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Corten Canopy – Simple, solid structure…

11 Apr

Dear Ronin,

Unless you live under a rock…

We all know that when it comes to ISBUs and Container Construction, you’re the man.  You’ve become our “Corten Champion” for good reason. We know your dedication to “everyman” and it’s greatly appreciated.

I live on a farm property in Iowa. Outbuilding space is at a premium and I need a place to store hay temporarily. I mean that I need seasonal storage. The hay comes in and then it leaves to market. By early winter, it’s all gone. At this point the cover is no longer necessary.

Lots of people have suggested that I simply purchase and build one of those prefab steel buildings. You know the ones, the ones that look like Quonset huts. I guess they don’t understand what “temporary” means.

I already have a pair of 40′ Containers that house farm tools and provide a place for a secure workshop. They sit about 25′ from each other with dirt in between them.

I can weld and I can follow instructions. I don’t need a crayon drawing, I just need some inspiration.

So, I’m gonna venture  out from my village full of idiots and ask the stupid question;

“If I offset a pair of 40′ ISBUs, how do I cheaply and effectively provide seasonal cover between them that is weather resistant?”

Help Me, Obiwan… all my friends are dopes.

The Hay Jedi


Dear Jedi,

Okay, you piled so much praise on top of that question I can’t really ignore you. I was going to talk about world peace, space exploration and cold fusion, but… oh well. LOL!

First, the praise (while greatly appreciated) is really unwarranted. There are a number of ISBU specialists (okay…. maybe 8…. or 9) out there who recognize that ISBUs combined with “Sustainable Architecture” are the future of this nation. We realize that for this great nation to heal, we have to first have safe, affordable, energy efficient, environmentally responsible places for our families to sleep.

(Oops, that cost us two… 7 left!) LOL!

I suspect that there are those who among us who actually overthink structural solutions because it’s simpler to just “buy” a solution and modify it to serve their purpose. That’s a luxury that  many of us don’t have.

(Yikes… there goes three more ISBU guys! Now we’re down to 4!)

Jedi, your question isn’t really “strange or even odd”. We live (by choice) in rural America. We’re actually lucky enough in life that we got to choose where we’d live and raise our families. It’s a great blessing to us and we wouldn’t trade where we live with anyone on the planet. That said;

We get asked this question all the time and we’ve even been faced with your “storage problem” ourselves. As working ranchers, we build shelter for horses and cattle all the time. As working ranchers we also grow hay. We bale in large and small squares and that hay either gets trucked or railed to the buyers. While it’s sitting, we want it protected from the elements.

Now you can either simply tarp it (like we do our round bales), or…

You can build a canopy out of galvanized pipe and tarps that runs between a pair of ISBUs to form a “tent” of sorts. Once you’ve seen the photos of the finished product, you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself. At least we did.

Image Credit:

Image Credit:

You can see how simple it is.

What you want is something that is easily erected  and taken down (in a few days by a few guys), something that breaks down for easy storage (perhaps stored in the cavity of one of the ISBUs that supported it in the first place) and something that is durable and easily repaired if necessary. The reasons for the canopy are obvious. It has to provide protection from the sun, rain, wind and snow.

(We actually cheat and use the stacked hay as the “scaffolding” required to erect the canopy cover. It beats hanging off the end of a cherry picker or a forklift.)

The canopy has to be “idiot proof”. The reason for this is simple. At some point, your idiot brother-in-law is going to have to help you erect it and you want to insure his survival through the project.

(Oh stop it! I’m just saying what you’re thinking. Admit it. You love the big dork, you just feel like thrashing him or pushing him off a roof every once in a while! Huh? Okay, well maybe it’s just me.)

Where was I? Oh yeah…

Your “canopy frame” is going to be constructed out of galvanized pipe that you can find at any big box store (like Home Depot or Lowes).

Remember that it’s not necessarily the OD (outside diameter) of the pipe that implies strength. It’s the WALL THICKNESS of the pipe (the pipe material thickness) that determines how strong that pipe will be when used as structure. You want that pipe wall to be as thick as possible. You’re using it to create rafters that will interconnect to form a big tent frame. We use 11 gauge pipe for the risers and at least 13 gauge pipe for the rafters.  Yes, it will be more expensive to construct. But built of high quality components, it will perform well and last for decades.

The connector fittings that you’ll require to construct your galvanized pipe frame will come from the same place. We’re not going to use anything exotic or “special order”. Using “off-the-shelf” parts insures success and easy replacement if you need extras.  You’ll need the typical L fittings, T fittings, 3 ways and 4 way fittings.

The only thing that you’ll want to “special order” will be the twistlocks that we’re going to use to take advantage of the mounting points already engineered into your containers.


