Tag Archives: Home Building

Every Tree Needs Roots!

23 May

As we venture into Spring (we still haven’t gotten our 15 seconds of Spring in Montana yet…) LOL!

We’re getting questions from readers about “process”. Everyone is eager to start their building adventures, paving their roads toward their ISBU (Shipping Container Home) dreams and we couldn’t be more pleased and inspired.

Many families are beginning their paths by talking to local experts, trying to gauge the places they’ll put their trust, their dreams and their futures.

We received this email recently and thought it was relevant enough to share it with the rest of you. Building projects begin as hopes, dreams and aspirations. The holder of that dream then gifts it to someone else who will become responsible for turning that dream into a reality.

But along the way, that custodian of your creation will call on others to assist him/her in order to insure that your dream becomes a reality.

Let’s just jump in, shall we?

“Dear Alex,

Q. I just left an interview/consult session with a local Architect. When we were discussing fees, he included fees for several other engineers, including a structural engineer. WTH? If an Architect goes to school to learn to design a building or residence, why then does he/she even need a structural engineer?

Isn’t that the point of Architecture School in the first place?”
The short answer is this:

Successful Architectural projects are collaborations. The architect designs the building. The engineering team ensures the building meets local building codes and that it is physically possible to build. Most engineers have no idea whatsoever or little experience on how to maximize light exposure for certain facilities, including both natural and artificial light, but an architect does. Most engineers have little to no idea how play with materials and textures to maximize comfort, but an architect does. Most architects have little to no idea how to even measure a complex structure response to most accidental load scenarios like earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding etc. But an engineer does. Most architects have little to no idea how to design infrastructure projects such as dams, bridges, highways, railroads, etc. But an engineer does.

Think of it like this:

An architect is like a big, beautiful tree…  and that engineering team is a vital part of it’s trunk and root system.

This engineering support system gives life to the tree. The input of the engineers provides the strength to the tree and makes it possible for that tree to live (and even bear fruit) for a long, long time.

Architects don’t know “everything” about construction.

Some like to think they do but the reality is actually much different.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Architects know a LOT, but an architect is still just a “generalist”. An architect actually needs all sorts of engineers to create and complete a project successfully.

In a nutshell, the architect is the conductor and the engineers (and other specialists) are the musicians. They have to work together to complete a project. It’s a orchestra of skills.

It is up to the conductor (architect) to take overall responsibility and coordinate the overall intention of the project. The conductor has to have some basic knowledge of the musicians’ (engineers) instruments. However, the overall success depends on the skill and experience of the individual musicians (engineers). You can’t do one without the other.

The architect creates, orchestrates and oversees the building project design and usually provides oversight during construction. However, the engineers are specialists and they play their parts in the orchestra by being tasked with the design and oversight of their specific trades and project aspects only:

  • The architect plans, organizes (orchestrates) and gives form and space to the building project.
  • The architect develops a design that finds solutions and fulfills the client’s requirements.
  • The architect presents this information to the planning boards, review committees and building authorities.
  • The architect obtains planning approvals, obtains permits and other required documents required for the construction of the project.
  • The architect is also responsible for special (particularly safety) aspects such as building code classifications, fire separations, exits, emergency exits, emergency systems, and egress stairs as well as insuring that all accessibility requirements are met.

In addition to this, the architect usually provides the “Architectural Artistry” the project brings to the community – this because the determination of whether it is a work of art or not depends on how it will later be judged by the clients and the public at large. You can bet that this judgement will be based in a large part on the actual design of the project.

As the design leader, the architect usually conceptualizes the structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems – and coordinates all of it. Again, he/she is the conductor.

However, the architect relies on the various specialist engineers to assess and assist, to finalize and take responsibility with calculations, detailing and oversight. The “musicians”.

For most buildings constructed in most places, only qualified engineers can provide these specialized engineering services. The architect is – by law in most places – required by virtue of their generalist training and certification and is licensed to “practice architecture” and NOT engineering.

Structural engineers don’t go to traditional architectural schools or classes. They are required to study Civil Engineering courses designed to build the required skills allowing them to resolve structural and other engineering aspects of a project. Because of this education, they are licensed to ‘practice structural engineering’, and not architecture.

You don’t need an architect to design “everything”. Certain buildings that are not intended primarily for human occupancy may not be required to be designed by an architect.

