How shipping containers changed the world!

It was 11:30 am on a sunny Tuesday in mid-April, and the Hong Kong Express had been docked at Hamburg’s Container Terminal Altenwerder for exactly 33 hours. Already, the ship was half empty. Cargo from Asia was stacked in neat rows of shipping containers on the dock.Standing in its shadow, it’s hard to appreciate just how big the Hong Kong Express is. From stem to stern, it’s 1,200 feet, nearly a quarter of a mile; from side to side it’s 157 feet, about as wide as some mega yachts are long. Fully loaded, it can carry 13,167 20-foot-long containers, the standard box used in commerce around the world. Laid end to end, that many boxes—each one containing anything from T-shirts to TVs to truck parts—would stretch for 50 miles.

As the spring sun climbed higher, glinting off the placid Elbe River, some cranes nestled containers into towering metal racks on the ship’s deck while others lifted boxes out. At full tilt, Altenwerder’s custom-built cranes can simultaneously load and unload more than 150 containers per hour. Already, full racks of Asia-bound cargo towered 50 feet above the deck, corrugated steel containers stacked like Lego blocks six deep. Still more hid unseen within the behemoth’s matte crimson hull.

Before Wednesday dawned, the Hong Kong Express would be underway once more, sailing 70 miles down the Elbe to its mouth on the North Sea. Once it edged away from the Hamburg dock, its progress amounts to a snapshot of global commerce: first a brief westward sail to the English port of Southampton, then nearly a month chugging at 25 miles per hour to Singapore.

After a brief stop, the vessel worked its way north. By early June, it would edge into Busan, South Korea. Next stop, China: first Shanghai, then to Ningbo bordering Hangzhou Bay, and finally to the mega city of Shenzhen. It would return once more to Singapore before wheeling about and heading back toward Europe.

In less than two months the Hong Kong Express called at 11 ports and traveled more than 12,500 miles. Circling the world four or five times a year, it can move 1.4 million tons of cargo annually. That’s the equivalent of 1.8 billion iPads. The ship is a link in a long, complicated, and precise global supply chain made possible by the humble boxes on board.

More than any other single innovation, the shipping container—there are millions out there, all just like the ones stacked on the Hong Kong Express but for a coat of paint and a serial number—epitomizes the enormity, sophistication, and importance of our modern transportation system. Invisible to most people, they’re fundamental to how practically everything in our consumer-driven lives works.

Think of the shipping container as the Internet of things. Just as your email is disassembled into discrete bundles of data the minute you hit send, then re-assembled in your recipient’s inbox later, the uniform, ubiquitous boxes are designed to be interchangeable, their contents irrelevant.

Once they enter the stream of global shipping, the boxes are shifted and routed by sophisticated computer systems that determine their arrangement on board and plot the most efficient route to get them from point to point. The exact placement of each box is a critical part of the equation: Ships make many stops, and a box scheduled to be unloaded late in the journey can’t be placed above one slated for offloading early. Imagine a block of 14,000 interlocked Lego bricks—now imagine trying to pull one out from the middle.

The container’s efficiency has proven to be an irresistible economic force. Last year the world’s container ports moved 560 million 20-foot containers—nearly 1.5 billion tons of cargo altogether. Though commodities like petroleum, steel ore, and coal still move in specially designed bulk cargo ships, more than 90 percent of the rest—everything from clothes to cars to computers—now travels inside shipping containers. “Reefer” containers, insulated and equipped with cooling units, carry refrigerated cargo and are plugged into power sources on ships or at dockside. Because the containers are all identical, any ship can move them.

Those already huge numbers are expected to grow. Increasingly, cargo companies are looking for ways to move bulk cargo in containers, fitting the steel boxes with bladders to transport liquid chemicals or cleaning them and using polypropylene liners to move anything from soy, corn, and wheat to salt and sugar.

Imagine a block of 14,000 interlocked Lego bricks—now imagine trying to pull one out from the middle.

Even cars and trucks—known in the trade as “RoRo,” or “roll-on, roll-off” cargo—are increasingly being loaded into containers rather than specialized ships. “Containers are just a lot easier,” says James Rice, deputy director of the Center for Transportation and Logistics at MIT. “A box is a box. All you need is a vessel, a berth, and a place to put the container on the ground.”

By driving the cost of shipping internationally way down and the speed of global commerce way up, containers made the globalization of manufacturing possible. Yet for all the concept’s seeming simplicity, the actual process is fiendishly complex.

