Structural Engineers

Category: Blog

So You Want To Build A Container House? Here Are Some Serious Issues You Have To Deal With

I get a lot of calls and e-mails from people who want to build a container house, and unfortunately I come across as rude when I don’t mean to be.  A lot of times I am called when I am really busy, and the person tries to hold me on the phone.  This costs me a lot of money, which does lead to me being short to get the person off the phone.  Let me go ahead and put down the issues here, and that way I can be a little less short and come across not so rude:

1.  To build a container house you need these important items:  A competent Architect, a Structural Engineer, a competent contractor, and funding.  I will cover each one.

2.  I’ll start with the last because it is the most important, funding.  From my experience, banks generally won’t lend for a container building.  The reasons will be obvious as we go down the list.  Also, you need to figure about $150.00 a square foot, I don’t care what the other blogs say, I have been involved with building these things, just look at the pictures on my website.  A lot of the people that purport to build container houses have no photos, or photos they lifted from other websites (like MINE!).  Also, you need to set aside a good amount of money for architectural and engineering fees.  Oddly, people call me up and argue with me on this, and try to advance negotiate me and the architect down – that’s when I get irritated, and please don’t do that to me.

People from around the world have claimed to have built the houses below.  One guy even spoke to the news media in front of the houses like he was constructing them.  They were not built in China, and if you see them in a recording of a newscast, the guy appearing had nothing to do with building them.  None of the team involved ever was interviewed on television.  Glen Donaldson is the owner/builder, James Kirkpatrick the architect, and my company did the structural engineering.  Anybody else you see in the media featuring these houses was probably not involved in the construction or design:

These are the first two shipping container houses in Atlanta, the one on the left was the first. We performed the structural design of both.

3.  You need an Architect.  I mean a LICENSED Architect, not a home designer or unlicensed Architect.  It will be more expensive, but you will pay less during construction.  There is a lot to designing a building that a licensed Architect knows how to do, such as detailing windows, roofs, and doors.  There is space layout, egress, size of windows, finishes, all that stuff that an Architect is trained to deal with.  I can’t help you find an architect by the way.  I used to refer people that called me to Architects I know, but after endless meetings with the potential client, it always ended up the same way – the project disappeared, probably due to item #1.  This wasn’t a big problem during the Great Recession, but today meeting with you for a couple of hours on a project that probably won’t happen costs myself and the Architect money in work that isn’t done.  There are a few Architects that specialize in this type of work, you can use Google to find them.

4.  The contractor is the next issue.  As I said in an earlier post, Bob the Builder is not the one to call.  For the houses here in Atlanta, the owner built them for himself.  He contracted directly with container yards to do the modifications, and he directly contracted the subs.  It took a lot of work on his part, and you may have to do the same.  The problem is if you intend on doing it that way, it may be hard to find a good Architect or Structural Engineer, because you will end up taking up a lot of their time.  OR, you will need to budget in your fees for the time you will need to take up from the Engineer and Architect.

The problems I have had with individuals that have called me is that they have little knowledge of construction and unrealistic expectations.  In every case, they were totally unprepared for the cost of the project, and had no real source of funding.  They usually had no knowledge of how a project is designed and built.  I have had ones that wanted to use junk they found lying around to build the buildings, one sent me pictures of some old beams he found and bought, another wanted to use some old light poles he scrounged up.  You can’t do that.  I’ve had people convinced they could build the houses completely for free.  Others have argued with me why it was so expensive to pay me – it was “only a few hours work”.  It took me 35 years of experience and more education than I care to talk about to get to that couple of hours work.  I also get people that call me that know more than I do – they don’t need an Architect, they can do that, they don’t need a contractor, they can do that, and I am certainly wrong with the cost of construction.  One caller went so far to tell me not only those items, but my website was no good and he could fix it for me.

Cutting requires skill in handling a plasma torch.

 

Working with the crane requires specialized skills too.

