It’s not the “Container of Death!”

4 Aug

The Anatomy of a Container Home…

I was going to write a post today, describing more of MY house. But, I made the mistake of opening my GMail account, and I got barraged by emails from people trying to “help me see the error of my ways…”

It seems that if you’re not doing something the same way as everyone else, you’re an idiot. Now, I like to think of myself as a visionary and a genius, but every time I try to make sure people know it, my wife bursts out laughing and spoils the moment… I wish she’d just… oh, never mind…

Recently, my family (well, me, actually) has been telling you about the project that is nearest and dearest to our (well, my) black little heart.

My family needs a house. We need a shelter from the storm, just like Bob Dylan croaked about, eleventy-thousand times, in the sixties…

In fact, it’s in our (well, my) hearkening back to the 60’s that I got this brainstorm.

And no, it didn’t come from years of taking the brown acid! Hey, I wasn’t even out of puberty yet!

It came from thinking like a hippie. That’s right, a hippie. You see, hippies didn’t have anything tangible. They didn’t need anything tangible. They just needed a ride to the next Grateful Dead concert, some mud, and a tent or two. And, evidently, they didn’t even need much in the way of clothing, because every documentary I see on the “Woodstock era” shows people without clothes on. They must have hocked them for gas or maybe blankets, perhaps…

Now, if my mom was alive, she’d be slapping me on the back of the head right about now, for even saying the “H” word. You see, mom was a Marine. And, she delighted in showing people the error of their ways. And if you failed to see things like she did, well, let’s just say that she could hand you your own spleen, and then offer to cook it up for you, to have for supper…

But hippies saw things differently than most of the rest of America. It wasn’t just “free love.” It was “free anything.”

Because they hocked their clothes for blankets. Weren’t you paying attention?

The hippie era was filled with angst, admittedly, but it was also fueled by blue acid… um…er… ingenuity. If you didn’t have “it,” you either made it out of an old cardboard box and some baling wire, or you didn’t really need it. Of course, they always had “acid.” It was everywhere, if you believe my mother.

I can still remember her screaming at us:

“No you can’t use the drinking fountain. Somebody might have laced it with acid!”

People used their brains, and got what they needed, by using whatever they had. And it’s in that same spirit that this house was born.

Well, it’s either that, or I watched way too many MacGiver episodes. That guy could build a nuclear reactor out of a nickle and a piece of string…

People are amazed that I’d even think about using a shipping container to build a home. So, in a speech that has become really well-rehearsed, I just tick off all the obvious reasons for doing so;

(1) Heavy Gauge Steel. Lot’s of it is used in the construction of shipping containers. Steel ain’t afraid of a little weather!

(2) Integral frames that don’t rely on the “skin.” My “box” looks just like your “box…”

(3) Connectors that lock into place, securing each container to the other. Better than a Master Lock, it is!

(4) Inexpensive “space” solutions based on cost per square foot. My house costs $30-$40 a foot. You paid HOW MUCH?

(5) Versatility. You can build almost anything you want, if you have enough containers to stack up…

And I could go on, but that’s enough for now.

The obvious question is whether or not a steel box can be reworked to allow you to live in it, comfortably. After all, it’s a “steel box.”

We all know about the true nature of steel. It transfers heat, and it transfers cold. And those properties don’t make for very good building material.

“Woodstock needs to meet Mr. Science.”

Once you’ve found your containers, the first thing you can do is sandblast the paint off of them. You can trust me on this. These boxes will have more warpaint on them than Madonna. And, some of that paint may be toxic. After all, it’s put there to repel some pretty nasty stuff… And the paint on the containers can’t be much better!

And you wouldn’t wanna breathe that, would you? So, if you’re really industrious, you’re gonna spend a day or so, per container, getting all that paint off.

Even here, you can find a bargain. Set the sandblaster up so your neighbor kids can see it…

And then say in a loud clear voice; “No, you absolutely, positively, cannot use the sandblaster. It’s not gonna happen. This is too much fun!”

Hey, it worked for Tom Sawyer, didn’t it? Hmmm?

After that, you just shoot some rust-proof primer onto the containers. Primed metal is happy metal, I always say.

Or you could even “encapsulate” that paint, with a product like RustGrip, from SPI Coatings. That would work. And, it’s WAY easier than sand-blasting.

Okay, the “Corten shell” is ready for remodeling….

Now, what do you do?

You insulate the containers.

You can’t live without insulation. If you tried, it’d be like living in a refrigerator in winter, and an oven in the summer.

And that provides even more problems.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. It’s a trade off at some point, you have to insulate the box, so “the box” gets smaller, right? I mean, the insulation has to go somewhere!

