Can I Have a Shipping Container in My Backyard? Rules and Regulations for Container Homes

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Can I Have a Shipping Container in My Backyard? Rules and Regulations for Sea Cargo Containers on Your Residential Property

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Can you have a shipping container in your backyard? Shipping containers are big boxes (shaped like a rectangular prism) and sheathed with metal, moulded PVC and other fibre-reinforced polymers. These boxes are commonly used as containers on cargo ships, so they are manufactured to be structurally firm, strong and crash-proof. The large size of these containers means that they can be converted into portable cabins which can be used as an office, mini-shop, studio, reading room, quiet room, library, storage room, lounge room, bedroom or junk room to keep your clutter and other unwanted items that you aren’t using.

Low-Cost Prefab Container House for Backyard Lot, Hotel, Office, Dormitory and Modular House Price $2950 USD by ECO-PREFAB.COM

The alternative use of shipping containers as a form of portable accommodation has seen them being incorporated into architectural designs by various architects around the world. Some of the best designs of shipping container architecture include projects by Fraser Brown MacKenna, Randy Bens, Bruno Zaitter and Kengo Kuma.

Multiple shipping containers can be used as modular units in the construction of big housing and commercial projects. As an example , in Italy, the architects Carlo Ratti and Italo Rota came up with a conceptual design of an intensive care unit that makes use of shipping containers in the aftermath of the contagious Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic that has infected 86,498 people in Italy, and causing 9,134 deaths as at 28 March 2020.

Exterior of Stow Away Hotel in UK, London, Waterloo – An Example of Shipping Container Architecture

A real life example of a finished building incorporating shipping container modular units is the Stow-Away Hotel in London, UK designed by Doone Silver Kerr architects.  The 5-storey hotel has containers stacked over each other with a front elevation of 5×5 units high. There are 25 containers making up the complete building, measuring 9 metres long each. Shipping containers have a cross section area of 2.43×2.59m high (ISO standard size), so that’s a total living space of approximately 9 x 12.15 x 12.95 metres high. Stow Away Hotel in London UK – Furnished Interior – Intermodal Container Room Stow-Away Hotel in Waterloo, London, Interior of Furnished Sea Cargo Container Room Stow Away Hotel in London, UK – Interior of Furnished Shipping Container Room

Local Authority Regulations Regarding Backyard Shipping Containers

So you have seen neighbours and friends with shipping containers in their yard, but can you legally have a shipping container in your backyard? Are shipping container homes legal in the USA? This is a question that you have to answer before you bring a shipping container on your premises. Each and every state in the USA has Legislation and Building Acts governing the use of shipping containers, also known as intermodal containers in residential , commercial and industrial construction. It’s important to note that states may have laws which are more or less the same or totally different. It’s your duty to consult the local building authorities in your state or city to find out what’s permissible and not permissible, and whether you need a permit for installing a container on your residential lot. If your intermodal cargo container is being repurposed by a local architect, they should be aware of local legislation regarding their installation.

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Laws governing the use and placement of cargo containers on your property are found under the state/city zoning ordinance which can be read or downloaded from the Local County / City Council website. It’s best to get in contact with your city zoning department by phone or email, so that they can furnish you with updated documents.

Depending on your state, the following rules and regulations may apply on a sea cargo container that is being repurposed for storage or residential use on your residential lot:

Building Permit

A building permit may be required to move and place a cargo container on your residential lot or plot. Yes, this is a permit for securing and placing a container on your property with or without installation. This means that you cannot buy a container on EBay and have it delivered to your home address if you don’t have the required permit and paperwork.

Demolition Permit

Some states will require a demolition permit if you intend to remove and dismantle an existing cargo container on your lot.

Visibility Requirements

In some states, there are visibility requirements.  If your residential lot is not screened by a fence or landscaping feature, i.e. a house with no boundary walls, then you are not allowed to place a sea cargo container on a location which makes it visible from the abutting street. This means that your container must not be visible from any adjacent street bordering your lot. In this case, if the only adjacent street on your residence is the front street, then you shouldn’t place the container in the front of your house. Rather, you must place the container behind the house, in the backyard where it’s not visible from the streets.

Figure 1 – Backyard Shipping Container Position on Open Unfenced Residential Lot

Figure 2 – Backyard Shipping Container Position on Open Unfenced Residential Lot

Figure 3 – Backyard Shipping Container Position on Open Unfenced Residential Lot

Figure 4 – Backyard Shipping Container Position on Open Unfenced Residential Lot

Figure 5 – Backyard Shipping Container Position on Open Unfenced Residential Lot

Boundary Wall / Screening Requirements

If you intend to place the container where it’s visible from the adjacent street, then you must have a boundary wall (screen wall or fence) around your lot or property. The screen wall ensures that the container is hidden and not visible from the street. Alternatively, a landscaping feature which hides the container from the street can be used. Your screening wall must abide with fencing zoning ordinances in your area.

Figure 1 – Position of Backyard Shipping Container on Fenced Residential Lot with Screen Wall.

Figure 2 – Position of Backyard Shipping Container on Fenced Residential Lot with Screen Wall.

Figure 3 – Position of Backyard Shipping Container on Fenced Residential Lot with Screen Wall.