So, if you want to build a container house, lets sum it up.  First you need to make sure you have the money to do it.  You may need to get private investors or use your own money.  Please don’t expect myself or an Architect to come with you to meet potential investors.  Preparing your presentation is something you have to do.  You need to find a good licensed Architect.  Expect to pay him or her for Construction Admin services. Find a contractor, early.  This isn’t something you can bid.  Then get your Structural Engineer.  The Structural Engineer and contractor need to be involved in the design process from the beginning to make sure the Architect prepares a practical design.  Expect the permit process to be long and drawn out because you don’t have conventional construction.  You may have significant resistance from the neighbors, and this could kill you depending on the zoning in your location or the permit process.  Some areas require approval by different community boards, and this could sink you.

If you can handle all of the above, you can probably do it.  Again, don’t expect it to be easy.  I hope I didn’t come across as rude or snippy here, it wasn’t my intention, and hopefully this answers a lot of questions.

George

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No, You Can’t Bury Containers!

I get asked over and over again if you can bury shipping containers.  Fortunately, most people accept my answer, which is simply – no.  In fact, just the other day an architect I work for sent me a question about whether a container could be buried.  I answered, “no, it will crush like a beer can.”  He wrote me back – “thank you George” and that that was it.  I guess that since I am a licensed Professional Engineer with 35 or so years experience in construction, plus a Master of Science from Columbia University in with a heavy concentration of structural engineering convinced him that I know what I’m talking about.

Unfortunately, not all people are like that.  One one site I was quoted about this matter, and the answer came back from some fool that said,  “hey, they stack them like 30 high on ships, so they can be buried”.   Well, do your math.  A container is 9 1/2′ tall.  If you stack them like 30 high, that comes out to be 285 feet high.  That’s a 28 story building.  Have you EVER seen a 28 story high merchant ship?  A slight wind from the side would roll the thing over.  OK, let’s look at how incredibly strong containers are – for STACKING!  You can stand on top of a can of beer can and it will probably hold your weight (provided you aren’t too heavy).  Lay the beer can on its side and stand on it.  If you are stupid enough to do this experiment, do it in your living room on the carpet right after your mom cleaned it.  Because if you are this stupid you probably don’t have a job and you live in your mom’s basement.

Shipping containers have very little strength from the side.  They have 0.07″ thick steel on the side which is about 2 mm thick (that is the metric system for you out there that remain convinced you can bury these things).  That thin steel can take a bit of a beating from the random forklift hit, or someone hitting it with a hammer.  However, the pressure of soil at 9 feet deep is about 315 lbs/sf.  That’s a bit high for 2 mm of steel.

Now, one idiot called me and wanted to know if he could bury a container.  I told him no, its sides are too thin.  He said “but it’s made of Cor-Ten steel”.  Look, Cor-Ten steel is not a magical substance.  It is steel that is chemically formulated to not scale when it rusts.  The rust then provides a coating that protects the underlying steel, making it great for bridges and outside structures since you can save on painting them.  It isn’t any stronger than any other steel.

Every now and then I get an e-mail with a link to a You Tube video where they bury a container.  There usually is little commentary in the e-mail, I guess the sender figures I will watch the video and have a reaction like this:

 

Well, I don’t.  There are all kinds of You Tube videos.  So what?  I.  They need to do a video of that container three or four years from now when its sides have crushed in.

The next one I get is – “Well, what if I encase it in concrete?”  Yes, that is an excellent idea.  It will work.  Here’s another idea – why not just make a concrete vault and save the hassle of the shipping container?  Here in Georgia there are wall contractors that have metal forms that piece together and you can form a wall, pour it, and reuse the forms for another wall.  You could hire one of these contractors and save the hassle of entombing a container.  Unless you really, really like shipping containers.

I also get asked, “can’t I reinforce the container?”  Yes, with a lot of steel. Or, you can pour a concrete vault.  OR you can even build a vault from reinforced masonry.  Both are probably a lot cheaper and easier than reinforcing a container.  Also, neither will rust through. Cor-Ten steel is rust resistant, but I don’t know how well it will do in a buried environment, especially if you have corrosive type soils.