In those cases, a civil engineer usually takes the lead role – as in the case of the construction of bridges and roads.

Also, building projects such as small square footage houses often don’t need any professionals at the design level to be involved. These projects are often designed by technical / design drafting services or even design/build contractors.

While your architect will bring your dream to life, those engineers involved are vital to it’s creation. Put simply, engineers have to come up with solutions to complex problems and implement them; they literally shape the world that we live in.

For those of you out there considering a trade path, there are many different specialties within civil engineering. These include environmental, structural, electrical, municipal, transportation and geotechnical engineering services. Civil engineers design, build, supervise, operate, and maintain construction projects and systems in both the public and private sector. These projects include roads, buildings, airports, tunnels, dams, bridges, and systems for water supply and sewage treatment.

If you really want to push the envelope, look for a University that has an Architectural Engineering program.  If you do this, send us your shipping address and we’ll start sending you as many Tylenol tablets as you can eat. You’re going to need them! This challenging path insures many, many long nights of bookwork and studying!  LOL!

Home Building is about TEAM Building

28 May

Okay, between traveling and “breaking” trucks (we just broke another one –  Oy)…

I’m up to my neck in alligators. So I’m going to reach into the mailbag and pull out another gem;

So… fasten your safety belts,  extinguish all smoking material and bring your seats to an upright position. We’re about to take off…

Dear Ronin;

Thank you for your books and your blogs! We’ve benefited so much from your insight.

We’re building our ISBU Home!

Okay, we’re beginning “building our ISBU Home” by looking for the team we need to make it possible. We have the lot. It’s PAID FOR! 🙂

But we’re running into a wall, here. It’s hard for us to find an architect, designer or contractor who has actually built a Shipping Container Home where we live. We’ve talked to people in a 500 mile bubble with no success.

We’ve found a team that is willing to help us but they have ZERO background in ISBU construction. They told us that;

“A home is a home. They all go up the same. No worries.”

They have drawn several renders of our ideas and the renders look pretty good. If they can draw it, they can build it, right?

We haven’t paid them anything  yet. They’re eager to proceed and we have a development contract on our desk. Before we put up our hard earned cash, we wanted to ask your opinion.

Is it okay to invest in a “rookie” when building your home? We’re nervous.


Lost in Space… Corten Space…


Dear Space Travelers,

Wow. Just “wow”.

“A home is a home. They all go up the same. No worries.”

Folks, if ANYONE every told me this (especially at a project development meeting), they’d be talking to my back as I picked up my folder and my laptop and left the room as quickly as possible.

That’s absolute nonsense. That’s like saying;

“I built a go-cart once, so I think I’ll build a Space Shuttle next.”

RUN. Seriously. RUN.

Building a home (especially an “alternative home” like one built from ISBUs) comes with “perils and new places”…

So, rather than dwell on the “ridiculous” (“A home is a home…” That’s rich!), let’s talk a bit about the team you guys need to assemble.

You need a good design and good planning.

Here at RR (and at CHC – our business site) we’ve gone on and on about that for years. A good design and good planning insure success. The people that help you draw your lines will define your future.

They’ll define it for you and they’ll define it for the contractors (and sub-contractors) that will actually BUILD your home (or key elements of it- if you’re investing sweat equity).

IF they have experience in the type of construction you’re going to be doing, you can be assured that they know the spaces you’ll be creating, the materials that you will be using and the pitfalls that will be encountered along the way.

They’ll know where the “danger areas” are and they’ll use their considerable experience to insure that you don’t fall into any traps. They’ll PROTECT your building budget like it was the “Holy Grail”.  The insights and expertise that they bring to your project will more than pay for their participation.

If they cannot guarantee you this, they’re the wrong guys. Instead of finding the “Holy Grail”, you’re gonna get a “Holy Fail” – as in;

“Holy Crap! Where did all of our building money GO?”

Homes based on designs and planning based on people that have (a) never done it before, or (b) aren’t interested in you for anything but profit and a “Portfolio Queen” are destined to fail. You’re probably going to get a “pig in a dress”, if you get anything at all.

Can you invest your trust in a “rookie” who has never actually built your  type of housing before?

In my experience, that answer has been “NO”.

