How many ISBU homes can you build at once?

14 Apr

Greetings, my Corten Minions…

Today, we’re going back to the beginning;

We’re going to talk about “The Basics of Boxes”.

As the world slowly turns, some families have nowhere to sleep.

In places like Japan and Christchurch, Peru and Haiti… families are still trying to figure out what comes next, after natural disasters couple with man-made ones to create obstacles seemingly fit for the shoulders of the Titans.

These are the times when the “next steps” are taken. These are perfect times to discuss WHAT could work, and more importantly… what probably won’t work.

We can’t just keep doing things the same old ways. It just doesn’t work any longer. I’m not sure that it ever really did.

And it’s not “just me.”

These same discussions are happening across dining rooms tables all across America, as families start thinking about what comes next.

  • Our economy is really causing problems.
  • Unemployment is still a cancer that infects many, many families.
  • Outsourcing and “right-sizing” at the corporate level allows companies like General Electric to make billions in profits, pay no taxes and move jobs offshore, never to return.

(I’m not singling out GE, there are MANY companies in America that are doing this. GE is just a good example.)

Housing isn’t just a discussion any longer, it’s an issue that brings many families to tears.

I have a beloved “adopted” daughter who’s been trying to sell her house for longer than I care to remember. I’m not talking about a  McMansion. I’m talking about what is essentially a charming little “starter home”. The market has slumped so severely that in order for her to “stay in the market” she and her husband have been counseled to take about a $30,000 hit, just to get it sold. I’m not talking about deducting money from expected profit. I’m talking about deducting almost $30 grand from the existing mortgage price. We’re talking about digging a huge hole.

This is just madness.

How can someone who is forced to go thru that ever get back into the housing market? They’re going to lose their shirts. Families all over America are “underwater”, as well. Their houses aren’t worth the mortgages any longer. We agonize over it regularly.

Inflation is driving solutions even harder, but it’s building canyons that must be crossed at the same time.

I get a LOT of email. So much in fact that I spend a few hours a day trying to sort it all out.

Most of those contacts are in search of cost effective, affordable solutions that are possible for families – I’m talking about DIY (Do It Yourself) and families helping families.

Doing it yourself means that you’ll save a LOT of money.

Contractors work for profit. They have families too – families probably not much different than yours. But YOU need to focus on what you can, and more importantly CANNOT accomplish with your own hands.

This means that you really need to carefully define “your needs” and then balance it against “your wants”.

That refinement will help drive your design process.

I’m not talking about what I call “glory-boarding”…

…you know. stuff like the rendered Corten Coolness you usually see in places like Treehugger. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE Treehugger. I get a lot of inspiration from that site and some of that coolness finds itself “reverse engineered” into my builds.

But… I’m talking about designing real world, real use, real “paid for using real paychecks” spaces by real people – not just the “1 percenters”… the elite.

I can’t afford several hundred dollars a square foot to build my family’s home and if you’re reading THIS blog… you probably can’t either.

And that’s an area where it PAYS off to have someone helping you who has been there before.

No! Stop it! I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong. I’m not saying it has to be ME at all…

What I’m saying is that choosing the right design professional is really fundamentally important.

And it’s important to realize that the input from that PRO will more than pay his/her fees, if you’ve chosen them properly. They will know tips and tricks that will save time, money and labor. They’ll understand “spaces” and how they related to each other. And you’ll get a better home out of the deal.

Further, if that PRO can’t guarantee you that their input will actually save you their fees in return, it’s time to find another PRO. Seriously.

That said:

Let’s think about HOW you build your ISBU Home:

As you all know, I’m a big advocate of building and integrating using smaller 20′ High Cubes.

This allows you to build “modules” that can be coupled together to form “housing solutions” in a manner that is easily manipulated, transported and then set onto prepared foundations, by just a few guys and gals.

You can couple these smaller “modules” – containing entire Kitchen/Bath cores, for example – with larger ISBUs, like 40′ High Cubes.

