YOU can do it… Yes, YOU can!

19 Aug

After the recent release of my e-book:

Introduction to Container Homes and Buildings

All hell broke loose. Don’t get me wrong. a lot of people appreciated the book. But some people in the home-building biz aren’t numbered among them.

I wrote this book for the same reason that I write the blog… to empower people. I wrote this book to demonstrate that a family CAN build a home, without being shackled to several layers of unnecessary administration, and mountains of extra costs designed to profit companies without necessarily enriching the occupant’s lives.

What I didn’t want to do is flex my ego by cramming it full of things I’ve done personally, like I’m “the center of the ISBU universe.” I wanted to at least TRY to be unbiased.

I did include several floorplans to give you ideas and starting points. But know that the intent is to allow you to take those examples, and then draw your OWN lines to reflect what YOU need and not just what someone tells you that you need based on their cost and effects corporate spreadsheet…

Some people will read this and then scream:

“Ah Ha! Didn’t you offer to help people chart the waters, at the end of the book?”

Yes. But I’ll point out that based on my “compensation” for that help, I’m usually working for less than minimum wage. This isn’t now, nor has it ever been, about profits. It’s about families.

But I’m getting hammered about the book in my email. It’s like “David and Goliath” all over again.

Did I fall short? According to the hate mail I’m getting, probably.

I started getting “hate mail” from “industry types.” I’m even getting “hate mail” from people in the “building industry” that I thought were friends.

I suppose that when the economy tanks, each and every penny that can be squeezed out of “John Q. Public” is a fistfight, and it appears that at RR we’re embroiled in more than one, ourselves.

There are some ISBU associated people who believe that they’ve cornered the market on “ISBU Tech.” They actually think that since they’ve built one or two projects, they own the rights to everything said about ISBUs in general. They have “proprietary secrets” that they don’t want you to know about.

There’s a myth going around that there are only about 150 ISBU homes in all of America. I talk about this a lot, because each time I hear this, it makes me laugh.

People have been buying and converting ISBUs into shelters since the 1970’s in America.

And every year, there have been literally thousands of containers available. Due to the imbalance in trade between nations, there are more ISBUs in America sitting dormant than you could possibly imagine. They are stacked so high in some places that they literally blot out the sun. So, over the last decade or so, the number of available shipping containers is much larger.

Are any of us really naive enough to believe that with the thousands of containers sitting there, over several decades, less than 2 or three people a YEAR used them to create shelter, businesses  and homes? Really? How many citizen families are living here in the USA? Millions?

There are literally thousands of ISBU structures scattered across the globe. But in America, some would have you believe that we live in a Corten Vacuum? I don’t think so. Not for a minute.

All you have to do is go look for them. You can find them on some pretty historic places, too – like Route 66, for instance.

At the risk of repeating myself, I personally know of several IC’s (Isolated Communities) scattered across the US that are constructed primarily of ISBUs, or by using ISBUs as components. And in each of these ICs, there are several homes and outbuildings. In many of those cases, unless you actually saw them being build, you’d never know that they were ISBUs to begin with. Hardiplank and Stucco are wonderful things… In some cases placing the Earthbags was backbreaking, let me tell you! 🙂

The number of ISBU structures in those ICs alone would account for a large majority of the “alleged 150 some-odd ISBU homes” that some people spout as gospel. It’s just ridiculous.

IMHO: That 150+ number comes primarily by people who know that if you somehow reduce the number of anything, the people who built the most visible projects become far more valuable. THEY become the pillars. It’s just a marketing ploy. So, if you get into all the press sites with your “OMG” project, you get a lions share of the attention.

In a dying economy, that’s a must if you want your corporation to survive hard times…

Don’t get lulled into this trap.  Do your homework. There are lots of examples out there if you dig for them. In fact, some people hope that you won’t. It makes their job easier. They have corporations to support. They have families too…

Anyone reading this blog (or my book) knows that I advocate taking the steps to actually build an ISBU house, YOURSELF.

Practice Self-Reliance and Self-Responsibility.

I know you know that, I say it all the time.

You don’t need an expensive Architectural Firm, an Engineering Firm, or even a Design Firm to achieve a home the scale that we talk about here on RR.  Nor do you need a “design/build contractor.”  What you need is common sense, the ability to pay attention to detail, and a good design that comes from looking at what you need, over and over again, comparing it to “known” examples, and then polishing it until you’ve finessed it into exactly what is required to fulfill YOUR specific needs. Will you accomplish this in a week? NO.

I tell people all the time to start their “Pre-Design” phase as early as they possibly can. This way, when you do finally sit down with whoever you bring in to help you draw it all out, you minimize that time so you can get to building ASAP.