To get a sense of how the system works, imagine one of the containers aboard the Hong Kong Express, which is owned by German shipping giant Hapag-Lloyd. Asked to trace a product through a typical container voyage, Hapag-Lloyd spokesman Rainer Horn suggests a T-shirt sewn at a factory near Beijing, the kind you might buy at H&M.

Tagged, folded, and boxed, the T-shirt would be “stuffed” into a container with 33,999 identical shirts at the factory. Once sealed with a plastic tag and listed on a computerized manifest, the merchandise could pass through nearly three dozen steps before arriving at a discount clothing retailer’s distribution center near Munich. There’s the trucker who moves the box to a waiting ship in Xinjiang, the feeder ship that moves it to Singapore to be loaded onto a bigger Europe-bound freighter, the crane operator in Hamburg, customs officials, train engineers, and more.

Yet the container’s uniformity smooths each step of the way. Trucks and trains are fitted to haul the identical boxes; cranes are designed to lift the same thing over and over. The total time in transit for a typical box from a Chinese factory to a customer in Europe might be as little as 35 days. Cost per shirt? “Less than one U.S. cent,” Horn says. “It doesn’t matter anymore where you produce something now, because transport costs aren’t important.”

Though containers today seem ubiquitous—so much a part of the modern landscape that they’re used for cheap housing on the outskirts of Berlin, snow removal in Helsinki, and disaster relief in Haiti—the steel boxes are actually a fairly recent phenomenon. Hamburg has been a major European port for nearly a millennium, going back to the days of the Hanseatic League, a federation of free ports around the North and Baltic Seas that thrived in the Middle Ages. For nearly all of that time, shipping was essentially the same: Each vessel was laboriously loaded and unloaded by hand, a process that could take weeks. Longshoremen laid hands on each piece of cargo that went into a ship’s hold, packing bags of grain, wood crates, and pallets into “break bulk” ships piecemeal. It was a difficult, dangerous job, with unpredictable results; theft, breakage, and delays were common.

Shippers and manufacturers acted accordingly: “So long as cargo was handled one item at a time, with long delays at the docks and complicated interchanges between trucks, trains, planes, and ships, freight transportation was too unpredictable for manufacturers to take the risk that supplies from faraway places would arrive on time,” writes Marc Levinson in his definitive history of the container, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Parts were sourced locally, or purchased far in advance and stockpiled in warehouses until needed.

“A box is a box. All you need is a vessel, a berth, and a place to put the container on the ground,” says Rice.

It took a pugnacious North Carolinian named Malcom McLean to launch the container revolution. An ambitious truck-company owner with little experience when it came to shipping, McLean—who had made a fortune in trucking in the boom years after WWII—was looking for a way to move goods up and down the East Coast’s traffic-choked highways faster and more cheaply.

His inspired idea: Put truck trailers on ships and bypass the roads altogether. Trucks could roll their trailers onto ships in North Carolina; the trailers would be unloaded in New York and hitched to trucks, then driven the rest of the way to their destinations. He soon refined the concept even further, doing away with the trailer wheels and axles, which couldn’t be stacked, and settling for just the trailer body. On April 26, 1956, McLean’s first container ship—a military-surplus WWII tanker—sailed from Newark to Houston loaded with containers custom-built for his company, Pan-Atlantic.

Around the same time, other companies began introducing their own primitive containers—as much a response to theft and breakage as to inefficiency. The boxes came in all shapes and sizes, from 4.5-foot-wide steel-framed crates with plywood sides to steel boxes 15 feet long. Some were designed to be lifted in and out of ship holds using cranes, others with forklifts. Cranes belonging to Grace Lines couldn’t unload containers belonging to Pan-Atlantic.
To fulfill their potential, dozens of players—from shipping companies to railroads and truck chassis manufacturers—had to agree on a standard. Years of debate, overseen by a little-known government agency called the United States Maritime Administration, resulted in a 1961 agreement that only ships built to carry boxes 10, 20, 30, and 40 feet long would be eligible for federal subsidies. A few years later, the International Standards Organization agreed on a common design for corner fittings, making it possible to standardize cranes, too. The resulting steel rectangle—20 feet long, 8 feet wide and about 8 feet tall—became known as a TEU, or 20-foot equivalent unit. The TEU quickly became the yardstick of global commerce.

