Step By Step Guide To Build A Shipping Container Tiny Home

There are literally countless reasons why you might decide you’d like to live in a shipping container tiny home. The modular design, minuscule footprint, self-contained construction makes shipping containers a perfect base to begin converting your life to the shipping container tiny home lifestyle.

Designed to be transportable, weatherproof, and durable, these ubiquitous boxes can be found nearly everywhere and can provide shelter with minimal modifications but are also infinitely open to modifications you’d like to make in order to make your new tiny home your own. The possibilities are endless and only subject to your ingenuity and imagination.

For this guide, we’re going to go over a step by step guide on adding a little bit of square footage to your living space while maintaining the attractive ease and simple nature that shipping container tiny homes are known for. One of the benefits of our construction tips will be that we won’t need to perforate the shipping container with any unnecessary penetrations making all external connections through the new addition and leaving the structure of the shipping container intact.

The addition will also let in natural light so you won’t need to cut in windows. Apart from leaving the shipping container uncut, adding windows in the addition and not in the main body has the bonus feature of not taking away precious wall space when you design your interior.

Skills Required for Shipping Container Tiny Home Construction

Before we begin this “do it yourself” discussion, you’ll need to assess your skills and determine if you are ready to begin building your own shipping container tiny home. The good news is that the skills required in this build design are minimal and easily learned. If you read over this and have questions on particular points, it’s most likely that it would be an assumed part of the construction process.

With the miracle wonder of instant information at the touch of a screen, you can search the web and find pages like this one and even videos on how to do just about anything. So if you need to drill down deeper on any of these skills, the Internet will provide.

Basic carpentry skills are the first and foremost ability you’ll need to complete this build. We designed this build to be free of metal-working and welding so it is a simple and effective addition that anyone can complete with no specialty tools. If you can wield a hammer, use a screw gun, cut with a saw, and get accurate measurements with a tape measure, you will be able to make the addition easily. Some trade information is important on things like framing in doors and windows, and the roofing needs to be done just right to keep the elements out, but if you are comfortable with basic carpentry skills you will be just fine.

Since we are building a shipping container tiny home, you will need basic plumbing and electrical skills as well. These are slightly more important than carpentry because if you don’t get the carpentry just right, you may get a draft or a leak; if you don’t get the plumbing or electrical just right, you could get hurt. So be honest with yourself about how confident you are in these abilities and don’t be afraid to call in a skilled friend or a professional. Getting it right the first time will save you money on crucial repairs down the road.

Choosing Your Shipping Container

Shipping containers come in many sizes and shapes. If you go looking for some unusual containers you can find some unusual designs created for specialty purposes, but our build will focus on the standard 20’x8’ box design. They are designed to be modular and standard sized so they can be replaced and swapped out with no need for reconfiguration on the part of the hauler. Some people are opting to use the larger shipping containers measuring 40’ long, but in the spirit of staying “tiny” in building our tiny home, we are discussing the 20’ variety. Either length will work as long as it has side-loading bi-fold doors.

Shipping containers used to transport vehicles have one wall of the container fitted with large bi-folding doors that open up to expose an entire side of the box. This is so they vehicle can be driven into the container and with the side doors open, the driver has room to exit the vehicle. These containers are often well cared for and remain in relative good shape as they tend to get “knocked around” less.

Purchasing new is always a great option so you can take hold of your container without any road-wear, corrosion, or floor damage but if you are on a tight budget, you can save a little by picking up a “gently used” container that has gone out of service but still has enough structural integrity to serve as the basis for your shipping container tiny home.

Preparing The Location For Your Shipping Container Tiny Home

When clearing the ground and preparing a solid level foundation you should already have a plan for the basics. How do you want your home orientated according with the sunrise and set? Do you have a strong wind corridor to contend with? Apart from these moderately aesthetic decisions, know your local zoning laws.

Depending on where you live, some municipalities have different building codes for modular housing. Some places have no restrictions on tiny homes, others will require a permanent foundation for the shipping container to rest on. Know and obey your local codes as they can make the difference between a successful tiny homestead and a bureaucratic nightmare.