Am I trying to talk you out of hiring someone like ME? YES.

I’m trying to work myself out of a job, if the truth be told. If you figure out how this works, you can tell someone else. And then, you can SHOW them. That starts an exponential conveyance of knowledge that covers far more ground than one “heretic howling into the wind.”

All you guys and gals combined can accomplish more in a few years, than I’ve accomplished in my entire life playing with torches and grinders, easy.

Why is this important to me?

  • The housing market is just one large oozing hemorrhage.
  • Foreclosures are gutting neighborhoods.
  • Companies are downsizing and shipping jobs overseas.
  • Unemployment is scratching at double-digits in most parts of America.
  • Bankruptcies are at their highest point since 2005.
  • The economy is crawling slower than an overloaded tractor trailer trying to make it up a steep grade.
  • In spite of the “bail-outs” banks aren’t lending, especially to us.

And you already know that I tell you that you’ll probably have to fight to build your home, or move it to a place where the building codes are either less restrictive, or non-existent. Can you build one in downtown Chicago? Nope. And you can’t build one in MOST Metropolitan areas, because they don’t conform to what is already there.

You’re going to get a hard lesson in “Not in My Backyard”… as it is the rule of thumb in most of these places.

But in the right place… you CAN have an affordable, sustainable, energy efficient home, built from ISBUs.

The “rules” you’ll use to achieve this will be different than that guy who bought that tract home down the street, the one that comes complete with an aneurysm causing mortgage that just goes on, and on, and on… until it eats you alive.

And as a tract home buyer, what do you get for this privilege?

You get a home that that looks just like everyone else’s, usually built “as cost effectively as possible” (not for YOU, but for the builder’s profit margin), surrounded by neighbors who take a ruler to the grass in the yard once a month, to insure that you’re carefully abiding by HOA standards and covenants.

Okay, that said, you’re wondering WHY anyone in their right mind would want to build an alternative home, especially one built from shipping containers.

As a family considering becoming an “ISBU home building bunch”, there are several reasons for this, but here are just a few;

1. Money.

Plain and simple, taking an already integral steel shell and then building it out yourself cuts out a lot of the overhead that Architects, Contractors, and Engineers charge, to “help you” build your house.

Don’t get me wrong. Those guys are important, each in their own areas, when they are tasked with projects that demand their educations and skills. But building a single story ISBU home certainly isn’t one of them, in most cases.

If you read the blog, I tell you to really scrutinize what your REALLY need. So, unless you’re a relative of Bernie Madoffs, I’m not talking about building 9 story Corten Condo’s “all by your onesies.” I’m talking about building a one or two story home, that uses ISBUs as construction elements.

And, Note that I’m talking about homes that are usually well under 3,000 square feet. Remember that the larger you build, the more assistance you’ll require.

Houses are getting smaller, folks. As times change, we’re realizing that we don’t NEED huge houses that stand like monuments to ego. We’re changing the way we live. So, just embrace it, as that fact is not going away.

There are a few guys that you WILL probably need; You’ll need someone with welding competence, a plumber, an  electrician, a roofer, and perhaps a HVAC guy… for example. So, you need to start going through your “relative list” to find out how many “hands-on” types you can lull onto your site, with the promise of good BBQ and a frosty cold one or two at the end of a long day of shipping container fabrication.

While your welder will be there a while (running beads until he/she’s blind :)) , your electrician and plumber usually have pretty streamlined jobs, when it comes to “simple design ISBU housing.” Likewise for the HVAC guys. Good design means “get in and get out.”

If you bring in welders and fab guys to do the light fab required to connect the boxes, the rest is NOT rocket science.

2. Streamlined Design.

You get what YOU need, and not what some builder or his/her accountant decided was cost effective to include. There is a certain satisfaction in getting what you wanted, because you figured out where it should  go. You did this by reading all you could and then applying that to your situation, to arrive at the right answer for your needs. Right? You bet.

3. Sustainability.

If you read the blog, or my published stuff, you know that sustainability counts. A lot.

Wikipedia defines “sustainability” like this:

“The intention of sustainable design is to “eliminate negative environmental impact completely through skillful, sensitive design”. Manifestations of sustainable design require no non-renewable resources, impact the environment minimally, and relate people with the natural environment…

… Sustainable architecture is the design of sustainable buildings. Sustainable architecture attempts to reduce the collective environmental impacts during the production of building components, during the construction process, as well as during the lifecycle of the building (heating, electricity use, carpet cleaning etc) This design practice emphasizes efficiency of heating and cooling systems; alternative energy sources such as solar hot water, appropriate building siting, reused or recycled building materials; on-site power generation – solar technology, ground source heat pumps, wind power; rainwater harvesting for gardening, washing and aquifer recharge; and on-site waste management such as green roofs that filter and control stormwater runoff.”

