One of the daunting questions while deciding to build a shipping container home is it is legal to build in your area. If yes, how to acquire all the permits, and how is the process different from a conventional house? This article shall simplify the information for you to ease your worries in this regard and help you move forward in the process.
Luckily, many states in the US have accepted the practice of shipping container homes, pertaining to different factors, such as affordability and progressive perceptions. California, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Oregon is known for their stricter building laws have welcomed the concept of shipping containers in their system. In other states like Florida, Georgia, Alaska, Louisiana, Washington DC, Colorado, Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania and Missouri, the building laws are comparatively lenient and readily favour creative transformation of shipping containers into homes.
It’s worth noting that even though all these states have welcomed the concept of shipping container homes, the most popular locations are the ones near a port due to the ease of sourcing and transporting the shipping containers to the site.
This article will guide you through the following:
- Categorizing your shipping container home typology
- Knowing and understanding what regulations apply
- What do you need to get the permit?
- State-wise discussion on ease of getting permits.
Legal // local
Shipping container homes are not banned in the other states, but they might require you to go through their alternative building permit procedure. The building codes and permission for shipping container houses can be very different in different states and different counties. Even if your state allows shipping container homes, your local county laws might be different and not accept it.
E.g. For example, in Riverside County, California, local laws do not allow container homes. Yet, the state of California allows the conversion of shipping containers into homes.
So make sure to check with your local building authorities even if you spot your state in the above list.
Fortunately, the concept of a shipping container home is catching up as a viable option, and in early February, the International Code Council (ICC) voted to incorporate shipping containers into the 2021 International Building Code (IBC) with a resounding 97% yes vote. After this, Shipping Containers will be considered an acceptable building material.
Even then, each local government must choose to vote in the IBC as their own legal standards. These votes do not occur on yearly basis, so even once the 2021 IBC is released, it will still take several years for authorities having jurisdiction to start referring to a version of the IBC that speaks to shipping containers. So, it’s possible that local authority has not accepted it yet. But this certainly gives you a better chance to make your case to convince them by following all the building codes and acquiring electrical and plumbing permits.
What typology does your home belong to?
Before seeking the permits for your shipping container home in any state, you must know the right category your home falls into, as building laws are different for different types of structures.
To determine these, ask yourself the following question.
- Size – Are you planning a multi-storey house, a tiny home or a multi-unit extended shipping container house
- Purpose- Is it for storage or a weekend home, recreation trailer, or a permanent home.
- Configuration-Does it has a foundation? Is it on wheels or permanent chassis?
Based on these questions, your container home can be classified into the following categories
- Manufactured or factory-built home- A manufactured home also called a mobile home, refer to homes mounted on a permanent trailer chassis. These are homes that are manufactured completely in a factory and then transferred to the site in one or more sections on a permanent chassis. For your home to be in this category, it must display a red certification label on the exterior of each transportable section.
These homes fall under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Manufactured Home Construction and Safety Standards (commonly known as the HUD code). This code is the only federally-regulated national building code in the US, that apply to such type of homes.
- Recreation vehicles- These are similar to manufactured homes (completely built-in factory with red certification label), but as they are meant for recreation, they fall under the RV Industry Association’s (RVIA) Standards. In 2019, HUD released some clarifications in this regard. If your trailer or container on a chassis is for recreation purposes, it falls under RVIA, if it is for permanent stay, then it falls under HUD like the manufactured homes.
Your shipping container may fall under this category only if it is for camping, recreational, travelling or seasonal purposes. These types of units have several restrictions regarding habitation.
- Modular Homes- The modular homes whose components are built-in factory, but the house is assembled on-site fall under the IBC and not the HUD code (unlike the manufactured home). If you hired a shipping container home manufacturer or purchased one of those converted shipping container homes from eBay or other websites, your home falls under this criteria.
- Permanent homes- Shipping container homes converted on-site and set on any kind of permanent foundation falls under this category. These are subject to state and local building codes like modular and site-built homes and follow the IRC (International Residential Code)
- Tiny Homes: Tiny homes can be both on wheels and fixed. Many states have accepted minimum requirements for a tiny home in their building codes. You need to check in your local building codes if your shipping container home falls under that category, as the minimum areas and requirements differ.
Now that you know, which code your container home falls into, let’s dive into what regulation do you need to look out for?
What Regulation apply?
In most cases, shipping container homes are built permanently on a foundation, so they fall under the permanent home category. You will need to review the following codes and rules in your area before building a shipping container home:
All the states in the United States are governed by zoning regulations. These determine the typologies of the building that are allowed in a certain area. These laws are responsible for
- separating a residential area from a commercial or an industrial area. So, based on your function of the shipping container (permanent home, storage, weekend home, mobile home) these laws will affect your site selection.
- Height and ground coverage of the buildings in each area, by regulating the floor area ratio. This will affect the size and height of your container home if you plan to have a stacked or merged multi cabin home.
Although it is possible to alter these laws, it is a tedious process, with a lot of paperwork and legalities. It is almost not worth it for a shipping container home. After all, you’ve chosen it because of its ease.