If you’ve gone this far, and need some more proof – look at this website!

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At What Point Do You Do Structural Repairs?

A lot of houses I look at have issues with settlement in the foundations and floor slabs.  A lot of times I only recommend cosmetic repairs.  Why is this?  If the house has settled, should you put in piers under your foundations to stabilize it?  Not always, and here’s my rationale:

In many cases I am looking at houses that have been in existence for 20 years or more.  The settlement is often rather minor, and can easily be hidden with simple cosmetic repairs like spackling cracks in the drywall, and filling cracks in exterior mortar.  Let’s say the repairs cost $200.  Usually settlement occurs at its maximum in the first five years or so of the life of the house, from there the settlement never really stops, but proceeds at a much slower rate.  So you would have to do cosmetic repairs on a fairly regular basis – maybe every two years or so.

Generally, it takes at least two foundation piers to repair settlement.  With a budget of about $1,100 a pier, the cost of the repair will be at least $2,200.  How many years will it take for your regular cosmetic repairs to be greater than this cost?  It will take 22 years!  Now with more severe cracking, recent settlement, or if windows and doors are affected, the piers are the best option.  However, in many cases it doesn’t really make economic sense to put out that kind of money.

The other issue is floor slabs.  Often garage slabs are built on soft soil, and they settle over time.  It costs about $6,000 to $8,000 in Atlanta to replace a two car garage floor slab.  If your garage slab has settled about 1/2″ towards the center, and only has minor cracking, do you really want to spend $6,000 to $8,000 for a room that you park your car in and store all your junk?  I wouldn’t.

So, oftentimes I give people the option in my reports – you can do a permanent repair for X amount of dollars and this will happen, or you can cosmetically repair the issue for Y amount of dollars and this other thing will happen.  It often times boils down to economics and personal preferences.

George

In this case, the cracking is probably due to minor settlement. It would require at least three piers to repair ($3,300), or you could reparge the block every couple of years for the cost of a bag of pre-mixed mortar..

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Here’s a Good One!

I just got back from checking out a foreclosed house, and I am always surprised at what stuff people do to houses.  Look at this:

Do you know what it is?  It’s a WINDOW through the basement subwall.  The only thing holding the dirt back is the geo fabric that you see.  Obviously, it’s not working so well, the floor of the basement is covered in mud.  When I was in college, a couple of friends of mine and I were discussing the idea of underground houses, and one of my friends said they weren’t a good idea.  If you opened the windows, dirt would come in.  Well, here they opened the window to the dirt.

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Why Don’t We Do Shipping Container Houses For Individuals?

I get e-mails all the time from people that want to build their own shipping container houses.  Some of them are actually quite belligerent as to why we won’t work for individual homeowners in designing these.  Some plead with us to make an exception, others ask for us to point them to a builder that they can go to that we will work with.  Let me explain our reasoning, and hopefully clear up some confusion.

First, we have done work for individuals in the past, and it didn’t work out well.  In most cases they had unrealistic ideas as to what this type of construction would cost.  If you are building a container house by yourself, I don’t care what the many other websites tell you, it will cost you about $150.00 a square foot.  Now, somebody will reply to this pointing out they “know a guy” that built a house for couple hundred dollars.  I’m not talking about a hermit living in a box in the woods.  I’m talking about a permitted legal house .  I’ve challenged people to come up with a specific house that has been permitted and follows all applicable codes that costs less – I need specifics.  If I get one of these, I will happily post about it here on the website.