In a nutshell, it means designing and building shelters that co-exist with everything around them, rather than becoming monuments to waste and excess. These structures respect the relationship between man and the environment.

4. Symbiosis.

It’s not just for biology class anymore. You can build a home that will work WITH you, instead of against you. Yet another layer of  sustainability. There are those who will tell you that in order to build a house that “takes care of itself” you have to throw a ton of money at it. To those people, I say this;


It’s not about using fancy materials that come “straight out of secret NASA laboratories and CAD Stations.” It’s not about stuff like “snake oil” ceramic insulation, because “somebody at NASA” or “somebody at some association” claims that it’s the new INSULATION to end all INSULATIONS.

It’s about investing some time learning about how things actually work… and then using that knowledge to commit to GOOD Design that will lead to good building practices. You can achieve sustainable, affordable housing, without breaking the bank. You just have to carefully weigh your options and then choose wisely.

5. Affordability.

Building it yourself, using your own labor (including friends and relatives!), and by recycling, reusing, and repurposing not only makes sense… it saves you “cents.” Lots of them. That means that you get “more of what you want”, for “less of what you spend.” And by using common sense before you write checks and then combining it with good design, you CAN build a home for your family that is DIY buildable, sturdy, energy efficient and low maintenance.

THAT is one of MY definitions of GREEN.

6. Satisfaction.

By building your own home, several things are accomplished. First since you built it, you can fix it. You have intimate knowledge of how it went together. That means if something DOES go wrong, you can figure out how to fix it. And ISBU homes are modular by their very nature. That means that you’ll know how to add on later, should the need arise.

7. Financial freedom.

Like I said before, banks aren’t lending. So most of these ISBU builds will be self-financed. And that means that you won’t have a soul-sucking mortgage attached to the other side of them.

8. Peace of Mind.

And at the end of the day, when others around you are sitting in front of desks at their own homes writing large checks to mortgage bankers, utility companies, and trying to figure out where the next dollar is going to come from, you’ll be sitting in the “home you always wanted” that is not too big, not to small, but just right.

I could go on for several pages, but I won’t. You get the point, right?

I want you to do a hard thing, a new way. And by doing it, I want you to become stronger and more confident. Sure, building a home is scary, but by facing fear, you get stronger.

As children, my mother used to tell us that;

“Fear never shows up on the porch without Strength, All you have to do is reach past one, to grasp the other.”

My new book was designed to make you ask questions as you begin your search for the answers you’ll need to create a home from cast-off steel boxes and materials that others think useless. My book is designed to help your family find some freedom (something seemingly in short supply, even here in the US sometimes) , by creating it with your own hands.

In that book, I showed you several examples of what you can do, if you put your mind to it. One such example can be found on page 22. It’s a brown three story ISBU stack structure that stands in Atlanta, GA. While I took that photo from a royalty-free stock photography site, the builder and the structural engineer object to it being included in the book. The builder’s name is Glen Donaldson, from Atlanta. You can “google” him for more information.

I thought that the Atlanta house was significant because it’s very straightforward, it  was built in a metropolitan area, and it gives us hope that we might someday be able to do likewise. Let’s face it, none of us wants to be “forced to go live in the boonies in order to  to have our ISBU home become a reality. Some of us would choose suburbia, if it was at all possible. I’m not one of them, but some prefer downtown.

A claim has been made that I am taking credit for it’s construction in the book. Nothing could be further from the truth, and it was never said, nor even implied. EVER.

So, despite the fact that the image used of the Atlanta House came from the public domain, to avoid any further confusion I’m editing it out and all future versions of this book will reflect this change.

While I still feel like it’s a good example none the less, it’s easily replaced. There are many, many good examples of ISBU housing that we can learn from, together.

