Berming in the Boonies!

2 Feb

WE were busy all last week as a result of a death in the family. So, I’m a little bit behind.

And now, we have a big storm bearing down on us to get ready for, so I’m still not able to really pound away at posts.

So you know what that means, right?

That’s right! It’s MAIL BAG TIME!

Here we go;


I recently came across this photo of a shipping container home.

It appears that the owner is doing many of the things that you tell us NOT to do.

Any comments?


Smug in Cinci…

Dear Smug,

Ok, smarty pants, I’ll play.

This looks like a “fallback” to me, from what I can see in the photo.

A “fallback” is a shelter built out in the woods or “away from most”…

… used to just get away from the madness. In the old days we called them “vacation cabins”. Now, most of the ones I see getting built are quietly constructed little homes designed to be used in case things get really bumpy.

The reader sent me a photograph of a pair of boxes (they look like 40’rs) set into a berm on a lot someplace. I think it’s a lot because I can see a road behind it.  Heck, that might be a well manicured driveway, for all I know.  Although I can see what looks like a pipe stall or corral in the far left, the photo name indicates that it is a “cabin” and not a barn, or horse stalls, or a utility building.

They didn’t tell me anything more about the photograph of the build than what you’ve already read.

So, while it’s possible I’m about to get “blind-sided”, I’ll bite.

(a) From the photograph, it appears that the containers are sitting on the ground. I don’t see any drainage pipe or gravel, but I’m betting it’s there to prevent water from finding a way into the boxes.

The lack of a foundation concerns me.

It’s approximately 16′ x 40′ outside, and I’m figuring that they framed out the interior for more insulation.

So, they’re working with 580 square feet and change. That probably translates to a couple of sleeping areas, a common room, a strip kitchenette and a bathroom… plus some storage areas.

I’m assuming a couple of sleeping areas simply because a single person could easily make do with a single container and get all the “fallback” he/she needed. Two boxes probably means a small family.

We’ll assume that it’s someplace reasonably warm and mild, because the way they’ve laid it out, it’s not equipped to deal with harsh winters. (That and it’s sitting on the ground… so no snow.) 🙂

It looks like they’ve used SPF on the exterior of the boxes, albeit it looks like a thin coat. If it’s an inch, they’ll get r7 (it looks like closed cell foam). It’s possible that they’ve also insulated inside as well to build up the r value. I’m hoping so. R7 just isn’t enough.  Rigid insulation tucked in between studs inside would take the bite out and save some space over nasty fiberglass batts.

I think that we can assume that the doors are insulated from inside. If they went to the trouble to spend half a day spraying SPF on the boxes, I’m sure they did something with the doors too (even if we can’t see it)

The window almost looks like an afterthought.  I’m worried by a few things;

(1) It’s awfully low to that berm.

(2) It appears that they cut a hole and stuck it in place, possibly with self tapping screws, and then shot SPF around it to seal it up. That’s not my preferred method.

I actually build a frame out of 2″ tube steel tube that becomes an integral part of my “rough opening”.

It will get welded between the top and bottom rails to become an integral part of the box structure. The “insides” of that opening are then lined with plate steel (which is welded to the corrugated steel skin as well) so I can slide my window into THAT created subframe.

You get a really tough window or door that way and you actually increase the structural integrity of the box by using those tubular  subframes. Think “rollbars”.

I don’t see ANY roof. So, they cant “get up there and walk about” for sure.

And what concerns me most is that earthberm.

While I LOVE earthberms, you have to reinforce the box substantially to take that kind of soil load. That corrugated steel skin just isn’t enough to handle it. And it gets worse when it rains, as the soil piled up against that steel skin gets heavier.

So, I’m hoping that they reinforced the skin internally to bear that created load. Otherwise, sooner or later, it’s going to fail. Ugh.

As a case in point;

I’m working on an Alabama house right now, that will essentially have an earthbermed first level.

HOWEVER, the first level will be constructed of concrete block and then we’ll set the ISBUs on top of it stacked two high, to create a small three story house, that will look like a two story house sitting on a terraced hill.  We’re going to use 20′ High Cubes. That’s a good indication of how small the footprint will be.

Getting back to the photo the reader sent in;

I’d love to see more of this. It looks like a “work in progress”.  And I’d love to be able to contact the owner to ask them a few questions about how and why they are doing what they’re doing…

AND to congratulate them for DOING and not just TALKING.

A ton of hard work went into what you’re looking at.

I bet they have an interesting story to tell and I’d love to hear it.



11 Responses to “Berming in the Boonies!”

  1. Andy Schubert February 2, 2011 at 10:17 am #

    I googled cabincontainer.jpg and clicked Images. Browsed a bit until I saw something that looked a lot like the image you posted. This is what turned up.

    • Renaissance Ronin February 2, 2011 at 12:42 pm #

      Good Sleuthing, Andy!

      I think I’m gonna leave them an email and see if they want to talk about their project.

      Atta boy! 🙂

  2. Jeremiah February 2, 2011 at 10:37 am #

    I agree it’s difficult to offer any real opinion/advice above and beyond what you can speculate from the photo. Not only are plenty of answers needed from the owner/builder, but it would also be extremely helpful to see the other side, to see how the entry and other openings work and also to see how much berming has been done on the other side. I also don’t see any plumbing vents or other roof penetrations. Could this just be a glorified shed?

