Shipping container design criteria in container home – Foundation
  • 09 Jun 2017

The concept of containerization has developed at great lengths over the past 300 years leading up to the modern cargo container. An American by the name of Malcom McLean is credited with the invention and patenting of the cargo shipping container. His success in owning the 5th largest trucking company in the United Sates (McLean Trucking Co.) allowed him to branch out to marine transportation. After purchasing the Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company in 1955, he began experimenting with different shipping methods. It was during his time as owner of the company that his idea for the modern cargo container came to existence. While it was not necessarily a new idea, the concept of an intermodal shipping container that could be loaded and unloaded with ease became very appealing to the U.S. military. Their influence helped to have the cargo container accepted as the standard for shipping lines all around the world. The cargo container was issued a patent in 1958 for an “Apparatus for shipping freight.”

The cargo container is known by many names. When used for shipping, it is mainly referred to as a “shipping container,” but can also be called an “ISO container,” “Conex box,” or “cargo container.” When used as a construction material, however, it is referred to as an Intermodal Steel Building Unit (ISBU). Cargo containers are constructed from weathering steel. Weathering steel includes alloying elements that affect the materials corrosion process. Weathering steel forms an amorphous inner layer that protects the integrity of the steel.


Cargo container homes require a foundation system just as any other residential dwelling would. While the design parameters for shipping container homes are constantly evolving due to the relatively young age of the technology, there seem to be two major methodologies in regards to a foundation system. Most cargo container homes utilize either a slab-on-grade foundation or a concrete pile foundation. A basement is possible with either of those two types of foundations, but because the cargo containers are intermodal containers (and thus can be moved easily) a basement would not be practical. Moving the containers would leave a large void that would be wasted. While a basement is possible, the scope of this paper will cover foundation systems for cargo container homes that do not have a basement.

As applied to cargo container construction, a home utilizing a slab-on-grade foundation system would lay a foundation and set the cargo containers on top of the foundation. This foundation system is a very simple methodology for cargo container homes. The modular units are placed on the floor slab and secured with bolts or fixtures set in the concrete slab itself. The slab-on-grade foundation system offers a solid platform that will easily support a cargo container home. An alternative to the slab-on-grade foundation is a deep foundation system. Two common types of deep foundations are a pile system and drilled pier system. The difference between the two systems is evident in their construction. A pile is typically a precast concrete cylinder that is driven into the ground, while a pier is cast on site in a drilled well. Due to having less dead load of a low-rise housing unit compared to a commercial building such as; shopping mall, mid or high rise hotel/office building etc., precast pile have a better solution over drilled piers in consideration of cargo container homes. This foundation system is also referred to as a raised foundation that is created by using precast piles. The home pictured in Figure 1 is clearly supported only by precast piles.

Figure 1. Cargo container home using precast pile foundation.

The series prepared by Modo Container will consist of four articles in total. This is the second, foundation. Previous is dimension, will follow structural system, infill system.

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