The first trans-Atlantic container ships set sail in 1966, filled with whiskey headed to the U.S. and guns on their way to Europe. Liquor bottles were traditionally a target for light-fingered longshoremen, and Scotch exporters were quickly sold on container-sized tanks that allowed them to ship their product in bulk and bottle it in the U.S. On the eastbound voyage, nearly every berth was filled with U.S. military cargo destined for the 250,000 American soldiers stationed in West Germany.

McLean’s idea set a revolution in motion. “The early trans-Atlantic container ships could be unloaded and reloaded more quickly, so container ships spent less time at the dock than break bulk ships,” says Levinson. “Consequently, each one could make more voyages in the course of a year.”

In the decade that followed, container shipping overcame its rivals with the inevitability of a rising tide. “From whiskey distillers in Scotland to apple growers in Australia, major users of international shipping abandoned break bulk freight as soon as regular container shipping was able to meet their needs,” Levinson writes. By the mid-’80s, the cost of shipping goods from Asia to North America had fallen by more than 50 percent.

Since then, container traffic has continued its steady climb. The Port of Los Angeles, America’s busiest container port, handled 476,000 TEUs in 1981. Thirty years later, 7.9 million 20-foot containers—almost all of them containing goods on their way from factories in Asia—moved through the port, a 16-fold increase. Hamburg’s four container terminals loaded and unloaded 8.9 million TEUs in 2012. On the long list of global container ports, Hamburg and Los Angeles are middleweights: Shanghai, the world’s largest container port, moves 31 million TEUs each year.

As the idea gathered steam, it brought with it unintentional ripple effects. Some are hard to gauge, like the environmental impact of container shipping. The boxes themselves are simply storage; the pollution involved with in transporting them depends on how they’re moved. Mile for mile, transporting a single TEU using a modern container ship produces just a third of the CO2 it would take to move that same container with a truck. But the fact that containers have led to globalized production and multiple international supply chains means that far more cargo is being moved today than in the days of break bulk.

Other effects are easier to pin down, like the loss of many dockworkers’ jobs and the death of waterfronts around the world as cargo moves to increasingly automated facilities on or beyond city limits. New York is a great case study: Levinson estimates that in 1951, nearly 13 percent of jobs in New York City depended on the city’s ports. Three decades later, nearly all of those jobs were gone. In some cases, urban waterfronts are now being reclaimed as prettified public spaces, half a century later.

Overall, the container profoundly changed the way we shop and work. Reliable, cheap transport made possible an explosion in global commerce. That, in turn, had more far-reaching consequences. When the cost of shipping American cotton to China, having it sewn into shirts there, and shipped back to Wal-Marts in the U.S. sank to nearly nothing, for example, the bottom fell out of the American textile industry. A host of other industries followed—leading to the ongoing outsourcing boom—as containers made geography nearly irrelevant. American manufacturing—which represented nearly a quarter of U.S. GDP in 1970—makes up just over 10 percent today.

Containers also changed the manufacturing process itself. The reliability of containerized shipping spawned a new field in business schools around the world, namely supply chain management. In the 1980s, “inventory” became a dirty word. Instead, everyone from car-makers to clothing retailers adopted a “just in time” philosophy, minimizing the time parts sat in the warehouse before being assembled and sold.

That depended on the precise planning and efficiency that identical, interchangeable containers made possible. “When I started in the merchant marine, on a four-month trip to India we’d usually come back two months late and nobody noticed,” says Gerhardt Muller, a retired professor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and author of Intermodal Freight Transportation, an industry standard. “Now everybody jumps up and down if you’re two hours late.”

When the cost of shipping American cotton to China, having it sewn into shirts there, and shipped back to Wal-Marts in the U.S. sank to nearly nothing, the bottom fell out of the American textile industry.

Once shipments became predictable enough to build production and sales schedules around, managers started treating containers like warehouses in motion. By precisely timing the arrival of components, manufacturers could move items from containers directly onto assembly lines or store shelves, bypassing warehouses entirely. “In the ’80s, people realized the container wasn’t just a box for shipping,” says Muller. “Containers were no longer about shipping—they became about logistics.”

They may grease the wheels of global commerce, but those millions of anonymous, identical containers also make for a very long, very vulnerable supply chain. Experts like to talk about “resilience”—how well a system can recover when it’s rocked by a disaster or unexpected failure. Like a precision watch grinding to a halt thanks to a grain of sand, small setbacks can have big consequences. The American power grid, for example, is notorious for its lack of resilience: A tripped generator in Ohio plunged most of the Eastern seaboard into darkness in 2003, affecting 45 million people.