Yes. You said you could weld. We’re going to make you prove it. We’re going to affix the canopy to the shipping containers using the twistlock cavities built into them. The reason for this are twofold;

(a) You have a perfectly good mounting point already sitting there waiting for you, and

(b) There are some people out there that actually drill mounting holes into the container to affix the canopy to. We think this counter-productive as you’re then perforating a previously weather resistant structure.

What WE did was to use a pair of fabricated 40′ steel channels (you could even use angle iron) to create a bottom plate for our “tent runs”. (We used scrap steel so the only fabrication we required is to weld similar segments together to establish your “run”.) We modified and then welded twistlocks to the bottom of the channel at the appropriate mounting points for our containers to affix the frames firmly to the top of the container.

And yes, before you ask, we DID flash the connection point between the rails and the containers to further weatherize the structure.

This gives your canopy a “resting place” to nestle into. Here’s where I’m going with this;

We’re going to build a freestanding, weather-resistant canopy assembly that fits down into that created and secured rail on either side, using bolts (drilled through the canopy frame base) to secure it into the new shipping container channels.

We based the entire frame on 1 7/8″ OD  galvanized pipe. Over trial and error, we’ve found that this pipe dimension is cost effective, works the best and proves itself to be the most durable over time. All of your connecting fittings will be sized to allow use of this pipe.

And once you build your frame, you have to cover it with something, right. Well, by now, you know us and the way we think. We reuse, repurpose and recycle everything that we possibly can. While there are those who applaud us for our “green environmental” status, I assure you that it’s just good design, common sense and reflective of the fact that we aren’t made out of money. We don’t know anyone else who is, either.

We used old billboard tarps that we got from a local advertising agency for scrap costs. They’re durable, cheap and easy to source. Overlapping them makes covering a large frame pretty simple. Using billboard tarps also makes canopy replacements easier if Mother Nature spanks you…

We’ve found that by using a multi-panel solution, you’re only replacing a damaged panel and not the entire top. You can replace a panel quickly and then repair the old damaged one when time allows.

FYI: Turn the tarps over so that the white surface faces up. That while surface will reflect sunlight and your hay (or your livestock) won’t care if Subway is having a “supersale” on Spicy Italian sandwiches. It might make YOU hungry, so we suggest that you simply refrain from staring up at that delicious, mountain sized sandwich if at all possible.

(I wonder if that qualifies as an endorsement of Subway Sandwiches? Maybe they’ll send me a fistful of coupons? LOL!)  

Maybe you don’t LIKE Subway. Well, that’s just unAmerican and around here we have names for people like you, but… if you  wanted to go “high tech” with your canopy cover you could use large multiple layer (4 layer) poly covers (12 mil at least) that were fabricated from Ripstop with UV treating and grommets every 12″ on the borders to allow for secure fastening to your canopy frame.

It seems like a lot of grommets but you’re going to want as many tie-down locations as possible. A cover like this will last for about 5 years at least – barring Mother Nature trying to bite you on your behind. There are other tarp materials that give longer lifespans and they’re priced accordingly.

Okay, you get the jist of what we’re building. You’re going to build a freestanding cage out of that pipe to span your two existing containers. It will set on top of the “inner” top rails of the boxes in that new channel and provide you with one long continuous covered bay to put your hay, horses, disobedient children or unwanted relatives into.

I’m not telling you how to raise your kids or your relatives, but I can tell you that making good on the “Subway Solitary Confinement Module” threat at least once will get those dishes and the yardwork done a lot more often without an argument. Just saying…

I’m also not going to get into dimensions because I don’t know how much hay you’re actually storing, but I can tell you that you can get a pretty significant peak height (over 7/12 PITCH) if you think out your solution.

When we determined that we needed more “height”, we simply added containers on top of the pair we’d started with.

(I know, I know… it’s easy to do that when you’re the self-proclaimed “King of Containers”. But hey, it worked. And now my kids have a playhouse that even the elk and deer can’t get into!)

Plan on running rafters consisting of a “galvanized pipe rafter assembly” every 4′ on center. With additional pipe stringers placed between the segments (at least 2 per side) you can build a sturdy, long-lasting pipe canopy cage that will last for years and years. The closer those rafters are, the stronger your canopy will be. We like 4’OC. You can like anything you want. It’s a free country… for now. LOL!

One of the things that we did (that isn’t depicted in these photos) is that we added those “stringers” into the runs between the tent rafter assemblies to add more support to the canopy in case of a freak snowstorm or heavy rain.  When observed without the canopy the framing looked like a gigantic “skeletal” roll cage. I told my kid that it was the start of my new “Transformer” barn. By the rolling of his eyes I could tell that he didn’t believe me.  However, he DOES understand that if he doesn’t do his chores… LOL!

