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Do they put MSG in Chinese Pre-Fab Homes?

30 Nov

Dear Ronin,

We’re seeing more and more advertising about Shipping Container Homes that you can buy in China and then have shipped to your own building site in the United States. These homes are running under $100 a square foot in some cases. After preparing your foundation, you literally have a home in one day.

It sounds ideal for us. We don’t want to participate in the ISBU Home Building process. We want to find a good deal, have the house built and then… move in.

I’m enclosing a link that we find interesting for your review.

Is this a good idea?


Eager and willing…


Dear “EW”,

Wow. That was foreboding. Your signature initials say it all. EW!

Anyone who reads my blogs or books knows that I believe that Shipping Container Homes offer a tremendous opportunity to provide affordable housing in a “Pre-Fab” environment, where modules are built in factories (or off-site) and then transported to your building site for erection and assembly into ISBU Homes.  This allows for localized and regional distribution of affordable housing, efficiently and cost effectively.

That said,  I’m not a big proponent of buying a prefabricated house in China and then having it shipped to the United States (or any other continent) for several reasons.

First, you’re NOT really getting a home for $100 a square foot.

Before those modules arrive, you’re going to do your site prep, install your foundation and sewer/septic and provide your water source. After your modules arrive, you’re going to pay for assembly costs and roofing. Once your home is “buttoned up” (secured against weather), you’re going to bring in your installation people to install your appliances, which are NOT included in the price of your Pre-fab modules as they arrived from China. Additionally, you’re going to bring in your HVAC guys to install your heating and air conditioning. This is going to add thousands of dollars in fees and services (and appliance purchases) to your build.

But wait, there’s MORE:

These are some of the difficulties that I have observed;

First, you have no realistic fall-back position should there be a problem with your Chinese Modules. They weren’t built around the corner, they were built across the ocean. The manufacturers aren’t going to fly teams of repair specialists to your site or provide you with “corrections” to resolve issues without a lot of difficulty.  WE often see these units with non-mating electrical and plumbing  connections. Those repairs and revisions have to be done on-site and it costs you time and money.  Remember that “Time is Money”. While you resolve those issues, your crew is standing around (on the clock), waiting to go back to work. In our experience, the broker or representative that sold you your Pre-fab (ISBU or otherwise) home doesn’t usually appear at your site to monitor and insure that everything goes well. If you’ve hired a contractor to do the work, he’s not going to show up for free. He’s on the clock, too.

Second, when your home is being built thousands of miles away, you have no control over the quality of the materials used to produce your home. It’s common for substandard materials to be used to product “export housing”.

Third, shipping a series of modified containers from China to a Seaport near you is expensive. Coupled with trucking or rail transport from that point of entry, you’re spending a pretty good chunk of change to get your boxes to your build.

The entire shipping process is hazardous to your build. Have you ever watched how container ships are unloaded? Those dockworkers don’t handle these huge boxes with kid gloves. They’re under a time crunch to get those boxes off the ship and then get it reloaded. Your boxes aren’t going to arrive from China with giant FRAGILE stickers plastered all over them. The union guys doing the offload sling them around and set them down at speeds (and impacts) that shouldn’t be watched by the faint of heart. After spending DECADES watching the boxes get unloaded (in places like Haiti or other disaster sites) it still makes me nervous.

Now, imagine that box is prefitted with your housing components. I’ve personally seen (and inspected) import boxes that have completely destroyed interiors, broken sheetrock, displaced jambs, and unseated flooring.

Okay, I’m also a huge supporter of homes built using 20′ ISBUs. It’s a part of the shipping container home phenomenon that I think is overlooked.

Fourth, in many cases (like the one demonstrated in the video you linked to) you’re talking about small 20′ High Cube boxes as a starting point that are already abundant in the US. A competent team of workers can produce a comparable structure here, on or off your site at a competitive rate and you’ll have a measure of control over the entire process. The boxes are actually small enough to be moved around using a roll-off trailer and truck. We’ve hauled pre-configured 20′ High Cubes ‘from city to country” into rural areas using old logging roads and forestry roads successfully with ZERO damage. I’ve hauled 20’ boxes into the woods on modified car trailers using F350 pick-ups and set them on pilings using forklifts, septic tank crane trucks and farm tractors.

