Tin Can Cabin – A Shipping Container Home in Wisconsin

This cosy container cabin was constructed by one ambitious man inspired by the recent boom in self-builders taking on the construction of their own homes. The cabin is located in northern Wisconsin and has been dubbed by the owner-builder, the Tin Can Cabin.


Contain House - Steves Tin Can Cabin - Exterior - Humble Homes

The Tin Can Cabin is composed of three shipping containers that have been repurposed to create his own small home. Steve, the owner and builder behind this unique retreat, took on the whole operation with no professional experience in the building industry.


Contain House - Steves Tin Can Cabin - Interior - Humble Homes

The cabin comes in at 480 square feet (46 square meters). Steve was able to build and furnish his home for just under $36,000 – pretty incredible. The project took almost four years to complete, and prior to starting he decided to consult an engineer in order to avoid any major pitfalls in the construction process.


Contain House - Steves Tin Can Cabin - Kitchen - Humble Homes

Once Steve had decided upon a layout, he was able to order the three contains required to build the home from China (unfortunately not the most eco-friendly of approaches). Upon their arrival the containers were welded together to create the basic shell for the home. Steve splash out on what he calls “a purposefully overbuilt foundation”, which is never a bad idea, but it ended up being one of the most expensive aspects of the project.

Contain House - Steves Tin Can Cabin - Living Room - Humble Homes

Once the containers were secured to the foundation he was able to add a pitched roof using steel box beams, timber rafters and purlins, and galvanizing metal roofing. While not shown here, the roof is also mounted with solar panels to provide for some of the cabins electrical needs. When the roof was completed, Steve contacted a local welder to cut the openings for the windows and to remove the interior walls to create the living space.

Contain House - Steves Tin Can Cabin - Exterior Closed - Humble Homes

The interior is small but cosy; it’s not finished like a lot of the modern homes I feature, with swanky contemporary furniture, but has a more down-to-earth and rustic feel to it. The open plan living area contains the living room, dining room, kitchen and a wood-burning stove. Flanking the kitchen is the bedroom with the toilet on the opposite side.

Interestingly, Steve seems to agree with my own opinion when it comes to creating buildings with shipping containers – usually best avoided. You can read more about it on his blog Tin Can Cabin.

For more container homes check out Poteet Architects modern guest house with a green roof that’s been created using a single shipping container. Or COMMOD by ContainME!, a modern house that contains 100% recycled materials. See all container homes.

Via Inhabitat
Photos: Tin Can Cabin

Niall Burke

Structural engineer by day, tiny house designer by night. Niall has a keen interest in small spaces, green design, and sustainability. He started developing Humble Homes while studying for his masters degree in engineering. He is the founder and managing editor of Humble Homes.

  1. Why are shipping container conversions best avoided? It’s unfortunate that you bring up the point and then wave it away. I don’t want to ferret out his objections from a blot, sum it up, add your input, and make the point.

  2. Haha Steve, alright here are my thoughts on container homes. To me there are three main issues. The first being that they are not designed to serve as homes, meaning if you want to transform it into a functional living space you have to force it upon the container. This usually involves many “work-around’s”. My second gripe is that the sheer amount of steel used to create a shipping container far exceeds the amount necessary to create the structure for a home – so it’s not exactly the most efficient of approaches. My last concern is that shipping containers often have industrial strength coatings applied to them to make them resistant to the chlorides in the ocean/sea. This improves their durability in such a harsh environment, but can also make them rather toxic to humans, especially if they intend to inhabit them for extended periods of time.

  3. So far I have read a lot of praising opinions about the shipping containers or cabins made into a living space for humans. I am really pleased by their cheap costs, durability and stability and in my opinion also sustainability. I think this article nicely sums up the advantages of such homes Shipping Container Homes, however, it does not mention the possibility of the coatings to be toxic. I have actually not heard such argument, interesting! Although, the containers tend to ship all kinds of products, food included, wouldn’t that be toxic to such goods as well? Second of all, there might be an alternative of building another piece of wall made of wood or some other material around the original steel cabin.

    What I find very positive about containers is, they don’t have to be redesigned only to houses for people, they could be used also as shelters for either homeless people, storm shelters, bus stop shelters or perhaps garden shelters. This is a very effective and practical way of how to re-use them once they cannot be shipped anymore, without inhabiting them for too long periods of time.

