A Sustainable Dream

The Pursuit of Sustainable Living

Storage Container Home: Front Door!

We absolutely love how the front door turned out. We found a local company that mills wood and specifically cedar. We really liked the look of the live edge cedar and decided to use it on the exterior around the front and back sliding doors. We bought an older solid core wood door with leaded glass at the Habitat Restore.  The door is 8′ tall and 36″ wide. We decided to enlist the help of the same guys that helped us on the concrete floors. Having experienced help is a great thing. When we got help for the concrete floors it was purely out of needing the manpower. The help on the front door was about the knowledge! It was a good decision and the doors turned out beautiful! :-).

Storage Container Home: Windows & Doors

Although this was time consuming and I ate a few sparks along the way, it was not all that difficult.  If you remember to measure twice (or three times) and cut once, things will go a lot smoother. Putting steel cut-outs back in is most likely not going to happen. We put in 6 windows and three doors. We found the windows and front door at the Habitat for Humanity’s “Restore” for a really great price. There may have been a chip or two in the nailing strips but that didn’t affect us. We found the brand new sliding glass door at Home Depot (returned item) for $290. It was marked down from $1300 and was a very good quality sliding door.

When we installed the windows we tried to make sure that the nailer was in line with an outside ridge of the corrugated steel (on both sides).  On the top and bottom we just used the outer corrugations to attach to. To install the windows we ran a bead of silicone along the nailer and placed the window into the frame. We then used self-tapping screws to attach the window to the steel. After the window was secured we used great stuff foam to seal off the openings in the corrugations.

We didn’t think it would be a good idea to trust the great stuff to stop water from getting in so we came up with a plan to build awnings. We cut 15″ pieces off of the window cutouts that we already had. The steel is 13-14 ga. and even a small piece of 15″ x 60″ can be difficult to hold in place and weld. So we rigged up a rope around the awning and my son’s waist to hold it in place until we could get the awning tacked up. We also took a piece of 3″ plate steel and ran it along the top of the awning and flush with the container end wall. This trimmed up the awning but also gave me a good seal to the container. We then applied a bead of silicone and did a pretty good job of keeping water out. We did these before we had the new roof. Now that we have the roof we also have a 3′ overhang but in Texas we get rain that blows at seemingly right angles :-).

In the ends of the containers with doors we thought about keeping the doors and using them as security but with 5×6 windows and the fact that the doors block out a lot of light, we thought it would be best to cut the doors off. We used 2×6’s to frame in these windows/doors. We used self-tapping screws to attach the wood to the steel for the outer frame and then nails inside the frame. After that it was pretty much traditional wood framing.

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Storage Container Home: Additional Roof!

Well… the thought of being able to get by for a year with the container roofs themselves was wishful thinking. We originally welded the seems on the top of the containers together with 2″ flat plate steel. Then we used 100% silicone to seal up the seems. Water and gravity are great at finding very small holes that, no matter how hard you try, you can never get totally sealed up!!!

It was time to enact plan B. We moved building an external roof to the top of our priority list. The reason we did that is because everything that needed to be completed could potentially be ruined by moisture (drywall, electrical, concrete floors, insulation, etc.).  The external roof would also have a 3′ overhang to try and shed water away from the house.

Building the roof was difficult work and took us a month to complete. We built our rafters 2′ on center and ran 2×4 purlin at 2’centers as well. For the exterior surface we used 26 gauge R-panel. I checked around and got pretty good pricing on the materials. We were able to build this roof for about $2700. Of course all of the labor was done by us so we saved quite a bit there.

We will try and get this site updated over the next couple of weeks. We have been so busy building that there just hasn’t been enough time.

