Odd boxes make warm bedfellows!

14 Feb

We’re working on a project using 30′ High Cube ISBUs.

Yes. I said 30′ ISBUs. It wasn’t a “typo”.

We just found a pair of re-manufactured 30′ High Cube ISBUs “locally”.

(Okay, they’re located close enough to us in Montana that we can send a flatbed for them.)

Now, you can’t just go out and purchase a 30′ box. As we all know, shipping containers coming out of China are generally 20′ and 40′ boxes. Typically, they come in two flavors; Standard and High Cube. The only difference between them is that the Standard boxes are 8’6″ tall, while the High Cube boxes are a foot taller, measuring 9’6″. They come in other lengths like 10′, 45′, 48′ and 53′, and these last two boxes are also a little bit wider.

That said, there ARE vendors who will “shorten” a box to suit the specialized requirements of a buyer. It does happen. Those boxes won’t get a new ID plate, but they’ll still be ISBUs in the traditional sense.

Apparently, a local mine had a vendor rework a pair of 40′ High Cube Containers to be used for some industrial/mining purpose. We can tell by the drilled holes and stains in the flooring that they’d attached some kind of heavy machinery in the boxes. There are also “duct holes” that imply that some kind of manifold was fed by whatever was housed in the containers.

No matter, we can easily patch the holes and the flooring is coming out anyway. ISBU flooring is toxic. It’s built with lamination after lamination of pesticide saturated wood, to insure that pests and vermin don’t harm the contents during shipping. You cannot leave that flooring in your boxes. It can harm your health. So, we’ll replace it with lightweight concrete (with PEX embedded in it) before we install hardwood flooring.

Can you say “Radiant In-Floor Heat?”

Under normal circumstances, I’d NEVER “Radiant” a footprint this small. But after experiencing back to back prolonged blizzards, I have to insure that IF the family chooses to visit their cabin during Winter, they’ll be toasty warm. For example, it’s sub-zero here, as I type this. And it’s been like this for weeks.

We know that in lieu of a woodstove, we’re going to use a wood gasifier located close to the cabin in another 20′ ISBU. This wood gasifier will operate on cordwood (in lieu of wood chips, pellets or even “traditional” firewood) and supply efficient and economical heat and domestic hot water, but some wood gasifiers can also produce power via steam production. Our “arrangement”, which will also contain the inverters for the photovoltaic panels,  is called a “power shed”.

Note also that the “old wood” gets hauled off after removal to the landfill (they have a special place for it) to prevent someone from taking it and then using it for some project. Poison is poison.

Okay, that said;

We have a “localish” family that only uses their vacation property during 3 seasons. A single mom and her two young sons (ages 9 and 11) fish, hunt and hang out for a week or two at a time until the first snowfalls… and then they hightail it back to sunny Southern California to ride out the winter. They’ve been doing this since the kids were babies (hence the “localish” part). They usually pull up a travel trailer or rent a big RV (bus), but after making the trip several times, they’ve decided that they want “something more permanent that looks like it belongs there.”

After seeing a few of our existing ISBU cabins, she signed on. The only problem was that the spot where they want to park the house is tiny. I’m talking “zero navigation room” for a larger format footprint using 40′ High Cubes. We’d started talking about using 20′ boxes because they’d be easier to transport, position and drop, but then…

This guy calls us out of the blue and says that he bought a gold mine and he wants all the old crap hauled out. You see, he’s not really interested in running a mining operation, he wants to turn the whole property into a “scenic RV park” with a “gold mining theme”. Kind of a “Wild West Ghost Mine.” He knew that we loved to recycle and repurpose stuff, so he sent us a list of stuff he wanted to part with and a bunch of photos. The “crap” included a mechanical shed that had been constructed by shortening a pair of shipping containers.

Needless to say, after a quick inspection, we jumped on the boxes. There wasn’t anything wrong with them that some sand-blasting and material removal wouldn’t cure.

We got the ISBUs for the cost of hauling them away. If that’s not “recycling, reusing and repurposing”… well then I don’t know what is.

After a quick “re-pre-design skirmish”…

… we’re thinking about doing something like THIS:

30ft ISBU Cabin-webGranted, this is “quick and dirty” and subject to change. We will probably use pocket doors (because they take “less space” to operate) in the bath and bedroom. We’ll also probably do a tracked “barn door” over tempered insulated sliding glass doors in the main space to shutter the cabin against weather in the winter. Again, by eliminating door swing, you gain more space. The front deck will host a container garden and some lounging furniture. That deck could later be enclosed to form a sun-room if desired. It’s easy to picture an additional  shed roof coming off that clerestory roof to close that deck in.

The ladder accessed loft will contain a pair of twin storage pedestal beds and cabinetry will be built to take advantage of the cavities created by the roof pitches. We’re big believers in leaving no storage space untapped.

Another “space saver” would be to eliminate the “pull out” dining room table built into the media wall cabinetry and simply build a “riser” based living room table that would “pop up” and then fold out to form a dining room table. Pull it up to use it, push it back down to use the living room as a relaxation area. This would also eliminate the need for folding chairs that had to be stored away when they weren’t being used.

“Mom” told us over and over again; “If I want to entertain, I’ll do it in California. This is about family time. It’s okay to eat while you’re watching a movie on the DVD player.”

And let’s not overlook that the really nice thing about using smaller ISBUs is that you can build them out “someplace else”. Because of their size, these boxes can be converted in a factory setting and then hauled to site, already partially pre-assembled. This means that aside from preparing your site and setting your foundation (in this case it will be pilings cast on site using sonotubes and concrete/rebar), and then putting your roof (in this case clerestory) and photovoltaic panels in place after the boxes are set,  your ISBU cabin is ready to occupy in almost no time.

We’ve had families living in small ISBU homes and cabins in a few weeks after the first trucks arrived carrying the boxes to the homesite. In more than one case, we’ve had families “move in” as soon as the roof was on – less that 4 days later – with full services available to them.


We’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about shipping ISBUs AFTER they have been modified. You should know that using “modified” ISBUs (like these “shortened ones”) to ship products or materials via Container Ship might be difficult, due to the change in footprint. This usually happens when families by “pre-modified” boxes and then stuff them with the materials required to turn them into a home, someplace distant, like the Virgin Islands. Families do this in order to take advantage of the lower prices found here in the US for building materials. It makes sense, until you calculate in the cost of actually loading those modified boxes onto a Container Ship. Most shippers will require the containers to be inspected to certify that it could be insured.

Additionally, any modification that alters or changes the design or structural strength of a container (for example by adding doors and windows) makes moving it by ship difficult. And, that “enhanced” insurance premium is going to hurt.

Your best bet in these circumstances is to move the boxes by flatbed trailer or via semi truck/trailer, or use “conventionally sized boxes” for your  build.

Trust me. We’ve shipped hundreds of boxes to places you can’t even imagine. Work with the system, or prepare yourself for headaches.

See you next time,

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