  4. I did some extensive research and cost estimating comparing converting 3 shipping containers into living quarters as compared to building the equal square footage in a simple conventional shed roof structure and finishing it into living quarters. The conventional structure was far cheaper and requires far fewer skill sets.

  5. Bill – I’ve heard conflicting stories regarding the costs of container homes – some say its very affordable, others not so much. I believe conventional timber frame is not only one of the economical forms of construction, but also, when designed and built correctly, one of the most efficient in terms embodied energy and sustainability.

  6. Shipping container cabins are gaining popularity in mountain locations because they are fire-resistant, sturdy against heavy snowfall, and secure against intruders… like bears, raccoons or skunks that are known to work through a wall if they sense something they want.

    My misconception was that construction would be fast and inexpensive. THANK YOU for your comments about coatings. That is incredibly important. When I bought my first place, the vinyl siding made me sick, and I am not prone to illness or allergies. I replaced the siding and insulation, and suffered no more of the ill effects from off-gassing.

  7. Lewis – It’s great you found the content/comments helpful. I find that the news surrounding off-gassing is sometimes overblown, and at other times is hardly mentioned at all. In the case of shipping containers, they are quite often produced in China, which isn’t exactly known for being too concerned about the use of lead, or heavy-metal based paints for finishes.

  8. Just a thought about the possibly toxic coatings. Couldn’t they be removes somehow? My initial thought was sandblasting, but then what to do with the toxic residue that has been removed? And I would think the time, effort and cost would depend on the size of the container. I’ve often looked at the trailers used at construction sites as office space as a suitable possibility for a small home.

    1. Hey Steve, sandblasting seems to be the most common way of removing the finishes. Although I have no idea if any steps are taken to get rid of the residue (probably not in most cases, other than just being washed out).

  9. Re “My second gripe is that the sheer amount of steel used to create a shipping container far exceeds the amount necessary to create the structure for a home – so it’s not exactly the most efficient of approaches.”

    These aren’t being made to order, though. They are made of existing materials that would otherwise be thrown away and are being repurposed. IHere in California, the two main harbors, Oakland & Long Beach, have thousands of these things that are no longer seaworthy just sitting there in stacks. So while you would use less steel if you were building a home from scratch, in the end I’m sure reusing the steel in these containers is more efficient than allocating lots of steel for new construction of similar structures.

  10. p.s. If you want to know everything there is to know about building out an off-grid shipping container, you should check out https://containerhouse.wordpress.com/

    His place may not have the glam factor of a 62-thousand-dollar micro camper, but it is, as he describes it, luxurious nonetheless.

  11. I am researching/designing my own cabin, and have been to-ing and fro-ing with the idea of shipping containers as a base structure for quite some time. My background is in boatbuilding, furniture production and import/export, so the subject and the object are of great interest to me. All the comments regarding finishes are correct, there are some nasties for sure. They can be removed, blasted, overpainted etc. but as Niall mentioned, you end up doing a lot of remedial work to a structure that spatially is not that great to begin with (particularly if you are 6′ plus), and the nasties are either still in there, or you’ve relocated them somewhere else (i.e. into landfill or your local water waste/treatment system). One important element is the floor – a lot of people like the idea of polishing the hardwood floors in containers. The timber used is heavily treated (i.e. literally soaked and re-treated through the service life) with pesticides, antifungals etc. You absolutely do not want to touch those boards. And if you rip out the boards, you’ve just made those toxins somebody else’s problem, and you’re now laying new flooring in a room that can’t comfortably fit a double bed…
    Yet I am continually drawn back to the aesthetic, when a container house is designed well they can be really beautiful. But there are just so many compromises.

  12. I’m about to do a complete development from containers. I understand the hidden problems associated with them. As with led paint and it’s issues the same holds true for containers purchased from China. A simplistic solution is to do what i am doing. I will be furring out the outside and interior. Then spray foaming them both. In doing this i will be achieving a r-24 on the outside with an additional r 10.5 on the inside walls. The floor will be furred out with hydronic heat installed Over closed cell foam which will give another r-24… The same as the ceiling.

  13. Hi everyone,
    Has anyone built a container home in Wisconsin and are there any building code ordinance and what permits are needed to actually build one in the city? I looking into a 8×20 container.