In my “day to day” – I see TONS of plans and renders drawn by teams wanting to get into the ISBU building world.

Sure, they may post article after article on their blogs about why they do what they do, but it’s just “touchy feely nonsense” if they haven’t actually DONE it. Ironically, most of these guys have never touched a welder or even been inside an ISBU. From the looks of things lately, most of these guys aren’t even educated, licensed tradesmen… they’re “fly by night unlicensed designers” with no actual experience building anything remotely resembling what you’re dreaming of…

Folks, I can read and then write about brain surgery or rocket science, but that doesn’t make me a Neurologist or a Physicist…

There are serious differences between “theory” and “application”.

Now, I admit that some of the stuff we see from those “rookies” is pretty good, but after close examination and a few discussions with the originators of those concept projects, it’s just LINES ON PAPER.

“Building with boxes” is harder than it looks and it’s a process unfamiliar to most. If you don’t know what you’re doing – you’re swimming with sharks.

Beyond that;

You can’t afford a “novice”.

A “novice” isn’t going to save you money. Here’s why;

  1. They’re going to make mistakes based on a lack of knowledge of the materials.
  2. They’re going to cost you space because they won’t understand the spaces being built.
  3. And, they’ll lack experience in actually dealing with those tasked with actually building your home using these “new” materials”.

THAT is a recipe for disaster.

I’ve read a lot of “pie in the sky” stuff posted by people breaking into ISBU design and construction. Most of it is nonsense. ISBU home building is a different process than the one most builders are used to. They’re gonna have to figure things out as they go. And Guess what? YOU are going to pay for both that “education” and the delays” that it causes.

I won’t even address the  costly mistakes they’re going to make along the way.

You’re only going to get “less home and more trouble”.

The ONLY way that I would use a “novice” or “virgin ISBU team” for my home build is IF I already had established a qualified “oversight consultant” to insure that we stayed on track and that quality and safety issues were met. And that consultant would be involved from day one.  And, he’d have final authority over whatever came out of the design shop.

When looking for architect/designers or contractor/builders, you want;

  1. Years of experience,
  2. Good communication skills (If you leave a meeting puzzled or confused, they haven’t done their jobs),
  3. Noteworthy Homes in their portfolio and…
  4. Success driven guys and gals with an eagerness to build something unusual and of quality.

If they can’t explain it to you, they can’t build it. And an architect or a designer who doesn’t understand your needs is just a CAD operator. If they can’t communicate with you clearly and concisely about your goals, how can they build your home?

You need experienced “first string” guys.

Are they going to COST more? Probably. But, if they really know their stuff, they will SAVE you the cost of their involvement, especially when compared to the “others”.

And as established Architectural Tradesmen or Builders, they have great banking contacts.

They work hard to keep that channel clear of obstacles. If YOU can’t finance your build, it doesn’t get built in the first place, right? If you don’t build, they don’t get paid.

Most ISBU builds to date have been “out of pocket” because the banks were afraid of them. However, as more and more homes get completed, the positive press and the availability of “comps” (comparable properties) makes this process easier in some locations.

A good bank can save you THOUSANDS of dollars. Let me repeat this;

As “Altie homes” get more popular, there are more “comps” to weigh them against.

In some locations, this makes all the difference in the world. A home that would never qualify before (because there were no similar homes to look at for “value”)… now looks interesting in these forward thinking locations and that makes them viable to the bank making the loan.

There ARE banks that will work with you, but you have to really go out and look for them. There WILL be a courting process, so do your homework and provide as much information (including renderings and detail drawings) as you possibly can.

Your loan is going to be reviewed by a “committee” and you WANT them to want to participate.

You don’t have to pay 20-25% down-payments, either. Some banks will work with you for less.

Here’s an example;

I’m told that in Texas, BBVA Compass–only requires a 10% down payment for construction (and you may find that your lot value covers this amount). A 10% down payment is a giant difference from the 20 to 25% other banking institutions require and this gives you some cushion in your budget.

BBVA Compass DOES ISBU Home loans. I know it’s true because I personally know of an ongoing ISBU project funded by… BBVA Compass in the Houston area.

