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Building Shipping Container Homes in Pennsylvania: What You Need to Know

Alexander is a professional engineer who specializes in the construction of affordable houses and structures using recycled materials.

Cutaway view of a 40-foot shipping container home

Cutaway view of a 40-foot shipping container home

Housing Solutions

More so now than ever, Pennsylvanians are seeking novel housing solutions. Some want portable homes, some want affordable homes, some want unique homes, and many want all three. One option that is unique, portable, and potentially more affordable than a traditional house is a shipping container home.


  • Is It Legal to Build a Shipping Container Home in Pennsylvania?
  • Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Container Homes in Pennsylvania
  • Two Benefits of Container Homes
  • The Container Home Building Process

Shipping container homes are legal in Pennsylvania, but as with any other building, they are governed by various rules and regulations to ensure they’re up to standard. Two sets of regulations apply here. The first relates to land use, while the second is concerned with the quality of the building.

Start by familiarizing yourself with the zoning codes that divide the land into various categories and stipulate the allowed use of land in each category. If you intend to purchase land for the purpose of building container homes in Pennsylvania, you must confirm that that particular zone allows container homes.

Once you’ve adhered to the zoning codes, you can now turn your attention to the permits surrounding the construction process. Before building a container home in Pennsylvania, you must follow the regulations set by the Manufactured Home Construction and Safety Standard. These regulations seek to ensure that such houses are structurally sound and safe for occupation. The permit here is issued after ascertaining that the building materials and mechanisms are of acceptable standards. Once your plans are approved, you can commence the building process.

Other than proving that your building is legitimate, adhering to these regulations will come in handy in the future. If you need to insure your home, the permit will be proof that your container home is not a “temporary structure” but a structurally sound house built to last. With such an assurance, insurance companies will offer you better premiums. In case you decide to sell your container home later, the permit will assure the validity of the building to any potential buyer and ultimately help it fetch a higher price.

A container home interior

A container home interior

Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Container Homes in Pennsylvania

The popularity of container homes has been growing steadily in recent years. However, there are still those who feel that they do not have adequate information on this mode of construction. Below are answers to some of the most common questions folks ask about shipping container houses.

Are Container Homes Safe?

Given that these containers could have been previously used to transport anything from corrosive chemicals to hazardous industrial materials, some people fear that some containers could hold remnants of these harmful materials. Fortunately, the containers are thoroughly cleaned before building a house, removing every last trace of residue.

Another concern here is that the containers used are second-hand, out-of-service ones which could be in bad shape. The truth is that many of the containers used are hardly “expired.” Some of them have just made a few shipping trips and are essentially still new. Either way, when acquiring the containers, ensure that they’re in good shape and free of damage.

How Long Do They Last?

Container houses are no longer just temporary structures. With advancements in building technology, we have permanent container homes in Pennsylvania built to last. Remember, shipping containers are made from steel, which is strong enough to withstand harsh weather during the shipping process, so you can be assured that your house can survive in any climate.

An average container home can last for 25 years. Rust is a major threat to container homes, however, especially in humid climates. There are some containers that are manufactured using alloys that ensure that the rust does not proceed beyond the surface. Factor in rust resistance when buying a container. Using good-quality siding to protect the exterior also ensures that your container home lasts much longer. Finally, inspect your home regularly for any rust spots and have them treated right away before they spread any further.

Do Container Homes Need Roofs?

In the simplest of container homes in Pennsylvania, the roof of the container becomes the roof of the house. If you want to add some functional and aesthetic value, you can add a roof. Some of the most common roofs include flat roofs, living roofs, roof terraces, and pitched roofs.

Flat roofs are easy to fix. They extend beyond the container roof so as to protect the walls from weather elements. They also have a slight slant for rainfall drainage. Living roofs accommodate decorative plants and are also referred to as green roofs. They aid in cooling the house as well.

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Roof terraces are suitable for small homes as they create a flat occupiable space that can be used as an extra room. Finally, we have pitched roofs with a distinct downward slope suitable for areas with snow or heavy rainfall. Your project engineer should be able to help you choose the roof that best complements your container home.

Are They Cheaper Than Other Houses?

If you’re considering building a container home in Pennsylvania due to the cost factor, you must be wondering if this option is any cheaper than a typical house. Container homes can cost as little as $15,000 or as much as $175,000 and beyond, depending on the design and the quality of the fixtures.

The only definite cost here is that of the containers themselves. A 20-foot container goes for an average of $2,500, while a 40-foot one can go for up to $4,500, depending on age and condition. Once you have the containers, the rest of your budget will finance the foundation, electrical wiring, plumbing, flooring, roofing, insulation, windows, doors, and other fixtures. Here, the contractor can work within your budget.