Storage Container Home: Concrete Floors

This was probably by far the hardest physical work to date! This is the first time we hired someone to help us because we knew we would be hard-pressed to complete the floor in the time constraints (drying concrete, truck pour time). We first covered the floor with sheets of plastic to provide a vapor barrier between the pesticide treated plywood and the concrete.  If you look on the exterior door of a shipping container it will tell you what chemicals were used on the floor to keep out the pests.  We were worried about off-gassing so we chose to put a barrier down before the pour.  We then installed one inch boards around the edges of each container, as well as a thin steel piece down the center of the living area.  This provided something to screte (how do you spell that?)  off of as well as crack control barriers.  Finally, we laid down welded wire and tied it down to the floor with screws so the concrete would have more strength.  We had all of this done before the truck and the pump trailer arrived.  When the truck arrived we had 30 minutes to pour – which was impossible.  We took 120 minutes to pour, paying an extra $1 a minute after the first 30.  As the pump trailer operators were pouring we were all shoveling and spreading the concrete as quickly as we could.  Once the 8 yards of concrete had been poured and the trucks left we thought the concrete seemed really wet so we decided to run and get a quick lunch at the small cafe in town.  That was a mistake….. by the time we got back less than an hour later it was getting too dry to trowel.  We put water on it and began to trowel to get the smooth finish we wanted.  Have you ever done 1,500 sit ups in one day?  Try troweling too-dry concrete to the tune of 1,300 square feet from a knee board.  We felt every minute of concrete day for about three days after the event! It was a big change for the house.  It made it feel more cozy and less like a steel shipping container!

Once the concrete had cured for 30 days we were able to start staining.  We have a great little stain company just down the road from us (kind of in the middle of nowhere) called Kemiko.  We were able to go visit their showroom, pick our stain color and learn about how to acid stain our floors.  We had to clean the floors several times with a neutral cleaning product (we used the Kemiko brand) then let it dry completely.  The stain was then sprayed on in a random pattern with a simple hand pump sprayer.  This was done twice, then we cleaned the floor until no stain residue was left .  The floor was finished with a glossy wax. I have to admit we were a bit nervous because in our previous home we had stained the floor (it was not an acid stain) and we did not like the results. However, as you can see  by the pictures we did a great job and the floors look beautiful.   We are pleased with the results, although we wish we had been able to get  a smoother finish, but all in all, not bad for a family of do-it-your-selfers.

Storage Container Home: Bathroom

Wow! That is all I have to say about the bathroom. We started by framing the room out. We framed the walls and ceiling with 2×4 on 24″ centers. Once we had the walls and ceiling framed we took 1×3’s and ripped them down with the table saw to 2″.  We decided to pour 2″ concrete floors throughout the house. We attached the 1×2’s to the base of the walls. We put down a 6mil plastic sheet to form a vapor barrier. The last step in preparing the floor, before pouring the concrete, was to cut welded wire mesh to fit the space. We screwed this to the plywood so it wouldn’t pop up through the concrete as we poured and worked the concrete.

The concrete work was hard but not as technically difficult as I thought it would be. The key is to keep the concrete from drying to quickly. If it is too dry and starts to set before you tamper it, you will have a rough looking floor. One room we did too wet and then we did the next room too dry. Too wet was good (just more time to dry) too dry and you will have serious problems. I had to go purchase a bag of self leveling concrete and it is expensive. So try to keep the mix wet enough to give you time to work it.  Also, before you pour the concrete put some cardboard or some foam pieces around your septic lines so that you can take that off after the concrete dries and have room to work with your pipes.

Once we were done with the concrete floors we started building the shower. With a shower there are several steps to building.

  • Frame shower walls
  • Install Concrete board
  • Tape and bed seems of the board with proper tape material and thinset (allow to dry)
  • Use red devil waterproofing membrane material to seal all cracks and places that you taped and bedded.  (allow to dry)
  • Lay a layer of thinset mortar to give some slope to the pan liner (allow to dry)
  • Install the pan liner (one piece, we put ours up the wall about 6-8″)
  • Pour the shower bed layer (we used the sacrete decking material) (allow to dry)
  • Now you can put down thinset mortar and your tile. It is best to lay the bottom layer first and allow to dry before doing the layers above. This will give you a solid base.

As you can see, the shower takes a lot of time not just because of the work involved, but because there is a lot of time spent waiting for the different steps to dry. We also used a slate tile so we had to seal the tiles afterwards with a porous tile sealer.