Second, if you’ve ever built your own house you know what a pain in the neck that it is.  Shipping containers are not conventional.  Cutting them requires a skilled hand with a plasma torch or diamond saw.  Welding them requires a lot of tedious grinding to get rid of the epoxy paint, and a skilled hand at welding.  When you cut the sides off, the containers spring out of shape.  They have to be lifted by a crane.  This is more commercial type work, not residential.  I don’t care if you’ve built a wonderful wet bar in your basement, it’s not a DIY project. I know there are websites out there that say that they can be built as a DIY project, but there are also websites out there that say the moon landing was faked, and that the US Government has an Alien breeding program where aliens are cross bred with humans. Look, I worked for the Government, and we were too incompetent to fake a moon landing, and you would have better luck mating my parrot with my dog than a human with a species from another solar system.  You also would find building your own container house only marginally easier that mating the parrot with the dog, and would have better luck faking the moon landing.

Third is the liability.  “Liability” is often used as an excuse for poor service, but in this case it is real.  If you contract with us to design a house for you, and you run into all kind of problems as you find it’s sprung out of shape, you can’t get the floors to match up, you have problems stacking the containers, and the details have to be changed, you may get very angry instead of realizing you waded in over your head.  That’s how lawsuits begin.  It’s just not worth the risk for us.

Now, one other problem is that people that want to build a home for themselves with shipping containers get very angry when we don’t return their calls or e-mails. It comes off as impolite, but let me explain why this happens.  First off, we say in our contact information that we don’t do shipping container houses for individuals, we also say it again in this post.  So, if you are calling or e-mailing us, you probably had read that we don’t do work for individual homes, but you chose to contact us anyway.  That’s a red flag right there.

If we respond to an e-mail or a phone call, it almost always starts a bargaining session that can be very time consuming.  If you spend 15 minutes talking to me on the phone, it costs the company $50.00 in billable time.  That’s a lot of time to be spent to tell you “no”.  With e-mails, if I respond, it starts a flurry of back and forth e-mails, again trying to bargain with us.  Again, it is time consuming going back and forth on e-mails for projects that the answer will certainly be “no”.

If you really want a container house, what do I recommend you do? I don’t really have any recommendations on this.  This is something we just can’t help you with.

George

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The House of Pain

Every now and then you come across construction that is so bad it takes your breath away.  This house is the most extreme example that I’ve seen.  It’s not uncommon to see shacks out in the woods put up in a haphazard manor, usually that’s because the people that are putting them up have very little money, so they get stuff to build with as they can.  They also have little in construction skills and can’t afford to pay contractors to do the work.  This house was in a very nice suburban neighborhood, and actually looked somewhat OK from the street with the exception that it was on temporary power.  It hadn’t gone to permanent power because it hadn’t passed any inspections and there was no certificate of occupancy.

The homeowner called me because the county had shown up with an order for them to vacate the property.  Apparently they had bought the property “as is”, and they wanted to sue the seller.  I was asked to do a report on the property, and I knew immediately after I entered the house that I’d never get paid for my work.  However, curiosity took over and I did the evaluation, wrote a lengthy report, and of course got stiffed for the fee.  I never did find out what the final disposition of the house was.  I talked to one of the senior county inspectors about it, and he said the house had changed hands numerous times and the ownership wasn’t too clear.  That should be expected, because it’s hard to believe any financial institution would lend for something like this.

While this is an extreme example, there are a fair number of houses out there that have similar defects.  Towards the end of the housing boom a lot of people jumped in to build houses that shouldn’t have, and many of the foreclosures on the market have very significant construction defects.  What looks like a bargain price may be in the end an expensive transfer of misery.

Let’s start from the outside:
Rear of House

This is in the rear of the house – where do you start?  The stucco is totally jacked up, look at how it’s peeling from the house.  There are no joints in the stucco.  The deck is made from untreated lumber and is not supported correctly from the post.  There should be a concrete landing outside the door, and there is no drip edge under the stucco.  The paint is peeling off the windows, there is excess erosion, and it’s not a good idea to leave trash around your foundation, it attracts insects and vermin.