A container home is not necessarily cheaper than any other home, but it allows you the flexibility of setting your own budget. No matter how much or little money you have, within reasonable limits, of course, you can find a container home within your reach.

How Long Does It Take to Build a Container Home in Pennsylvania?

This is one of the most attractive features of shipping container homes; they take a significantly shorter time to put together than other types of houses. While a conventional brick-and-mortar home can take months or even years to put together, a container home can take as few as two months.

Complicated designs can take longer, but the rate of progress will still be faster than other types of houses. While other building projects start from scratch, containers already offer the basic structure. Modifying them is a minor task in comparison with constructing them from scratch.

To make the process even faster, the construction process can take place in a factory. Here, the container home builders do not have to move back and forth. They have all the tools and materials they need within arm’s length, facilitating a seamless construction process.

Two Benefits of Container Homes

If you’re not already convinced that you should join the container home bandwagon, below are two major reasons why you might consider choosing this building method.

1. They’re Unique and Customizable

In many states, you see similar houses everywhere you look, and Pennsylvania is no exception. If you’re looking for something that truly stands out (without having to spend a fortune on an architectural design), then a container home will serve you perfectly.

Just like a child can create various shapes with blocks, so can you achieve various designs from the giant blocks that are shipping containers. If you can imagine it, then the building experts can put it together. With containers, there are hardly any cookie-cutter designs. Even if you end up in a location with multiple container homes, each one has a unique design, allowing them to stand out.

2. They’re Portable

What happens to your treasured home when you have to move? In most cases, you have to sell or at least rent it out and start all over again in your new location. If you’ve already built your dream home, walking away from it can be devastating. It is unlikely that you’ll get anything like it elsewhere. Having to build yet again is simply exhausting.

With a container home, this does not have to be the case. Building a container house is like having your home on wheels. Should you ever need to move, you can take it along. A few logistics are involved in transporting an existing home, but it can be done. No matter where life takes you, you can rest assured that you’ll never lose your home.

The Container Home Building Process

How many containers does your project need? This will be determined by the design and configuration of the home. There are mini-homes occupying just one container and mega container homes in Pennsylvania comprising ten containers or more. You can mix sizes as well; combining 20-foot and 40-foot containers allows for interesting design options. The containers should be clean, in good condition, and free from rust, dents, and other damages.

Would you rather modify the containers at the factory or on-site? Each of these options has its pros and cons. Working from the factory saves the time and resources that would otherwise be spent moving back and forth transporting personnel, tools, and materials. The process moves faster since everything that is required is within reach.

On the other hand, working on-site gives you a clearer picture of how the home will turn out. Any challenge posed by the condition of the site is sorted in good time. If you bring a complete home to a site, and it does not slot in as expected, making rectifications can be a tall order. Your team of container-building professionals should advise you on the best option for your situation.

Ensure that the modification process does not compromise the structural integrity of the containers. Cutting, in particular, reduces the strength of the container, yet it is necessary to make space for doors, windows, ventilation, and so on. After every cut, the space must be secured with a steel frame. The magnitude of reinforcement should match the size of the cut.

The topography of the building site and the design of the house are the key factors to consider in the site preparation process. A concrete slab is used for the foundation, and its depth is determined by the house size and design as well as the geology of the site. Within the foundation are passages for plumbing, electrical wiring, gas, and so on.

With the container and foundation both ready, now comes the fun part—lifting the containers with a crane, positioning them in place, and watching the design fall in place one container after another. The joints are then welded, and with that, the container house is in place.

If the windows, doors, and partitions are not preinstalled, this is the time to fix them. The next step involves completing the plumbing, wiring, gas, cabinets, and so on. Your container home is just about done. Give it a good finish.

While the construction process concentrates on stability, the finishing process should concentrate on aesthetics. Your home should be appealing to look at. Remember, however steady the building is, it is the finish that gives the first impression. Let the colors, patterns, and textures complement each other, including those of the furnishings. Consider the landscaping as well; a bit of greenery adds a great appeal to any home.

Imagine this entire process taking just a few weeks. One month you have an empty site, and the next you have a complete home that your family can move into. If you’re not up for the building process, there are container homes for sale that you can choose from. There are various sizes and designs available, and hopefully, you can find something that suits your needs.

This outline is by no means comprehensive, but it includes the most crucial steps in building container homes in Pennsylvania. There could be more procedures depending on your design. As long as you’re working with professional builders, you can be assured you’ll be advised accordingly at every step of the way.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2021 Alexander Okelo

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