Now get out there, conquer your fear, and pass the plasma cutter… Daylight is burning…


9 Responses to “YOU can do it… Yes, YOU can!”

  1. ted yrizarry August 19, 2010 at 8:56 am #

    Even though you are a Jar Head…I got your back. Feel free to send the hatemail at me. I could use the laugh! Gotta be better than reading the online news Comment sections now that all “combat” troops are out of Iraq. *looks around thinking THIS ain’t Kansas!*
    You struck a nerve Alex. That is the essence of the issue. You have shined the light of (O gosh!) Common Sense and the rats are scurrying. Its the “How dare you” knee jerk reaction that stems from those same groups,cliques, and good old boy clubs that have been profiteering off average guy for time unrecalled.
    Empower people!?! What are you…NUTS!?! Have them actually do for themselves??? Do you know what you are saying??? That could be earth shattering in its repercussions! First they don’t need us anymore to build them an over priced, under quality’d shack. What is next? They start reading history books? Realize what a fantastic nation this was before the people were luled into slothism? They may even decide that keeping up with the Jonses means taking responsability for themselves. Holding their Government, which is essentually they themselves, to task and insist on turning everything around!!! ACK!
    Next thing you know all the talk and verbal BS will cease…and action, Honest to goodness real live physical productivity could occur.
    Oh Ronin…you ARE a madman!
    I like it.
    And incase you haven’t heard it in a while…

    • Renaissance Ronin August 20, 2010 at 12:51 am #

      Hey Ted!

      I love that I’m being branded as “un-American” because I advocate taking responsibility for your own family, in spite of those who actually design and enforce systems that force you to fail.

      Isn’t that what our forefathers did, when they told the British to get bent?

      Isn’t that what those guys and gals in those Conestoga Wagons were doing when they headed west?

      Well? Isn’t it? Huh? 😉

      The time has come to just say what everyone else is already thinking;

      “The ship is taking on water.”

      If each of us don’t start bailing now (and I’m not talking about “bail-outs”… don’t get me started!) and shoring up our defenses, each of our families may be in jeopardy.

      So, I say;

      “Predict, prepare, & produce! Or shut the H-E-Double ‘L’ up!”

      Whining never solved anything. It takes courage and commitment. And at least with “my minions”… that’s something that is as strong as the Corten Steel that my families are wrapping themselves in.

      I’m told that I have “minions.” That is “SO COOL!” 😉

      Be safe, buddy! We’re looking forward to you getting home in one piece!


  2. Tammy August 19, 2010 at 4:55 pm #

    I tried to see the Donaldson home online…by googling his name, but I just couldn’t seem to find it.

    Nevertheless, I think what you are doing is wonderful! I also believe what you are saying is falling on deaf ears because this is no longer the land of the “free” (because we owe money to everyone…and their grandma) and we no longer live in the land of the “brave” (too many of us are unwilling to step outside of the box and try to be truly self-sufficient).

    Thank you, Ronin! You are my hero!

    • Renaissance Ronin August 20, 2010 at 12:42 am #

      Thanks Tammy!

      WE (as in US, and not “them”) need to start looking after ourselves. It’s clear that the Cavalry isn’t coming, at least not any time soon.

      So, we’ll practice self-reliance and self-responsibility as much as is possible, to take as many bumps out of the road as possible.

      Otherwise, we’re really gonna be in the soup…

      Thank you for your comment. It’s appreciated!


  3. Madrigorne August 20, 2010 at 11:27 am #

    Haters gotta hate. They hatin.
    You are about as Unamerican as Mom, apple pie, Stars and Stripes, Oh Say can you See, and all of Texas.
    I have to swear quietly because I am in public, but inside I am one unending shriek. Were our pioneers who settled the west unamerican for building log homes, or dugout shanties, or piling rocks on top of rocks with clay mud between for walls? For tarpaper houses with tin roofs? How are we unamerican for trying not to mire into the metropolitan mud of mortifying mortgages? For opting out of the seriously awful financial scammage perpetrated by the banks and insurance industries? I will not bend before all their hot air and the noxious wind blowing off the oily gulf. Nor will I stand idly by and let them heap their unjustified accusations upon your shoulders. Dammit Ronin you are a good man, a good example of American Ingenuity, and you are trying to not only save your family – but help us save ours too. Put that picture back in your book and flip those bastards the finger. If they can’t read a damn index then they should not have bought the book, all they looked at were the pictures, they had their pomp and blather chosen before they even cracked the cover.
    I am working more than I ever have to keep our heads above water and you gave instructions how to build a raft – don’t let some league of expensive shipwrights get a word in edgewise.
    You are one of us, and you are awesome.


  4. Mike August 22, 2010 at 5:28 pm #

    Hi Ronin,
    I read your book and have recently started reading your posts…i’m a big fan of what you are doing and love the idea of building with ISBU’s. Truth be told I am planning to build a house and am seriously considering going the ISBU way. But in the end it is going to boil down to cost and is it feasible. Which leads me to a few burning questions I have for you:

    1) When is part II going to be out? Before I can dream of doing this on my own I want to know what is involved. I am very detail oriented person and am itching to know about the things companies that build with ISBU’s won’t tell me e.g. How do you attach wood studs to the steel frame? / how do you attach exterior stucco to spayed on insulation? where do you find the steel plates to join the pieces together?