And finally, IF you decide to purchase one of these Chinese “Prefab home units” you are totally at the mercy of the company providing it. Unless you are completely satisfied with this company and their work to date, you’re taking a huge risk.

Finally, I’ve yet to find an instance or example  where a domestically produced Container Home failed to be competitive with an imported one built overseas.  It’s good design and the attention to cost controls and details that will insure the quality of your produced home, not it’s originating address.  We regularly help families produce ISBU homes for under $100 a square foot.

Additionally, this is NOT an indictment of MEKA but a review of “import Pre-fab housing products” in general based on my own personal experiences.  MEKA is well-known in the Shipping Container Home arena. They’re really smart, creative guys and gals. Despite that, the only way I’d deal with them is if they could provide me with a domestically produced product.

Is “bigger” always better? IMHO – Not with ISBUs…

10 Nov

I’m getting barraged lately by people who are posting photos and floorplans of “Container Homes” that use custom built, extra wide “4 meter” containers.

4 meter home

They want to know which “container yards” you can find these in, for sale.

People, you CAN’T.

These wider containers (usually called “4 meter boxes”) are CUSTOM BUILT for the housing industry by specialty builders or architects. You have to special order them, you have to pay a big premium for them and they aren’t “repurposed, recycled or reused”. They are brand new boxes and they are usually custom manufactured in places like China or (gasp!) Australia.

4 meter home1Admittedly, they ARE cool. But in our view, these aren’t “container homes” because (by design) they are “another” direction in “modular construction”.

One of the “core values” in using ISBUs for us was that you were taking something “cast-off” that no-one wanted and affordably and efficiently converting it into something that you couldn’t imagine living without. You were giving it “new life”.

Here are some thoughts about “4 meter” boxes;

You don’t buy them from salvage yards.You buy them brand new and built to specification, direct from a  Container Contractor or representative.

You’ll pay a premium to get them delivered to you from China or “The Land Down-Under…” The reason for this is that they don’t fit the traditional footprint on the container ships.

You’ll pay a huge insurance premium increase to get them shipped to you once they’ve been modified, if you can get them shipped to you at all.

You’ll pay a huge premium to truck them to your site because they’re so wide. You’re going to need special permits and you’re  going to need pilot cars and extra personnel.

MANY of the more “popular” Container Hotels you see on the Internet use these wider boxes. Using these wider boxes means that you can pre-build (in factories) your hotel suites and then just stack them up on site to assemble your hotel. It makes good economic sense, but it’s NOT “Shipping Container Construction in the “usual flavor”.

It’s (financially) well beyond the reach of most “modern mortals” trying to build Shipping Container homes on a budget. 🙂

I actually see these hotels as being “modular constructs” more than being “container buildings”. In fact, in my view, they aren’t “really” containers at all. They’re “reasonable facsimiles thereof”.

Since the early ’70’s, the “Shipping Container Housing Movement” was BASED on reusing or repurposing AFFORDABLE shipping containers that had been retired from service traveling the high seas. The idea was to take something discarded and then breathe new life into it. I personally know this is true because I was THERE (we’ve been doing this, hand’s on, since 1977).

So, to those of you who keep asking me if I can build these “newer, wider models”…

My answer is YES, but I WON’T.

In summary;

They’re too expensive, they involve too much red tape and expanded transport costs and they violate my principles about building alternative housing using “repurposed” materials. They aren’t affordable. They aren’t reused and they aren’t recycled.

Seriously, buying a pair of High Cubes here in the States is cheaper than buying one of these “miracle” boxes overseas and then waiting for it to arrive… eventually… to your construction site. And I’ll point out that if you do it MY way, you end up with more square footage. 🙂

If you have money to burn or you’re simply building to “one-up the neighbors”, then kindly disregard this message. I’ll be happy to refer you to a design house that will build these monstrosities for you.

That is all…

RR Avatar Image Credits: Container Homes of Sydney Australia

There’s something about Elections that makes people think about the future…

5 Nov

As I sit here watching the poll results start to come in, I can almost feel America holding it’s collective breath.