Image Credit:

Image Credit:

There are those who do NOT add stringers in between the  rafters. The claim is that the snowload tends to create sagging of the tarp cover at the stringer points. Okay, that’s reasonable… but we prefer the inherent strength of the galvanized pipe tent cage assembly as described to the replacement of a damaged tarp panel. YMMV. Again, free country… so far. LOL!

The tarp is secured to the frame using ball bungees passed through the grommets and you’re  going to need a lot of them. Figure on at least 150 (and I’d order more of them so I had plenty of spares over the life of the canopy). Note that if you’re  using billboard tarps, you’re gonna be punching a lot of holes in the borders of those tarps and applying grommets.

I’ve found that this task is best accomplished by kids who don’t want to be grounded for the entire summer. Okay, it’s tough love, but I do need a tough tarp. I’m just hoping that the kids therapy bills don’t eat up the savings this build gained me in my annual ranching budget. 

This canopy is a pretty easy solution and one that can literally be constructed by a family in their yard or service bay area. We’ve done these as “family projects” and even as “vo-tech colunteer projects”.

Before I close this I want you to know that there are sites where you can buy these canopy solutions, pre-packaged. If you’re not feeling particularly handy, you might google them.

A cursory search revealed and I spoke with the company owner, Larry this AM. His canopy solution is efficient, pretty durable and cost effective. If you contact Larry’s company with your dimensions he’ll ship you the tarp cover (which comes in several thicknesses depending on your goals and objectives) and a big box full of the fittings you’ll use to build your frame. While his fitting are proprietary and designed specifically for this purpose, the provided drawing will give you all the galvanized pipe lengths (which you’ll source at your local hardware supplier).

Then it’s as simple as following the diagrams to erect your canopy.

He also has a downloadable book on his website that further defines the canopy building process and the products he provides. I highly recommend that you download this book and then use the information in it to help you design your solution.

Here’s his contact information;

It should also be noted that I have no affiliation with Larry or and I receive no compensation for his participation/inclusion in this post.

So campers, there you have it. If you need a canopy to store hay or feed, a shelter for horses or livestock, a carport for your truck or tractor… this might just be the solution you’re looking for.

Until next time…

The Times – They are a definitely a’changin…

19 Oct

Okay, okay…

We’ve been SUPER busy lately and we haven’t posted an article for some time. I hope that this will serve as an update to our faithful readers and building families.

And yes… I know, I know. we’ve “been slacking”… but we have a pretty darn good excuse.

There simply aren’t enough hours in the day lately to get all of our projects and missions accomplished.

I’ve personally been swamped with planning new projects, the development of a brand new “CORTEN TECH” TV SERIES, and even rewriting a construction book that will help pave the road to “CORTEN Country”. It’s incredible and it’s a pretty big undertaking.

During this process and the reorganization of our teams, there have been some massive changes. Most of these changes make us better, stronger, more productive. Sometimes it’s better to take the long, hard look at your processes and then stop what you’re doing and change them. These changes for us have bordered on “radical”. We’re doing things a different way, a more productive way.

Here’s a hint at what we’re up to; We thing that Henry Ford would be very proud of us.

Alas, this change has also included a streamlining process that has removed obstacles to growth. We’ve been forced to take a hard line along the way and there are some projects that we are no longer involved or affiliated with. As in any endeavor, you sometimes find yourself  faced with projects that don’t participate in progress and growth. Those obstacles have been removed. Change is often difficult and there are those who hesitate to embrace it.

While many are thrilled at the new roads and opportunities ahead (if for no other reason than for the sake of disclosure) not everyone is happy about what we’ve accomplished. Our only solace in this is in the recognition that we must serve the greater good here. If you aren’t a part of the solution, you’re a part of the problem. Enough said.

On our “teaching side”; To say that many are awaiting the arrival of our new book on ISBU Construction is an understatement. What happened in a nutshell is that the delay we were forced to endure at the hands of the publisher ran so long that essential tech and practices changed while we were eagerly/frustratingly waiting the distribution date.

As a result, after consulting with many building professionals and building families who were waiting for “Nuts and Bolts”… we’re actually reworking and rewriting the book to include information so vital to the construction of these incredible homes that it could not be ignored or excluded.

Sure, we could have saved this new information for the production of a third book, but it just didn’t seem fair to our readers and building families. We voted and the majority rules. From all the input and commentary we know that you wanted  answers and not just a buy-in to an expensive construction book “trilogy”.

If you’re on the distribution list, you already know all this. If you’re not, you need to know that you must exercise your option (located in the sidebar) to reserve a copy of “Nuts and Bolts” ASAP as the pricing is about to reflect all the current changes and costs incurred.

