Do Shipping Containers Make Good Offices?

The idea of people inside a shipping container once raised many eyebrows. But now, shipping container offices are extremely useful architectural innovations that are gaining popularity across the United States.

The building and office space that you run your company from are more important than you may realize. Small businesses and startups opt for shipping container offices for their customizable and modular nature, mobility, and cost. Containers are also good for office extensions such as recreational areas, garages, cafeterias, and access control rooms.

Shipping containers were made the global transportation standards in 1956. There are currently 21 million new and used shipping containers in shipping fleets across the globe. Then there are those containers that are no longer used for transportation and can be reused for construction. But is a shipping container office the right choice for your business specifically while looking to buy or renovate your office buildingOpens in a new tab.?

Things to Consider Before Building Container Offices

Like any other building, shipping container construction also requires you to follow a checklist. This helps avoid salvaging expensive mistakes in the long term.

• Choose a vendor that provides more choice – Don’t remain confined to your local supplier. You can get a much bigger range of good quality containers at affordable prices with bigger vendors.

• Inspect the containers personally – Used shipping containers may have seen harsh times at sea. They are sturdy and built to withstand nature’s beating. But don’t just rely on photographs. Visit the supplier’s facility and closely inspect the container yourself. Look for chemical corrosion, large dents, and rust. Check the corners, surface underneath the container, and structural integrity. While used containers are not perfect, you don’t want to purchase an overly damaged container with a shorter lifespan and demands high refurbishment cost.

• New vs. single-use vs. used container – Shipping containers are divided into A, B, and C categoriesOpens in a new tab.. While new shipping containers (category A) have the best structural integrity, they are also the most expensive. Such containers have never been used to haul goods at sea and are straight out of the manufacturing unit.

Single-use shipping containers (category A or B) have been used just once before being sold in the aftermarket. These are in excellent condition and are available at a lower price. However, they are in high demand and may not be immediately available.

Used shipping containers (category C) are the ones that have seen multiple journeys at sea. The price of these containersOpens in a new tab. depends on their physical condition, and they may need different degrees of refurbishment effort.

Containers that have seen very rugged use and have carried hazardous goods may need extensive sandblasting and decontamination from residual chemicals before they are safe for humans. Your supplier should be able to help you with this.

• Local building codes – Even though you are not digging up the ground, you still need to check the zoning laws and building codes of your city or state before deciding on a container-based office. For example, U.S. follows the International Building Code (IBC), which is updated every two years. Other standards include the shipping container guidelines by the International Code Council (ICC). Some states in the U.S. have their own building codes, such as the Massachusetts State Building Code.

• Cost of refurbishment – Once you purchase the container, you have to factor in your expenses for the following things –

The fee for the building contractor, architect, and structural engineer.

Cost of the customization required – including partitions and shelves, stairs, doors, windows, insulation, flooring, false ceiling, washrooms, external landscaping, awnings, and HVAC systems.

Cost of fixtures such as lighting, internet, water supply, power supply, safety systems including alarms and cameras (if required).

It is advisable to keep a 20% contingency fund for any budget overflows. For example, if your total buying and refurbishment budget is $100,000, you should keep $20,000 as a contingency fund.

Advantages of Shipping Container Offices

Startups and small businesses want flexibility and affordability because they are still evolving and finding their footing in the market. Shipping container offices are a go-to solution for them because of these reasons –

• Affordability – Businesses have to tread carefully, keeping a balance between growing new revenue streams and keeping their fixed expenses minimal. A shipping container can cost as low as $2,000 per unit, which is substantially less than the average monthly rent of a traditional office in Manhattan.

Shipping containers allow you to build only as much office space as you need and expand in the future. Every valuable dollar saved this way can be spent on growing your business.

• Modular building – Shipping containers are modular, which means that the boxes can be added or removed as needed. Construction and customization are easy. You can add partitions, stairs, private offices, storage units, meeting rooms, sliding doors, large windows, HVAC units, and restrooms easily. You can also leave the interior design bare bones to give your office an industrial look.

• Mobility – The initial years in a business call for flexibility – for instance, a location change or expansion, as another city or area may be better suited for growth. Would you want to go through the pain of finding another office in your budget and signing a new lease once again? Breaking the old lease before time can also impose penalties.

Shipping containers can be easily transported within the city or over larger distances. You can set up a new office space or reconnect the modules in the new location and resume business quickly.

• Environment-friendly – There are always many options in shipping containers available to be reused as offices. Melting these containers can take over 8,000 kWh of energy, whereas refurbishing them takes only about 400 kWh. You can save the land from the damage caused by digging for a brick and mortar structure. You also reduce the fuel burnt during transportation of raw material repeatedly and the environmental damage caused by cement and brick production. This help to make your office or commercial building eco-friendly and more sustainableOpens in a new tab..

• Start the operations quickly – Finding an office space that is the right combination of floor size, budget, location, and lease terms can be a herculean task. With shipping container offices, you only spend a few weeks for customization and less than a week for installation.

When Are Containers Not a Great Idea for Office Space?

While shipping containers are great for building offices, they may not suit everyone’s needs. Here are some of the situations where you may want to look for other options –

• Consider the size of your business – Container offices are best for small to mid-size businesses. If you have a large business with thousands of employees and need multiple buildings in a campus sprawling several acres, container buildings may not be ideal.

• Consider the brand’s image in the market – Every business has a unique image in the market. An architecture firm, an IT company, and a law firm may build their brand’s identity in completely different ways. Consider how you want to present your brand to your clients.

• Consider the stage of maturity of your business – Your business is already mature; you know your target market and your scope and area of operation. In such a case, changing your physical location may not be called for at all.


Depending on your budget, grade A, B, and C shipping containers are great for setting up a small business. It is like constructing your office from Lego blocks that come in standard sizes of 10 ft., 20 ft., and 40 ftOpens in a new tab.. You should choose a supplier that provides all the services, right from container sales, to building codes consultation and transportation services.

Creating comfortable working spaces for people inside a shipping container is an attractive proposition for many reasons, and the trend is set to grow in the US.

Steve Todd

Steve Todd, founder of Open Sourced Workplace and is a recognized thought leader in workplace strategy and the future of work. With a passion for work from anywhere, Steve has successfully implemented transformative strategies that enhance productivity and employee satisfaction. Through Open Sourced Workplace, he fosters collaboration among HR, facilities management, technology, and real estate professionals, providing valuable insights and resources. As a speaker and contributor to various publications, Steve remains dedicated to staying at the forefront of workplace innovation, helping organizations thrive in today's dynamic work environment.

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