BBVA also builds in a 10% contingency funding line (emergencies and overruns cash) into the construction budget. This means that if you have bad weather, a production overrun or an unexpected budget crunch, it won’t kill your build. Your project is still completely funded and protected. Better still, if you don’t use that extra (emergency) credit line, you just eliminate it. It’s just insurance to make sure that your building project succeeds. That’s totally  awesome! 🙂

In conclusion;

Home Building is about TEAM building.

You don’t want “benchwarmers” or “Armchair Quarterbacks”. You want serious players with serious skills. I’ve seen a lot of  “ISBU Cheerleaders” lately. They stand on the sidelines and make a lot of noise (and some of them even look “pretty”) but they are just a distraction to the real game being played on the field.

Unless you have that solid team, a team that knows the drills and can execute flawlessly behind you… you’re gonna lose the game.

I guarantee.

Till next time,

RR AvatarRelated articles:

Do you have the right tools for the job?

9 Nov

Steve Jobs (may he Rest In Peace) said:

“The president is very smart, but he kept explaining to us reasons why things can’t get done. It infuriates me.”

Me too.

Except I’m not “sold” on that “very smart” part…

If Obama would actually use the tools at his disposal, instead of a teleprompter, America could rebuild herself.

Instead… each of us, as Americans, are tasked with rebuilding her ourselves, one town at a time.

And that’s going to require tools.

Like the crisis situation in Haiti, New Zealand, Japan, Turkey and Thailand…

America is struggling under the load of of catastrophe.

As a result, MANY families are making hard decisions and plotting and planning…

And they’re not planning “anarchy”, they’re planting Seeds of Sustainability, as they take their families from those “places less defensible” to homes designed to safely harbor their families as we prepare to weather the storm that will surely come.

We’re not “spouting doom and gloom” here.

If you take the crisis that is the economy, inflation, rampant unemployment, and America’s housing crisis and roll them all up together… you get a pretty sizable weather event, no matter who measures it.

And many of my families are preparing to meet that storm head-on, by preparing for it.

That means they’ll need tools.

A friend of mine (Owen Geiger) recently posted a list on his Earthbag Building blog about the tools needed to build a home. That base list came from Popular Mechanics.

Right after, I started getting emails about whether or not that list (from Popular Mechanics) applied to ISBU homes as well.

So… today, we’re going to talk about “Tools as Weapons”…

I’m not talking about bashing your Brother-in-law over the head with a shovel… no matter how many times he parks his truck on your lawn.

I’m not talking about power-nailing your Mother-in-law’s lips shut, no matter how many dreams you have about doing exactly that.

I’m talking about compiling a tool box that will take you from one side of a planned building event to the other.

And on MY blog, that means building sustainable shelter.

Many new ISBU families are convinced that all you need is a welder, a metal saw and a grinder to build an ISBU home.

NO. It’s not that easy.

Building an ISBU Home is just like building any other type of home. THere are MANY similarities that go right along with a few glaring differences.

I’m not going to go into a “blow-by-blow” here,I’m just going to give you a basic overview of what you’ll need and why you’ll need it.

It all starts with a hole…

I call it “the dirt factor”.

The first thing you do when building shelter is figure out where you’re going to build it. Site selection and sun orientation are VERY important.

Once you’ve achieved this, it’s time for site prep. Yes, it’s that dreaded and backbreaking task of providing your home with roots, so it can safely tuck itself into the soil.

Here’s a list of tools to consider;
(Again… base list from Popular Mechanics)

1. Round point and square nose shovels, preferably heavy-duty variety with extra long blade socket.

2. Pick axe

3. Pulaski axe

In case you’re not sure… THIS is a Pulaski Axe…

4. Rig builder’s hatchet

5. Axe

6. Bow saw

7. 24-oz. framing hammer

8. Sledge hammer

9. Digging bars, preferably both pointed and chisel tip varieties; crow bars.

10. Leather or synthetic work gloves

11. Protective eye wear

12. Hard hats

13. Dust masks

14. Contractor-grade wheel barrows

15. Bolt cutters

16. Large-diameter heavy-duty weatherproof rope; small-diameter light-duty line

17. Rope hoist/pulley, minimum 250-lb. capacity

18. Folding knife

And if you’re planting pilings?

19. A Bobcat or something similar with a post-hole attachment/auger to “drill down” so you can drop your Sonotube casings into it.

Image Credit: Google Images

I’m sure you’re asking yourself why I prefer pilings to slabs…

Two words.