On November 1st, 2015, the price of “Nuts and Bolts” (as well as ALL the other data and tools directly associated with it) will rise. In fact, the price will almost double. There will be NO MORE discounted reservations for the book project.

It’s been a long time coming and we’ve spent considerable amounts of money (and legal time) prying the book (and related materials) back out of the hands of a distributor who dropped the ball. Those who are eagerly awaiting the arrival of this book will not be disappointed.

While all of that is happening we’re planning, plotting and beginning the building processes for a Sustainable Architecture Ranch project (located in rural Montana) that will essentially become a demonstrator for all the technologies we employ when building rural family projects and homesteads. Additionally, this ranch will actually become a teaching facility to help train new architects and crafts/tradesmen in the construction of ISBU related projects.

Corten Creek

Imagine a blissful life wrapped in a “CORTEN Cocoon” with a deck that looks out onto this little creek every single morning… Incredible! We can’t wait!

Ironically, we’re literally so busy that we’re negotiating fractional use of aircraft to stay on top of everything that is happening internationally.

If you’re interested in ISBU Construction, you’re going to want to stay tuned. There’s never been a series of Shipping Container projects like these ones in the history of ISBU construction. Several well-known development firms and major universities are going to participate in this process as part of their architectural extension programs to allow their students and tradesmen to actually experience “hands on” Corten Coolness while they actually use their experiences to develop Sustainable Architecture curriculum.

It’s going to become (quite literally) “Corten Construction Camp“.

We’ll keep you posted.


3D Housing – What kind of ink cartridges will you need? :)

19 Apr

As we see more and more heavy weather events globally, we have to give thoughts to long-term housing with long-term capabilities.

That means using materials that will stand up to Mother Nature.

3D printing may just be the future of housing, if these guys have anything to say about it.

ISBU housing is pretty durable in this regard. It goes up fast. It’s NOT labor intensive. It’s hard to beat steel and concrete.

We’ve all seen “concrete block” homes. Building them is labor intensive, expensive and time consuming. Can you imagine building a home with concrete… with a 3D printer? You could even paint your 3D concrete home using one of the printers they use to produce billboards with.



Building with Containers doesn’t mean building SMALL.

13 Mar

One of the myths of ISBU (Shipping Container) construction is that you end up with a structure filled with narrow, tiny rooms.

Further, I find it ironic that most of the critics of ISBU Housing have never built an ISBU Home… never been inside one and in most cases… have never even stepped foot into a container.

You hear them repeat (like it’s some kind of mantra);

“Shipping Container homes are expensive, small, claustrophobic and hot.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

(Hey, I wanted to say; “Only if you’re stupid.” But… I restrained myself… sort of.) 😉

C3 ISBU Residence

Read more about it, HERE.

RR Avatar

Surfs up in Ravalli! Wait. What?

3 Feb

All this snow has gotten people thinking about… you guessed it… anything BUT snow.

They send us emails asking us if there’s anything to do but “showshoe for firewood” and kill things for food in the forests. They don’t think we do anything remotely recreational.

Well, we have lakes, rivers and creeks. We have high mountain meadows filled with wildflowers. Okay, you might have to argue with a rogue Bison or Elk to play in ’em, but they don’t bite. They might ram the hell out of you, but… 😉

In the three days of Spring, people start unpacking our Summer garb. Some of them even (gasp!) put on strategically placed pieces of fabric and tube, water-ski and wakeboard.

Why yes, according to those Ski Lodge guys up the hill that keep thinking they’d like to stick around year-round… we can even surf in Montana! 🙂

Sorta. Kinda. Maybe.;)
Making Waves With A Cargo Container Surfing Machine

You are only limited by your imagination when you believe in ISBU technology. The people at AWM Technologies, better known as Surf Stream of California teamed up the the engineering experience of SeaBox. The results are a series of awesome wave machines for surfers and body boarders everywhere.  …literally everywhere.

The SurfStream equipment use ISBU shipping containers to not only house the equipment, but to create the rugged swimming and surfing areas.  Because they are ISBU’s they can be move and located more easily.


Can you imagine? Skiing in the winter. Kayaking in the Spring. Fishing in the Summer and Surfing in the Fall? Paradise, I tell ya! 🙂

RR AvatarTechnology: AWM Technologies
Container: SeaBox

Do Building codes really SUCK?

31 Jan

There are those who will tell you that in order to insure that minimum standards of construction are maintained… in order to insure the health and safety of the general public… we need building codes.

Does this mean that building codes are simply guidelines assuring “safe construction practices” are upheld?

No. It’s far more political than that. Here’s how it works;

States have adopted what is commonly referred to as “Universal Building Code” standards.