Could the same thing happen to global shipping? With the timely arrival of each container dependent on dozens of things going right, there’s a lot that can go wrong. “Right now, we’ve got too many eggs in too few baskets,” says Muller. In the U.S., two adjacent ports—Los Angeles and Long Beach—handle nearly half of the nation’s container traffic.

MIT’s Rice recently set about calculating the capacity of U.S. ports, and set up an online utility, called Port Mapper, to help operators figure out how to respond if a port were taken out of commission. The nightmare scenario: an earthquake, a terror attack, or a labor strike in southern California. “If something bad happens in L.A. [including Long Beach], every other container port in America would have to have approximately 25 percent extra capacity to absorb all those containers,” Rice says. “That could not be done.” Delays as ships were re-routed to ports in Canada and the Gulf Coast of the U.S. might hold up cargo for weeks.

It’s already happened, on a small scale. In 2002, labor disputes led to a 10-day port lockout on the West Coast. Auto plants in California, accustomed to “just in time” deliveries of parts from Japan, found themselves chartering planes to bring in parts they otherwise would have had shipped, at a cost of $600 per car. When Hurricane Katrina closed ports in and around Louisiana that handle a significant share of America’s food imports and exports, food prices ticked up 3 percent and stayed there for six months as the system struggled to adjust. And Hurricane Sandy closed terminals in Newark and New York for days, forcing shippers to route their cargo to ports elsewhere on the East Coast.

The solution, Rice says, would be more ports operating below their peak capability to create a buffer in case of disaster or unexpected delays. But port operators have no interest in building inefficiency into the system, essentially paying for space and equipment they’re not using just in case of an emergency. “There’s an incentive to work at maximum capacity,” Rice says. “You know port operators aren’t working at 50 percent.”

Indeed, the system is getting more intricate, not less. The port of the future is eerily quiet and empty. At Altenwerder, there’s none of the noise you’d expect at a busy container port. Instead of shouting longshoremen, beeping trucks, honking horns, and growling engines, there’s just the faint sound of gentle waves against the hulls of the ships and low horns of boats making their way along the Elbe.

As the Hong Kong Express takes on its Asia-bound load, the only human being nearby is a lone crane operator in a glass box 20 stories above the water. The crane slides on rails back and forth over the massive ship, manipulating a specially designed “spreader” claw to lift and shift container after container onto curious, truncated trucks. Seemingly nothing but wheels and chassis, the trucks are missing a key element: drivers.

It turns out Altenwerder is one of the world’s few automated port facilities. Underneath the terminal’s blacktop, a grid of 19,000 sensors help guide driverless robot trucks—AGVs, or “Automated Guided Vehicles”—along routes selected for maximum efficiency. The trucks are programmed to move containers from the shipside cranes to another set of cranes, which stack them according to when they’re scheduled to be picked up by trucks or loaded onto trains. “It’s all done by software,” says Karl Olaf Petters, a spokesman for Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG (HHLA), the company that runs Altenwerder and most of Hamburg’s other cargo terminals.

Ports and shipping companies are working to squeeze still more efficiencies out of an already mature system. Beginning last year, “dual-cycle” algorithms help Altenwerder’s cranes and AGVs load and unload ships simultaneously, reducing time in port to a minimum. The roustabouts, stevedores, and longshoremen who once populated the world’s docks and harbors have given way to engineers and computer specialists; HHLA employs more than 100 people in its IT department.

The port of the future is eerily quiet and empty.

In the name of energy efficiency, the freighters of the future will make the mighty Hong Kong Express look modest. A Danish shipper, Maersk, is at work on what it calls the “Triple-E” class. The vessels are 1,300 feet long, and capable of carrying 18,000 containers at a time, the equivalent of 111 million pairs of sneakers—27 percent more cargo than the Hong Kong Express, currently one of the largest container ships in the world. This latest generation of freighters, under construction now, is slated to enter service some time in the next year.
Muller says Maersk’s new behemoths may be pushing the envelope towards diminishing returns. The issue isn’t the size of ships, but the infrastructure required to load and unload them. Fully unloaded and laid end-to-end, the 18,000 containers aboard one of Maersk’s new ships would stretch for 68 miles. That sheer volume threatens to choke even the largest ports. “Where are you going to put all those containers?” Muller asks. “Ships lose money when they’re sitting alongside the pier. Companies are facing a tug-of-war between efficiency and flexibility.”

