Posted on 10 Comments

About Shipping Containers

We bought five shipping containers with which to build our house. It might seem a bit bizarre to read this, but each shipping container almost seems to have its own personality. So this is a post about each of the individual containers we purchased, and some interesting facts about shipping containers.


Malcolm McLean, an American trucking magnate, designed the first shipping container as we know them, in the 1950s. (There were similar concepts around in the previous decade or two). He saw the need for an interlocking and stackable storage unit for freight, because loading and offloading trucks, trains and ships was taking too long. Malcolm changed the world.

You probably already know that shipping containers are available in a few sizes. In South Africa, most of the containers are either 6m or 12m long. They also come in two heights. The standard height is 2.6m, but high cube containers are available, at 2.9m. There are also specialized shipping containers such as refrigerated units for cold storage.

Our house is constructed from 12m containers, two of which are high cubes.

Fun Fact: In Canada, 60′ shipping containers are available. That’s over 18m long!

You can read more about the history of shipping containers on Wikipedia.

About Shipping Containers and Their Identification

Shipping containers are designed to travel the world. I cannot but wonder where all our five shipping containers have been. Were any of them used to smuggle drugs for a Columbian drug lord? (Let’s hope not!) Did any of them have a guest role on an episode of NCIS? (That would be cool!)

I set about on an internet expedition to see what I could learn. There are databases available where one can track the full history of a shipping container. However, this costs money; money that would be better spent on building our house.

So what did I find out?

  • You might have noticed that shipping containers have a series of letters and numbers printed on the side that looks something like this: XXXX 123456 7. The Container Identification System (CIS) works as follows: The first three letters refer to the company that owns the container. The fourth letter refers to the type of container it is and therefore what equipment can be attached to it. All of our containers CIS letters end with a U. After that, the first six digits is the serial number of the container and the seventh digit is just a number that helps verify that the previous digits have been entered correctly into databases to help reduce errors with data capturing.
  • More than 1000 shipping containers are lost at sea each year.
  • If you have a consignment on its way to you in a shipping container, and have the container’s CIS number, you can track your shipping container online, as you would any parcel travelling via courier.
  • It is also possible to fit your shipping container with a GPS device so that you can live track it as it sails the seven seas.

About Shipping Containers on the Container House Project

The shipping containers we purchased have been graded as to their condition. We can’t quite figure out if the grading system is universal, or particular to the companies that deal with shipping containers. However, if it is company particular, the grading is very similar between them. A Grade A container would be in brand new condition. Grade B would have few dents and maybe a spot of rust. Grade C you might expect a patch or two along with the dents and a bit more rust. And so on.

For this project, we looked for the containers in the worst condition. We were looking at upcycling old containers and using as little water as possible to build our house for a somewhat more eco-friendly approach to housing. Our purchases did depend on what was available at the time and what bargains we found.

Let me introduce you to our shipping containers.

Blue & White Container, South Side

This container is a 12m high cube. It has been used as a building of some sort previously. It has doors and windows already cut into it. You can also see where a toilet was once fitted to the interior. At some stage, squatters lit fires on the wooden floor (yes, seriously!). There are burn marks everywhere and holes in the wood.

The fires have warped some of the steel making it particularly disconcerting walking on the top. The steel deflects with a loud “boing” as you walk over it, and then pops back once you lift your foot.

1) Our South shipping container is currently our entrance 2) Mind your step – there are holes burnt into the floor 3) a toilet once stood here 4) Blackened from the fires & lots of graffiti

Blue & White Container, East Side

This container has had a similar history to the above container. This one is of a standard height. The fires have bubbled and loosened some of the paint on the sides, but it is still stable to walk on. There is, at the time of writing, some lichen growing on the top! We received both the South and East containers full of rubble and other rubbish left from the fires and previous inhabitants.

1) Our East side container with 2) fire damage to the paint on the exterior and 3) the interior 4) blackened by the fires

Red Container, West Side

This container is also in very bad condition. A large area on the “roof” has rusted, leaving the metal looking a bit like a colander. The result of this is that rain water has damaged the wooden floor inside and rotted some of it. You can still walk across the top of it, as long as you avoid the very rusty section.

1) Our West container that will soon be our main entrance! 2) A very rusty top and a 3) rotting wooden floor

Yellow Container, North Side

This container is probably in the best condition out of all of them. it has a bit of rust, but is still wind and water tight and therefore sea-worthy. This is our second high cube container and the very last one that we purchased.

This container came with a free pair of socks. They are filled with something. We don’t know what, but guess it is probably some kind of insect repellent.

1) An interesting dent 2) a mystery sock 3) We are using this container for storage at the moment.

Green Container, North Side, Second Storey

This container is also in fairly good condition, and sea-worthy. The paint has faded and there is a bit of rust. Kevin has cut a door into the side so that we could access it. He found it a bit difficult to do so because he knew that with every rotation of the cutting disk, he devalued it.

We bought this container through a private sale and the collection point was not too far from where we stay. Bonus!

1) The green container makes the double-storey side of the house 2) We had to cut in a door to rescue the generator that we forgot was stored in the container 3) The generator hiding in the container

Those are our shipping containers. We look forward to seeing what the future holds for these awesome steel boxes!

10 thoughts on “About Shipping Containers

  1. To think these containers have travelled more than we ever have…

    Just a random piece of information…. When we ship bulk wine, a massive pap sack is put in a container. This pap sack normally holds about 22 to 25 thousand litres of wine in each container. When it arrives at its destination then it gets decanted into steel tanks ready for them to do bottling themselves.

    Also when you load a container for shipping bottled wine, you don’t stop stressing until that shipment has been off loaded to that customer. If your paper work is not correct the ENTIRE shipment can be sent back INCLUDING other wine farms… You can also be sued for all those costs…

    1. That is the most interesting random piece of information! Thank you so much for sharing. The world of international freight is something else…

    2. That’s a huge burden of responsibility to bear!

      1. It is and that is why it is so important to have a freight forwarding company because they do help you as well and they also help in making sure the documents and wine is all correct for export. But have a half a sigh when it leaves and a little more when it finally docs, then the final huge sigh when the customer has signed and delivered. But during these 3 to 4 months you can’t help but to feel a little anxious.

  2. I got briefly stuck at “1000 containers are lost every year”. How does that happen? How do you “lose” something the size of a small house?

    1. Good question 🤣🤣🤣

    2. Oh my good grief! 😲😮😮

  3. Ships sink at times……… I have a friend who set up a massive consignment of pork ribs, the fulfillment of a contract to supply Spur with imported ribs – allegedly better than local ribs. The ship sank……as did his contract. Sometimes a really severe storm can capsize a ship and the containers go overboard.

    1. It is pretty insane how many containers are lost each year. I hope your friend was insured!

  4. A majority of containers get lost or misplaced because when they are picked up at ports truckers sometimes don’t present paperwork on the way out so the system does not update to show it left but when an inventory is conducted the container shows missing because its technically still in the system. Imagine hundreds of trucks in and out all day, paperwork is bound to be misplaced, miss-entered or surpassed completely.

What do you think? Let us know!