Are Shipping Containers Suitable for Housing in Costa Rica?

Shipping container homes are a hot topic lately and the models that I’ve seen here in Costa Rica that are finished and suitable for living, currently cost from $25,000 up to $50,000, without the property, building permits, concrete foundations or sanitary, electrical and water connections.

container homes

Because shipping containers were manufactured to transport products in all climatic zones, their exterior and interior surfaces were coated with a number of harmful chemicals, such as chromate, phosphorous, and lead-based paints, and the wood laminates that line the interiors of many containers were treated with hazardous chemical pesticides like arsenic and chromium to prevent insect intrusion.

Shipping containers were not manufactured for housing and all these hazardous chemicals were applied to protect the containers for their intended purpose of ocean and over the road transport of products. Therefore, to make these metal containers habitable, it is necessary to remove all these chemical contaminants which can pose serious health consequences for humans.

Some people claim that recycling shipping containers is an eco-friendly alternative, however most do not consider the amount of energy required to make the containers habitable. The entire structure needs to be sandblasted down to the bare walls, ceiling and floor, and openings for windows and doors need to be cut and reinforced with metal supports. Then all the metal surfaces will need to be covered with anti-corrosive products that are safe for humans. container cutout

Following all the structural retrofitting, the average shipping container eventually produces nearly a thousand pounds of hazardous waste, and all of this, coupled with the contamination created from moving the containers into place with semi trucks and heavy machinery, significantly reduces any ecological benefits.

Additionally, to remodel the interior to make a shipping container habitable, electrical, plumbing and air conditioning systems need to be installed and they require space to install the wiring, tubing and ductwork inside the walls and ceiling. Therefore you’ll end up with a lower ceiling and less floor space, and finding an experienced contractor to complete this work, who is familiar with remodeling metal containers is difficult here in Costa Rica, because the majority of homes are constructed of concrete.

Another important factor to consider is that here in Costa Rica we are less than 10 degrees from the equator and the ultraviolet radiation is intense and anything with a metal surface gets hot early in the morning and stays hot until dusk. Some shipping containers in Costa Rica measure temperatures up to 120 degrees on the metal roofs and walls. If a container is located in a cooler area, the temperatures will be lower, but near the beach communities, they will be extremely hot.

There are different types and sizes of shipping containers and interior temperatures will vary based on their configurations.

  • The first type is a standard metal container and the temperature registered at 115 degrees.

  • The second type of container had insulation installed in the interior ceiling and the temperature registered at 95 degrees.

  • The third type of container had no insulation, but did have a reflective roof and the temperature registered at 99 degrees.

  • The fourth type was a refrigerated container with 3” of insulation in the walls and the temperature registered at 85 degrees.

There are various methods to keep the containers cooler that require additional investments in construction and installations.

  • Place the container under trees in the shade.

  • Build a roof structure over the container to reflect the ultraviolet rays of the sun.

  • Insulate the top of the container with a reflective waterproof membrane.

  • Insulate the internal walls with fiberglass insulation or spray foam.

  • Build windows on all sides of the container to open the interior up to cross ventillation.

  • Install extractor fans.

  • Install air conditioning.

From my communication with construction colleagues throughout Costa Rica, the most logical reason for purchasing a shipping container is for the purpose of storage.

Some folks have mentioned that container homes are portable and if an owner wants to locate elsewhere they are convenient to move. However, container homes are not as mobile as typical travel trailers and to move an 8000 lb. shipping container onto or off of most properties in Costa Rica will require a semi truck as well as heavy duty equipment to place it onto or remove it from a stable foundation.

As an option, trAirstream Camperavel trailers that are common in North America are totally self contained and trailerable to be moved anywhere on short notice. These mobile homes come completely finished and include furniture, appliances, bathroom, kitchen, utility connections, window treatments, etc. These units are available all over North America and can be shipped to Costa Rica as easily as automobiles. Additionally, used travel trailers are available for sale here in Costa Rica.

With a variety of metal framing distributors and contractors available throughout the country, there are other convenient and cost effective options for housing here.

Metal frame Home

The writer, Tom Rosenberger has traveled throughout Costa Rica for 23 years, inspecting land, homes, condominiums and commercial buildings. If you would like to contact Tom you can send him an email at;


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