Zones are typically grouped into broad categories like; commercial, residential, industrial which are then further divided into subcategories. For example, Florida and Tallahassee use the R-1, R-2, R-3, and R-5 residential zoning systems. R-M is another category in other states like Washington DC.
Your focus would probably be on the R-1, R.M., or R-2 requirements.
- R-1 applies to single-unit residential apartments.
- R-2 is a two-unit residential zoning code for not more than two residential apartments or duplexes.
- R.M. represents a multiple zoning code for multiple residential units, which could be attached or detached.
The ICC (International Construction Code) is responsible for regulating building codes. It indicates the specific requirements that must be met before a permit is issued. These laws will guide you regarding insulation requirements, layout and size of your container home.
For eg. In Alaska, The minimum permitted dwelling size is 100 square feet. Anything below 400 square feet is considered to be a “tiny home.” So a single 20’ container home which is 160 sq ft, would fall under the tiny home category in Alaska and will have to follow the respective regulations.
The previous section discusses the building code that applies to you, based on the type of your structure.
Even if your state or county allows shipping container home, the site of your choosing could have a property deed that restricts the construction. These property deeds are not bound by the government, but they are legally binding, and you may have to take the matter to court to challenge these.
These deeds mostly restrict construction for the following reasons:
- Appearance- The appearance of the shipping container home might not be in coherence with other houses in the area.
- Size- These deeds are applied when the site is located in some township or organized builder zones.
- Apart from these, there could be other restrictions regarding landscaping area, entrance, driveway and other numerous factors related to homebuilding.
What do you need to get the permit?
Although the documents required to acquire a permit differ according to a different state and local laws, The following list is interpreted from the 2021 revision of IBC that has incorporated shipping containers.
(Link to the draft of the said revision- https://codes.iccsafe.org/content/ICCG52019/appendix-3-new-provisions-for-shipping-containers-in-the-2021-ibc-to-be-published-in-2020-)
- Construction documents:
- The construction documents containing information to verify the physical properties of steel components and wood floor components
- Floor Plan detailing the size of rooms and layout
- Structural design (highlighting new welds and members etc.)
- Shipping Container information- available on the plate on the shipping container. The plate can be removed during the conversion if the building official has permitted it.
- Structural material properties (f not mentioned in the shipping container manufacturer’s information)
So, make sure you explore the building codes and arrange these drawings to be ready for the process.
Note: Your local authority might require additional documents.
State Wise Notable Information
Although it is impossible to organize all the different laws and conditions of all the states, here is a brief guide for you to make an informed decision on the location of your shipping container home.
California is a progressive state and allows shipping container conversion homes despite its strict land and housing laws. The best locations are towards the north of the state, or possibly inland off the coast. These areas have structures that are priced reasonably and not strictly restrictive.
In Texas, it will be easier to acquire permits in the rural and suburban areas. The laws in the larger vicinities like Houston are fairly strict, and it might be difficult to obtain permits. Also, In Texas, the regulations of different counties are slightly different from one another.
Tennessee is an ideal state to own a shipping container home, as the state laws are binding almost everywhere in the state and there is the least local interference. So, you can be sure to obtain permits easily anywhere in Tennessee.
Missouri is another ideal location to own a shipping container pertaining to its amazing climate and lenient land and building laws. Here, the local zoning codes also welcome the use of shipping container homes as they are affordable alternatives.
In a moderate climate, shipping container homes work best, as the cost of insulation comes down significantly.
Louisiana is the state where people enjoy very liberal zoning and building laws, and it accepts shipping container home with open arms. You just need the measurements of your land to approach the local land use regulatory committee for approval. There are many shipping container homes spread across the state, and you are free to get creative with your home.
Alaska is also a popular destination for a shipping container home, as it has very expensive terrain, and shipping container homes are an affordable option. As long as you follow the building code and zoning regulations, acquiring a permit is fairly hassle-free
In Oregon, different counties have very different laws. However, most of them will accept shipping containers home.
Minnesota has extreme winters, so your insulation cost could go up, however, the government and laws welcome tiny homes and shipping container homes. Ensure that you comply with the building codes and explore the zoning regulations thoroughly before reaching out to your local authority for a permit.
If Massachusetts is your preferred location, then you might be lucky. You will find that here the laws are relaxed, and it has a different system. The process to get your shipping container permit here is easier than in other states.
The Zoning requirements in Montana are fairly lenient, and the culture of a container home is prevalent in the city. It has some amazing container homes built by professional architects.
Being a coastal location, this is an ideal place for building a shipping container home. Here, you will need to spend some time exploring and understanding the local laws before trying to acquire a permit.
In Michigan, the state minimum dwelling size is 120 square feet, so your container would not be a tiny home. Counties, cities, and towns might have different regulations. Local ordinances need to be checked.
Despite the gap in the codes and laws regarding this relatively new building system, numerous single unit and multi-unit/multi-storey shipping container homes have been built throughout the United States. In fact, in states like Nevada and Oklahoma, people have built container home communities for homeless shelters, housing and start-ups.
The bottom line is, even though this process could be trickier or shipping container home than a conventional home, it has been done numerous times and is possible. So do not get disheartened, if your local authority rejects your design first. Find out the reason, fix it and go back.