Imagine my shock when one of my “arch-nemesis” (“I’d never live in a metal box…”) rivals called me on the phone to ask my help.

He has a guy (who lives in California) who wants a small hunting and fishing cabin built on his riverside lot on the Salmon River, not 60 miles from me. The client wants to get out of California “before the politicians force it to fall off into the sea”.

He drives by one of the largest shipping container storage yards in the United States, located in Long Beach, California on a regular basis. Those trips past “the boneyard” inspired him, those big metal boxes called out to him. He WANTS a Shipping Container cabin built and he wants it built “by people who know what the hell they are doing”.

So his architect, my “naysayin’ pal” called me.  He’d recently seen my “Architect’s Cabin” on our CHC website. We’re building an ISBU (Intermodal Steel Building Unit – also commonly referred to as “shipping container”) based cabin for a Project Manager who will live on-site monitoring an extremely large construction build-out that sprawls across more than a  thousand acres.

In the originally executed design, the cabin is a contemporary 2 story structure with a large loft bedroom over a spacious 2 story high “Great Room” style cabin complete with a large ceiling fan.

(In my personal version, the second floor bedroom opens to a covered three season rooftop terrace, that could easily be converted to a four season space.)

Amirage ISBU Guest Studio - 4x20HQ plus steel and SIPs-SSMRThis design exceeds the needs of the hunter/fisherman that we’ll be speaking with. He wants a smaller, more compact  single-story solution.

So, we just convert the “workspace” into a multi-purpose space that includes a bedroom. A queen sized bed will fit into that space easily.

Small remote cabins usually suffer from the same haunting malady – the small footprint fails to supply adequate storage space. As a result, I build storage lockers into the floor (just like you’d find in a sailboat) and capitalize on every space possible to provide additional storage. As the client had specified that he have a separate workspace for his computer work and hobbies. I’d definitely use a “library style” Murphy Bed system so that the space could be seriously multi-tasked.  I can  easily picture  fold down tables on the front of those bed cabinets that could be used for fly tying or reading/working, possibly even with a large LCD monitor and a laptop computer docking station.


library-murphy-bed-in-oak-walnut-openThe client also has a large dog (a retriever) that travels with him everywhere. Rather than just sharing the couch or the bed with his beloved hound, I’d suggest something like this;


murphy-bed-for-dogI’d actually mount the cabin’s primary  LCD Television above it and use the interior storage space for DVDs and his PlayStation video game system.

Those relatively simple modifications made, I’d flip the closet so that it opens into the “bedroom” zone, install a tub in the bathroom to replace the washer and dryer, slap a SIP (structural Insulated Panel) gable roof  – covered with a waterproof membrane and SSMR (Standing Seam Metal Roofing) on top of it  and voila, you have a quickly built, energy efficient, very affordable, “instant” Retreat Cabin.

Oh yeah…

I’d splurge a little bit on the bathroom. If it was me, it’d get a “walk-in” tub, for relaxing and soaking those tired muscles at the end of the day.

walk in tubThis same cabin (with lofts created at either side of the SIP roof structure) would actually support a small family spending vacations and holidays in the woods or by the beach.

And… with some planning and forethought, this cabin could easily be lived in, year round. I could “homestead” this cabin, easy. This small cabin would function flawlessly just about anywhere a loft style home is applicable. It’s small, comfortable, affordable and easy to build.

People, I can’t stress enough that ISBUs (shipping containers) are just “modular boxes”. They’re just massive steel frames waiting to get welded together to form skeletons. Once you get the boxes in place, it’s pretty much a “conventional” build supplemented with enough “tech” to take the home “off-grid”.

Building a home (or even a commercial project) using ISBUs isn’t “rocket science”.

You embrace your project in the same manner as you would any other type of  construction:

  • Start with good design principles.
  • Do your homework. Learn everything you can about what’s happening. Information is the purest form of power.
  • Define your needs and wants clearly.
  • Define your budget early on and stick to it.
  • Choose quality materials, reusing, recycling and repurposing materials where you can to keep your budget manageable.
  • “Multi-task” every area you can.
  • “Friends in the trades” make light work. Call in favors. Buy Pizza and coffee. Apply beer liberally. :)
  • “Light makes Right”. You’re  not building  a cave, you’re building  your home. Use as much glazing as you can.