Figure 4 – Position of Backyard Shipping Container on Fenced Residential Lot with Screen Wall.

Figure 5 – Position of Backyard Shipping Container on Fenced Residential Lot with Screen Wall.

Figure 6 – Position of Backyard Shipping Container on Fenced Residential Lot with Screen Wall.

Lot Size

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Your lot size will determine the number of sea cargo containers that you can have on your residential property. If your residential lot size is less than 2 acres [87,120 square feet] in net land area, the owner cannot install more than one container. You are limited to one container only. For larger lots exceeding 2 acres, you may need to submit a rezoning application in addition to other legal requirements in order to place multiple containers on your property.

Size of Cargo Container

The state building authorities may limit the size of sea cargo containers that can be installed on your residential property. In this case, containers may not exceed 320 square feet or any value prescribed by your city or state.

Temporary or Permanent Use

There are states which only permit temporary use of shipping containers, and in this case, you must obtain a temporary use permit that allows you to use the container for a maximum period of up to say 180 days. Special permits and applications may be required if you plan to install a permanent shipping container structure.

Cargo Container Permitted Use

Find out what permitted uses are required for cargo containers in your state or city. As mentioned in the beginning of this article, these containers have a wide range of uses such as storage, living space, studio and even pools.

Sea Cargo Container and Accessory Structures

The total square footage of your cargo container also includes accessory structures. Residential use zoning regulations provide the maximum square footage required for a range of Lot sizes. This information is provided in the form of a table or chart by local authorities. To determine the maximum square footage of your container installation, first measure the gross area of your residential lot. Use the city council chart to find the maximum square footage. As an example, in San Diego, the maximum square footage for container installation including accessory structures for residential lots between 1 and 2 acres is 3000 square foot.

Building Line / Setback Requirements

Each and every city municipality in the USA prescribes boundary lines and building lines for houses. A property boundary line is the line demarcating the perimeter of your residential lot. A building line also known as a setback line is measured from the boundary line to the interior of the residential lot. Property owners and developers are not allowed to build any structure within the area covered by the setback line. The setback area is therefore the area around the internal edges of the boundary line. Your cargo container must be placed outside the setback area in a location which is not visible from the adjacent street.


The exterior side of cargo containers should be painted with the right colour according to regulations. Flat, non-reflective paint in either white, dark green, tan and other neutral colours that match the environment must be used. Where painting colour requirements are specified, you cannot use any other colour of your choice, otherwise your container will be in violation of compliance laws. The objective of painting is to use colours that match your natural surroundings i.e. vegetation and landscape. Matching colours reduce the obtrusiveness  of the container so that it fits in harmoniously with the environment. A flat, non-reflective surface helps prevent hazardous solar glare.

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Change of Home Ownership

If you bought a house that came with a backyard cargo container, the legal obligations applicable to that container shall be automatically transferred to the new owner of that lot. The fact that the container remains on your property means that you should take steps to ensure compliance with regulations. This entails getting a new building permit for the container if you need to keep the container or get a demolition permit if you wish to remove it.

Shipping Container Modifications

Building codes may restrict or permit specific modifications on a shipping container and its framing that is placed or installed on your property. Make sure you know which modifications are permissible and which aren’t.

Room Dimensions

Building regulations that apply to normal brick and mortar or timber houses may be applied to cargo container homes. In this case, the size of bedrooms, living room, etc in a container must meet the standard code requirements. A container home designer should immediately know during the design stage if a container can be subdivided into two parts or not. If the container can’t be subdivided into two or more parts, then the owner should consider buying individual containers that can be used separately or attached to each other.

Unused Shipping Containers

Regulations for cargo containers also govern the types of unused (brand new) containers that can be used for residential or commercial building.

Used Shipping Containers

Used containers can be risky and hazardous to the occupants,  that’s why it’s important to know what the cargo containers were used for prior to installation and placement on your property. Depending on what the container was used for in the past, it can be prohibited for use on residential properties. If the prior use does not pose any serious hazard, the container can be used only if its poor conditions are remedied of fixed.

Conditions of Used Containers

Used containers may suffer from structural defects, leakages, cracks, dents, rust, warping, poor ventilation and welding. The material as well as the painting used on these containers may be hazardous to your health. Cargo containers that were used to ship toxic materials and chemicals will be hazardous for human occupation and storage purposes since you stand the risk of being contaminated or poisoned. Building regulations prohibit the use of such containers.

If possible, try to buy a brand new unused container, especially the one that was manufactured as modular unit for housing or storage. You can find a wide variety of pre-designed residential containers on retail sites like Alibaba and Aliexpress at a much affordable price. You can also look at high-end local manufacturers in the USA like SG Blocks, Giant Containers, Tomecek Studio and LOT-EK.

If you need a plain shipping container that hasn’t been repurposed or modified for residential use, then you should try traditional shipping container manufacturers like W&K Container Inc, BSL Containers,Ocean Container, SeaBox, Thomas Net, USA Containers and ContainerTech.

By the end of this article you should have an idea of the various laws which may apply to you regarding the use and placement of shipping containers in your backyard. Find out from your city department of building and zoning what laws are applicable to your area and situation.

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