    • Renaissance Ronin February 2, 2011 at 12:41 pm #

      Hi Jeremiah,

      Thinking along lines similar to yours (strange how great minds think alike…) The first thing I looked for was roof vents and a stove flue. 🙂

      Even as a shed, it’s got some things that need to be sorted out. That berm is really disturbing. The lack of cladding over the exterior SPF is another thing I’m uneasy about. But while “pictures are worth more than a thousand words”, I’d settle for a few hundred from the owner right now, for sure! 🙂

      We’ll see how it plays out.

  3. Andy Schubert February 2, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    This stuff looks interesting. Any thoughts on how it might work in a berm’ed (earthship) type ISBU application?

    • Jeremiah February 6, 2011 at 4:17 pm #

      Cool stuff. First thing that comes to mind is “hey that’s great for relief shelter for “temporary” needs. But that leads into question two which is “what happens when the relief is no longer needed? what happens to these “concrete” shelters once rebuilding is either under way or near completion?” I’m reminded of the FEMA trailers that littered New Orleans after Katrina and became just tons of trash for a landfill. Something else that comes to mind is “sprawl”. It doesn’t seem from the video that these structures can be stacked. they can only be lain out in linear form and gridded horizontally. if you’ve got 10k people that need to be displaced temporarily due to disaster, that is a substantial amount of land that is needed in order to accommodate a relatively small number of people.
      I’m the first to say “yes we need efficient, low impact, economical relief structures that can be deployed quickly, but thought has to be put to what happens after as well.

      • Andy Schubert February 6, 2011 at 10:43 pm #

        Yep. The company has a few videos showing different applications. I was more interested in thoughts about the material itself used in more permanent manner. It seems they have 1 meter wide rolls in various thickness. I asked them if they had any inquiries or plans to make bags. As in Earthbag building , thinking that might be a decent way to get the thermal mass the berm ISBU people are looking for. Very DIY. Fill the bag with site material stack’em up so the wall free stands and water it. Place the container real close. Have the roof overhang, etc. They thought the bag was interesting but never heard of Earthbag construction.

  4. Jeremiah February 2, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

    So, it appears he did not in fact reinforce the container walls (unless it’s on the inside) before berming. Given that his berm is high at the corner and slopes down the walls (doesn’t appear to be a ton of earth – no pun intended) I don’t think he’ll have a problem with horizontal pressure on the container. Looking at the rest of the posts I must say it’s not a bad job. He used interior insulation with a vapor barrier and the horizontal wood makes for a nice “cabin” feel. Though I will say, with 2 40′ containers side by side like this, he could have gotten A LOT more bang for his buck if he had consulted an architect/designer. The biggest concern I have is there is basically no storage other than “food storage” and “battery storage”, which is unfortunate. And the flat roof bugs me a little. I’d have rather seen a simple shed roof with clerestory windows at the front elevation which would have allowed for a higher ceiling in the public spaces as well. Still a great job though.

    • Renaissance Ronin February 6, 2011 at 4:30 pm #

      Hi Jeremiah,

      I’ve personally seen containers fail with far LESS soil loading than what is depicted in this photograph. Unless the owner/builder did reinforce the walls on the interior, this is a disaster waiting to happen. It might not happen today or tomorrow, but it IS going to happen. And I for one would hate to see all his hard work go for naught, because of a few steel beams (on the interior) that could have easily been included to protect that part of the home from the berm he used.

      While it’s true that we could probably have helped him find more space, he DID do it “himself”. In my book, he gets at least a hundred “Atta Boys” for that!

      ISBUs were made for DIY. I’ve been preaching that for a while. DIY rules when times are hard. And nothing makes DIY better than a good design and a comprehensive building plan. So read good ISBU blogs, buy an ISBU book or two (shameless plug) and even consult people who know what they’re talking about.

      THEN… build.

      And like you, that flat roof scares me. I’m hearing now that he’s in Oklahoma. How much snow and heavy weather does OK get in winter?

      Perhaps, he kept it flat to shorten the exposure (profile) to tornadoes?

      I’d still like to see a “real” roof. He could do it with SSMR (Standing Seam Metal Roofing) pretty cost effectively and gain a significant amount of rain harvesting as well.

      I haven’t had a chance to follow that link yet, to get “the skinny” on this build. Things have been rather hectic around here lately. Stay tuned.

      • Andy Schubert February 6, 2011 at 11:02 pm #

        6-foot snow drifts reported in northeast Oklahoma
        Miami received about 13 inches of snow, said Glenda Longan, the city’s emergency management director.
        BY SHEILA STOGSDILL – State Correspondent Oklahoman Published: February 1, 2011

        I’m originally from Iowa and that seems like a lot of snow for a flat roof. Hope everything worked out for the guy. I’ve been very near Tornadoes a time or two. I like the formed and poured Concrete walls and I-Beam concrete roof that you can drive on. Build the garage on top live in the bottom. It’s pretty wild even then.

  5. Len February 9, 2011 at 5:31 pm #

    As far as I know, a roof is planned. It is a work in progress. I have been following it at There is a concrete block foundation. There is another one on there too, but it is two short singles set up train style… complete with a space between them.

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