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How to Build an Emergency Shelter from a Shipping Container

September 29, 2020
Coast Containers

Each year there are countless news stories about devastating natural disasters and emergencies that destroy property and lives, forcing entire communities out of their homes. In response to these events, many people have decided to protect themselves and their families by repurposing the dynamic, strong, and inexpensive cargo shipping container. With some modifications and proper planning, shipping containers are being converted into emergency shelters and are saving lives as a result. This article will discuss the reasons for building a shipping container emergency shelter, the different types and options available when building a shelter from a shipping container, and finally it will broadly discuss the steps involved in the process of making a shelter from a shipping container.


Why Build a Shipping Container Emergency Shelter?

In the event of an emergency or natural disaster, foresight and preparedness can be essential to preventing devastating loss of life and property. In recent years, we have seen a growing trend in disaster management: the shipping container emergency shelter.  More and more people are looking into ways they can build an emergency shelter from a shipping container because it is durable, inexpensive, and saves them from the stress of having to relocate to a gymnasium or community center during an emergency or natural disaster.

The multi-use nature of the shipping container has inspired a variety of uses over the years, from tiny homes to restaurants; but few adaptations are better suited to the anatomy of the structure than making a shelter from a shipping container. Built specifically to protect cargo from extreme weather conditions over long distances at sea, a shipping container shelter ensures that people have a safe place to wait out the storm. Using a shipping container as shelter is ideal because it is made with doors that seal to be wind and watertight, and most are made from a strong rust resistant steel alloy and coated with a rust resistant paint designed to withstand extreme weather conditions.


Options for Your Shelter from Shipping Container:

There are two main types of shipping container shelters: underground, and above ground. To bury, or not to bury? That is the most important question to ask when determining how to build a shelter from a shipping container. Container size must also be considered when constructing a shelter from a shipping container. It is important to consider what your specific needs are when making this decision as each holds its own set of advantages and challenges.


Option One: Underground

Underground shipping container bunkers are a great option for those who live in areas that are prone to tornados or typhoons, and they are the most inconspicuous option as grass and trees can be planted on top after they are installed. The challenge with underground shipping container bunkers lies in the framework of the container. Designed for stacking, shipping containers can bare an enormous amount of weight from above, but they are not built to withstand pressure from the sides. An underground shipping container emergency shelter must be reinforced prior to being buried to ensure it can withstand the pressure from the earth that surrounds it.  


Option Two: Above Ground

The greatest advantage of an above ground shipping container shelter is that it is easily transportable. Although this option doesn’t need to be reinforced in the same way as an underground shipping container bunker, there are still a number of important modifications to be made before a shipping container as a shelter is safe for occupancy above ground. Alterations to ensure storm and tornado proofing is required, and many people who are unsure of how to convert a shipping container into a shelter choose to consult experts and companies that specialize in shipping container shelters.


Shipping Container Sizes

The most popular size shipping container emergency shelter is the 20 ft standard shipping container, which stands at 8’6”. Another popular is the 20 ft high cube shipping containers, which offer more height than the standard size, standing at 9’6”. Finally, there is the 40 ft shipping container which is also in high demand because it provides ample room for storage. Use, number of occupants, and storage needs are factors that should be considered before deciding on the size of your shipping container shelter.

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How to Build a Shelter of a Shipping Container


Step One: Purchase your container

The first step in making a shelter from a shipping container is purchasing your container. Depending on your budget, you may choose to purchase a new or a used shipping container. Those who are looking to customize their container or would like to use it as a shelter or home often choose a new container because it has more reliable insulation and is in overall better condition. If you have a limited budget for your shipping container shelter, a used container may be a better option for you. The company you purchase your container from is another important factor because they can be a great resource throughout the entire construction process. Consider a companies like Coast Containers because they are industry specialists and can not only help you in selecting the best container for your needs, they offer a complete list of custom modifications required when making a shelter from a shipping container.


Step Two: Foundation

Both above ground and underground shipping container shelters require a solid foundation to prevent the container from damage caused by the Earth’s natural movement.

Foundation for an Underground Shipping Container Shelter: The hole for your underground shipping container emergency shelter should be at leat be two feet deeper than your container and leveled out with 6 inches of peat gravel at the bottom. Your hole should be big enough to have a foot of airspace on the back and sides, and four feet at the front to allow room for your staircase. The foundation must include a hole to fit a 30-gallon perforated plastic barrel that will hold your sump put, which prevents your shipping container bunker from flooding. Next, the banks must be leveled and reinforced with heavy corrugated metal framework and a row of bricks that will then be filled with concrete.

Foundation for an Above Ground Shipping Container Shelter: There are several options available for your above ground shipping container shelter, making research an important part of this step, or consult an expert on which is best suited for you. The most popular foundation is the Pier Foundation because it is relatively quick to construct and inexpensive. A solid foundation is vital in above ground shipping container shelters because they are more exposed to the elements than underground shipping container bunkers.


Step Three: Modifications

Both above and underground shipping container emergency shelters require custom modifications before they are safe for human occupancy. Purchasing your container from industry experts like Coast Containers might be your best option because they specialize and cater to this type of modification; from ventilation systems and insulation to windows and custom locks. This is a popular option because it ensures that the modifications are of a high-quality standard, and the cost is comparable to DIY modification projects.


If you are considering making a shelter from a shipping container, you must have a comprehensive plan that considers all the components of the building process. This includes identifying the external risks; which may vary from tornadoes and typhoons, snow and ice storms, or even to crime and political unrest. All of these external threats will influence the planning and construction of your shipping container emergency shelter. First and foremost, you want your shelter to be safe, and a poorly constructed shelter from a shipping container may put those inside in danger.

At Coast Containers we have industry experts who can build your shipping container shelter and help save you time and money in the long run. Contact one of our sales reps for more information and to get a quote today. 

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