Ironically, while ports shave minutes and hours off of their operations, elsewhere the container industry is actually slowing down. In the past few years, container ships—the largest of which now carry 16,000 20-foot containers—have dropped their average speed 3 miles per hour, down to a stately 25 miles per hour, saving up to 30 percent on fuel costs and reducing CO2 and sulfur emissions.

With nearly 20 million containers constantly in motion around the world, the humble container has become an integral part of our lives: The number of 20-foot equivalent units moved is the most important measure of economic well-being you’ve never heard of. So the next time a truck towing a metal box edges alongside you on the freeway, give a thought to the changes it’s wrought—and the possibilities that still lie in the future.

Andrew Curry is a foreign correspondent based in Berlin. More of his work can be found at

This article was originally published in the “In Transit” issue in July, 2013.

Following the success of our first interview last week with Brenda, we have decided to continue the interview series as many of you emailed us letting us know how helpful it has been.

It brings me great pleasure to bring onto this weeks show Fernando Saldain from Montessori La Milpa.

Fernando is the Founder of Montessori La Milpa, which is a primary school based in Ensenada, Mexico.

He has an incredible story as their school is primarily built out of shipping containers- so let’s get straight into this interview!

About Montessori La Milpa

Tom: Please can you tell our readers a bit about your school?

Fernando: Montessori La Milpa started in September of 2010 and we currently teach children between the ages of 1-6 years old. In the fall we will be starting our elementary classroom and we are expecting to have about 10-15 children in the first school year.

Aside from the Montessori program, we have a very strong environmental focus. We harvest rainwater in a cistern that can hold 133,000 liters. We also have composting toilets and a composting program where parents bring their organic scraps from home. In addition to all of this we have just started a recycling collection center, in the same manner families can bring their recyclables and the proceeds from this is donated to a local dog/cat shelter that rescues stray animals.

Tom: How did you get the idea of building your school with shipping containers?

Fernando: We wanted the architecture of the school to match it’s philosophy, diversity and keep an environmental focus. We are actually located a few miles from one of the two marine port terminals and there are several shipping container storage yards located in very close vicinity. I had seen an article online regarding shipping container homes, several years ago, and although there are very few constructions with shipping containers in town, I figured it was worth exploring. So we presented the idea to our architect and he is the one to credit for the fabulous results.

Tom: Why did you decide to build your school out of shipping containers?

Fernando: We looked at other options like straw bales, adobe blocks, bricks, cinder blocks, etc. They obviously all had their pros and cons. We decided to go with shipping containers mainly for three reasons:

  1. The cost was about the same as a traditional cinder block constructions, but the upside was the long term durability (reduced maintenance),
  2. The fact that the containers were being re-purposed rather than recycled
  3. Finally, the also the novel aspect of building with shipping containers, as there are no other constructions of this magnitude in our area.
Tom: How long did the school take to build?

Fernando: The construction started early June of 2010, classes started in September of that same year in two of the three classrooms. The third was completed by October, but the construction schedule was reduced due to classes in the mornings.

Tom: Roughly how much did the school cost to build?

  • Land $50,000USD
  • Containers $50,000USD
  • Foundations $40,000USD
  • Cistern $25,000USD
  • Woodworking $50,000USD
  • Fencing $20,000USD
  • Electric/Plumbing $15,000USD
  • Steelwork $12,000USD
  • Concrete (exterior floors) $12,000USD
  • Misc $10,000USD
So a total of around: $285,000USD

Tom: Can you talk about the process of building the school- what were some of the highlights of the process? Fernando: I can still remember watching that first red container being crane lifted and placed into it’s location. It was a 30′ segment from a 40′ container that had been prepared at a local lot prior to it’s arrival. Even though our architect did a great job on the design and supervising the actual construction, there is always that sense of uncertainty until it all starts coming together- especially having designed this from specifications and not actually measuring the containers.

But I must say everything came together very nicely and there were minimal surprises that had to be adjusted in real time. There were several crews working at the same time, foundations were being poured while doors, windows were being opened and insulation was being fitted. We had a delay in getting the building permits, to some extent we figured it might be delayed due to the shipping containers, but it was actually delayed for other non related aspects!

