Thursday, May 26, 2011

This dude cut some big honkin' holes in our house!

Paul is our awesome awesome welder guy. This is what Paul did.

First, we laid out (very roughly) where doors and windows would go. 46" from the floor, then a 36" window.

Then we (Alan) cut all of the crap off of the outside (these were used as storage racks for building material)


Once the exact window placement was decided, the windows were more accurately laid out and squared. This was done by first measuring the rough opening, then putting a mark on the wall. The marks were then squared by the Pythagorean theorem (working with mathematicians means we do things the weird way), and a pop rivet was poked through the wall at each outside corner of the window.

This meant that we had an exact measurement on th
e outside by which to draw the cutting guidelines.

Then Paul came over. This picture is the only one I really have of him cutting the main bits, because any time we're working directly with the surface of the container in a way that might involve atomized paint (welding, cutting, grinding), you need to wear a respirator with a HEPA "P100 filters [which] provide a 99.97% efficiency level for removing particles sized at 0.3 microns or larger". There's some nasty stuff in there you really don't want to breathe. And I left mine at home.

The doors come off:

I apologize for the pictures being so terrible, by my little point and shoot camera was not happy trying to deal with all of the light from the plasma cutter and all of the
dark from the fact that it was 10pm.

We have windows! It makes it look so much smaller for some reason.

At the end of all of this I'm probably going to do some posts with the nicer pictures I've taken that don't really further the explanation of construction.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


Unfortunately the past few days have been a hibernation period of sorts. We went and bought doors and windows (one 5' sliding patio door, one 36" front door with an opening window, 3 4'x3' horizontal opening windows, and a bathroom window), and talked to our 'welding guy' Paul. While Alan and Alan Sr are competent welders, Paul is an incredibly professional perfectionist, and will be framing in the doors and windows, as well as doing the basis for the roof and porch.

Today the guidelines for the windows are being laid out by Alan Sr while Alan and for finals. Paul will be over on Wednesday to start, so I should have some pictures and more detailed on how we're doing the windows soon.

The framing will probably be done by the end of next week(?) as with the plumbing. We may move the container early so as not to risk damaging anything. I'm calling sprayfoam contractors tomorrow to get bids on that as well.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Lots of words

I've been linked to on a yahoo group, and they had some quetions about the insulation. So I guess I'll repost it here, and it's long...

"Hi guys! Sorry this is so long...

Well, the main way we're going to avoid it is with building/window placement, and a small swamp cooler. After all, it's only 320 sqft-- It doesn't take that much to cool (or heat) that space, and you don't need to keep it arctic in the summer- just livable. For us, this has been 80 degrees in our current apartment.. Feels downright balmy if you step outside and it's 110!

But we will also have an average of R16 insulation (polyurethane spray foam) in the walls (due to the ins and outs, some will be r21ish and others r12, an additional r5 thanks to insulated sheathing. Total of r21-- r15 is what's recommended for new construction here, both wood and metal framing "wall cavities" . The only downside to this is we do lose some floor space.

The building is going to be oriented lengthwise N/S. This is the opposite of what you would do to passively solar heat a home. There will only be one window on that end, further reducing the direct effects of sun getting in the house. The east end will be partially covered by an awning over the porch, meaning that sun won't hit the walls of the container for most of the day.

We went with the piers partially in order to better insulate the bottom--we also did it this way so that the piers can cure while we construct the inside of the container, and then just pop everything together, instead of having to wait a month to set the container then start work. When everything's placed and finished, there will be concrete knee walls on all four sides, with a door for access under the container. The air under the container won't change in temperature much, and it gives us the ability to slide on under there and spray foam the heck out of it. Sprayfoam insulation has an r-value of 6 per inch, more depending on the application technique and formula.

As far as the roof goes, we will be putting a "party deck" up there (read: you can walk on it and not be walking on your ceiling), which will be 6" above the roof of the container. For now, we're leaving the outside uninsulated. The inside will also be spray-foamed and sheathed, probably to the depth of 6-8" (r-value 49). This also allows us to build out the inner ceiling for can lighting. As that's going to be the largest part of the container receiving direct sun until the late evening, we will have the option of insulating under the party deck as well if it becomes an issue.

All of this will add up to a perfectly normally insulated home for this area, and the placement will help a great deal. It will also mean we can pretty much heat it with a match in the winter!

As far as the other concerns-- It's not going to look like a steel box from the inside, I promise! It will utterly conventional (..if decorated by people who are a little weird), just small. The only thing we're leaving original is the wood floor. It's going to have the heck sanded out of it and be varnished like crazy. We're putting in nice, big windows and will have plants on the patio, and if I can get out from under this massive pile of research papers any time soon, a veggie garden. The outside is going to be painted blue with white trim like the shop on the property so everything matches.

