Can I convert a boxcar into a house?
November 14, 2008 9:26 PM   Subscribe

Can I convert a boxcar into a house?

I have recently become very interested in the concept of living in a tiny house. I currently live in Houston, but have always enjoyed being on my own, in the middle of nowhere, and being self-sufficient.

I have looked into building a tiny house with a flatbed foundation that I can pull behind my car if I want to move, but I think I want something a little more innovative.

While I fancy myself a tad bit of a loner, it is still rather important for me to be near my family. My parents have just finished building a house in Santa Fe, NM, and will be spending about half of their time there, so I have been considering buying some land in rural New Mexico and putting a small house out there.

I recently saw a photograph of a boxcar converted into a house (I don't remember where I saw this picture). The boxcar had been cut at the seams and fashioned with motors that "unfolded" the boxcar into a six segment foundation. Furniture was fastened to the sides of the train car, and all fit together when it folded back up.

I have found a few boxcars for sale, ranging anywhere from $4500 to $25,000. I don't mind buying on the cheaper end, because I really can't imagine what features a $25,000 boxcar would have that would be to my advantage in this venture.

My question is this: as a VERY amateur do-it-yourselfer (who is also dedicated to her projects and loves to learn, work with her hands, and get dirty), is this something I could manage? I am a teacher during the day, so I have summers and holidays to put in the time. Money is not a major concern...I can spread this out into a long project, and I have a lot of support from my family. I don't need to fit the boxcar with motors to roll up the walls...a simple pulley system would suffice. I would prefer to do most of the work myself rather than contracting out because I really do want that sense of "I DID IT!"

A bonus, but certainly not required because I can't imagine a situation in which I would need this convenience, would be that the boxcar could still fold up and be transported in the same manner that any old boxcar woudl be train, ship, semi, etc...

Any other crazy small house ideas are more than welcome! I'm not terribly worried about plumbing or electricity...I could probably just get a generator and use some of my surface area for that, but ideally would like a solar panel system; and I could figure out the plumbing thing later...I would want to go ahead and install a bathroom, but I suppose this would have to work the same way as an RV tank system.

I guess I am mainly asking if this is feasible or if it is crazy/ridiculous/stupid. If the former, I would love further suggestions.
posted by junipero to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: you sure can

have a look at the links below for some ideas

Shipping Container Housing Guide
posted by Phcyso at 9:36 PM on November 14, 2008

Response by poster: WOW! Thank you, I had no idea all of this was out there! And I never even thought of the possibility of adding on with more containers. Thanks! I am SO marking you as best.
posted by junipero at 9:41 PM on November 14, 2008

No, this isn't crazy. I lived in my camper one winter in MN. Just because. I want to do it again, just not in this climate.

Make your plans and enjoy building it. Get creative!
posted by Climber at 9:49 PM on November 14, 2008

Get a caboose.
posted by tiburon at 10:12 PM on November 14, 2008

You could go even smaller (and taller). Check out the Tumbleweed house.
posted by O9scar at 10:38 PM on November 14, 2008

My sister runs a bed and breakfast, one of the "rooms" is a boxcar. It is really cool.
posted by schyler523 at 10:43 PM on November 14, 2008


Shipping Container

They are slightly different beasts, but you can live in either.

I've always been a fan of concrete dome homes, but they aren't as transportable as a shipping container.
posted by wfrgms at 10:45 PM on November 14, 2008

Check these guys out: Seattle architects making homes from cargo containers.
posted by amanda at 11:14 PM on November 14, 2008

Yes You Can! And here's a site with phenomenal ideas for living large in a small space: Apartment Therapy

On the other hand, the Caboose idea sounds really sexy. Men like a woman with a nice caboose.

...I'm just sayin'
posted by 2oh1 at 11:27 PM on November 14, 2008

Response by poster:
You could go even smaller (and taller). Check out the Tumbleweed house.

This is actually one of my favorite is where I got the idea of the house on the trailer. Thanks!
posted by junipero at 11:46 PM on November 14, 2008

Response by poster: I like the caboose idea. And that is a beautiful caboose in those pictures.