The ground on which you are planting your shipping container tiny home needs to be level and it needs to be solid. Freshly compacted earth will settle over time and create problems for your tiny home in the not-too-distant future. Heavy concrete pad footers can be set under the four corners to spread out the weight and keep settling to a minimum. If you are building in a tornado or hurricane prone area, you may wish to anchor your shipping container tiny home to a reinforced foundation. Fortunately the shipping container’s stacking lugs make for an easy and reliable attachment point.

Having the shipping container delivered on site where you plan to build your tiny home will be the most labor intensive part of this entire build. Using a 20’ shipping container makes it more portable for the layman and if you have a proper roll-off trailer and sturdy enough truck you could make the delivery yourself. If you are going to have the container dropped off from a delivery company, be certain you have enough room.

Though the shipping container is only 20’ long, the delivery truck may need up to 60’ to accommodate the length of the truck and trailer as it rolls off. Also consider height if you have low hung electrical wires or overhanging trees. Most container trucks will be at least 13 and a half feet tall and will extend to 16’ tall when tipping to roll off your container. You don’t want to have them refuse delivery because you don’t have the room.

Also keep in mind the area we will be building the addition into. The side wall with the large bi-folding doors will be extending out another 8’ beyond the shipping container’s wall. If you are limited on space, also consider the room you will need to maneuver and work around the new build. Slipping the container into a slot with inches to spare will make for frustrating work on your part as you fight space and balance constraints. It is possible, but adds and unnecessarily difficulty into the equation.

Building and Setting Up The Floor

This build is going to create a room in the space between two of the opened bi-fold doors. This new room will increase your shipping container tiny home’s square footage by 80% creating 128 square feet of addition to the existing interior 160 square feet. Most side loading shipping container bi-fold doors are configured in such a way that the outer doors are each 2’ wide and the two interior doors are 8’ wide.

We are leaving the 2’ doors closed and locked shut and opening the two 8’ doors so they extend out from the shipping container at a 90 angle. If your container has the unusual configuration of four 5’ doors instead of the standard 2, 8, 8, 2 you can still follow along and make the appropriate adjustments to sizes, as the additional 100 square feet is still a nice 63% increase to your tiny home.

We begin with the floor. One of the best things about using a shipping container is they come self-contained and the floor is built to withstand some weight. It is unlikely your container has the aluminum T flooring as it is mostly used for food storage units. You will want to strip the wooden floors clean and scour them free from debris, oil and depending on how the unit was used, maybe even gasoline.

Small amounts of trace fumes left soaked into the wood can be the cause of future problems so make sure you strip, clean and sand the wood thoroughly, even if you intend to cover the wood with new flooring. You can do this at any time, and certainly don’t want to put on the finished floor at this point but getting the deep cleaning out of the way before the addition is built will make it easier.

Stake open the two inner doors at 90° angle perpendicular to your shipping container. Measure the distance between the two open doors at the base of the container and make it match at the furthest end. You can ensure they are square by measuring the imaginary “X” from one door’s outer edge and the other door’s inner edge and comparing it against the opposite measurement. If your doors are set at 90°, these measurements will match. Now you just build a deck framework between the two doors.

Building the deck in place will ensure you meet your shipping container’s lip and don’t have any surprises waiting for you when you go to put it in place if you built it off site. Matching the grade will require that solid and level ground you prepared earlier. You will want to put down some kind of footer as you don’t want wood exposed to direct contact with the ground. Standard post-style concrete footers found at your local hardware center will suffice.

The outer frame will be built of 2×8 floor joists. As they will be outdoors and the foundation for your new addition, we recommend using pressure-treated lumber. The roughly 8’ by 16’ outline “box” should extend 8’ out from the shipping container’s lip where the doors used to close out past the doors’ outer edge by a few inches. The 16’ width will be just a fraction of an inch less than the measurement from the outside of the two doors.