But, there isn’t anything “universal” about them. You see… we don’t live in a “universal” world where one size fits all.

I mean, have you BEEN to Alabama? 😉

The realities are that as you change locations, you change the requirements for housing. There are different needs for different regions of the country. These differing requirements need to be addressed locally. What we don’t need is to be forced to build a “one size fits all” dwelling that neither meets location or need.

Any thoughts to the contrary are absurd.

They will tell you that you need a government bureaucracy to tell you that you must live, in the manner they deem acceptable,  because THEY know better.

In their eyes (because you are seen as simply stupid, incompetent children) you don’t get to make the choice for yourself.

The fact is that politicians and planning officials line their pockets using ridiculous rules and regulations. This process is as old as the history of building. Remember Egypt? The first architects were priests and they had complete control over all building – period.

You didn’t argue. You built what you  were told, or else.

They made the rules and abidance was mandatory, under penalty of death.

Obamacare is a good example of the carnage that results. Unfortunately, once “rules” are accepted as common practice, once something becomes law it’s nearly impossible to repeal it. Faced with these laws, one seeking another path must make remedy by finding ways to work within/around them to get things done.

It is this mindset that probably prompted Obama to utter the words; “I have a pen and a phone,” as he blatantly threatens to use executive orders to circumvent Congressional Authority.

We live in an era where “money” has more rights than people do. Corporations have voting rights. When you build a house that differs from “the norm”, a home that is perceived to fail to enhance your neighbor’s property values (thus affecting their “money”) your neighbor’s can actually sue you. It should be noted that your neighbors probably won’t have to do that, because the government shares their interests in money (and not yours for personal freedom) because they exist by collecting property taxes… and we all know that bigger, expensive houses, bring in far more tax dollars.

It doesn’t matter that these homes require more energy. It doesn’t matter that these homes waste space and resources. What matters is that they use more material to build, that they require more labor to construct and that they’re capable of generating higher property taxes, thus insuring the health and welfare of… you guessed it… the government.

So, we have laws (building codes) that define things like “minimum size”, and “approved materials” that only feed bureaucracies and banks and administrations.

We the People deserve the “RIGHT” to freedom of shelter choices. This includes the RIGHT to build alternative housing (like ISBU – Shipping Container Housing, for example) , as long as it does not endanger the lives and physical safety of others.


What I AM suggesting is that reorganizing and rebuilding areas to be more compatible with both “Mother Nature and Mankind” can be both cost-effective and a huge boon to the people living there – not just NOW, but for the generations to follow.

By really putting some thought into action… (in the trade we call it “Pre-Design”) not only will they establish more comfortable and sustainable environments, the architects of these new places will rekindle long untended fires – hopefully fueling the desires of our kids, who might just have a shot at home ownership when they reach an age that requires they tend their own created nests…

In my opinion – If we are to be smart about rebuilding homes, cities and provinces, we shouldn’t rush into construction without planning to meet the needs of today as well as considering the needs of tomorrow, by specifics dictated by location and environment, not by “generics” designed to generate income by short-sighted officials claiming dominion via “oversight”…


But at least for the time being, if you desire to live in a home of your own crafting, especially one that uses alternative materials and alternative building practices, you may have a long road to hoe, to get from where you are – to where you need to be.

So, to those of you who chide me for paying close attention to political gyrations which craft the envelope we are forced to reside within, I ask you this;

Who says ISBU Homes are not political?

RR Avatar

Another adventure in Pallet Tech?

8 Dec

Oh, those wacky Brits…

People who read the blog know that I love recycling and repurposing materials.

Pallets are among one of my favorite resources to explore.You can do a lot of cool things with these cast off shipping components:

Pallet Planter

Cool right? Here’s some more ideas;

Pallet ideas

Then, I saw this;

Pallet FortThis is a “temporary theater” in England. The Shed, which was opened in April 2013 and is due to close in February 2014, was designed by Haworth Tompkins Ltd.  Sited at the front of the National Theatre at Southbank, this innovative theater will present some of theater’s most exciting artists in an intimate new performance space on the South Bank.

If you look closely, it almost looks like it’s made from recycled  pallets. Of course it isn’t… but it COULD  be. Every Spring, the kids around here build structures in the middle of fields to have “paintball wars”.  Other kids build  forts and playhouses, as their parents push them back outside after the cold of winter has slipped away. This gives me plenty of ideas…

While the reason it was recently publicized had nothing to do with it’s construction…

(It had to do with the entry ramps provided by another company to insure safety…)

I wanted you to look at this structure closely and think about HOW you could utilize pallets to do something similar. What if you were an artist and you wanted to build a”summer run” outdoor event? What if you were an entrepreneur and you wanted to enclose several kiosks into a impromptu “commerce park”? What if you were a promoter and you wanted  to build a temporary concert venue? Hmmm?

