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  • Writer's pictureThree Squared, Inc.

Building Multifamily with Shipping Containers

Updated: Feb 15, 2021

Building faster is one benefit of Cargo Architecture that’s tough to overlook. From our experience building projects ranging from single family homes all the way up to 26 unit apartment complexes, we’ve found this advantage to be especially true in multifamily projects.

But what exactly is it about shipping containers that work so well for multifamily projects? In this article, we dive into five ways that opting to design and build with shipping containers can significantly speed up your multifamily timeline.


From square one, projects benefit from a quicker design process when building with shipping containers. Consider for a moment how in traditional construction, an initial design has very few restrictions. While this may sound like a good thing to some, designing without restrictions creates endless options and no clear place to start. This can drag out a design timeline right from the start.

On the other hand, having restrictions like a set 8’x20’ or 8’x40’ object (read: shipping containers) allows the massing process to move very quickly because there are a limited number of ways to arrange that object on a site.

With this in mind, our first step is always to figure out how many containers can fit within the parameters of the site. Then we run through our options for how to arrange them. Will the containers be staggered? Will they be stacked straight up and down? This stage of design is significantly expedited when there are building blocks to work with rather than starting from square one with “sky’s the limit”.

Bottom line: good limitations allow you to design quickly. Our team even jokes that shipping containers are just like ten thousand pound legos, which leads us to the second advantage for building multifamily with shipping containers…


When designing a multifamily project with shipping containers, our next step is to take that grid that we’ve laid out in the massing process and divide it up depending on the types and sizes of units needed for the project.

Let’s say we can fit 12 containers across a site in total. Now we ask: what are your program needs? Does it make more sense to create six 640sf units... or maybe instead you need two 960sf units and three 640sf units? Cargo Architecture makes it simple to divide this grid in whatever way you need while still maintaining the option to go back and shift things later.

For example, your proforma might change as you discover the market is better suited for 1-bedroom units than 2-bedroom units. Our team understands that projects morph throughout the development process, so what we create during Step 1: Design It is a flexible unit mix that can shift with your proforma as needed.


Before diving into the modularity of our build process, we should clarify that Three Squared is not technically “modular” by code, nor do we want to be for various reasons. However, by operation that’s where our efficiencies come from - being able to make a module and then repeat that module over and over again in a factory setting.

Instead of every single cut being unique, and having to remeasure and realign things each time… our process allows us to make cuts repeatedly. We find efficiencies in being able to make templates and then make that same cut over and over again. As you can imagine, the more repetitious a design is, the more efficient it becomes.

But just because a design is repetitious doesn’t mean it’s boring. We have options to arrange containers in a way that makes the design more interesting without adding cost, like the stagger you see in the image above. Staggered or not, the corrugated pattern on containers actually lends itself as a beautiful design element, and oftentimes people can’t even tell they are looking at the side of a shipping container as long as the doors are removed.


We also understand where efficiencies come into play with individual unit layouts. For example, what you see in this design are two stacks of units that mirror each other. Using this type of layout, we can essentially repeat this building over and over again to create a double layer of efficiency.

Common conditions in this scenario would be to make sure kitchens and bathrooms share walls. And although this solution isn’t necessarily exclusive to containers, it’s simply smart design that we prefer to bake into projects. By aligning the plumbing stacks in this way, you see cost savings when penetrating through the roof or foundation slab since now only one penetration is needed instead of many all over the place. So with a doubly efficient mirrored layout of two units that are condensed to a core like the design below, now all of a sudden a single plumbing stack can serve 6-8 units depending on the design.

Wondering how high we can stack these? Simply put... containers are engineered to stack! Currently shipping containers have been approved as a building material for apartment buildings up to 10 stories high.


Regardless of how many stories high you’re building though… they’ll go up fast. By the time Set Day rolls around, each container has already been structurally reinforced in a factory setting, and is delivered to the site as a building material just like a large steel beam would be for any traditional project.

Due to the modular and stackable nature of containers, our Cargo Architecture projects (depending on the size) operate on a framing timeline of hours to days instead of weeks to months. This generates a massive buzz around the project not only because using containers is unique on its own, but because it’s an impressive thing to watch a building materialize pretty much overnight.

It’s worth noting that our contractors are stopped on a daily basis simply because these projects are interesting. People enjoy talking about something that’s different. But probably the biggest “win” here is that by framing your building that much faster, you get to finish the project quicker, and begin generating revenue sooner.


Now that we've covered how to maximize container efficiencies for multifamily projects, at this point you might be wondering about the specific project you have in mind for Cargo Architecture. And as with any project this big, you probably have some follow-up questions regarding details like timelines, cost estimating, team logistics…

The best answer we can give you right now is the one you probably least want to hear, which is that it really just depends! This is exactly why we offer a 1:1 introductory call with Claire, our Sales + Marketing Manager, to give you the opportunity to ask follow up questions and receive an estimate specific to your project.

If you are in the early planning stages and just gathering information, we invite you to connect with us for Q&A at 12pm EST on Wednesdays via the Clubhouse app. Learn more here.

If you are eager and prepared to move forward with your project, then please contact us here - we can't wait to hear from you!

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1 Comment

Jan 28, 2021

Hello, I am doing research to use the great option of container homes in Maryland. I plan on purchasing the 3/4 acre lot first without financing. I do plan on financing through the FHA Construction-to Permanent Loan for multifamily 4plex developments. My question is do the containers have permanent chassis and are they transported to the site on their own running gear, as required by HUD in order to obtain FHA loans?

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