The next step of course was to run the water lines. In a container home I imagine that you could run these inside or underneath the container. I opted to run underneath the container since I planned on insulating underneath the containers anyway. I used a plasma cutter to cut rectangular holes through the container joists. I then ran the lines from the utility room over to the bathroom. There are several options for water line and junction materials. You can use copper, CPVC, PEX, Etc. I opted to use PEX. I then decided to purchase a crimper and crimp most of my connections. We have a 1″ main water line coming into the house. After that I reduced it to 3/4″ and then put a pressure reducing valve in-line to make sure there is not too much pressure on my connections and household appliances. From there I have it plumbed to hot water heater and then out to the house.

We were able to reclaim some old hardwood cabinets from a home in Dallas that was being demolished. The cabinets were dated but my wife and children were able to sand and re-stain them and now they look good. We converted the bottom of a china cabinet into a double sink vanity. We priced these at around $1000 in the stores and we were able to do ours for about $80 not including the faucets (those are also extra in most vanity purchases). We got a good deal on some very nice faucets and ended up spending about $220 on our vanity. (not including our sweat equity, lol).

Bathrooms also need ventilation to reduce humidity. To install the light/ventilation we had to frame it using 2×6’s. Most ventilation fans are made for 2×6″ framing so keep that in mind. to exhaust the fan to the outside we cut a hole using a plasma cutter which made a snug fit for the vent cap we used. I siliconed the the outside and foamed around the inside.

We ran the electricity underneath the containers the same way we did the water lines. I ran one 20amp circuit to the outlets and one 15amp circuit to the lights and fan. The electricity was a much needed break… hahaha, it is much easier than the other items in the bathroom.

Now for some natural light. We purchased our windows and solid wood front door from the Habitat For Humanity’s Resale store. They really have some great deals. We got $400 windows for $100 each. The windows are 6′ x 5′ and are easy to install in the container walls. We got one half round window that we used in the bathroom and it didn’t have a nail strip around the edge. To hold the window in I framed out the window with 3″ flat steel, I then welded a 1″ tab of steel in the front on each side and one in the middle at the top. I then framed out the backside with wood so that it held in the backside. I applied clear silicone around the edges and foamed the larger gaps underneath the 3″ plate steel.

Since we are building on cash flow, we are now in the process of saving for spray foam. Once we have the spray foam applied for those two rooms and the raceway where the water lines travel underneath, we can start utilizing our bathroom in the house and sell our RV. We plan to take the cash from the RV and finish the spray foam on the rest of the house :-). We will add more later as we do the finish work.

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Storage Container Home: Electric Setup

We now have power!!! Getting power to the house seemed like the first logical step to starting construction inside the house. Welding and cutting (with a grinder) would have been difficult off of 200 feet of extension cords (especially with 20amp welder). So we ran the power.

The trench was done prior to setting the containers but we did have to go back over it and clean it out. If you are building your house on cash flow and are doing it in stages like we did, remember that an outdoor panel is less expensive than a 200 amp cut-off switch and it will allow you to run power to a barn, apartment, RV, etc. Keep in mind though that when you want to run the wire to the house you will need pass through lugs on that panel in order to extend your 200 amp service to the house.

We installed an outdoor panel with pass through lugs so we were good to go. We purchased 2 inch PVC for our conduit. When we purchased our service entrance wire we decided to go with an aluminum service entrance cable (about 3.5 times cheaper than copper). I talked to a few electricians and they told me that 135 or so feet would not result in a voltage drop for 240 volts. Also, on 200 amp you can use a 3awg copper for your two hot conductors but since we were using aluminum we had to go up to 4awg with a 2awg neutral. We also ran a 6 gauge ground from the house panel back to the panel at the meter location in addition to the ground outside the house.

I found it easiest to lay out the PVC on the ground above the trench and then run the cable through each section from the house to the outdoor panel. I have heard several horror stories of people gluing the PVC together and burying it only to find that it is very difficult to pull the cables through. After I ran the cables through each section I went back and glued it all together and rolled it into the trench. Then I buried the pipe and terminated the wires. It was actually pretty easy with a couple of people helping roll it out.

If you are in an area where you don’t have to pull a permit to do the electrical work… electricity is not that difficult. If you have zero experience I would seek out the advice of an electrician just to make sure you are safe.

