STOP! How far is “TOO far”?

15 Nov

Dear Readers,

From time to time (mostly when I’m getting hammered by several ISBU projects all at once!) I “share” email with you to give you insight into how ISBUs work.

Well, today is your lucky day!

It’s…. da-da-da-daaaaaah!  (wait for it… wait for it…)  “Mailbag time”:

Dear “Reverend” Ronin,

I love the idea of building an affordable home with shipping containers. It’s “uber-cool”!

After reading your book, I’m more enthused than ever to get my butt to the local Community College, so I can learn how to weld and use a plasma cutter!

And when you say that using the ISBUs (shipping containers) to actually create space, by placing them a distance from each other and then reclaiming the space between them, it just gets better!

I fully “get” that the interior you create this way will cost just concrete for the floor and a roof system to keep the rain out!

Here’s what I’m thinking;

First, I live in coastal Alabama. We don’t get snow, but we do get high winds and rain.

I’m also being told that building codes here are pretty easy to work with.

I want to use (2) 40′ High Cube ISBUs to create a three bedroom – 2 bath home. I need it to be on one floor, as my mother will live with me and she’s handicapped.

In fact, there is a design in your book that is almost exactly what I wanted and even more.

I want to use solar panels to create hot water and also install photovoltaic panels to contribute electricity to the house, to keep my month-to month costs as low as possible.

I don’t plan to be up on the roof. I like to keep my feet on the ground. So don’t try to talk me into a “green roof” or some “uber-cool” rooftop oasis, okay? I just want the “Walmart” ISBU version.

I’m building this with (my mother’s and my own) “saved” money. No frills. Just nice, livable space, please.

But I have a worry… rather, there is something that I don’t really understand.

How FAR apart can you place the containers when you are creating that “reclaimed” interior space?

How much is enough? How far is TOO far?

And can I use the floorplan in the book as a starting point? How do I do that? Do you work with families “directly”? Do I need to buy the floorplan from you first?

And hey, since I’m asking questions… WHEN is the BIG BOOK going to be finished? I am so anxious to read it!

Thanks for all you do!

A devoted member of the Corten Church.


Dear Parishioner,

Thanks for the comments about the book. It’s great to actually hear from people who like it. After all, I did write it to inspire people to want to learn even more about ISBUs.

So, I tip my big ole’ church hat to you… (it’s a “popey lookin thingwhich, by the way, I wear to hide the fact that I have a pointed head…) 😉

Once you figure out what you want in your ISBU design, you have to figure out how to enclose it.

Otherwise, it’s just retaining walls, right?

Remembering that most (if not all) of my residential ISBU builds are “self-financed and self-built”, the idea is to keep things as low-tech as possible. I don’t really get client families that have money to burn on really sophisticated spanning systems, or expensive “high-tech” materials.

When building ISBU homes in “Ronin World”, cost-effectiveness and energy efficiency rule the day.

That said;

There are two things that determine how FAR you can place your containers apart, the way I see it.

(a) How do you carry that roof structure safely and affordably?, and

(b) How to you illuminate that cave you’re creating?

While I like the idea of “really vaulted – cathedral like” common spaces in homes (from a visual perspective), I suggest you quench that thirst by heading for your local church or coliseum. It’s just not practical from an “I’m gonna do this myself” kind of perspective.

First, you have to enclose and glaze the “ends” you create between those boxes. All that glass is going to be incredibly expensive and it’s going to bring with it other problems – like figuring out how to heat and cool that volume of space you just created.

Not only that, you’re going to create “space” that has to be conditioned that you can’t actually use. You know the space I’m talking about, right? It’s the space up by the top of that vault.

Hello? Energy Vampire.

And the wider “your cavern” gets, the more support that energy stealing ceiling and roofing system will require.

So, here’s what I suggest;

First, use SIPs to build the roof.

It’s fast, it’s easy, it’s about the best insulation/roof system that anyone ever got, right out of the box in my opinion.  Better still, those SIP sheets will lock together. This means that they form continuous roof systems that support themselves, if you stay within the guidelines.

Attaching them to the roof is easy. You start by building a “tray” for them to fit into, using angle iron and a welder. I’ve talked about this before and you can find “SIP assembly instructions” in the archives.

The thickness of the SIP will determine how large a “roof plane” you can construct without adding any additional support.

Where insulation is concerned, I believe that you should “go big or stay home”.  I’m a big advocate of using the biggest r-value SIP you can afford.

In your case, building a one story home simplifies things dramatically. You’re not concerned with using that roof surface for things like a terrace or an “uber-cool” roof garden. So, all you need to do is support the roof and the solar and photovoltaic panels that you’ll mount to it.

Now, all you really need to do is ask your local SIP manufacturer about span/run requirements. He has a table that will tell you precisely how much roof you can build (by connecting those wonderful SIPs together), without having to add rafters or trusses.

Don’t misunderstand me… You can’t just slap SIPs together and then drop them as one huge lid without any support of any kind, across large spans. That won’t work. SIPs are great, but not quite THAT great! 🙂

You’ll quickly find out that after you get past about 24′ feet in width, the “run” starts to take on a mind of it’s own and things start getting tricky. Beyond that width, you start needing serious beams, or rafters, or trusses to help fly that roof along it’s “run”.

