Shipping containers; you seem them, a lot. From on the road to rail and water, these large steel containers appear as giant Lego blocks, packed with goods that keep us and the world moving. It brings us to the question, have you thought about what’s inside of them? Or better yet, did you ever imagine living inside of one? Okay, chances are the idea has never crossed your mind, but calling a container home is very real.

Living in a shipping container isn’t anything new. Philip Clark envisioned shipping containers as more than just a way to transport goods, and rather a place to work and live. In 1987, he turned his vision into a reality and filed a U.S. patent to convert the first shipping container into a habitable building. During the Gulf War, the U.S. Army utilized containers as makeshift emergency shelters by cutting holes throughout the steel structure to allow for ventilation and fortified by adding sandbags to the side walls to protect against weapons. Yet, still a novelty, it wasn’t until the mid-2000s when container homes began popping up around the globe.

Today, there are about six million shipping containers in use as homes, including here in the Mahoning Valley, and they continue to grow in popularity due to their versatility and affordability. For example, the going rate for a used container will run about $2,000 with more sophisticated, modified containers going for as much as $200,000. Plus, they can be customized in all sizes. In South Korea, there’s a 2,600 square foot school and 75,000 square foot high-rise in Johannesburg, South Africa.

What makes a shipping container a great place to call home? Well, for starters, many container homes come pre-fabricated and can be built off-site and delivered within several weeks as opposed to several months of planning and building a new house. Along with the price and construction speediness, the biggest draw to container homes is it’s environmentally friendly properties. For each recycled shipping container, traditional building materials such as bricks, mortar and wood are being saved.

However, it’s not all sunshine and roses for shipping containers. There are some aspects that may shy you away from such an investment. Size does matter in this instance. Shipping containers were designed to fit on a train, so it’s going to be a little tight to get much inside. As a result, the narrow shape does not lend itself to insulating the exterior very well, meaning the winters are going to be cold and the summers will have you melting faster than a snow cone in Phoenix. Speaking of snow, as the white stuff piles up, this could result in some issues with the roof. A shipping container is very strong at the corners, but the roof is not as solid as a traditional house.

And most importantly, know just about anything could have been transported from harmless consumer goods to hazardous industrial materials. The paints and finishes used on containers are industrial, not residential homes, and so they could contain lead and toxic pesticides.

So, the next time you’re driving down the highway and see a shipping container on a semi-truck, don’t just think of it as a steel box; imagine it as a home.