience at moving a house trailer. It can be very dangerous especially when you are not experienced. For myself I would much rather pay someone else to safely move it. Plus you have the initial on ongoing cost of having enough truck to pull it. Anyone who lives in the mountains knows what I am talking about. In future years how safe are those trailer tires with a little dry rot or brakes with rusted parts going to work? In a word they won’t.

    Many of the trailers people have used for tiny homes were not designed or built to carry large loads for decades. Open Frame Shipping Containers are built and designed for industrial use and abuse of large loads. The standard is much higher. For some who have the skill-set and equipment the dream of just moving your tiny home at the drop of a hat is possible but for most it is simply not feasible.

    Sorry to go on such a tirade about tiny home house trailers. But I think you have some idea of the future disasters in the making. Some people are selling a dream that just isn’t possible for the average person. Hauling a 20,000lb trailer load when a 30 mile an hour crosswind hits you is not for the uninitiated.

  11. I’d love to know the finished cost for one open frame shipping container (with typical floor joists, rafters, extra studs). I believe this concept could provide serious competition for tiny house companies.

    • There’s the company in the Tree Hugger article. They may very well be the option in the US for now because this is their specialty. If this catches on then other companies will likely jump into the market.

      It’s just common sense that this concept could work very well. It combines strong, mass produced code approved frames made in a shop that specializes in this type of work, and unlimited customization options by architects, contractors and homeowners. It just seems like a win-win scenario. Tree Hugger actually compares this to the modularity of bricks. I’m going to go back and read their related articles on this topic.

    • Cathy

      Look to China where they already manufacture a huge number of regular shipping containers. It is the same people making these. They don’t make a few but make thousands of them. You may find a used one but they tend to have a long productive life.

  12. Another advantage of Open Frame Shipping Containers is they would meet code and safety standards for tiny houses on wheels. We can expect a crackdown on 100% DIY tiny houses on wheels. They will likely soon be banned on highways based on the stories I’ve heard. Just imagine a poorly built one fishtailing out of control on a tight curve right in front of you. People who haul a lot of heavy stuff on trailers know what I’m talking about.

    In Cliff’s previous story about the mechanical unit for heating, electrical, etc., readers suggested that it might be easier to put these on a small lightweight trailer that could be towed by a truck instead of putting them in a shipping container. The point is you have options.

  13. From Cliff:
    Open Frame Shipping Containers is a natural evolution of standard shipping containers. So it’s not going away but getting bigger. Shipping containers were a great innovation but not everything fits inside a shipping container. Everything being custom or one off just isn’t cost effective. They used to make cars that way but haven’t for a long time.

  14. Half round posts will leave gaps for air, water and insects to get through. They’re lower cost but you’d have to add underlayment to keep out the air leaks, water and bugs. So T&G log cabin siding may not be much extra in the long run.

    I like the point in the Tree Hugger article about open frame containers being the new ‘brick’ of home design. If enough fabrication centers open up then this would make ordering much more convenient. It’s important that these places do a certain amount of custom changes.

  15. This would work perfectly with Cliff’s previous idea of combining all the mechanical systems (heating, water, electrical, gas) in one portable shipping container.

    Cliff’s ideas utilize the desirable qualities of shipping containers (strong base, code approved, etc.) and still allows the use of natural materials and DIY labor on the rest of the project. Trying to retrofit standard shipping containers is a pain in the butt. See the Tree Hugger site linked above where they question the practicality of building with ordinary shipping containers.


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