This is going to sound so cheeseball, but..happiness for us is a place where we can be around one another, be safe, and have the few things we love with us. That's our dog, our cats, our hobbies, and not much else. We'll have plenty of room to go on walks and rabbit hunts with the all the dogs, plenty of room for my knitting/sewing things, and enough room for books.

What enables us to do it that's a little 'unfair'-- it's going on someone else's property. There's the biggest cost, and we don't have to pay it. We're hooking into existing septic and an existing well.If we had to do this from scratch, there's no way in heck we could afford it. Ideally, people who were interested in container living could by a biggish plot of land (3-5 acres), everyone chips in for well, septic/sewer, the costs of getting power to every lot, etc and puts in a container community. The odds of getting something like that approved by your city are slim to none, though, which is quite sad. Most of these buildings are considered too small to be habitable, and can actually be condemned if found by the city. It says a lot to me that "we" can't consider a safe, insulated building with running water, a toilet, and a full kitchen to be okay to live in-- and it's not like you have to look to a third-world country to see others living with far, far less. Look to reservations, and rural Appalachia. But the permitting system is a WHOLE 'NOTHER Rant..


Wednesday, May 18, 2011


I've been glossing over the stressful parts of this build (already!), because I really don't know how to write about it.

It's mainly been an issue of too many cooks, I think. Which is appropriate, because the main issue has been the layout of the kitchen (and to a lesser extent, the bathroom). Our goal is to minimize the length that the kitchen takes up in order to give us more room in the living room and bedroom. This meant a galley kitchen with no countertops on the short end of the container-- saving us 2 ft in length at a minimum.

The argument against this is that we are 'wasting' that 7' of space on that wall.

The other issue has been one for me-- I have a bum knee (multiple dislocations, fractured patella, torn/obliterated meniscus, and a lateral release, 2 screws, in April '04) and needed to design everything with mobility in mind. This means doorways, hallways, and the bathroom need to be navigable on crutches or with a cane, in case I do something stupid and hurt myself again (last time I hurt my knee was a few weeks ago, and as far as I can figure, I did it in my sleep and crippled myself for days).

The final final final plan is going to be hashed out tonight, as we are buying windows this week and cutting holes in the container to place them. The general layout is fixed, it's just fine-tuning the kitchen and bathroom (vanity v.s. wall sink, fridge size, some issues with pet supplies storage, window size and placement). We also have to find the smallest sliding glass patio door possible for emergency egress in the bedroom without torpedoing our wall space.

There have been some squabbles amongst the design team (Alan Sr, Marie, Myself, and Alan) over the kitchen, because the younger set wants to go very modern open shelving, modular workspace style-- whereas Alan Sr and Marie are leaning more traditional overhead cabinets, built-in kitchen, possibly u-shaped.

On a lighter note: this is my favorite house ever. I would copy it exactly if I could-- love the kitchen, love the teal in the bedroom with all my heart.


Monday, May 16, 2011

First Leg

The conex was moved today into the shop where everything will be finished. The windows will be roughed in, but not installed until the container is on the piers. Aside from that, it will be ready to go the moment it's in the final spot.

The guys who moved it were amazingly skilled, and made it look damn near easy. Not that I'd ever volunteer to move one, of course..

Not much more to say, but lots of pictures and video of the final touchdown.

The container was put up on temporary blocks to better allow the truck to get under it.

First, they winch the leading end of the container up, then move the blocks around so they can drop the tail end of the trailer underneath.

Then a roller is placed under the container, the tail end is angled up, and the container begins to be winched into place. They alternate between rolling the container forward and lifting the tail end of the truck to reposition the roller.

Liftoff! It only took about 15 minutes to get the container completely on the truck.

Now the hard part.

It fits!

Getting it off of the trailer is the same as getting it on, just in reverse. Simple...except these guys were doing it with 5'of clearance in the back, and about 3' on one side. And they did it beautifully! It was VERY noisy and nerve-racking though. The shop cat was quite upset about all of the fuss.

Somewhat anticlimactic video:

Fortunately, there was nothing interesting underneath the container in it's old resting spot.

Nothing living, at least...

Sunday, May 15, 2011



Here we see the pier forms with rebar inserted.

The southeast corner pier form over its corresponding hole, rebar inserted, with tie-ins to the concrete skirting that will be placed at a later time. This is not the final position of the form, and the vertical rebar is not in place yet.