In most cases, we’re only going to add a few simple “engineered” beams across that 24′ width (to cut the “run” up into manageable sections) and they’ll be as much for “roof run support” as they will be for “creating atmosphere” and connecting overhead fixtures like ceiling fans and lighting.

And that 24′ width is important for “Part B” of the program, too.

You need to illuminate that cave. By using ISBUs to create that common space, you essentially end up with fewer surfaces that can be used for glazing (to bring light in).

In most cases, I urge people to keep the ISBUs as “original and container-like” as possible.

The less fabrication you do, the cheaper your build will be!

So, you’ll probably dedicate the ISBUs to bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, mechanical,  or utility space (and they are made of steel) so any holes you put in them are going to be labor intensive and more expensive.

I bet you’re thinking that you can just put some windows in the end walls that connect the ISBUs, and be done with it, right?


NOW, we are talking about the real MEAT of using ISBUs. Let’s assume that you have an “interior” room (between those ISBUs)  that measures 24′ x 40′, and we’ll assume that it’s 9’6″ high at the edges along the interior container “walls”.

You ARE paying attention to my ramblings on the blog, right? You DID use HIGH CUBE containers, right?

That means that you have a pair of  “end walls” that you can essentially plug windows into, to light up that interior space.

Yes, you CAN add “sidelights” to your building space by punching up the roof to allow them to be inserted along the sides. Is it cool? Absolutely. But, it doesn’t come without a price. It requires a lot more work and money.

And you wanted the “WALMART” version, right?

No sidelights or clerestory roofs. Too much money!

Okay… We’re back to the end walls.

How far do you think the sunlight passing through the windows in those end walls will travel?

Math time; (pay attention because there’s going to be a pop-quiz at the end)

As a very rough rule of thumb, the light from vertical windows will penetrate about 12 feet into the interior of a building and still provide enough illumination to work by (you’re going to get roughly 5% of what is available “outside in the daylight”).

If your building is any “deeper” (I’m talking about the measurement from “front” to “back”) than 12 feet (and it IS), you will need some kind of supplemental light source to light the interior space, and that will cost you energy.

Ever look at old factory buildings?

You’ll find that they have usually one thing in common. Old factories, particularly those built during the Industrial Revolution,  are usually around 24 feet wide. The builders knew how far the sunlight would travel (even – gasp! –  then) and the owners of these buildings wanted to rely on daylight (negating the requirement for additional artificial lighting, creating an additional drain on cash-flow) which is “free” –  to give workers enough light to toil by.

And like those old factories, the interior of your home will be very dark, and some might even say “cave-like”. You may prefer a dark house, but I sure don’t. When people tell me that a little dark is okay, I urge them to try it out for themselves by finding a big parking garage and asking themselves what it would be like to live inside it 40′ feet from the entrance.

They usually get it, or, in one case, they actually went off looking for something to simulate the conditions I described. When they returned, we started thinking about “solutions”.

Think: Skylights.

A quartet of well placed skylights or even Solatubes (placed two by two) will brighten up that cave and turn it into an airy, bright abode that will welcome anyone who enters it.

Image Credit to REI - Round Rock

And before you spit at your monitor, please know that ‘skylight tech” has gotten better and combined with standing seam metal roofing, it’s almost unbeatable. You get a high efficiency light source, with little in  the way of “long-term” maintenance drama.

And even better, skylight and Solatube prices have dropped dramatically in the last few years.

The caveat is that you’re going to have your roofers involved in installing them, to protect your roofing warranties. This is NOT something that you do after the fact. If you do and you have a problem, your roof warranty will usually be null and void.

To address your other questions;

The book is “in progress”. “War and Peace” didn’t get written in a day and my book won’t be either. First, I have to learn how to actually read and write…

And, I’m old. That “Old Dog/New Tricks” thing can be a real pain… 😉

The floorplans in my book: “Introduction to Container Homes and Buildings” are there as examples, but if you find something that works for you, by all means, use them!

And I work with building families “directly” all the time. It’s a “part of the ministry”. 😉

You can contact me for more details.

Good luck with your project.

May Peace be with you. Amen.


4 Responses to “STOP! How far is “TOO far”?”

  1. Boxpert November 15, 2010 at 9:01 am #

    I love what you’re doing with the shipping container home concept. I completely agree to keep the homes as much of a container as possible. On the clear spans on your 24′ example, we wound up spending almost as much on the cuts as we did on the container. Would you care to compare notes?

    • Renaissance Ronin November 16, 2010 at 12:48 am #

      Sure thing!!

      Send me an email privately and outline your concern areas!

      I suspect this could make a really good post for our readers!

      My email addy in in the sidebar.

  2. Madrigorne November 16, 2010 at 6:11 am #

    I can’t seem to stop drawing little mockups of and blueprints of isbu homes now. I may need professional help. I think I am in love with the term energy vampire. Today is a happy day 🙂

    • Renaissance Ronin November 16, 2010 at 6:34 am #

      Hi Madrigorne,

      You could get “Energy Vampire” tattooed on yer… um… never mind… 😉

      And we’ve always know that you need “professional help”, dear.

      Happy Tuesday! 🙂

Comments are closed.