The height is critical in the flooring. Your floor frame should come to within an inch and a quarter of the bottom of the doors, and this is where the outer measurement becomes important. If you look closely at the bottom (and top) of the bi-fold doors, you will see a dual strip of rubber blades. When you build your floor you want that inner strip to sit on the flooring deck and the outer strip to overlap it and fall on the outside of your flooring. This is a highly important aspect to keeping the new addition to your shipping container tiny home weather-tight.

Once you have the outer frame built, drop in additional floor joists at 16” on center. In the 16’ span, you will need twelve additional joists. You can nail or screw them directly into the frame, or use joist hangers to reinforce them and protect against future warping and twisting when the weather comes. Once you have the floor frame completed, secure it in place by driving screws through the face of the deck’s rear wall into the base of the shipping container. Use a silicon based adhesive on the wood that will butt up against the shipping container and then drive four screws to hold it in place.

Before moving forward, mark the center of each joist on the shipping container’s floor and on the outside face of the deck. You will want these to be visible after you cover the deck and joists with plastic sheeting as a vapor barrier and then cover with 3/4” OSB plywood. This should bring the floor to within a half inch of the door’s bottom engaging the weather stripping while still allowing room to install finished flooring or carpeting.

Use a chalkline between the marks you just made to identify on the plywood where the joists are and drive screws through the plywood into the joists. Now secure the doors to your new floor by first making sure the weatherstripping is sitting just right on your newly finished floor, and then installing 3/4” pipe straps around the doors’ locking cam pipes to the outside of the deck base.

Your floor is complete, now we’ll build the front wall.

Building The Front Wall of Your Shipping Container Tiny Home

Before you move on to the next step, it helps to know what you have in mind with your design for the new room and the entire shipping container tiny home. This will be the entrance for your home, and you have roughly sixteen feet of frontage to play with, but before you move forward with building this front wall, you’ll need to know what you have in mind for that front space. It is highly recommended that you use this space to let in as much natural light as possible, but you don’t want a full window looking directly into your bathroom shower.

Standard exterior doors are 36” wide and you don’t want to go smaller just because you are building a tiny home. You’ll need that width to move large objects in and out. You may or may not see the need now, but you’ll want to keep the doorway at least 36”. French double doors are a great option for a large open entrance, especially if the doors are glass. Another great option for shipping container tiny homes is the sliding glass door.

Traditionally found on the back of suburban homes leading out to the patio, this large door lets in plenty of light and naturally comes with a sliding screen door allowing you to keep the glass door open during seasonable weather and doesn’t take up any additional room for the door swinging in or out, it slides over into itself, saving space without blocking light.

However you decide to design your new addition, the front wall is easy enough to build once you make those design decisions. It is a simple frame wall, leaving room for the doors and windows you’ve decided to install. It helps considerably if you already have those features on site so you can get “real” measurements of the products but as long as you have the manufacturer specifications available it won’t stop you from building this part. This wall is not load bearing so you won’t need to worry about adding a beam lentil above the doors and windows. All the weight from the roof will be on the two doors, but more on that in the next part.

Using standard 2×4 lumber, cut two pieces just at a half inch short of the length between the two open doors. This will be the top and bottom of your new wall. Now measure the height between your new floor and the top of the doors, go ahead and measure both doors just to be sure your floor is level. If you get two different measurements, find out where your floor went out of level and shore up the low side to give your new entrance a level floor before continuing.

Once you have a good measurement from floor to door-top, subtract three inches. This is to account for the two 2×4’s acting as top and bottom to the wall. Of course, if you have carpentry skills, you’ll know why we’re taking away 3” instead of 4”. A standard 2×4 is actually 1.5” by 3.5”. If you’re using rough cut lumber or any unusual timbers, you can accommodate accordingly. The entire point is to make sure you account for the top and bottom frames when cutting your wall studs.

With your door placement as a reference point, give a quarter inch of “wiggle room” and then begin setting out your wall studs at 16” on-center out to edges of your wall. This wiggle room is space for shims and adjustments to give your door room to be fine-tuned and allow it to operate smoothly.