Garage entrance
No gutters, the roofing is sloppy, look at the garage door opening, it’s a mess too.  The difference in color of the stucco is due to lighting, it doesn’t actually have multiple tones.  Here’s a close up of the electric meter:
Electric meter
The holes are supposed to be sealed to keep the weather, insects, and rodents out.  I don’t think that meter was hooked up by the way.  Let’s go inside, it gets much worse:
Living room
Ok, the wallpaper is peeling off.  It also is two clashing styles.  The house was moderately messy, I’ve seen worse.  It was the rotting garbage in the sink that made it uncomfortable, but we’ve only just begun.

Let’s go up into the upstairs:
Yes the wires are hot
Yes, those wires are hot.  In the upstairs they didn’t finish the wiring, and it was hanging out of the junction boxes and fixtures.  By the way, the wires aren’t supposed to be all the same color.  Typically black is hot, white is neutral, red is hot, green is ground.  That’s so the electrician can wire things right and you don’t get electrocuted in your shower because the wrong wire was grounded.  Now we better go up and see what awaits us in the attic:
Attic 1
No junction boxes, the condensate piping is all wrong (note the tees are in for some unknown reason).  The framing is chopped up, and water damage is apparent in the right side.  How do you like the way the wiring is wrapped around stuff?

Attic 2
I couldn’t for the life of me figure why the vent pipe had the tee in it and branched out through two different outlets on the roof.  Note the wire that was used as a support.  The framing is completely wrong, and space doesn’t permit me to outline everything.  Note how the rafters aren’t properly supported at the bottoms, and the purlins are wrong too.
Attic Framing
Look in the rear of the photo wher the braces for the roof come down onto the beams.  There is nothing to keep those beams from twisting, which they will ultimately.  The framing is more or less randomly done.  Note the orbs in the center lower right – some believe those are spirits caught on film.  I think they’re dust particles, but maybe being confined to this attic is some poor soul’s punishment for misdeeds in a previous life…

More Random Framing
More random framing in the attic.  Note the ceiling joists seem to be placed with no rhyme or reason.  Also, look at the lower right and see the water damage.

Really Bad Wiring
We can’t stay in the attic forever, so we’re going downstairs.  But first, look at this wiring – it is sandwiched between the floor sheathing and ceiling joists.  That will wear the insulation off the wire and start a fire ultimately.  Although it will be a race between that and all the other wiring misdeeds to see which one will ultimately burn the house down, if it doesn’t fall down first.

Now, before we go in the basement, I want you to look at this shower:
Shower
This is the shower.  I’ve seen worse, but usually in places where the people are really poor, or in third world countries.  I wouldn’t step in here barefoot though.  However, look at the underside:
Under Shower
The shower doesn’t connect to the house sewer.  It just drains into the basement.  That sewer line slopes upward by the way.  They kept a plunger by the toilet to help things on their way.  Now, even though the shower didn’t drain into the sewer, the people here in this house were very clean.  Look:
Basement
They showered and bathed anyway!  Look at the water in the basement, AND the black mold.  The sheet rock was put up to cover worse mold behind it.  I am highly allergic to black mold, and I should have left.  However, like watching a train wreck, I couldn’t turn away.  I ignored my sinus pain and kept on…

Bathtub
While bathing may be healthful, it probably is risky in this house.  The rotten floor joists are under the tub and you might make a very quick trip to the basement.

Rough in Plumbing
Ok, they were roughing in a bathroom in the basement.  Look how close the sink drain is to the toilet.  That way you can sit on the throne and do your business while you brush your teeth.   The pipes were above the floor slab, so they never finished.

Water heaterWater heater 2
Part of the basement was bare ground, and that’s where the water heater was set.  The installation wasn’t quite completed.  Note the there is no pipe attached to the temperature and pressure valve, and the panels were left off.

Well, we’ve been here long enough, and just looking at this makes me have an allergic reaction, so let’s go, but…
The Stairs
Be careful going up the stairs.  These look like something you tried to climb in college after a night of heavy drinking, don’t they?

I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit in the House of Pain.  Please don’t buy anything like this.  If I find out what happened to the house, I will update this page.

George

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