This gives you a ton of versatility and a lot of leeway, especially when you’re dealing with building a home in a hard to reach area… like a cleared space out in the countryside, down a long graded county dirt road or even into a hillside.

Here on the blog, over the next few weeks, I want to REALLY EXPLORE Small House Design.

In fact, we’re going to look at other types of housing as well – the “Little Housers” (including those rascal “Tiny Houser’s”) , Boats and Marine watercraft and other types of “contained structures”, incorporating the best of all these worlds into one or more Corten Steel Boxes.

Think about HOW you store your possessions.

How do you manipulate your foodstuffs?

How much time to do actually spend in dedicated parts of your home?

We’ll take into consideration things like gabled roofs, reclaimed spaces and the agility required to actually use them. Some of us aren’t getting any younger… 😉

We’ll talk about options like retractable spaces – pop-outs, lowered platforms and even recessed platforms as well…

Remember that in dealing with small spaces;

Multi-purpose planning is the rule of the day.

We’ll talk about incorporating outside deck spaces into “defined inside spaces” to create larger rooms without actually building them.

Along the way, I want you to think about what YOUR family needs… and then I want you to get off your bottoms and actually post comments.

Yes, I’m talking to YOU.

We’ll take all that input and develop a prototype – a basic module – that can be used as a starting point that will cross many geographic boundaries and cultural borders.

It’s time to slay dragons, starting with that “overwhelming” feeling some get confronted with – like when they consider concepts like  “sweat equity”.

I want you guys and gals to realize just how easy it is to think small, if you start out with the right ingredients.

Innovation and “forward thinking” aren’t impossible. They just take good planning and solid execution.

There are solutions out there, just waiting to find their way onto your dining room table. We’re gonna go find them.

Stay Tuned.


7 Responses to “How many ISBU homes can you build at once?”

  1. qualityalternativebuildings1966 April 15, 2011 at 4:34 am #

    Alex, what about building an ISBU home in an urban/small town area? Having a few acres away from it all sounds great, but with kids/jobs/commuting/sports etc, what about buying an empty affordable lot in town and build your own ISBU home? What sort of hurdles have to be crossed, and how hard is it to make it look like it is NOT an ISBU for the neighbors and the permit officials? A remote retirement villa sounds great, even ideal, but I’m still a few years away from that, dang it.

    • Renaissance Ronin April 15, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

      As you’ve probably guessed (by reading the blog) you’re talking about exactly what we’ve been trying to accomplish for years.

      You shouldn’t have to live in exile, to live in a steel cradle of your own making. It’s just wrong. So, we challenge and saber-rattle and slowly break down barriers. We’ve chipped away at some of the walls, but it’s still a struggle getting past some conservative planning and zoning agencies. They make assumptions about some Steel Structures based on mythos, it seems…

      I’ve built several “normal” looking ISBU homes, that once “skinned” didn’t resemble ISBU’s in the slightest. The only indicator was a framed opening left >INSIDE< as a "novelty" art piece to start conversations about steel housing possibilities for the "naysayers and non-believers".

      I've even used those photos in some of my ISBU Book pages I have revolving around the Internet.

      Try here;

      Container Home Books

      These are anything BUT industrial looking.

      And when heavy weather rolled thru, the occupants of these ISBU homes sat on porches watching the rest of the neighborhood clean up the debris that WAS “their stick built homes”. Their only toil was walking back and forth into the house, to get more ice for their beverages. 😉

    • Jeremiah April 15, 2011 at 2:47 pm #

      To piggy-back on Alex, the biggest hurdle is that initial conversation with a planning/zoning official when you tell him you want to build a house using repurposed shipping containers. Their first reaction is “uh, say wha?!” and then after about a 15 minute conversation about the overall construction of the home, i.e. steel frame, spray foam insulation, sheathing, concrete foundation with welded tie down connections, etc., they start to feel all warm and fuzzy cause they realize “this house ain’t going no where!” which is after all, all they really care about. The important thing is to have an architect/designer on your side to help you with those conversations as well as a good structural engineer on hand to design all those welded connections and footers.
      One key is to not be dissuaded if they say “oh that’s not gonna work”, or “are you serious? not in this neighborhood”. A shipping container can look like whatever you want it to look like – no different than any other stick frame house.