Okay, I’m going back to shoveling snow. It’s -6 here without the wind chill factor. “Factor” that in and it’s -19 right now. There aren’t enough gloves or thick socks in the world, let me tell you… Brrr!

RR AvatarHere’s a bunch more pallet resources:

Off-Grid Corten Cabins in the boonies! Good times!

9 Aug

Dear Ronin,

I can’t tell you how much your blog and our books have inspired us!

After years of talking about building an alternative home, we’re actually doing it! In just a few hours on the telephone, you basically walked in and slayed all the dragons we thought would consume us.  By the end of that first consulting session, we were chomping on the bit, wanting to bolt out of the barn and start running toward our future!

And now we’re doing it using your favorite thing in the whole wide world… 20′ High Cube ISBUs!

We have purchased some land (5 acres) and a pair of 20′ containers and we’re getting ready to start building an off-grid cabin that we’ll use at first simply to test ourselves as we work toward a “life lived sustainably” in a rural location. You beat us to death about securing an adequate water source and NOW, we finally get it. Our little chunk of heaven is right on a small river and we can irrigate our 5 acres by dropping a pump into the river to move water. There’s a big garden of heirloom crops in our future! 🙂

Our cabin is going to be pretty basic. It’s going to be approximately 16’x20′ on sonotube pilings, just like you’ve taught us.

20'd Homestead - WYWe love the idea that placing the cabin up off the ground like that will allow us to capitalize on the views and also to allow us to use the cooler air under it as a plenum to draw from.  We got this idea from your discussions about the cool air created under a bank of photovoltaic panels (framed on risers off the metal roofing) on the roof, that actually help keep them cool and running efficiently.

We’ll also use cross-ventilation to help heat and cool the cabin. Can you suggest a roof pitch or style for us to use?

We’re also going to build in a small kitchenette with a woodstove/oven and a small dorm refrigerator instead of a full blown kitchen. We don’t cook much and a lot of what we eat comes out of bags or cans. Admittedly it’s not Julia Childs, but it does the job and we’re happy with it.

Any basic tips you’d like to share with us?


20’d in our 40’s…


Dear 20’d,

Congrats. I wondered when you’d take the bull by the horns and start forging your future, As we talked, I just “felt” like you were headed for great things and NOW… you’re going to prove me right.

First. Stop thinking so “small”. I remember how you talked about your painting and “jigsaw puzzle marathons” and grandkids. Separate those boxes by at least 4′.  (Personally, I’d go 8′ if I was tasked with deciding.) If you follow my suggestions, you’re going to build a “slightly larger” cabin, but you’ll see in a moment why it will pay off in spades.

(And remember that “reclaiming space” is far less expensive than “building” it. By setting ISBUs apart and then connecting them using “standard” construction in-fill practices” you’ll gain square footage quite cost effectively, by simply “capturing” it.  )

You haven’t mentioned WHERE you are dropping your boxes (I’m assuming you’re building in America – probably Wyoming – from your IP address) , but your Corten Cabin will be far more energy efficient if you orient it on your site properly. Your site looks lovely. Truly peaceful and relaxing! Nice!

solar orientationOrientation: OF course, I’m talking about facing the long walls to the North and South.  Many people make the mistake of facing their long walls East and West and this orientation leads to “summer scalding” in the form of overheating.

Remember to take advantage of your environment when you build. Warm air rises when outside air is cooler. I can’t tell you how many Corten Cabins we’ve built with clerestory windows for venting  heat out of the house. We usually place them in the south wall where they can be accessed by either a pole or a loft for opening/closing.

(I’d have to say that if I had to pick one solid roof style for an ISBU cabin, the “Clerestory Corten Cabin” wins hands down, every time.)

Our Corten Cabins usually have a nice sleeping loft or an office/library/crafts/sewing room in the clerestory and this allows easy access to the clerestory windows. Use awning windows and you’ll get the added benefit of having windows that will shed rain and snow.

TIP: Don’t face large windows to the East or West. It’s best to most all of your windows on the South wall in a way that allows you to shade them from the summer sun.   Now, place small windows and doors in the North wall and you have your cross ventilation established.

In the Late Spring, Summer and early Fall, these upper windows are usually left open (or at least cracked) to bleed off collected heat.

A properly placed ceiling fan (we really like the “Big Ass Fan” guys) will help siphon off the heat so that it can be vented out to keep your cabin cool.

From their website:

Big Ass Fan Company is the preeminent designer and manufacturer of 6 ft. to 24′ diameter high volume/low speed (HVLS) ceiling and vertical fans developed to provide significant energy savings and improve occupant comfort year round in large commercial, industrial, agricultural, institutional and residential buildings. In the U.S., we are based in Lexington, KY and occupy a 100,000 sq. ft. manufacturing facility, a 33,000 sq. ft. administrative office, and a LEED Gold Certified, 44,000 sq. ft. R&D facility.”