“Site Prep.”

If you drop those boxes onto pilings, you require MUCH LESS site prep. And, that tool list gets a LOT shorter.

But I digress…

Combine those tools with several hands and what do you get?

Well, around here, you get “whining and complaining” and several trips to the emergency room… but in COMPETENT hands… you get a foundation ready to pour! 🙂

Once your foundation is poured, be it a footed slab or pilings…

It’s time to drop that box.

This will require a crane, a tilt-bed trailer, a pair of stout bucket tractors or 357 of your strongest friends pulling on a pair of dragchains like “Hebrews Building Pyramids in Egypt“.

TIP: Use the technology. Ever tried to get 357 cheeseburgers off the grill at once? It makes Pyramid Building seem easy by comparison…

Once you have your boxes where you want them… it’s time to weld them into place and then start turning them into a home.

From Container to Casa…

It doesn’t matter if you’re building a cabin or a Container home, you’re going to do some conventional framing. The beauty of starting with a container is that you already have a weathered in structure to build off of, from day one.

But, unless you like pooping in public, your going to need some “separation”…


1. 8-point crosscut saw

2. Carpenter’s pencil

3. Carpenter’s square

4. Framing hammers and carpenter’s hammers—smaller sizes for various family members, in addition to the 24-ounce tool above.

5. 25-foot Metric/English tape rule

6. Bit Brace and a set of solid-center auger bits, ¼ inch through 1 inch

7. Utility knife, spare blades

8. High-tension hacksaw and selection of spare blades

9. Screw guns

10. Indelible Sharpies – black


1. 1/2 inch exterior-grade plywood, which has the structural stability to help frame out a building’s wall.

2. 2 x 4 x 8 lumber by the pallet

3. 8-d common nails

4. 12-d and 16-d common nails

5. blue tarps in various sizes (5 x 7, 10 x 10, 12 x 20)

6. 6-mil plastic sheet, roll

7. 5-gallon plastic buckets

8. Self-stick roll roofing

9. Metal Framing Studs (should you elect to use metal instead of lumber)

10. Screws for metal framing studs

If you’re building something “in a grand scale” you’re going to need to bring in the “big guns”…

Hey, even if you’re not, it never hurts to use technology to take the load off your back.

1. Rotary hammer and bits

2. Hammer drill and bits

3. Reciprocating saw and bi-metal blades

4. Chainsaw (with necessary tools and spare parts: gas cans, funnel, spare spark plug, bar and chain oil, gasoline, chain with carbide-tipped teeth, chainsaw chaps, chainsaw gloves).

5. Gas-engine driven welder/generator and selection of stick electrodes and accessories (welding mask, gloves, welding hammer, C clamps).

6. Right angle grinders and spare grinding wheels.

7. Portable concrete mixer, bags of ready-to-mix concrete.

8. Basic set of concrete and brick/block mason’s tools, rock-working tools: float, trowel, brick/block trowels, plumb bob, brick set, mason’s level, jointer, stone tracer, stone chisel.

9. Simple optical level, such as a builder’s level or transit.

10. Basic electrician’s tool kit:
side-cutting pliers, diagonal pliers, needle-nose pliers, electrician’s multi-tool wire stripper/screw cutter, solenoid voltage tester, fork meter and spare AA batteries.

11. Metric/SAE tap and die set

12. Kerosene and kerosene lanterns, waterproof matches

13. Charcoal and charcoal grills

14. Chlorine bleach for water disinfection, Lifestraws or similar filtration tools, and refillable water bottles

15. Anti-bacterial soap, shop towels, and toilet paper.

16. Nailgun

17. Plasma cutter – it cuts through steel like it was butter.

18. Several EXTRA clamps – to secure fabricated components together as you weld/attach them.

As you can see…

You’re not going to build a new home using tools found in a kitchen drawer.

But I’m betting that you probably have most of this stuff, or access to it, thru friends and family. If not, you can rent some of it from “big box stores”.

And with proper planning (say it with me…):

“Show me a man without a plan and I’ll show you a man whose plans will fail”

…and some dedication, you can indeed handle most of the tasks that “Modern Homebuilding” will throw at you.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at each of these building categories and flesh them out.

For now, I’m calling this post done.

My little boy is ill and he needs his Daddy…

Stay tuned.