Remember that building small spaces means building spaces capable of being “multi-tasked”. Use space for as many purposes as possible. The more you do this, the smaller your home  requirements become.

“Capture” as much light as you can. There are those that believe that “Container life” means living is a small metal tube. NOTHING could be further from the truth. Great windows make great homes. Sunlight means airy, enjoyable  spaces. Sunlight means heat. Sunlight makes you happy. I like “happy”.

If you design well, define with diligence and stay focused on the details, you’ll build a successful project.

And in places like Montana, Idaho and Colorado, as long as you have a sustainable, energy efficient ISBU home that basks in the sunlight, a water well and some firewood combine to insure that winter isn’t going to give you any trouble at all. Trust me.

Stay tuned. This should be a fun one.

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Need to butcher a whole deer or elk? Go big or stay home!

4 Sep

One of our readers/client families recently completed their ISBU home.

It’s located off-grid in a rural location and it was built using recycled, repurposed and salvaged materials. We worked with him extensively as we massaged his home design so that it could be built “paycheck by paycheck”.  By the time they’d gotten to the kitchen and bathroom counter-tops we had to get pretty creative.

What do you do when your brother-in-law works at a lumberyard and has access to scraps of oak, cherry and maple?

Why, you build countertops, of course.

We actually taught him (drew it out and then walked him through) how to build his own butcherblock counters.

ButcherblockIt was labor intensive, but QUITE affordable.  (He got all the scrap wood for free and cut it up himself using jigs and templates we helped him create.) And as you can see, the results are just beautiful. I’d be proud to have this counter in my own home. In fact, I’d do a whole kitchen this way. Couple that with a cool farm sink and bronze fixtures and you’d have something that looked like it came out of one of those designer magazines. Best of all, you’d accomplish those luxury looks for peanuts. I don’t think I need to point out that good butcherblock is “forever” if you maintain it properly.

We just hope that he also built a doghouse so that he has a place to sleep when his wife comes home from her “Ladies Auxiliary” meetings and finds him butchering a deer on the kitchen counter… LOL!

Till next time.

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Need a Corten Country House?

23 Aug

Many of our building families long for “life lived rurally”.

More and more families building ISBU homes are building “off the beaten path”, off-grid “Corten Castles”.

ISBUs lend themselves to “Farmhouse” configurations. Take (4) 40′ High Cube ISBUs and pair them off with an offset 8′-16′ apart and then top them with a big modified gable and you have a fabulous two story farmhouse that can’t be beat!

Here’s one that we’re working with a Arkansas family of 6 on that is proving to be quite spectacular. It’s approximately 1,900 square feet of Corten Coolness! 3 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, heated by wood and powered by photovoltaic panels. It’s going to be built in the Ozark Mountains.

Here’s some of the features;

  • Downstairs Master with ensuite bath
  • Island Kitchen with full pantry and laundry room
  • Great Room Living/Dining/Half Bath
  • (2) Upstairs bedrooms with “Hollywood bath”
  • Spiral Staircase
  • Wood Stove heat
  • Photovoltaic Power/Battery Bank

If you sat this home on top of a CMU (Concrete Masonry Units also called “concrete blocks” or “cinderblocks”) basement, you’d  have a really nice two story Corten Country  House for a family of 6-8 with a big root cellar and extended pantry.

ISBU Farmhouse 440 Concept - webWE call it “The Farmhouse 440 Project”.

The prototype is being built (by the family – using their own sweat equity and volunteers) in the Ozarks with a budget of $175k. Admittedly it’s “higher end” than most of our ISBU Homes (upgraded materials are used throughout) and the budget does NOT include the property, photovoltaic systems or the well. (Additionally, the family already owned the containers.) The prototype has a lot of upgrades and the family isn’t your “typical” Prepper family. I WILL point out that a home of this quality for just under $100 a square foot is a bargain in most markets, whether you’re a “Prepper” or not. It could be built less expensively by a repurposing, recycling family with careful material selections.