In other words, they’re “Made in America”, “cooler than the coolness they create” and frankly, we just love the fact that they think through every single aspect of their work with precision and professionalism. Their fans really ARE works of art. It doesn’t get better than these guys. Seriously.

And we know what we’re talking about  because we’re “hot air experts” – as most of the readership can attest… LOL!

Another cool thing about building a cabin in this clerestory style is that by adding that loft to your increased volume, you get more living space and storage in the same footprint. The idea is to build as much structure as you need… not more… and not less. UP is better than OUT, especially when it’s a loft.

 clerestory  cross-section
Clerestory roofs lend themselves to both rainwater harvesting AND the location of “solar farms” – photovoltaic panels placed to harness the sun’s energy and convert it into electricity.

About your kitchenette;

Nix the “dorm refrigerator” idea. Seriously. Don’t do it.  I say this for a number of reasons. The fact that you’re building a small cabin doesn’t diminish the amount of food storage you’ll need, in comparisons to the home you live in now.  No matter where you are, you still need to eat. I’ve never found an efficient dorm refrigerator. Ironically, they use the same amount of power as a full sized refrigerator in most instances. Shop for a decent full sized, energy efficient refrigerator and you’ll be way ahead in the long run. A refrigerator is nothing more than a “big cold pantry”. You can actually keep a lot of things in that larger refrigerator and that extra capacity won’t take up any more space than standard kitchen cabinets.

I’ll also point out it’s much more cost effective to buy and place a full sized refrigerator than it is to buy and install a base cabinet, countertops and then upper cabinets in equal sizes to duplicate that space..

This probably sounds crazy, but it’s true. Do the math and you’ll discover it for yourself, quickly.

For A/C and Heating in “the crunches”, you’re talking “mini-split” units. These units are energy efficient and are quite capable of heating and cooling a small cabin in a hurry. And a properly configured and sized mini-split won’t kill your photovoltaic panel/battery bank operation either.

I have a series of posts slated for later this summer that will discuss mini-split units in depth. Stay tuned for the series…

Until next time…
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Does HANES make Plywood underwear?

30 Apr

As we toil against a workload that is as challenging as “Spring’s Arrival” in Montana…

I’m going to reach into the mailbag and see what’s shakin’ in ISBU-land…

Here we go;

Dear Ronin,

We’re building our ISBU cabin in the woods. We’ve set our 20′ ISBUs on concrete pilings we cast from scrap sonotubes, just like you showed us. Steel plates and J-bolts allowed us to weld the boxes to the pilings, just like you specified. After removing most of the interior walls (our largest open span is less than 16′ – reinforced with columns made from 2″ box steel – again like you showed us)) we’ve welded 1/4th inch steel plate along all of the connecting rails (top and bottom), to stiffen things up.

SPF (Closed cell Spray Foam Insulation) followed after we glued in firring strips. We DID insulate inside, as much as you hate that. We WANT people to see the containers outer skin. It’s that “Urban Chic” look! We love it! We went heavier than we planned on the thickness of the insulation, thanks to a generous insulation guy who really dug what we were doing.

Now, we’re staring at SPF and firring strips.  Yuck. According to my wife, it feels like we’re living in a womb painted with vomit. SO, I’m anxious to get the insulation covered up.

You’ve said over and over again that you don’t like drywall (sheetrock).  Sheetrock prices have jumped through the roof here. I need a low cost solution to sheetrock that is also structural enough to hang things like shelves, light fixtures and cabinets.  We have an opportunity to buy 1/2″ MDO plywood sheets at a huge discount. It’s surplus from a big “boatyard” construction job that went bust. Thank you Craigslist! Can we use this? I can’t begin to picture what a “plywood interior” would look like.

We loved all the tricks you shared with us during our consult sessions. We literally saved thousands of dollars (contractors said it was impossible and YOU proved them wrong!) and it made completing this project within our budget possible!

Thank you so much!


Naked and exposed


Dear Nudist,

First, don’t sell yourselves short. I didn’t prove anything. YOU proved them wrong by starting with a good design and then applying liberal applications of common sense and repurposing. YOUR hard work is making your success possible. I’m just the guy standing behind the curtain. 🙂

I also told you early on that if a consultant or tradesman can’t save you enough (in the building process) to pay for his/her services, you need to kick them to the curb.

It’s true. I’m not a big fan of sheetrock. It must be all that smelly (rotten egg) Chinese drywall that got dumped in the South after Hurricane Katrina.