Tom: How did you insulated the containers?

Fernando: The interior walls have loose straw that was packed from floor to ceiling, about 3.5” thick, held back by chicken wire. Then a layer of adobe plaster was applied to the full height.

In the exterior, all the classrooms have exterior roofs that where made from the corrugated sheet metal that was removed from interior walls. There is an air gap that is formed between this exterior roof and the inner ceiling in addition to ventilation openings which helps circulate air.

The climate in our location is relatively mild- We are located less than 1 mile from the coast line so we have a very nice cool breeze during the day, the distribution of classrooms and windows was done to take advantage of this breeze to keep classrooms cool during summer.

The windows also provide natural light and a heat source during winter.

Tom: What’s the one thing you wish you’d known before you built your shipping container school?

Fernando: That there are containers that don’t have a tubular beam that goes across the top of the length (long sides), but rather have an ‘L’ shaped beam that is much weaker when the inner wall is removed completely. We had to add ‘C’ shaped beams to reinforce that length.

Tom: In your experience what are the advantages of building with shipping containers?

Fernando: I believe the long term durability and relatively low maintenance is far more advantageous when compared to cinder block constructions, which is the most common type of construction in our area. Also, if the overall condition of the container is good, there is no real need for exterior paint. Interior floors can be refinished and there is no need for additional flooring.

Tom: Would you recommend building with shipping containers?

Fernando: Of course, anything from a small off-grid home to a large scale construction like our school, the possibilities are nearly endless!

Thank you for joining us for this interview Fernando! And thank you to everyone reading this. Remember if you have any questions about the construction process, or using shipping containers let us know in the comments below.

Since we’ve started Safe Steel Box, we’ve received emails from people all around the world. One of the most popular questions we receive is: which climates are suitable for a shipping container home?

Most people, rightly so, think about their local climate before deciding whether to build a shipping container home or not.

If they live in the tropics they are concerned that their container home will be sweltering. Whereas, if they live in colder climates they are concerned that their home will be an ice box all year round.

Shipping container homes are suitable for nearly all climates providing you thoroughly prepare your containers. Today we are going to look at how to prepare your containers to be suitable in both hot and cold climates.

Shipping Container Homes in Hot Climates

We’ve previously wrote in detail how to keep your shipping container home cool during the summer months.

This section is going to focus on how to design your shipping container to be suitable in hot climates.

For this, let’s pick an area which is very hot all year round and also dry: Panama fits this description.


The best way to keep your shipping container home cool is to not let the heat into your home in the first place.

One of the most effective ways I’ve found to do this is to keep the majority of your house in the shade. This stops sunlight shining directly onto your containers which would increase the temperature inside your home.

To keep your containers in the shade I’d recommend using your garden and planting trees if you have the space.

Two of the fastest growing trees are the Northern Catalpa and the Hybrid Poplar. Both of these trees grow at around 8 foot each year, so within a year or so they will be much taller than your container home and provide you with shade.

The Northern Catalpa grows an incredibly thick canopy of leaves- this really helps to reflect the sunlight away from your containers.

If you are going to use trees as sun shades, it’s also important to consider the orientation of your building. Remember that the sun will be at its hottest during the afternoon when it will be shinning from the south, so you should plant the majority of your shade in the south to protect your containers.


If the sunlight gets through your ‘shade-blockers’, the next best thing you can do is make sure your roof is reflecting and not absorbing heat.

An easy step is painting your roof white. White reflects the majority of wavelengths which means it will reflect the sun’s rays back and away from your shipping containers.

Not only is your roof’s colour important but just as important is the material you choose for your roof.

Traditional roofs like asphalt is black, this means it will absorb the heat from the sun and transmit it into your containers.

Instead you should use a treated metal roof. This would actually reflect the majority of the heat away before it even reaches your containers.

Ventilating Shipping Container for Hot Climates

Unfortunately though, it’s inevitable that at some point the ambient heat will enter your containers and when it does, your containers needs to be prepared to expel the heat and keep you cool.

You want to make sure your home is exceptionally good at letting heat out otherwise it will feel like you’re living in a sauna 24/7.

You need to make sure that both your Insulation and Ventilation are properly designed and fitted.

In terms of your insulation, most people use spray-foam insulation and we talk about this in much more detail later on in this article.

In very warm climates you shouldn’t focus too much on insulation because you want to focus more on ventilation.