Well, there’s a lot of thought on this subject;

I personally opt for SPF –  ‘spray on – closed cell’ foam. It goes on easy, it provides high r-values and it provides a lot of other benefits as well. I’ve written several blog posts dedicated to the topic. You can find them in the archives.

There are other options; Rigid Insulation (PolyIso is the best in my opinion) Blown-In Cellulose, and even (gasp!) fiberglass batts. Coming in LAST is the one that there seems to be a ton of controversy circling around, like buzzards –

Ceramic Insulation Coatings.

There are guys out there that insist that Ceramic Insulative Coatings are the way to go. We’ve all seen them on Television. We’ve seen them in magazines and we see them on the Internet.

But, do these “miracle coatings” really work?


I”m not going to drag it all out here again. Look at the top of the page,and click the page called “Ceramic Insulation”. It will tell you everything you need to know about Ceramic Coatings.

The deal here is that I want you to know the “deal.” Period. You weigh the evidence, and then you make up your own mind.

What’s next?

What’s that? Speak up, I can’t hear you…

Okay, let’s talk about actual fabrication. No, not the “creative writing” kind… The “get the plasma cutter, Martha, we’s gonna do some whittling” kind…

All you really need to turn a container into a house, is a plasma cutter and a welder. A good plasma cutter will cut through container panels like butter. Now, a torch will do exactly the same thing, it’ll just take a little bit longer.

I bet you’re thinking these tools are going to be massive and unwieldy, huh? After all, you’re trying to “frankenstein” heavy gauge steel…

Well, you’re wrong. They’re so small, you can carry them around the shop, all by your “onesies.” Now, I wouldn’t make a habit of it, but… here’s what they look like:

And since my personal exposure to injury is directly related to my durational exposure to power tools, less is more… Trust me on this. If you don’t believe me, ask my wife… LOL!

Watch your fingers!

Watch your fingers!

Doors and windows are easy to create, and the framing is done just like on a traditional house. You just simply cut away the steel skin you don’t need, to get your openings. Depending on the size of your openings, you may add a structural support or two, but all in all, it’s not really difficult to get the “room of your dreams.” You’re welding steel to steel, so you don’t even need a special welder. A small Lincoln welder will do just about everything you need to do.

Looks like THIS!

Looks like THIS!

(I love name dropping, don’t you? After all, merchandizing is the name of the game!) LOL!

In fact, if you really look at it, you’re not doing anything out of the ordinary. You’ll use the same kind of stuff as the house next door, on your “Steel-built” house. In our house, for example, we’re using the same stuff you see at Home Depot or Lowes (how’s that for a blatant plug?), just  regular doors, windows, sliding glass and French doors.

The containers you use have locks called “twistlocks” attached to them at the corners, allowing them to be locked together, for all those sea-going trips to wherever they go. Those locks are stronger than anything you can imagine. They have to be, because these containers get loaded up to the brim with everything you can think of. A failure at sea would be a disaster. So, the guys and gals who build these boxes make them “Craftman tough…” And we use those same connectors to allow these boxes to become houses. We even use these same connectors to attach the boxes to the foundation of the house. Talk about tough! Once you lock these puppies in place, they ain’t moving for anything.

Containers are built to have forklifts race around inside them. The plywood flooring is massive. So, you’d think that you could  just put “flooring” over it. Tile, carpet, you name it…


In our case, we’re gonna remove the plywood (you can never tell how much formaldehyde  and toxins were used in the creation of that plywood) and shoot a floor out of lightweight concrete. That way, we can install a radiant floor system, to heat and cool the house.

That plywood gets recycled, too.

Right into a dumpster headed for a safe hazardous landfill. In most cases, shipping containers are floored with teak. Although that’s a very valuable commodity, it’s one to be discarded.

It can’t be re-used. It’s TOXIC.

So, you have a customized steel shell, locked together like a two pit bulls fighting over a t-bone steak, ready for whatever weather comes toward it.

And, because you got the shell for a song (they average about $1200 bucks for a used 40′ container), the cost per square foot is way below the normal construction price of a new house. Even with the labor, the primer, the insulation, and the configuration, you’re still under $15 a foot. Way under…

Once you get to this stage, all you need is some creativity, and about four or five friends who can use hand tools. You’d be amazed how fast you can wire and plumb a container, before the sheet rock goes on and the paint starts to dry.