The rest of the forms are placed, squared, leveled, and in the corners, the 3/8" wall 2" square stock attachment point is centered and clamped into place.


We then start mixing the concrete. All told, 6 piers will take 4.5 tons of six-sack concrete (capable of supporting 4000psi)-- slightly more than the container itself. And it is all hand poured. If I never
hear a cement mixer again...
Concrete cures to 25% of its hardness every 7 days. This means that the piers will be ready to go right around June 15. This means that until then, we get to work on the interior and exterior of the container itself.

We'll be moving the container into the shop on-site to have easy access to welders, plasma cutters, and all of the tools we'll need in construction. This will run us around $200 to have it professionally moved.

Paint colors have been tentatively chosen for the interior, and doors, windows, fixtures, appliances, sinks and the toilet have been picked out.

A very poor panorama of the site.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Here's our floorplan, done in Google Sketchup (wonderful program). We have a 10ft bedroom, a surprisingly large bathroom, 10x4), 8ft kitchen, and 1oft living room. We do make a big concession in the living room for bathroom space, but that is a matter of neatness and comfortability that's hard to compromise on.

My favorite is the built in low closet and storage in the bedroom. There will also be underbed storage for linens and things not accessed on a daily basis.

Soon: Dining area, and how we're going to deal with three cats. Yes, three!

Monday, May 9, 2011


Under the arrows are six 2'x2'x4' holes. Two on each end of the conex, and one in the middle of the long side. The string you see running off in the foreground is not the border of the container, it simply marks the corner of the fence line you see in the corner.

On top of these holes will go the forms to the left.

And into those, 18" diameter rebar reinforcement.

The conex will not simply be resting on these, it will by tied into the structure and rendered, for most values of earthquake, earthquake proof.

The short ends will be facing north and south, with the 'open' end facing north. This allows us to place the front door and most of the windows on the west face of the container, which is sheltered from the direction of the prevailing wind.

This was all accomplished this weekend, and construction is now on hold for the work week. I believe we are pouring concrete on Wednesday, May 11 in the afternoon. I will update with pictures then, and will try to get an update in with our tentative floor plan and design.

One of the challenges that we face is that because of how flexible container building is, no two builds are the same.

Home Base

Well, here it is. Alan is standing in the doorway of what is to become our new home.

The container (may also be referred to as a conex, The UltraShed, or the crapshack) is in very good condition, with a little surface rust above the door (as you can see in this image).
Why a shipping container?

There are over 17 million shipping containers on earth, in a multitude of lengths. These containers are built to last for many, many years of hard use, incredible structural strains, and arduous travel by sea, train, and road. Building a home from shipping containers not only makes use of the incredibly strong structure of the container, it allows you to reuse a precious resource: steel.

This isn't exactly a new idea. The conex has been used as emergency shelter for many years, but the idea that you can make modern, comfortable homes from them has really only emerged in the last couple of decades. Since then, the idea has taken root with many architects, and several amazing projects have been born.

For instance, Keetwonen student housing. Using 8'x8'x40' containers, deKey created a beautiful, modern student living area that offers individuals their own showers and kitchenette, and separate living and bedroom spaces. There are 12 buildings in the complex, each 5 containers high, and varying in how many containers per building.

While the Keetwonen project leaves the industrial roots of the container very visible for visual effect, that doesn't have to be the case. Nor are you limited to just one container-- far from it. Well-planned container housing is very modular, and during construction multiple containers can simply be welded together.

ZeroCabin has some amazing examples of the modularity and design possibilities you have with container buildings.

In addition to the sheer neatness of the idea, a container home is very cheap to heat and cool. After all, it's only 320 square feet. Not only that, they can be made into hurricane proof homes, offices, stores, and medical centers in places like Haiti and Costa Rica, and erected quickly in an emergency.

This is all ignoring the most obvious reasons of 'why' a container home: It's cheap, and it's custom. You can create a floorplan that best suits your needs, decorate and install windows and doors wherever you would like, and all for whatever budget you have for the project.

While this, admittedly, would likely not pass muster in an HOA controlled neighborhood, it seems to me that someone interested in building a container home is also not interested in a home like all the others. We aren't either.

We have had discussions about our future housing plans, and always said we could handle living in a small, well-designed home. Of course, at the time we were talking about homes clocking in at about 1000sqft. This is going to be a bit different.

The Timeline
Our lease is up on June 30, 2011. The shipping container must have been rendered at least habitable at this point-- if not very comfortable or polished. Luckily, as we are all students and teachers here, we are all free for the summer beginning June 1. This means that from Friday, May 6, when the preparations started, we have 7 weeks to design, engineer, and build a house.
The area where the container is going has already been graded and cleared, and the basics of the foundation have been laid. Please see the next update for pictures and an explanation of how it's going to sit.