    2) Cost and a true apples to apples comparison….this is more of a suggestion for an article to post on your site showing how to do a true cost comparison to a stick built home. All the sites I have read talk about a time savings which equates to a $ and in your article above you mention that doing it yourself is the way to go to save $. But if I did the work myself on a traditional stick built home would there be that much of a savings when compared to ISBU?

    Along the same lines…if I am planning to drywall the inside of a ISBU house I would need to frame the interior with 2×4’s, and if I was going to build a house the exterior walls would be 2×6. The price difference between a 2×4 and a 2×6 isn’t that much so I guess I am wrestling with where the big savings comes in. Is it just in the time taken to complete the structure (if you drywall the inside and stucco the outside)?

    I want to believe…


    • Renaissance Ronin August 22, 2010 at 8:20 pm #

      Hi Mike,

      We’re working on the “Big Book” now. It’s a “Big Scope” book, and it takes time. These books don’t write themselves! Watch the blog for the debut date.

      I promise… The “Big Book” will be a “nuts and bolts” – step by step tome…

      There are many places in America where you can still build a pretty nice “stick built” home for $50 a square foot. I don’t dispute that for a second. But when you’re through… you have exactly that, a “low cost, stick built home.”

      And remember that although the DIY labor investment in either a stick build or ISBU home is substantial, that they are not “equal.” One of the reasons that ISBU dwellings have more value in my book is that they are dwellings designed to last longer, due to their very nature. Steel is stronger than wood. This equates to higher durability when faced with heavy weather events, for example. Properly designed and built, they are more resistant to Mother Nature’s wrath.

      Also keep in mind that building materials vary in cost from place to place. That means that in the grand scheme of things, references to comparisons are only a “your mileage will vary” thing.

      Generally, people don’t build these ISBU homes simply because they are “cheaper than wood.” They build them because they are stronger and provide substantial benefit to the families that dwell within them, for longer periods of time.

      And if you insulate OUTSIDE the box, why cover the interior walls? There’s more than one way to hang a picture, or place a shelf… 😉

      Stay tuned.


      • ted yrizarry August 22, 2010 at 10:44 pm #

        There you have partially hit upon the rub. It “Lasts longer”. I don’t really know when it happened but somewhere along the line people (Esp. us Americans) have developed a disposable mentality. Having the newest, trend current, In thing that is cool today and landfill fodder tomorrow has become the norm. And hand in glove to that is manufacturers have started making their products with this in mind. Why make something that will last generations when people will buy it anyway, as long as it is sparkly and popular!?!
        Cars…I’m a huge auto-nut. I won’t own a new vehicle…ever. But I can easily remember when people would buy a car and it would last them 15-20 years. They (see a similarity?) were made of steel back then, not some rolling hunk of milk jug leftovers. But the point is that when someone went to purchase a car it was realized to be a big, long term investment! This was going to be something they either enjoyed or were cursed with for many years. And it is just a mode of transportation. How about the place we live!?!
        So in an effort to back you up and offer my own (mildly twisTed) view…the cost of building with ISBUs are multi-facted. Boots on ground costs with one doing mostly their own labor are prob. not exceedingly THAT different. Materials, as you mentioned, vary in cost from area to area but…
        How many ways are there to stick frame a house correctly? How many options are available to alter the asthetics of a woody and still have it be within code, visually acceptable, and structurally sound? Now compare that to a big steel rectangular cube. Dollars for doughnuts, one has many, Many more options when the structure is already established and sealed from the elements. An owner can literally choose to be as frilly or monastic as the choose and can afford. I like simple…so mine will resemble a log cabin. More into the “bling”?…well, break out your checkbook and have the entire ISBU chromed! *shrugs* Up to the builder/owner.
        But the one thing where these shine is for those that wish to “settle down”. Those of us that have found the perfect spot they wish to live out their lives and raise their families…without wandering around like Bedouins, content to know that in a hundred years the house will still be enjoyed by their off spring. Unhampered by the cheesy, disposable, or trendy homes of today.

  5. a.b. August 24, 2010 at 8:42 am #

    I bought your book the day before this came out. Seriously, do people not understand what book/stock photos are…generic imagery!?! Well, Mr. Donaldson just garnered himself some bad press in front of 20,000 people who are actually interested in ISBUs. That has to earn the dumb marketing move of the day.

    I can’t wait for the nuts and bolts book. My husband is on board so I’ve been sketching away, looking at properties, and most importantly, saving my pennies. Thank you for all the work you put into this.

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