But seriously, when you’re building in a steel box, especially one that is clad with SPF, sheetrock just isn’t “necessary”.

Okay – first off, I have to say that using plywood IS more labor intensive and you have to think it through…

It doesn’t cut as fast as Sheetrock and it’s a “two man job” because it’s harder to handle.

We use 1/2″ (15/32 or better)  plywood in place of drywall all the time. MDO (Medium Density Overlay) is even better, for reasons I’ll explain later.

TIP: The best way to use plywood in an interior is to plan it so there are no visible seams that need to be taped. If you can do that, plywood is a joy to behold. If you are going to paint it, add a piece of molding over the seam (to hide it and add some visual interest). If you do it right, it’ll look like expensive “Architectural Paneling” when you’re finished, for about half the cost of cheap decorator panels.

Most of you know that we add firring strips into our Insulation plans (so that the SPF helps support them). This means that plywood cladding can be applied using glue and brads to secure it to the firring strips. If you do it like this, there aren’t any “screwholes” to fill.

One of the nice things about MDO is that it is legions stronger than drywall and it’s a “Marine Grade” plywood. MDO has a resin-bonded surface overlaid on it, so it’s so much more water-resistant than drywall. Prime it and paint it and it’ll be pretty much waterproof.

Okay, okay… nothing is waterproof. But, this plywood will be incredibly water resistant! And because it’s got that resin overcoat, the paint goes on smoother than a baby’s butt!

Another thing I want you to consider is that you should always build to code, even if you’re not building in a code-restricted area. It’s always best to build it right the first time with safety and integrity being a firm part of the partnership. That said; Walls (excluding trim and including paneling thicker than 1/4″) and the ceilings of a residential structure must not have a “flame-spread classification” greater than 200 (class A, B, or C) or a “smoke-developed index” greater than 450.

ALL common plywood construction panels are well within these these limits. And remember that any traditionally furred spaces must be fireblocked.

Since a picture is worth 1,000 words, I suggest something like THIS:

plywood paneling

Keep us posted as to the progress of your project. And send photos! 🙂

I hope this helps!

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Beam me up, Scotty!

2 Apr

A few days ago, I ran a post that showed you a “truck fulla goodness”.

Glu-Lam Beams for ISBUs-3

When we preach “reusing, repurposing and recycling” around here, we ain’t kidding.

It’s just amazing what you can find if you just keep your eyes open. Sometimes “very conventional” materials can be used in really “unconventional” ways.

In our case, that means using “repurposed” utility poles as part of the timberframing between ISBU wings, to form a massive “clearspan” area between them.

Top that with SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels) and then SSMR (Standing Seam Metal Roofing) and you  have  a system that will last for decades, maybe even a century.

(I say “maybe” only because – obviously – I’m not going to be around to document it and I don’t want any “smarty-pants”: “Hey Ronin, can you PROVE that?” email.)

Glu-Lam beams are just about the coolest thing I can think of, when I start thinking about “strength”.

Glued laminated timber, or glulam (also known as “Glu-Lam”) , is an  innovative and extremely versatile construction material that is engineered for a host of residential and commercial construction applications. Intelligent design values and massively improved product performance makes Glu-lams a cost competitive material that can be the natural choice for every project from simple beams and headers in residential construction to soaring glulam arches for domed stadium roofs spanning more than 500 feet.

500 feet. Wow.

But, you ask… what Is Glu-lam?

(First, stop calling me “but”. I get enough of that at home.) 🙂

A Glu-lam  beam is composed of many individual wood laminations, or “lams”, specifically selected and positioned in the timber, based on their performance characteristics. They are then bonded together with a whole bunch of durable, moisture-resistant adhesive. Glulam is available in depths from 6 to 72 inches or greater and in lengths up to 100 feet and longer. We’re talking MASSIVE. It’s just incredible how large these beams can get, from such “small” pieces of wood.

Glu-lams have almost unlimited design flexibility!

LeMay Car Museum constructionGlu-lam has greater strength and stiffness than comparable dimensional lumber and, pound for pound, is stronger than steel. Common uses include purlins, ridge beams, floor beams, headers, complex arches, commercial roof systems, bridges and utility poles. Glu-lam is available in a range of appearance characteristics to meet end-use requirements.

The strength and durability of glu-lam beams make them an ideal choice for large, open designs where long spans are required. Glu-lam beams can also be manufactured in virtually any size or shape. In fact, Glu-lam is the only engineered wood product that can be produced in curved shapes. The arched curve profile of the roof of the LeMay Car Museum (pictured) is just one example of the virtually unlimited design flexibility offered by glu-lam integration into construction projects.

And, you’ll be surprised where they turn up. Keep your eyes open. Seriously.

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