Storage Container Home: Receiving Containers

We received the shipping containers for our house yesterday. When I scheduled delivery I left a couple days between delivery and the crane rental just in case something happened. Something did happen. A couple things actually happened along the way but everything worked out and the crane showed up and got things done!

I was very happy with the Scharff Crane Rental company out of Sherman, TX. They were very fair with their pricing and the crane operator was knowledgeable and we were able to work well together and get things done. We purchased the containers for $2,000 ea. and then delivery was $450 ea. If you want that information email me at mathersbjj@yahoo.com. I can help you save a few hundred dollars off of what I paid :-).

Now that the containers are set on the piers I will come back and check level, then shim and weld them down to the weld plates on top of the concrete. The main thing was getting them all square with each other and hitting all of the weld plates before the crane left. Crane rentals run around $160 p/hr. and are calculated from the time the crane leaves the yard till it returns. It takes a little bit of time for set up, connecting the rigging to the containers and then disconnecting and then repeating that process. If you want to save money have a couple extra guys there or be prepared to get after it like I did!

Storage Container Home: Water, Sewer and Electric

We recently trenched the sewer line from house to septic tank and the water line from the underground box with T (we put this in last year when we ran the main line) to the house. The trench from the electric meter to the house was also done but the cable is not purchased yet so we will have to wait for that.

Some lessons learned with septic line installation. Don’t create too much drop in the line otherwise the water will out-run the waste… Create too little fall in the line and you know what happens there. We settled on between 1 and 2% fall (1/8 – 1/4″). We also put in a clean-out right past the outside wall of the house and another clean-out down near the septic tank. These are pretty cheap parts that will help with potential problems down the road. Putting everything together is very easy to do. Once put together we tested the fall by pouring some liquid down one side and listening through the clean-out near the septic tank. All is good!

When trenching the water line we decided to put the line at 18-20″. The frost line in North Texas isn’t very deep and if you need to fix a line there will be a lot of digging if you go deeper. The black clay soil gets very hard here in the summer and is near impossible to dig through.  We are using 1″ polyethylene pipe with brass compression fittings to connect our water line to the house. I also decided to put a main shut off valve inside the house in case of emergency. This way I won’t have to go very far to turn off the water.

Now all of the trenches are covered up and ready for the crane to set the containers in a couple of days 🙂


Storage Container Home: Shipping Container House Overview

Our family has been interested in sustainable building for quite a while now. When we first started looking at doing this we looked at several different types of construction but really loved straw bale construction. After a lot of consideration and training on the construction we decided that we would rather do something different being in North Texas. I was worried about using a slab on grade foundation, the humidity levels in North Texas and the maintenance moving forward with straw bale. I still think they are the most beautiful method of construction using sustainable materials.

So then we looked at using shipping containers. Shipping containers are very abundant in North America. We import a lot of products all over but mainly China.  Since we import more than we export with China, it is cheaper for them to build a new container than it is to ship them back. A 40′ high cube container can be purchased for around $2000. Typical delivery with a drop bed trailer is $400. If you any information on where I have found these deals email me at mathersbjj@yahoo.com and I will send it to you.

Our kids are getting older and soon we won’t have the need for a really large house so we are building the house with 4 containers. At 40′ x 8′ that is 320 square feet x 4 (1280 sq. ft. total). If you decide to build inside the city limits you will need to check the local building codes and talk to the inspectors first. We are in an unincorporated area of the county jurisdiction so we just utilize the International Building Codes (IBC).

For our foundation we decided to use a pier foundation to lift the containers up off the ground. We are building everything on cash flow so we have to save and build as we go as well as be a little forward thinking on the construction. We will be using spray foam insulation, which is a large expense up front, so we figured we could wait on that if we lifted the containers up off the ground. To shoot the spray foam onto the bottom for a slab foundation we would have had to spend more money on crane rental time as well as had all the cash up front for the spray foam.

On the piers we probably went overboard with the size. However, in North Texas where we are our ground is black clay and very expansive. I didn’t want to get into an issue with the piers cracking and the house shifting, etc. I thought that a couple extra thousand dollars on the foundation was money well spent to avoid spending more down the road. We did all of the work ourselves and we don’t have prior construction knowledge so go easy on the pictures. We decided to have a wide footprint and less depth on the piers. Each pier is at least 2′ deep and in some cases closer to 2.5-3′. The shortest pier from grade to top of pier is 2′ and because of the slope of the ground was around 4′.

