8 Tips for Shipping Container Home Zoning

pat russell's picture
pat russell
Architect
April 13, 2015

Interested in building a green shipping container home? Here’s what you need to know when it comes to zoning regulations.

The hardest part of building a shipping container home, is getting past the zoning regulation.
The hardest part of building a shipping container home, is getting past the zoning regulation.
Credit: Allan Slank via Flickr

Shipping container homes are generating a considerable amount of buzz in the green building sector -- and have been for some time now. The trend, which involves the literal repurposing of standard shipping containers, is hailed by proponents as an economical, easy-to-build alternative to skyrocketing rents and wasteful construction periods.

The recycling aspect of shipping container home construction is another draw. Lags in global trade have led to the stagnation of some 750,000 containers in the U.S. alone, with another 1.25 million stalled overseas. These idle vessels have been put to use as homes for the homeless, military housing abroad and even student accommodation.

While it’s true that the murky financials and technological hurdles of building shipping container homes have given buyers reasonable cause for scrutiny, forward-minded designers are raising the bar each day with new models that address the architecture’s deficiencies. Both EcoWatch and MarketWatch, in fact, have recently forecasted a sunny future for shipping container homes in the U.S.

There is, however, a challenge for would-be shipping container homeowners that doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. A little something called zoning must be dealt with before you buy that land.

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What Is Zoning?

Zoning is essentially the division, in accordance with zoning laws, of land into parcels. These parcels and their properties are prescribed regulations that correspond with a designated land use (commercial, residential, industrial, etc.).

The home you are living in at the moment is most likely part of a residential zone. In New York City, for instance, the most common residential zones are known as residence districts and are labelled R1 through R10. R1 districts, for example, contain low-density neighborhoods and spacious lots, while R10 districts tend to be high-density and full of towers.

Zoning rules and regulations indicate setbacks from the front yard, back yard and side. Some zoning regulations, called restrictive covenants, will go as far as to dictate which types of cladding can be on your home.

These regulations, if not outdated, exist for mostly good reasons. Whether we like them or not, amending a bylaw so you can build a container home and be exempted from any restrictive rules is a very long and arduous task. And, at the end of the day, it may not even be accepted by the zoning regulation committee.

Tips for Shipping Container Home Zoning

After more than four years of designing with shipping containers and helping clients realize their shipping container home dreams, I've found that the hardest part of building a shipping container home is getting past zoning regulations.

They can be a huge obstacle and even a very expensive mistake if the client doesn’t do their homework first. So, if you’re looking for land to build upon, here’s what I suggest:

1) Ask your real estate agent for the parcel identifier (PID number) of the plot of land you wish to purchase.

2) Make a trip to your city’s zoning department and use the PID number to confirm your land’s zoning.

3) Ask the department about the rules, regulations and covenants that are associated with the zone.

4) While asking these questions, keep in mind that you are specifically trying to identify any written rules that exclude building with shipping containers or modular (prefab) homes.

5) If you have done thorough research and found no codified obstacles to building a shipping container house in that zone…then it looks like you’re in the clear.

6) Be cautious. Take the process a step further and inform the zoning department of what you plan on building. Show them an image of what the shipping container home will look like. Be prepared -- they may ask to see construction plans.

7) Ask the real estate agent for completed geotechnical soils tests or other tests that have been completed on the site. You don’t want to be surprised later by surface conditions that aren’t compatible with shipping container home construction.

8) Make a bid on the land with the real estate agent, pending approval of building with shipping containers from the local zoning department.

In general, zoning regulations in a rural area are much more relaxed. This is common sense because there is much more land available and logic dictates that when something is a scarcity, such as land in a city, it’s more expensive and more rules and regulations associated with it.

In terms of building with shipping containers, it is generally much easier to build in a rural area. Of course there are always exceptions to the rules.

Now, if all this seems like an exhausting and daunting task that has mired your fantasy of that shipping container home sitting on that plot of land -- that’s because it truly is!

To skip all the nonsense and make the whole process a little easier, hire a local architect, builder or urban planner familiar with shipping container builds to do the work for you.

Of course, ContainerHome.Biz offers this service to its clients. Feel free to contact me at personallypat@containerhome.biz. Remember that ultimately, and above all, this is not something you should take lightly!

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