Office space can be tough to come by, especially in certain areas. It might be that your business has land but not a big budget for office space, you need some temporary space for a large project but do not want to invest long-term, or do not want to split up your team between several locations. This can lead to the need for more creative solutions. While some companies embrace remote work or are willing to redesign the office space they already have, others are instead considering creating relatively cheap office space by using steel shipping containers.
Naturally, it is not like the shipping containers are shipped to a location, and everyone is expected to then work in a cold, dark box. There is a process involved in creating a solid and comfortable working space for employees. You will need to make some decisions that could affect the container office's cost, the number of people who can work in the space, and other facets of the final product.
We are here to help you through that process and understand those facets, so keep reading ahead to get started.
Turning a steel container into the perfect office can be complicated, so it is vital that you start by planning ahead. If you are reading this and following along, then you have already started. Get a notebook or open a document or spreadsheet, as even with the best of guides and help, you will need them!
We do not recommend moving forward with any of the steps listed here until you have a clear plan for almost everything listed below (and whatever else may come up). The container is not going anywhere, and the few days it might take to do all the research necessary are more than worth the investment. All the information you need should be either a search or phone call away, and you will not lose time as you will be able to move forward with installation and customization all the faster down the line.
That being said, plan for and budget for the unexpected, as something can and often will slip up or go wrong. Perhaps weather conditions will cause delays. A contractor might be unavailable or less professional than you would have hoped, requiring a replacement. Maybe prices will change between planning stages and execution. Try to have your plan be under budget at the start and begin early enough to allow for a buffer in terms of time.
The concept of turning a steel container into an office or any comfortable communal space is not one we came up with out of thin air. Others have already done so, and shipping container companies are aware of this as well. You can buy pre-modified shipping containers that can work as an office, likely only requiring installation, furniture (which you might already have), and perhaps wiring and other connective steps. If you need the office quickly and can afford it, this might be the best option.
However, if you want to create a fully-functioning office from scratch using a steel shipping container, you can do so. You will have challenges ahead, but you will also be able to get precisely what you are looking for without spending nearly as much of your budget. You can place what you want where you want, and the only limits are what you have available, local regulations and codes, and your budget.
You can also, of course, get a pre-modified steel container and then customize it if you like the general design and layout but just need a few more things. In this way, you might be able to get the best of both worlds. Just be careful and know what you plan on doing ahead of time, making sure that it will not ruin the container or cause an unwanted compromise. Finally, when working with pre-made containers, do not forget the wonders that the right tools and furniture can work, if selected wisely. Sometimes the best solutions are brought in later.
Another quick note for those working from scratch: when buying your container, stick with a standard shipping container (or perhaps one of a different size but standard in design). You will not need an open-top container, insulated container, or another variation for your office. Even if they are cheaper, you will only run into headaches and likely not be able to use the container (or pay far more on modifications in the long run). All methods and tips below will be operating under the assumption that you are using a standard container.
If you have any opportunity to do so, you should inspect the container or containers you plan on using before you sign any dotted lines. While it is not always entirely possible to do so, and while you may have to travel or settle for a "virtual inspection" of sorts in some cases, the more information you have, the better. You want to be as aware as possible of any potential problems or corrosion before the container is on your property.
Some things you should look for when selecting a container are:
When you are making plans, you should work out ahead of time what you intend for the office. Do you mean for it to effectively be the main building on your business' property? Maybe a field office on a place such as a construction site? Is it meant to be a temporary solution to a longer-term problem? In which case, the priority will be a quick build and maybe an easy disassembly.
The intention should influence the design. A more permanent building should look nicer and be more comfortable, lest the employees working there think they have fallen into disfavor. A construction office should be sturdy and perhaps easy to clean. An office meant to be moved eventually should have furniture that is easier to remove. Of course, your judgment will reign supreme here.
Finally, even if an office will be temporary, do not assume that you will be putting it into disuse or discarding it (difficult as that is) after a certain point. It will still be a useful building and valuable asset.