I figured I should write something about the mental process of building and moving into a tiny house, and why I think it's a good fit for us.

I'm excited for the change to a smaller home (our current apartment is "only" 700 sqft, so it's not particularly large). It means a deliberate inventory of every single one of our possessions, down to the last ball of yarn or pantry item, and deciding what we actually need. I've seen it referred to elsewhere as intentional living, and I really like that. It takes the very basis of your day-- moving around your space-- and makes it something you have to mean to do, not something that just happens. It means thinking about everything you bring into your home, which means you save even more money, because nothing fits.

It also means that decor wise, you have only a few small areas to make your style known, so you must have powerful, expressive objects and colors, making your personality even more apparent. In our case, since our home is not prefab, the floor plan reflects our lifestyle as well-- we have a large kitchen and bathroom because we cook quite a bit, and very seriously enjoy our shower time. The bedroom storage can be small because we don't own a lot of clothing, preferring to keep our wardrobes simple (and sometimes way too similar), mostly jeans, t shirts, and formal clothing that can be dressed down for business casual purposes. The way we decorate the living area will also have a big funky touch, because, well, we're living in a shipping container. French Country just isn't going to work.

As far as the colors go, we are going with light wood, white, and bright blues, greens, and reds. This will make use of every bit of light coming through the windows, and keep the interior bright even with artificial lighting.

My only regret is that due to our timeline, our kitchen cabinetry is going to come from IKEA and not be handmade.

A great part of this project is that it gives us an excuse to expand into our outdoor space. Since the conex is raised off the ground, we have to have a patio. So, we've decided to make the patio 5' deep, 20' long, and roofed and screened in. This is part of how we will handle having 3 cats in such a small area-- they will have a catflap out into a built in bench on the porch, which will contain their litterbox. They'll also have supervised access to the porch (it's not very safe for small animals out here with the snakes and coyotes, so they will remain indoor only), and window ledges for lounging wherever we can fit them.

I don't see the house being small as a downside. Firstly, it's wonderful if you're lazy, as you don't have to move much to do anything! Second, if you have room to cook, to relax, and to work, you have everything you need. It does help that Alan and I are very comfortable with one another, and communicate well. It also really helps that Alan is preternaturally patient and calm, in contrast to my somewhat anxious and blunt personality. We fit together well, and have no problem spending time together with no T.V. (we've not had cable for two years). We are pretty private people, and don't have people over very often, so a house with next-to-zero entertaining space is just fine by us.

Everything in the house is being designed to allow us to stand and work together. If we couldn't do this.. we wouldn't even attempt to live in a tiny house.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


My name is Rachel, and my boyfriend's name is Alan. We are both post-grad students, in Psychology and Mathematics respectively. We have been in a relationship for 7 years, and recently moved to the High Desert town where Alan's parents live.

Facing the end of our apartment lease, we found that the monthly rents for apartments in neighborhoods that we didn't like would run us over $1000/mo (a several hundred dollar a month increase from our previous lease), plus utilities. Given that we are full-time students drawing on stipends and loans, that would make our already tight budget impossible to cope with. With the encouragement of Alan Sr. and Marie, Alan's parents, we began looking into 'alternative' housing.

Almost on a whim, and on Alan Sr's suggestion, we decided on building a container home. We are using an ISO standard 8'x8'x40' shipping container that Alan Sr and Marie had already purchased during the building of their (conventional) home for storage and placed on their property. They are very generously 'donating' the use of the container to us, as it will be placed on a permanent pier system on their property, and be there long after we are gone, likely used as a guest 'cabin'.

Normally, a container of this size would run you anywhere from $1200-$3000 used, and upwards of that for new manufacture. This particular container cost $2500 about 5 years ago.
The Budget

I believe we are looking at an overall budget of $4000, from bare container to livable. This does not include interior decor, exterior refinements, or any furniture we may need. It DOES include all fixtures, construction material (drywall, wood, electrical, plumbing), water heater, and windows and doors. This means that if we, at a minimum, stay in the container home for over 4 months, we will have reached the break-even point with rent. Any time spent over that will net us around $1000/mo in savings, with a stipend for electricity, internet, and propane use being paid to Alan Sr and Marie. In the sidebar I will be updating, starting today, with how much money has been spent on what.

We are incredibly lucky in that we have skilled people in the family, and will be able to accomplish much, if not all, of the build without the use of outside contractors.

In my next post, pictures and an optimistic timeline!