Setting your door, flanked by windows, or an entire sliding glass door system, you can have the standard 16” OC measurement until the edges closest to the shipping container walls where you may have a smaller void space depending on where you placed your door. The standard width will make it easier to panel the wall with the only unusual spots occurring at the two outer edges. Marking the stud locations on the floor of the new deck is not cheating, it makes good sense…

Once the frame is built, door, windows, and all, stand the wall up and move it into place. Be sure to have assistance or use bracing 2×4’s as the last thing you need is the wall falling down while you’re trying to secure it in place. Measure the distance from the shipping container to the wall’s footer on both sides as you secure it to the newly built deck floor.

Once the footer is nailed or screwed in place, use angle brackets to secure the wall to the two doors, two per door; six inches from the top and six inches from the bottom. Use a four foot level to ensure the wall is standing straight. Once you secure both sides, you should start to see your shipping container tiny home taking shape.

The roof will tie everything together and complete the exterior of the addition.

Building the Roof of your Shipping Container Tiny Home

The roof is just as easy to build as the wall, but this time we don’t’ have to worry about windows or door. The entire principle of this structure it to keep weather out of your shipping container tiny home. Wind, rain and even bugs can eliminated if you follow these simple steps and seal properly at every joint.

The roof will cover the entire span between your two open shipping container doors that have become the external side walls of your new addition. If that gap is sixteen feet wide and eight foot deep, you’re going to want to add in multiple rafters to support the weight of the roof, the rain, and possibly yourself if you ever have the need to get up there.

You’re going to rip a 2×8 down the length from the outer edge of 7/5” to the far end being 1/5” deep. You’ll most likely want to chalk line this or use another 2×8 to draw a clean line where you’ll be cutting. You’ll need whoever many it takes to mount the roof on the doors plus the space between with 16 inches between the rafters. You’ll notice it sounds just like building the deck floor, but the joists are now called rafters instead.

Using a short and manageable scrap piece of 2×8, cut out a section of the end 4” tall and 2” deep. This would (in theory) allow the rafter to sit up against the edge of the shipping container with 3.5 inches above the container’s top, except you’ll notice there is something in the way. The shipping container has a rain lip, and we want to cut a notch around it.

Don’t mangle or cut the rain lip, it is a great last resort to keeping your tiny home waterproof if you end up with a small leak. Cut around it, a small 3/4” notch into the rafter should suffice. Experiment with the scrap piece until you get a good fit. Use this piece as a template to cut the rest of the rafters to shape.

Each of the rafters will be identical, including this rain lip modification. Take your two outer edge rafters and set them on top of the doors. There will be just enough room for the 2×8 to sit between the two rubber blade weather seals on the top of the door. Be absolutely certain the outer seal is outside the rafter. The rest of the rafters will sit on the shipping container on one end and on the header of the new wall you just built on the far end.

What holds these rafters together is the purlins. The 2×4 end cap will fit nicely at the very top of the shipping container where you left 3.5” above the notch. From there measure out 16” and place a purlin from one rafter to the next until the outer edge where you will lay the final purlin flat and it will fit perfectly into the 1.5” of space you ripped the 2×8 down to. Any unusual spaces less than 16” will be left to the outer edge.

Once the roof framing is built, use the silicone sealant liberally where the rafter frame meets the shipping container. You will want to see plenty of extra sealant in this area as it is the most probably point of failure. Use the angle joints at the end cap to the top of the container roof. Use galvanized duct strapping as hurricane clips around the top of every other rafter and secure to the face of the shipping container’s top beam. Do the same to the outer edge of the rafters to the two doors. Wind can really pull on a roof and you want this to remain secure even a small gap can introduce rain and water damage.

There, that was the difficult part. Now we just lay down some 3/4” OSB plywood just like the flooring. As we’ve covered with the wind and weather, a roof is critical in a storm and is a common point of failure. So we recommend you manually hammer these nails instead of using a nail gun. Or if you’re using screws, make certain you are hitting the purlins every time. If you go into an attic and look at the inside of a common house roof, you’ll see many of the nails miss any structure and are simply driven through the plywood. Nail guns don’t give you any resistance; with a hammer, you’ll know if you hit that 2×4 or not.