We do not mean that you need to pour a concrete base into the ground for your steel container office. However, you should also make sure that your steel container is on solid ground and will not sink into a mud puddle or get easily swept away by water.
When setting up your steel container, follow professionals' advice, and do not even consider placing the container on unsteady ground. If the container is on asphalt or concrete, you likely do not have anything to worry about, but a smooth surface will certainly help. Other surfaces may require consultation and careful placement.
A solid foundation is even more important if you plan on stacking your containers (they are designed to be stacked up relatively high when there is nothing or little in them) or putting together multiple containers to create a group of offices for larger jobs or needs. This setup can make a lot of sense, as the set of offices can share certain resources (WiFi, plumbing, power connections, etc.).
In most states and places, you can't just erect a building to your liking and call it a day. There are local regulations, laws, and codes that you need to consider not only for legal compliance but for the sake of the health and safety of yourself and your employees as well (not to mention avoiding potential legal liability). Construction is inherently dangerous, and poorly constructed buildings (including buildings made from shipping containers) can be a huge risk. These regulations are here to help prevent that.
Now there is little inherently unsafe about using a steel shipping container as the basis for an office, especially if it is done right. Yet much like any structure, some things need to be checked and potential risks that need to be addressed. Due to differences in codes from area to area, we recommend consulting with a professional before you begin to make sure that you will not run into legal roadblocks. Professionals working on the office design should be able to stick to what is permitted. Be careful about doing or managing anything yourself.
Given that we operate in a society with basic standards for plumbing and electricity, you will need to outfit your office for the same, if only to run computers and essential equipment. You will need to consider safety first, obviously, and also the electrical needs of the office.
In both cases, you need to make sure that the storage container has a frame installed to allow for electrical and plumbing systems. You will need to factor in a container's space constraints, but otherwise, it is not much different from an average home setup. As a general rule, only after the frame is installed will you start installing these systems.
Getting electricity into your office will depend on how the power lines are in the area. Given the danger and complexity of the situation, you should look into this step well-ahead of time just to make sure that the container placement is possible in the first place.
As for plumbing, if the office is next to or an add-on to a building that will allow for immediate access to a restroom and sink, then you might be able to get away with minimal amenities. Otherwise, you should consider how plumbing is supposed to work with your new office, or at least one of the new buildings if you are creating multiple container-offices. Is there a restroom within a reasonable distance to the office? A short walk might be acceptable (codes permitting). A longer jaunt can ruin productivity and make employees displeased.
Larger sections may need to have plumbing chases cut, and you will want to plan for the space the plumbing requires. Again, the exact plumbing will be dictated by the office's needs, and you should consult a professional for this step. In all cases, you must make sure the office eventually meets the requirements of codes and regulations applicable to your area.
The standard shipping container is perhaps not known for good insulation from the elements. While it will keep general boxed items and other non-perishable goods just fine, customization is required when it comes to anything with a pulse, especially in places with harsher summers and winters. A steel container can quickly turn into a dangerous and non-productive hotbox or ice-cube tray in the right conditions.
You will need to consider how to cool and/or heat the container and what insulation will be required. There is no perfect solution to every container office, just as there is no perfect solution to every building. Look into options and listen to recommendations, then make a decision based on your needs and budget.
Experts will know what is best for your needs, but here are some general tips and guidelines:
Again, this step can depend very much on how fancy you want your office to get. With enough lamps, most lighting is possible. You can also install ceiling lighting in larger and more permanent offices.
Something we recommend is finding some way to get natural light into the office. Natural light works wonders for mental health. While some might find it a bit easier to focus in a contained environment, not having access to the outside world can make people feel cramped at best and deeply troubled after an extended period, especially in smaller office-containers. There are many different types of windows, and many will fit into the frame of a steel container when it has been appropriately prepared.