To anchor the containers to the foundation we made weld plates and set them into the top of each pier. Once the containers are set we will weld them down to each pier and then weld them together using 4″ wide x 1/4′ thick flat steel all the way around each seam.

We took the plywood forms off after the concrete hardened and sprayed them down to get the concrete residue off. Once they dried in the sun we stacked them on pallets and covered with plastic so they won’t get ruined this winter. We would like to build a roof structure mainly for the purposes of keeping the sun from directly contacting the top of the containers as well as keeping the moisture from settling on the corrugated roof and eventually leading to rust problems. We will use the plywood for decking when we have the cash flow to build that roof next Spring.

That is about it for now but stay tuned because the containers are arriving Mon/Tue and then the crane will be setting them into place on Thursday of next week. I will post more pictures at that time…


Storage Container Home: Electricity

In today’s generation it is not very common to go without electricity or at least not have electricity to the degree that we are used to! When we first moved to the property we had a 20 acre hay field that hadn’t been mowed and baled in a couple of years! It was raw land.

Then we purchased the RV that we would use for temporary living arrangements while we built our apartment and eventually the house. The RV had a 12v battery that needed to be charged. Having a little experience with solar electricity and installation I decided to look on craigslist for a solar panel. I found a 240 watt panel and purchased a solar controller and inverter off of the web so I could utilize the sun to charge the battery. We were able to get this to work on some things but not others. We could run a space heater for a little bit (hahaha), we could run the vacuum but not the carpet cleaner. We could also run the coffee pot but not at the same time as the hair dryer.  Needless to say these were annoying since neither one of us have ever had to do without electricity in our lives.

In  comes the gas powered generator. Since we wouldn’t be getting electricity for 3-4 weeks we purchased a 4000 watt generator. I was thinking that 4000 watts would be sufficient to get us by for a month. What I didn’t realize at the time, lessons learned, was that the generator had two 13.5 amp circuits and the 30 amp plug didn’t mean that the generator would put out the full 30 amps! Even though it had a 30 amp RV twist connect plug it would still only put out the 13.5 amps! Well, that next month was brutal since I work from home. Yes, I was able to charge my computer and phone and do my work but I sure sweat a lot.

While we were waiting on the electric company to run our lines we had to file two easements with the county and provide those to the electric company. Then we had to set a permanent power pole for the meter base to sit and it had to be6′ tall and 5 ‘ deep encased in concrete. The  underground run needed to be in 4″ conduit and the depth I believe was 39″ (if I recall correctly).

We had to either have an outdoor disconnect or outdoor panel tied to the meter base and everything had to be grounded to a ground rod. I decided to use an outdoor panel with pass-through lugs because the disconnects were around $350 and the outdoor panel was about $100.  Running the electricity is pretty expensive. I spent about $1500 on materials and then $5 p/foot for the electric company to run it (@ 900 feet). The first 300 feet they provide so it their part cost $3000.

The electric company does not waste time. When they were scheduled to come install the 900 feet of poles and cable and run the underground to my pole, it only took them about 2 hours! I was impressed beings it had probably taken me about 40 hours to get it all ready.

We also ran a 6/3 direct burial cable from our power pole over to the apartment and RV. We used a 50amp breaker off of the outdoor panel and then wired that to a sub-panel. On the sub-panel we installed another 50 amp breaker and cabled that over to a 50 amp outdoor RV plug where we could connect the RV. We also installed a 20 and 30 amp breaker and wired the apartment’s electricity to that. We haven’t had any real problems living off 50 amps for the last 11 months so all is good!

Wiring up electricity is not all that difficult. I had some previous experience with electricity in the Navy and then with my job at Northern Telecom. If you want to do it yourself find a friend that has experience with electricity and ask a lot of questions. I asked questions and looked to youtube for some ideas. Friends and relatives are a wealth of knowledge. Get an electrician to check your work if you are unsure.

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