From there we lay down felt either by adhesive or staple gun, the thicker the felt better. Not only are you getting some level of insulation, but also sound dampening. Above the felt you install a solid insulation board for the same purpose, and then finally the corrugated roofing material. Metal roof tiles should be applied from the bottom and overlapped up to the top, to any rain drips down the roof and lands on the tile below. Use self-sealing roofing screws to secure the roofing tiles.

Once you’re done with that, apply a liberal dosage of the elastomeric roof coating between the shipping container and your new roof. It almost always comes in white for its highly reflective nature and insulating from the summer sun, and you will most likely want to purchase enough to cover your entire shipping container tiny home’s roof. The joint between the container and your new roof should be coated several times to create a reliable seal against the natural weathering cycle of expansion and contraction due to the day/night heat cycle.

Interior Buildout for Your Shipping Container Tiny Home

With the addition complete, now comes the easy part; designing and building the interior. The best part of creating your own shipping container tiny home is that you get the fun of bringing you vision to life. Since you’re working with such a small space, you’ll most likely want an open floor plan so you won’t be building interior walls. The exception to this may be the bathroom. If you’re living alone, an open bath plan is acceptable but once you need a moment’s privacy, that bathroom wall will become much appreciated. So the new addition is a great place to set up your bathroom for several reasons.

Two of the four walls are already built, all you need is to drop in the shower or tub and close in the box and add a door. This will also depend on your taste. Some tiny home builders opt for a bar-style sliding door and while that looks beautiful, it takes up an inordinate amount of wall space. Consider a pocket door or a simple rod and curtain instead.

But having the bathroom in the new addition is convenient because you can run the plumbing through the wood of your new deck without piercing the shipping container’s hull. Water pipes and sewage drains can run through the floor and outside your new tiny home to the connection points with no damage to the box.

Conventional housing construction often puts the kitchen adjacent to the bathroom, perhaps on the opposite side of a wall, but still close by. This can save costs in running pipes everywhere when they can use a single “wetwall” and stem out from it into two different rooms. You may want to put your kitchen in the entrance and hide the bathroom inside the shipping container’s interior, but that wet entrance can still be the main point of entry and you plumb over to the bathroom.

Considering the limited space in a tiny home, another reason to share the vicinity of bathroom and kitchen would be the use of a single water heater. Propane on-demand water heaters are marvelous inventions that can be installed in a single spot and provide hot water to both bath and kitchen. Just be sure to vent the propane fumes just as you will be venting the plumbing drains.

Our new addition is also an excellent spot for the electrical entry point. Why penetrate the shipping container if we don’t need to? Bring the main electrical line in through the wood deck and set up your main electrical panel just inside the addition. From there, you can run the wiring around the inside of your shipping container tiny home’s walls behind the studs before you close up the walls.

There is no sense in using conventional drywall in your tiny home. Go with bead board or wainscot walls. This relatively thin material is rigid and will allow you to mount devices to it without worrying about anchor points. It will also make installation easier. With rigid walls, minimal studs are required. Instead of the vertical 16” OC stud plan, we’re going with three horizontal studs, laid flush instead of on edge. One a few inches up from the floor, one along the middle of your wall, and the top one a few inches from the ceiling.

Laying them flat will save you a few inches of precious space and still allow for electrical and plumbing runs behind them. Of course, any heavy wall-hung construction you plan for like fold-down bedding will need to be properly secured with additional studs, but that’s all in your design.

And that is the fun part of the build. We can’t tell you what fits your needs the most, only you can determine what works best for your lifestyle and part of that is the beauty behind creating your own shipping container tiny home. You get to design your home and make it fit you, rather than conforming yourself to it.

This addition of some square footage grants you some much needed room to expand beyond the shipping container walls, but keeps the tiny home concept intact. Have fun with your design and allow yourself to take inspiration from anywhere. Look at recreational vehicles and boating stores, other tiny home designs, take ideas from anywhere and everywhere. Now that you have built the addition, fill it with purpose and enjoy your new shipping container tiny home.