Finally, while impractical to install compared to some options, installing a skylight in your steel storage container might be the perfect way to get more of that beautiful natural light coming in, and there is nothing like watching the rainfall above you. If visitors might come to the steel container office, that splurge might be impressive.
While we suppose you can keep the original doors and openings on the container, this is hardly practical, and instead, we recommend that you install a standard door or two onto the container. You could raise it with a couple of steps up to it (you have likely seen this arrangement yourself), while some containers might have ramps as well, depending on the intended permanence of the office.
Your office should also accommodate anyone with a handicap and follow any federal and local regulations to that effect. Due to the variances possible from region to region, we encourage you to consult local professionals (they should know the codes) and review what will be necessary. This and a touch of common sense will work together so that you have the right plan.
Large boxes of single-colored corrugated steel may not make for the best working environment. We recommend that you invest in some decoration to match your office to the rest of the working environment unless it is something like a dedicated field office where décor would only get in the way. Furniture is also a consideration, and you might want to think about the needed furniture ahead of time, especially if you know it will take some time to come in.
Source: BMarko Structures
However, you might not realize how much room the modifications take up. Steel container offices usually have enough room but are not so spacious that you can waste space. We recommend waiting on the furniture until you can take measurements, see the finished or near-finished product, and get additional input.
Painting will be an important part of the process. While most steel containers might look a bit rough at first, the right paint job can make one look like it was meant to be an office all along. You could use the color scheme of your main buildings, business colors, paint a logo or decal on the side, or any number of things. The possibilities are limitless, so long as the paint works on the container (this should not be an issue, either for you or a professional).
This step is entirely up to you, or you might want to leave it up to the employees that will be using the office the most, allowing them to own the space in a small way. Some containers might already be painted, so you will want to make sure that you can get the old paint off or properly paint over the current coat so that your efforts will not be a waste.
Turning a steel container into an office is a significant task, involving expert knowledge, power tools, and precise measuring. While your current team or yourself may be able to help in small ways and may want to offer input on personalization and what might be the best working environment for them, not all of them will be handy with power tools. You will instead want to get professional help customizing and installing the containers as office space.
If you are working with a firm that sells pre-customized shipping containers, then much of the work is done for you. You will need to figure out installation and a few other matters (and the firm might handle that for you), but the container itself should be mostly taken care of. Furniture and final customization will be a breeze.
Otherwise, it would help if you put a team together yourself. Some people you may want to call include:
Notably, some people specialize in modifying shipping containers. You may wish to try and find one, as they will have completed this process dozens if not hundreds of times before and will likely have all the contacts necessary. It could be more expensive, but the time and worry saved might be worth it.
While using a steel container, no matter how much you modify it, will undoubtedly be cheaper than building a standard office from scratch, that does not mean that you should not consider the costs. While breaking down every single line item is impossible considering cost differences, you should do comparisons on the following:
You can break these down further, and there might be more considering the placement of your office, but starting with the above is wise.
If you are considering costs, we do not recommend that you try to save too much money on labor. Paying someone to fix a problem another "professional" created will likely be more expensive than merely working with the professional from the start, not even considering the safety and time considerations.
When calculating, you should leave some extra room for unexpected events, setbacks, or costs, as they are likely to occur. Each step is likely to move forward without issue but given there can be dozens of steps to this process depending on how you break it up, something is bound to happen even when working with the best.
Obviously, creating an office from a steel shipping container is not a solution for everyone, but it might be the solution for your business if you have read this far. A steel container office can be a fantastic investment (and a relatively cheap one) for companies looking to create temporary space, create a more portable office, or create an office space onsite where the rest of the work is happening. With the right touches, the right help, and the right choices, you can create a great working space and save a lot of money in the process, allowing you to invest that cash elsewhere.
If you plan on moving forward, we recommend consulting with professionals where necessary and double-checking every note and decision you make. We also recommend consulting more specialized resources for each step. This article is by no means a comprehensive guide and is instead a blueprint and brainstorming aid to help you start. We wish you the best of luck with your office!