  2. Jayne Iuliano April 15, 2011 at 9:12 am #

    Good email Ronin! I really look forward to what will develop.. have you considered yurts? there is a website,, had very portable and affordable ones, i.e., under $2K, and ready to assemble in 30 min by 1 person I have been considering, as the others at $7K or so still are out of reach; just looking for a small piece of land to rent .. just another comment, I requested info on prices for containers months and still no response .. do you have a better source, am in No Cal..thanks for all your info and hard work.. you are supported!

    • Renaissance Ronin April 15, 2011 at 2:26 pm #

      Hi Jayne,

      I’ve put yurts on TOP of ISBUs, using them as an elevated platform. You accessed the YURT thru a centralized spiral staircase. The only real problem with yurts is that you can’t leave them up forever. They just don’t stand the test of time when faced with the wrath of Mother Nature.

      (Unless of course… you “harden them” and then they aren’t yurts any longer, they’re just octagonal buildings.) 😉

      Truth be told, I lived in a yurt as we built our very first ISBU cabins, (in Northern Cali, no less) back in the 1970’s. I’ve never forgotten it. Or… the bears.

      If I was doing something “seasonal”, I’d consider yurts in a heartbeat. I love them. I really do. But for a “decades old structure”… probably not.

      ISBU Prices fluctuate like Oil prices, it seems. It depends on where you are and how fast you act. I’ll look around and see what I can find out for you. Where in Northern California? What county? Are you located near Crescent City? Or are you further south?

      Stay tuned.

  3. Jeremiah April 15, 2011 at 12:46 pm #

    Something that I’ve been thinking about lately that may be holding a majority of people back from this type of alternative construction (at least according to my wife) is there may be a presupposition that container homes are “too small” or “tiny” or “unlivable”. Which, I think can be true to a certain extent.
    While container homes, by definition, seek to be more efficient in how space and energy are used, people need to know (and be shown) that you do not have to sacrifice those “modern creature comforts” in designing this type of home. Spaces can still be generous while still efficient and you won’t always feel like you’re sitting right on top of someone else living in the home. I think this really needs to be stressed in order to get others interested in moving forward.

    • Renaissance Ronin April 15, 2011 at 2:19 pm #


      You’re exactly right. Many, many people see the boxes and just assume that you end up with a house full of tiny rooms. It doesn’t occur to them that by linking them together and then eliminating common walls, you create massive spaces that are still MADE OF CORTEN STEEL.

      In part, it’s why I took on that Studio (I’m talking about visionaries like Vic Cherubini at EPIC Software) in Texas. Although it’s a commercial space, it’s a perfect example of creating large spaces (in this case for media production) out of small boxes. They’ve created spaces large enough to manipulate CARS around inside, plus labs and administrative spaces for both themselves, and even tenant clients… using less than a dozen boxes.

      Vic is a “Put up or Shut Up” kinda guy. He’s putting his money where his mouth is… and there are gonna be a lot of envious people standing around in the parking lot when he’s finished.

      But enough about Vic.

      All the boxes do is define space. And, that space can be large or small depending on what it’s dedicated to. ISBU homes simply do it in a weather resistant, affordable manner that allows MOST families to embrace them, IF they have planned carefully and gotten good advise.

      In the end, your ISBU Home will be as good as it’s design and then, it’s execution.

      If it’s “tiny, too small, or unlivable” – you chose the wrong ad-visors. Shame on you. If you read this blog, we TELL you what to watch out for.

      But you know all this… you’re a disciple… 😉

Comments are closed.