WE think that you’ll call it “HOME SWEET HOME”.

Would you live here? I would. In fact… I just might. :)

Portraits from the Plasma Cutter

21 Aug

I get asked about living in an ISBU Home all the time. I mean, it’s what I do, right?

But people can’t seem to get past the idea that you get anything but “shotgun” sized spaces when using containers to build with.

So, I thought it might be nice to show you some examples of “Corten Coolness” in the abstract.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to show you some wonderful “Corten” spaces that were literally carved out of ISBUs (Shipping Containers).

For those of you actively working on ISBU Home designs, these should prove quite useful. For those of you who are thinking about building an ISBU Home, these images should prove themselves quite inspiring.

The images displayed are taken from ISBU Homes built all over the planet. I want you to see what other people are doing, how other people live and just how versatile ISBUs can be.

Let’s visit New Zealand, shall we?

10This is “reclaimed space” between (2) pairs of 40′ ISBUs (placed end to end). Beautiful, isn’t it?

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Would you, could you, with some spark?

18 Jul

Make a “box”  your family’s  ARK?

Okay, I’m not Dr Seuss.

That’s okay, because ham isn’t kosher anyway, especially if it’s green.

Speaking of green, it’s green here in Montana as far as the eye can see. Haying starts an hour before sunrise and ends about 10pm. The rainstorms haven’t helped much as you don’t want it to rain when you’re cutting your hay. You want to cut it, rake it into rows  and then get it as dry as you can before you bale it. Ugh. Rain and I aren’t speaking right now.

Horse Hay - Good Eating!

The rain comes down in buckets and then… it heats up to 95 degrees. I’m starting to feel like I’m back in Mississippi some days.

But I digress…

Many people exploring Corten Castles for the first time are under the misconception that when using Shipping Containers (commonly called ISBUs – Intermodal Steel Building Units) you end up with a house full of long skinny rooms. It never occurs to them that you can place containers side by side and then cut out the inner walls to form wider rooms.

Even explained, some people have a tough time wrapping their heads around this.

Essentially, you end up with a “double width” space that looks like this;

cubular-26-of-66This is a “Cubular” home, built by a company out of New Zealand. Regulars of the blog know that when we see something cool, we share it with you regardless as to whether or not OUR names are on it. We’re good at what we do, but then… so are some other guys. We’re glad Cubular is located in New Zealand,  or we’d have some competition.  They build  some REALLY nice stuff. 🙂

cubular-32-of-66While we generally offset our boxes to create even larger spaces, this gives you an idea what can be accomplished with “direct mating”.

cubular-33-of-66You’re not living in a small, closed in space.  The created spaces are bright, airy and elegant.

cubular-35-of-66Even without adding an exterior veneer to this ISBU Home, it’s quite stylish and easy to look at. It’s not at all like the “apocalyptic graffiti covered boxes” you see in the movies, is it?

This is just the “starting point”. I know it’s hard to imagine, but with some creativity, ISBU homes  get even better than this. (And for the  record…  we think this one is pretty darned good.)

You can’t buy a “Cubular Home” for export to the US, but you could build your own. We’re helping many families do just that.

Loft me, Bro!

10 Jul

We’re buried.

Yep, I’m talking “up to our necks in it…” buried.

And while we’re trying to dig ourselves out, we’re getting requests for information and ideas from new building families.

We received four emails yesterday asking about novel ways to build lofts into ISBU cabins. Readers asked about ISBU Corten Coolness that could be “cabinized”…

And lo and behold, today DWELL Magazine (one of our very favorite magazines I might add…  especially because they love us  and our book “Introduction to Container Homes and Buildings”) ran an article on “One Room Wonders” where lofts and the staircase access are very attractively displayed.

Here’s just a few of our favorites;

Cabin Loft Access

Why NOT use that ladder structure to create more workspace in your kitchen? Genius!