With regards to ventilation you can have either passive or mechanical forms.

Passive ventilation uses nature (wind) to cool down your house and is most commonly done with a vent or a whirly bird.

Mechanical ventilation is powered by electric and is most commonly done with an extractor fan or dehumidifier.

Shipping Container Homes in Cold Climates

In hot climates we want to keep the heat out, whereas in colder climates it’s the exact opposite: we want the heat to stay inside our containers to keep us warm.

We’ve previously wrote in detail how to keep your shipping container warm during the winter months.

This section is going to focus on how to design your shipping container to be suitable for cold climates.

Insulating Shipping Container for Cold Climates

I can’t stress this point enough: if you don’t have good/enough insulation then you won’t be able to keep your container home warm regardless of how much money you are spending on heating bills.

You have three main insulation choices for your containers: spray-foam, panels or blanket insulation.

When I’ve spoken with other shipping container home owners, the single biggest thing they recommended was spray-foam insulation.

Spray-foam insulation makes sure you get a seamless vapour barrier, which is something the other two insulation choices don’t provide. Not only does a vapour barrier help keep heat in, it also helps to stop the formation of corrosion and mold inside your containers.

Spray-foam insulation is normally applied internally to the containers; however you can also spray it on the external shell of the containers to improve the containers’ thermal value.
When compared to panels or blanket insulation, spray-foam is much quicker to install as you don’t need battens to support the insulation.

When you’re living in a cold climate you want high R rated insulation (the R rating is the measure of how effective your insulating material is; the higher the number the better your home will retain heat).

One of the other massive benefits of spray-foam is, it’s extremely flexible and can be used to seal small gaps to stop warm air escaping from the container.


Loosing heat via your roof is one of the most common ways a home loses heat.

The best way to prevent this, and prepare your containers for a cold climate, is to thoroughly insulate your roof space.

Again, with insulating your loft you can use either spray-foam, panels or blanket insulation.

If cost is a concern, blanket insulation would be the ideal pick. However if cost isn’t a concern spray-foam insulation is the way forward.


When building a shipping container home in a cold climate the last key thing you need to be aware of is window sizes and placement.

In addition to roofs, windows cause your container home to lose a lot of heat.

The Victorian Government of Australia states that “A single pane of glass can lose almost 10 times as much heat as the same area of insulated wall”.

So it’s very important to bear this in mind whilst you’re designing your container home.

Given that windows loose so much heat, you don’t want to design a container home with large floor to ceiling glass panes in a cold climate like Alaska. This would cause you to lose a significant amount of heat through the windows and it would be difficult to heat your home up.

It would be much more efficient to have several smaller windows.

So now you know that shipping container homes are suitable in pretty much all climates, let me know in the comments below: where are you going to start build your own container home?

We see shipping containers everywhere now- they’re being used as homes, swimming pools and coffee stores. With this, it’s very easy to forget where shipping containers came from, and what their original purpose was/still is!
We have already discussed the 20 ways shipping containers changed the world and also how and who invented them.
We know that shipping containers come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and today, we want to look at exactly how shipping containers are made.
In a modern world where many things are made by machines now, it was amazing to see this isn’t the case with shipping containers.

Step 1: Wall Panels

The very first task it to make the wall panels.
To do this, large steel sheets are cut down into 8 foot x 3 foot sheets. The sheets are then sandblasted and corrugated. The sheets are corrugated to add strength to them and this is what gives shipping containers their wave like texture.

Once the sheets have been corrugated they are then laid out and welded together to create the wall panel.
The final step to complete the wall panel is to weld square tubing onto the top and bottom of the wall. This tubing is used later on to weld the floor and roof to the wall.

Step 2: Floor Frame Assembly

After the wall panel is complete, the floor frame needs assembling.
The floor frame is predominantly made up of I-beams. Two longer I-beams are laid out perpendicular to each other. Then smaller I-beams are welded in between the longer I-beams to create a raft like base.

Once the welding is complete, the floor frame is sanded with a flap disc angle grinder to ensure there are no rough welding joints.

Step 3: Doors and Corner Posts

The front and back of the container now needs making.
Again, like the side walls, the doors are mainly made out of corrugated steel. Once the corrugated steel has been cut to size, it is encased in square steel tubing. The doors are then sanded smooth again to remove any rough welding joints.

The famous corner posts are then welded to I-beams and then the individual doors are welded in-place inside the I-beams.

