Shipping Containers Outperform Modular Construction. Here’s how.


Modular construction has gotten a bad rap. When you think of the building method, no doubt you’ll conjure up images of low-cost, low-quality homes that look hot off the cookie cutter. Something like this.



These structures don’t even touch the potential of modular construction. And when you use shipping containers in the off-site methodology, you get structures that look like this.


shipping container modular construction shipping container modular construction shipping container modular construction shipping container modular construction


Keep reading to understand how modular construction and shipping containers fit together, how the building codes work, the benefits of modular construction with shipping containers, and the best applications for businesses.


What is Modular Construction with Shipping Containers?

Modular construction is the process of erecting a building at one location and delivering it in pieces to the final site, where it will be assembled as components of a larger structure. Those components are called modules. Using modules means that the building has the same materials, design codes, and safety standards as traditional construction, but only takes half the time to build.

Shipping containers act as the exoskeleton of each module. The original structure will frame the HVAC, wiring, lighting, plumbing, appliances, and wall finish materials. Because containers were built to be durable and mobile, they can be transported by train, tractor-trailer, boat, or in some cases, a powerful pickup truck. Forklift pockets and corner castings allow the containers to be moved smaller distances by crane and forklift. Shipping containers empower you to move your modular structures without sacrificing the structural integrity or damaging the module’s contents.


Shipping Container Building Codes


Shipping containers already have rigorous international standards that regulate their structure. They’re stacked on one another, carrying huge loads of cargo, across the world. Containers need to be sturdy, reliable, and able to handle the pressure (literally). So, their specs are highly regulated. Still, these specifications don’t apply to standard building code. And as soon as the container is cut, it loses its structural integrity and no longer adheres to the International Organization for Standards (ISO) specs. When containers are repurposed as occupiable space, building codes must be followed.

When we first started ten years ago, shipping container architecture was still a new concept and municipalities were hesitant to approve buildings made from the material. As the method is growing in popularity, approval committees are more comfortable with the standards that keep these buildings safe for people to occupy. After all, they need to be sure that the building will not only withstand daily use but will also need to withstand the rigors of transportation and craning onto the foundation. To get a modular shipping container building approved, you will need:

  • Stamped engineered drawings
  • Architectural review
  • Life Safety Plan
  • ADA Accessibility

Even with all your t’s crossed and all your I’s dotted, some municipalities still aren’t receptive to repurposed shipping containers as a building material. We understand why. They’re concerned about the condition of the container, what it was carrying, and if the historical information about the container was reliably maintained.

To help customers that would like to build in these municipalities, we use a different method called purpose-building. When we purpose build structures, we use shipping container parts like the chassis, corner castings, and corrugate to build a structure from the ground up. It has all the benefits of an ISO shipping container, but it allows us to come in under the state’s modular building code instead of seeking approval for repurposed containers. Purpose-building also gives our client’s more control over their footprint, aesthetic, and layout.


Why Use Containers in Modular Construction?


Unique, Flexible Design

We’ve shown you the striking difference between a traditional approach to modular construction and shipping container architecture. As you can see, the structures are versatile and offer flexible modular layouts. Although many of our examples read strongly as shipping containers, you aren’t limited to that look. Containers can be constructed to look like traditional modular units, stick-built construction or a combination of both. We can use corrugate, flat panels, wood, stucco (I could go on forever) for your exterior. Roofs can be flat, pent, or double pitched. The combinations really are endless. That’s why we use our own in-house design team. Our experts can help to navigate the options.


Future Mobility

Mobility is a natural benefit to all modular construction, not just shipping containers. But, do modular builders consider if you may need to move your structure in the future? Shipping container units are built to be mobile at any point in their life, not just to get from a warehouse to the land parcel.


Speed to Market

Boxman Studio’s build timeframes allow for construction to be completed 30%-50% faster when compared to traditional stick-built construction. These projects are built to necessary building codes at the same (if not better) quality without sacrificing build times. The modular process allows for floors, walls, ceilings, electrical, and plumbing to be installed simultaneously.


Tax Implications

By utilizing Boxman Studios’ product, our clients can receive tax benefits. Based on IRS Publication 946, container structures are categorized as 7-year tax life property. Specifically, the code states, “Any property that does not have a class life and has not been designated by law as being in any other class.” This means that modular units are not called out in the IRS Publication 946, therefore it defaults to a 7-year property, which allows you depreciate the units over a 7-year tax life. Commercial traditional stick-built construction in IRS Publication 4562 is classified as nonresidential real property, which has a depreciation period of 39 years.


Avoid a Construction Site

If you have ever driven around a construction site, you might know exactly how inconvenient and hazardous they are. If businesses are operating in the area, they will be negatively impacted by the blocked-off areas, loud noises, and slow traffic. Going modular reduces construction activity by approximately 80%. This means less disruption, less traffic, and higher levels of security. With modular containers, businesses can be opened in a shorter timeframe, because the turnkey structures arrive complete. All you need to do is plug in your appliances.


Reduce Transportation Costs

Oversized loads are expensive. Modular builders typically build modules between 12 feet and 14 feet. Using these standards puts undue stress on the building while it’s traveling because the entire structure isn’t supported by the flatbed. It also puts your total width over the DOT’s allotted 9 feet, so you’ll need to get an oversized load permit. Both standard shipping containers and our purpose-built units all fall within the DOT’s requirements, which saves our customers from the hassle of applying and paying for a permit.


4 Ways to Use Modular Containers


Market Testing

These units are extremely flexible. They can be moved at will, tie into municipality power and water, or run off generator and water tanks. If the developer cannot validate a market for the property, mobility is a huge benefit. Instead of investing in a permanent property, developers can make cautious, informed decisions based on real data. You want to use shipping containers for market testing. Here’s why. 

Monetize Under-Performing Assets and Unusual Footprints

Is there another way to look at nonperforming assets to generate revenue? Vacancies and stagnant properties are a burden on a developer’s portfolio. To determine the highest and best use of a property, developers must conduct property, constraint and market analysis. For burgeoning, under-considered and underutilized property, modular containers can offer a quick justification, market validation, and potential revenue centers in the form of temporary or semi-permanent construction. Find out how you can use shipping container modular construction to turn a vacant parking lot into a cash cow.

Food and Beverage Service

Most food and beverage franchises are looking to create uniformity for their brand across proprietors. The building is no exception. Franchise restaurants should look and feel consistent if not identical, no matter where they are. Traditional construction has inconsistency baked into their model. Modular construction, however, makes it easy to design for brand standards and place orders for franchisees at scale. You can learn more about designing shipping container restaurants here.


Commercial developers and asset management companies build mixed-use and retail properties to attract people and thus attract their customer, tenants. Modular shipping container construction helps these groups to increase their occupancy, increase their rental rates and decrease their overhead. You can read more on our blog, Three Ways Shipping Containers Add Value to Commercial Real Estate.


By now you know that modular construction has huge benefits but also has some weaknesses for property owners and business managers. When shipping containers are used as a building material in the off-site construction process, the structures have unique designs, allow you to move the structure any time, and can save you money through tax implications and transportation costs. For more information about how your business can benefit from shipping containers in the modular construction process, fill out our contact form and reference this blog in your inquiry.