A freestanding Organizer Closet can not only house your clothing, it can house an access ladder to the loft bedroom platform that it ALSO supports. MORE Genius! SPLIT that closet into a double sided unit and you also get a TON of pantry storage into your kitchen. DOUBLE Genius! 🙂

Modern Loft

We build “Storage Staircases” all the time. It just makes sense to use that space to your advantage. Done properly, it’s efficient AND attractive.

Little Boxes – BIG Changes!

25 Jun

Quite a  while back, we had some discussions with some people in England about building small, transportable residential modules to address local affordable housing issues.

Recently, I spent a week with the (gasp!) Canadians… having the exact same discussions.

We refer to these teams as “HSPs” (Housing Solution Providers).  They’re often part of “outreach programs” or simply collections of local businessmen and women who see the value in rebuilding failing neighborhoods.

The premise is that (much like here in the US) many people simply cannot afford to come up with the funds required to secure safe, sustainable housing. Students, singles, seniors… Economic bubbles, unemployment and day to day hardships actually push many people into homelessness. It’s a vicious circle that bites hard and then rarely lets go.

In the US, we’re actively involved in several projects (across 7 states) targeted to provide innovative, affordable housing to those in need.  The goal is to help these people live independent, self-reliant, self-accountable lives, without further hardship. Further, the idea is to use these projects to rebuild communities that have fallen into dormancy or disrepair.

Remember that ISBU housing is a tailor-made solution for this. Easily transportable and modular, you can delivery these units to empty sites (even large abandoned strip mall parking lots, for example) and create small “Corten Villages” that are capable of housing “many”.

Couple these residential unit clusters  with “community spaces” or even “medical outreach operations” and you have the ability to insure the future of many people almost seamlessly.  And, as the stabilization of that neighborhood bears fruit, you can then dismantle these units and move them to the next place where they are required.

They’re doing it in the UK, with great success.

Here’s a peak of what some of these “housing solution providers” have accomplished, just to wet your appetite.

20ft ISBU Homes



Now, with all the US Military VETS coming home to homelessness, unemployment and despair, I have to ask;


Our brothers and sisters are returning from war, to face “another war” at home.  It’s a war that contributes to Vet hardship and even suicide –  as these fine men and women, the very backbone of America…  find they have no place to go.

If we were to build “transitional settlements” that allowed Vets to reintegrate safely (using empty sites that are already available locally), we could save a lot of men and women, who in the face of these hardships, simply run out of strength to fight…

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People ask us HOW they can possibly “Dream”…

6 Jun

We get email from families daily, trying desperately to hold onto their dreams… of home ownership.

It’s really no wonder why they feel that way;

“Half of Americans cannot afford their houses, according to data cited by MarketWatch. A new survey carried out by Hart Research Associates found 52 percent of Americans have had to make at least one major sacrifice in the past three years in order to maintain their mortgage or rent payment.

Those sacrifices included getting a second job, not saving for retirement, cutting back on healthcare, incurring credit card debt or moving to a worse neighborhood, MarketWatch said.

About 43 percent participating in the survey said owning a home is no longer “an excellent long-term investment and one of the best ways for people to build wealth and assets,” and more than 50 percent said buying a home has become less appealing.

In the wake of the 2008 housing crash, more than 7.5 million homeowners lost their home to foreclosure or short sale and about 9 million homeowners are still underwater and owe more than their property is worth, according to Daren Blomquist, vice president at real estate data firm RealtyTrac.

“If one looks at the last seven years as a predictor of housing market behavior in the future, it certainly should give one pause about whether buying a home is a good investment or not,” Blomquist said.”

We are more dedicated than ever, seemingly “Davids in the face of the Goliaths”, trying to wage battles that insure that families have affordable, safe, sustainable homes.
It isn’t an “easy” battle. There’s a lot of work involved. Sweat, blood, even tears… but in the end, it’s worth it.
How do we know this?
We have a virtual filing cabinet full of testimonials from families who fought back against long odds… to regain their freedom. They worked and toiled in defiance of those who would watch them fail… And they succeeded.
To those “Housing Patriots” we say this:
“Only fools say NEVER. Good on you! It’s because you stood up, that you can now be counted. Sometimes, that last laugh is worth 10,000 words. We salute you!”
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