Can you build a shipping container home in South Africa?

Shipping containers provide allow for fast, affordable, and in some cases mobile spaces, that can be used for offices, storage, or even small homes. But, with such an unconventional building method, so many South Africans ask, can you build a home using shipping containers?

Shipping containers homes are allowed in South Africa as long as the construction complies with the National Building Regulations of South Africa, and the materials used are approved for use in construction by Agrément South Africa.

Shipping containers for the purpose of a residential structure or living space, need to be sent to the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) or Agrément South Africa for inspection and testing. Once the container has been approved you may start with the design of your livable space. 

Building a container home or office space is a fairly new concept in South Africa and not many people know much about it. Therefore, this article will further cover topics like benefits and disadvantages of container structures, design challenges and how to know if a shipping container is in accordance with what is approved by Agrément South Africa.

How do I know if the shipping container is in accordance with what is approved by Agrément South Africa?

Agrément South Africa (ASA) is an organization that evaluates the fitness for purpose of non-standardized construction products, materials, and systems against performance-based criteria. Agrément South Africa’s mission is to promote the government’s objectives of economic development, good governance, and raising living standards and prosperity in South Africa.

A shipping container will be in accordance with what is approved by Agrement South Africa if the structural integrity of the container’s material is sound.

Shipping containers are made from materials such as steel, aluminum, fiber-reinforced polymer, or a combination of these. When choosing a used shipping container it is important to avoid any that contain rust, have doors that don’t seal or contain any holes or other visible damage. 

However, shipping containers are built to be exceptionally strong and weatherproof, tough enough to withstand harsh climatic conditions and movement during transport. Therefore, if you choose a shipping container that is in good condition, it will more likely than not be approved by Agrément South Africa to be used as a container home.

How would the National Building Regulations apply for a container home?

While a shipping container design may be cost-effective, there are certain aspects to be aware of in terms of complying with the National Building Regulations. This is to ensure that the structure and space inside are safe and healthy. Listed below are some of the aspects of a container home that need to apply with National Building Regulations.


As shipping containers are made of steel, they conduct heat pretty well. With that in mind, when it is cold outside there is no insulation and therefore will freeze inside as well. Therefore, passive heating and cooling strategies will need to be implemented to regulate temperatures inside the container. This will need to comply with the energy consumptions requirements of SANS 10400-XA.


Shipping containers also do not contain any openings for light and ventilation. So in order for such a home to comply with the building regulations, sufficient lighting and ventilation will need to be introduced by adding doors and windows.

Part O of the SANS 10400 requires that any room in a habitable dwelling must have at least one opening (openable windows, or glazed doors) for natural light and ventilation that measures no less than 5% of the floor area of that room, even if there is sufficient artificial lighting and ventilation. The only exception to this rule is for properly ventilated toilets.

Permanent openings should also be considered in hot and humid climates to prevent dampness and mold growth when the room is locked up for extended periods.


For the most part, shipping containers are made out of metal and are not flammable on their own. However, when introducing new materials when installing the ceiling, insulation, flooring, and walls, PART T of the SANS 10400 needs to be carefully considered.

The container home will need to comply with the fire regulations of SANS 10400 Part T. Some of the requirements for effective fire protection include fire stability of structural elements, protection of openings, emergency exits, and water retention for fire-fighting purposes. 


In terms of drainage, plumbing, sanitation, and water disposal, the container home will need to comply with the SANS 10400 Part P regulations. This section states that all water, waste disposal, soils, and stormwater have to be drained away and treated to maintain safety and health. In many cases, these pipes are buried underground and have to be installed by a qualified plumber using the correct piping.


There are many aspects of a container home that need to comply with the National Building Regulations. Therefore, you will need to appoint a professional such as an architect to make sure that the new structure complies with all of these regulations. The professional needs to be registered with the South African Council for the Architectural Profession (SACAP) or Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) to sign the “SANS 10400 Form 2”, taking responsibility for the compliance of the container home.

Design challenges of a container home.

Even though there are many advantages of container home, there are a few design challenges that will need to be taken into consideration.

A standard shipping container is only 2.4 meters wide, 2.6 meters high and 6 meters in length. Therefore, the layout and space is very limited. Micro-scale living strategies can be implemented into the design of the space but it will still be limited nonetheless. The structure of the container is also fixed, therefore increasing the height or length of the structure will be a challenge and additional cost, especially if you are wanting a double volume or squared layout space.

Another design challenge is incorporating modern appliances. Unless you plan to live off the grid, you will need to find reliable electricians and plumbers who are familiar with container homes or who are willing to be inventive, to set up and custom installs the necessary services and appliances. Especially if your container doesn’t have direct access to electricity or plumbing work.

The container will also need to be waterproofed and/or treated to avoid rusting and water damage from the rain. An additional roof structure or covering could also be implemented to reduce the amount of water coming into contact with the surface and prevent the loud sound of rain from hitting the container roof.

As you can see, there are quite a few design challenges to take into consideration when designing a container home. That is why it is important to appoint a designer or architect early in the process, to help maximize the potential of the limited space, and to consider the various design challenges that come with building a container home.

A typical plan layout of a container home, demonstrating the limited space and design layout.

What are some advantages and disadvantages of a container structure?

Shipping containers are fireproof, affordable, and easy to maintain, and with hundreds of pre-owned containers around the world, they are usually quite easy to come by. However, container structures are not suited to every design application. Below is a table of the pros and cons of converting a container into a livable space:

Short construction time – converting a shipping container into a livable space only takes around 3 to 4 months, whereas a brick and mortar home takes around 18 months.

Movable – Container homes can be easily moved if required.

Affordability – a furnished two-bedroom container home with off-grid facilities can cost under R500 000.

Low maintenance – Maintenance is made easier with removable panels allowing easy access to services.

Easily modified and upgraded – it is relatively easy to add other container structures, adding rooms or enlarging the space.

Excellent insulation – Containers have a high R rating of up to 6 or 7, which is considerably more to brick and mortar homes.
Municipality – Municipal approvals are more often than not, difficult to obtain for container homes. This is slowly changing though, as local authorities are increasingly recognizing the value of these homes.

Limited design options – some architectural designs may be better suited to conventional building methods and not restricted by the box shape.

Banks – Banks are still reluctant to provide home loans for container homes in South Africa. 

Even though there are many design challenges when designing a container home, there are definitely more advantages to disadvantages as seen in the table above. And involving an architect or professional alike in the design process will maximize the potential of the structure and create a more efficient building process.


Container homes are compliant when they are built in accordance with the National Building Regulations, and when the materials of the container are approved for this use by Agrément South Africa. In which a shipping container will be in accordance with what is approved by Agrement South Africa if the structural integrity of the container’s material is sound.

There are many aspects of a container home that need to comply with the National Building Regulations. Therefore, you will need to appoint a professional, such as an architect, to make sure that the new structure complies with all of these regulations. This will also make the process easier in terms of the design challenges to consider when designing a container home.

Even though there are many design challenges and considerations when building a container home, there are definitely a lot more advantages to disadvantages of building the structure.

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