Step 4: Completing the Box

The shipping container really starts to take shape now, as the door frames are craned into position on top of the floor frame. The door frame is welded down and then the wall panels are also craned and welded into position.
Finally, the roof panel is then lowered down onto the container and welded, completing the carcass of the container.

Step 5: Painting and Priming

The container is then wheeled into the paint workshop and primed. Priming (undercoating) is the first layer of paint to be sprayed on the container and it is a preparatory coating. This ensures that additional layers of paint stick better to the container; it also provides an additional layer of protection for the container.
Once the primer has dried, the container is spray painted several times. Multiple layers of paint are used to ensure the container is protected against the harsh elements of sea travel such as salt and water.

Step 6: Flooring

The next step is to fit the wooden flooring on top of the floor frame.
Six plywood panels are used to floor the container. However, before they are fitted, the panels are varnished with a protective coating. This protective coating makes sure that bugs and other pests aren’t present in the wood.

Once the panels have dried they are placed inside the container and screwed down into the steel floor beams.

Step 7: Decals, Identification and Doors

The container can now be decorated with the company’s logo and any advertisements. These are usually stickers which have an adhesive back to them.
The container also needs labeling with its unique identification code which can be used to identify the container from anywhere in the world.
The identification code has 11 alphanumeric characters each of which corresponds to a meaning.

The first three letters are used to identify the owner of the container. On the image ‘TGH’ refers to Textainer- one of the largest shipping container companies in the world.

The fourth character is a ‘Product Group Code’ which can either be U, J or Z.

U = Shipping Container.

J = Any piece of equipment than can be attached to a shipping container- i.e. a power unit.

Z = Trailer used to transport a shipping container.

The fifth to tenth characters make up a serial number which is assigned by the container’s owner. This serial number is used by the specific container’s owner to identify the container.
The final character is known as a ‘Check Digit’. It’s used to verify the previous 10 characters.
Once the container has been labelled, the door handles and locking mechanism are fitted. A rubber seal is then wrapped around the doors to ensure they are water tight.

Step 8: Waterproofing and Testing

The underside of the container is now sprayed with a waterproof sealant.
Once the sealant has dried, the container is soaked in water and then inspected for any leakages or defects.
If no defects or leaks are found, the container is now complete and can be transported to its intended location.

It’s quite an impressive process isn’t it? Although here at Safe Steel Box we recommend building with up cycled containers to help the environment, there are certain advantages of building with new shipping containers. One of the biggest advantages being, you know exactly where the container has been and what has been transported inside of it.

If you are looking to buy either new or used shipping containers please contact us and our representatives will be happy to help you.


Storage Containers: The Eco-Friendly Option

In a world where our carbon footprint is – quite rightly – becoming increasingly scrutinized, it makes sense to embrace Eco-friendly lifestyle choices where we can. The decision to lead a greener lifestyle also extends to the choices we make about how to store our belongings, or manage large-scale events and construction projects. So, what are the environmental benefits of using storage containers?

Personal-use storage units

As a home-owner, it’s worth thinking about how you can best store your belongings in the most Eco-friendly way possible. For a start, De-cluttering or recycling unwanted and unused possessions are a great way to get rid of stuff that others might want (and that you don’t need!) For your other belongings, using a storage container is one way you can keep your things safe and secure in the knowledge that you’re not adding to your carbon footprint. Many of us store our little-used possessions in card board boxes, which directly impact the environment due to the sourcing of the cardboard and the waste it contributes to.

According to, a leader in ‘Building Environmental Literacy’, “packaging represents nearly one-third of the total solid waste stream”, giving us all the more reason to choose re-usable forms of self-storage.

With 8 storage locations across Canada, Safe Steel Box branches are easily accessible – meaning you won’t have to travel miles to find your nearest branch. This will help to save you time and money, and lessen the impact of your carbon footprint.

Build an Eco-friendly home

Perhaps you’ve been inspired to build your own Eco home? Shipping container homes are becoming increasingly sought after, and can offer an ideal solution for those looking for a ready-made structure from which to build a house as well as wanting to address their environmental impact. Storage units are available to purchase, as well as to hire, so it’s worth checking out the different sized containers available to suit your needs. If you’re looking to proactively lessen your impact on the environment, whether it’s for storage purposes, welfare accommodation or for part of your self-build project, self-storage is the Eco-friendly way to go.