At least, that’s the story I’m telling my wife…


5 Responses to “It’s not the “Container of Death!””

  1. David August 5, 2008 at 12:01 pm #

    For your information the same manufacturer of Super Therm also makes a product caller RUST GRIP. This will allow you a safer and (more green) alternative to sandblasting the paint as it is a certified bio-hazard encapsulator and at the same time offers permanent rust proofing. It is currently being used on steel bridge rehab by various State DOTs which saves hundreds of man hours in prep time. During the (near white)sandblast process you are also required under the Clean Air Act to tent off the work area with exhaust fans and filters. Workers also need to wear special suits and breathing masks. The toxic paint is permanently sealed and can then be simply top coated with the SUPER THERM.

    One other important point when you are putting in your infloor radiant heating system I would strongly recommend insulating the substrate under your tubing with SUPER THERM. Not only is it much easier and faster to apply than the foils and foams normally used, it will allow the floor of each room to heat mor rapidly as the SUPER THERM ceramics are much more effective in blocking heat transfer as opposed to the standard insulations which allows heat to be absorbed and lost through the substrate. The end result of course is less use of energy.

  2. renaissanceronin August 5, 2008 at 12:41 pm #

    Thanks for the input, David!

    I’ve thought about using RustGrip. Here’s the thought process;

    Containers are painted with many different types of anti-fouling paint and it’s toxic.

    Sen the steel needs to be painted or even encapsulated. (As you know, shipping containers are built out of Corten steel, a heavy gauge steel that oxidizes, bur doesn’t corrode in the traditional sense. Heck, it’s solid stuff, they build subs and aircraft carriers out of the material!)

    There are two camps;

    The purists sand-blast and then encapsulate the steel using something like RustGrip.

    The others simply encapsulate the anti-fouling paint using RustGrip and spare themselves the expense of the sandblasting operation.

    I lean toward the first camp. What can I say? I’m a glutton for punishment. I want to know that the bad stuff is GONE. If you scratch or chip an encapsulated surface, it’s “open”. If that bad stuff is still underneath, it’s still a hazard.

    Either way… the application of Rust Grip is exactly the way to go, but… it’s pretty expensive.

    The goal here is to build a cost effective, affordable form of housing that will work with our family, and not against it. I need all the breaks I can get!

    Thanks for stopping by! I look forward to hearing from you again!


  3. mistermanly August 8, 2008 at 12:53 pm #

    Hi r,

    As long as you’re doing your own wiring and plumbing, allow me to suggest that your build an enclosure for the wires and pipes along the intersection of the walls and roof, with removable covers to make access easy. It’s such an expensive pain to have to rip out sheet rock to mess with those things, that this should pay for itself over the years.

    While I’m at it, I can vouch for the toughness of cargo containers. One of my neighbors bought one for storage space and a three foot diameter oak tree fell across it. Not even a dent.

    Mister Manly

  4. tony March 9, 2009 at 5:50 pm #

    Hi Ronin,
    I’m from Ireland and in the process of building with containers. Two 45’s for now. its and office art studio and eventual homekit perhaps.
    Supertherm doesn’t seem to be much know in this country..I’ve sent mail of to headquarters in europe but there is no reference in this country at all..well from Google search anyway…

    You recommend sandblasting interior paint..does that apply to outside as well?…does it matter on outside as much particularly if covered?…happy to come across your container enthusiast…although they are more pricey to buy over here..still see them as great for structural and outer leaf system potential
    thanks tony

    • renaissanceronin March 9, 2009 at 6:06 pm #

      Hi Tony,

      Supertherm is in the center of a rather large controversy here in the States. Although I’ve seen applications that may work, many (read “the overwhelming majority”) of the experts claim otherwise. I’ll test pretty comprehensively before I commit to coating my containers in Ceramic Insulative Coatings ( and I’ll post the results for all to see). I’ve discussed this in previous posts.

      Supertherm is really questionable as an insulation replacement, it’s pricey here in the US at about $700 per container for the material, and let’s not forget the cost of the application… (by sprayer).

      Have you thought about just using spray in closed cell insulative foam? For much less money than even considering Supertherm, you can coat the inside of your container with SPF and actually increase it’s “tensile strength and air-tightness” at the same time. The more I think about it, the more I find myself leaning in that direction on a regular basis.

      I’d recommend sandblasting the boxes (at the very least – blast the interiors) regardless of what they hauled during their life as cargo containers. The perils are in the paint. That stuff is nasty. If they hauled contaminants, it’s even worse. You want to start by replacing the flooring as well. Arsenic based pesticides embedded all the way thru the lamination layers are just too toxic to play with.

      Good luck with your project! Make sure you update us, and send in pictures! We’re pullin for you!

      Anything we can do to help, just ask!


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