The photo of the orange boxcar from "seattle architects making homes from cargo containers" is right up my ally...I love the sliding doors with plate glass windows, the big porch, and the fact that the house is surrounded by trees.

I'm very excited to move forward with this!
posted by junipero at 12:12 AM on November 15, 2008

I've long had a dream about building a shipping container house.

I think building a box car house is a manageable amount of work for a summer or two (depending on how intense you work and how lofty your plans are). But building a box car house with fold out wings, is _a lot_ more work. If you want more space, I think bolting shipping containers together would be an easier route, but maybe (for you at least) less romantic. Transportation would also likely be easier with containers.
posted by nazca at 2:47 AM on November 15, 2008

You keep saying "boxcar," but I think you mean "shipping container." This is actually a really important distinction, because shipping containers are cheaper and can be transported by any local trucking company; boxcars are traincars with wheels and axles and so on, and are more complicated to transport (unless you are a train company, of course). I don't mean to be pedantic, but getting the term right will really help you in doing google searches, and will save you some surprises if you ever get to the point of phoning around to buy one.

Anyway, this is totally doable, but there are some serious practical issues that are hard to deal with cheaply and easily. The biggest is heat and cold -- a shipping container is a metal box that heats up like an oven in the sun, and gets nice and chilly in the cold (say, at night in the high desert in New Mexico). You don't have much space on the inside to add insulation (the interior space is only about 8' high and the same wide and gets very cramped if you start furring in the walls and ceiling), so what you want is a way to add insulation on the outside that doesn't simply get more complicated and troublesome (and expensive) then simply building from scratch.

I've linked to this site before, but it's a really good example of how you can build really creatively and at the same time extremely cheaply. There is no way that their results would have been cheaper and better if they had used shipping containers -- there are advantages of using other forms of construction, and there is a reason (over and above "oh, I never thought of that) that you won't see almost anyone building with shipping containers outside of the pages of Dwell. In rural New Mexico, you'll see a lot of adobe, cinderblock, wood framing, and so on, as well as the more funky ex-hippy salvaged materials, rammed earth, and so on construction.

And don't discount yurts, either -- the cheapest option on that site (the first result on my google search for "yurt") is only a bit over $4000 -- with transportation to a rural site, you could be that much for just a shipping container. This would get you the flexibility and transportability you are looking for, with about a million times less hassle.
posted by Forktine at 6:06 AM on November 15, 2008

More info, from my favorites, because I just love this idea:

Previously 1

Previously 2

Previously 3
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:11 AM on November 15, 2008

I have seen a boxcar converted to a house. An actual boxcar, not a shipping container. Holes had been cut for the walls and windows, and finished off with some white trim. The rest of the boxcar was stuccoed, and the old ladder up to the top was painted white to match the trim.

If you decide you would rather buy an already built strange and unusual place to live that needs some repairs/remodeling (for that ¨I did it!¨ aspect), rural areas a good distance outside of Santa Fe would be a good place to find one.
posted by yohko at 9:45 AM on November 15, 2008

I've seen the minimal living movements, they're something of a fad lately. But there's nothing new about living in a small, mobile space. It's called a trailer or a mobile home.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:23 AM on November 15, 2008

And definitely don't discount portable geodesic dome homes.
posted by kalapierson at 4:01 PM on November 15, 2008

~ I have seen a boxcar converted to a house. An actual boxcar, not a shipping container. Holes had been cut for the walls and windows, and finished off with some white trim. The rest of the boxcar was stuccoed, and the old ladder up to the top was painted white to match the trim.

That is amazing to me, I would love to see something like that. I wonder how able one would be to get a private car pulled around behind someone's engine on the rail lines…
posted by paisley henosis at 7:47 PM on November 15, 2008

paisley henosis, that particular boxcar did not appear to have wheels anymore. If they were still attached they were buried.

My guess is that stucco would not hold up well to rail travel.

It is possible to pay to have your train car hauled by rail lines.
posted by yohko at 8:24 AM on November 17, 2008

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