Recently, I completed a paper and a presentation at Columbia University for the use of shipping containers for modular buildings. Here is my presentation that I prepared. It’s about 45 minutes long, and covers the history of modular buildings briefly, the history of containerized shipping, and how shipping containers have been used for a faster and lower cost way of building.
If I had to say what was the best project I have ever worked on as an engineer in the 33 years since I graduated from the University of Maryland, it has to be the shipping container apartment building on 3305 7th Street in Washington, DC. It was a rather unusual project in how it started as far as I was concerned. I was working on a job in New York, and I stopped in Washington, DC to visit my sister on my way home. While I was at my sister’s house, I got a call from a DC area code on my cell phone, so I went ahead and answered it – normally I don’t answer my cell phone when I am visiting people, but this seemed a bit different. The call was from Kelly Davies at Travis Price Architects. She had a shipping container building project that had an investor, and a contractor. Her firm was an established architecture firm in Washington, DC. Was I interested? Of course, and not only was I interested, I could meet with her that afternoon, since I just happened to be in the area.
We met in a conference room in the Acela Lounge in Union Station, and the meeting went very well. Travis Price came in and joined us, and we came to a preliminary agreement. A couple days later I had the contract and we began design. Since DC is fairly easy to get to from here in Atlanta, I went up to work in their office a couple of times. The design basically started in April, the house was permitted, and finished by October. For this size and complexity of a project I have never seen it done this fast. I’ve seen permitting take longer than this. Of course it took some very fast reaction times. One morning I was in Binghamton, NY waiting on the bus to New York City, and I got a frantic e-mail needing some sort of letter from me. I wrote the thing in the waiting room of the bus station and sent it back before I got on the bus ( I really, really hate airports so I will do anything to avoid flying, even if it means riding a bus – which is actually kind of fun ).
What amazed me is the publicity we got. The project got on page one of the Washington Post on the day the containers came in. We were featured on news outlets all over DC and covered nationally. Not all the reviews are positive for this project, which is expected. Many are ignorant – like comparing shipping containers to house trailers. Structurally this building is very stout and I thin has a life span of about 200 years. Others didn’t like the look, and aesthetics are a matter of personal taste. Others felt it somehow was wrong to live in a box originally designed for shipping goods. In such case, you don’t have to live there.
Anyway, here are pictures of the final product taken by a professional photographer:
View of House From 7th Street
Rear Bedroom With Balcony
My favorite part – the kitchen
The Building at Night
Bolting the Corners Together Was A Method I Used To Provide For More Capacity From the Columns
Our latest project is in Washington, DC at 3305 7th Street NE, near Catholic University. It’s a four story building made from 18 containers, it will have 8 apartments. The architect is Travis Price Architects and we are the structural engineers. The project moved extremely fast, we started design in April 2014 and by the first week of August 2014 the structural part was just about complete. The media attention has been extensive, here is a link to one of the local newscasts. We also got front page treatment from the Washington Post.
Structurally I am using the containers to do most of the work, there is very little extra structural steel added. The biggest hassle was to provide the wind bracing in the basement, I have some massive foundations. Here’s a couple of pictures:
To lift over neighboring homes and trees, a very large crane was required.
Placing Shipping Containers
Here we are setting the first level containers. Note the wrecking bar is being used to pry these into place.
Here is a photo where the container is being lifted into place. If you go through the web, there are more than a few sites that claim a container house is a great DIY project – I hope this shows why that is a bad idea. This takes professionals.
Cutting bolt holes with the plasma torch.
The balconies are being fabricated using structural steel and the containers themselves.
I was going through my photos this morning, and I found this one:
Basement Subwall Failure
This was the subwall in an apartment building. The building was built back in the 70’s, and was built as part of a development of low income apartments. If there is ever a case for proper building permitting procedures, these types of apartments in the Atlanta area make it. In every one of these buildings it appears to me that there was almost no structural engineering, the foundations are often minimal or non-existent, the structure is all wood and all of the members are overspanned, there is no consideration for wind bracing, and as you see here, the subwalls are never strong enough. I suspect all that was done for the design was a floor layout, some elevations, and that was it.
It also appears that there was no inspection in most of these because the errors in construction are often so extreme that even the most inexperienced building inspector should have caught them. I always wonder how this worked. I assume the that at the time the builder submitted the floor plans and elevations, fees were paid, and the permit was issued and that was that. I suspect there was no inspection at all, or maybe just plumbing and electric.
In this one the subwall was not reinforced properly, the site wasn’t drained properly, and there was not a working underdrain system. As it rained, water pressure built up against the outside wall and we had a catastrophic collapse. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Sad thing is, I have been in one building where a tenant was seriously injured in a failure – while he was in bed the ceiling collapsed on him. The ceiling was not nailed to the joists above, it was glued. In time the glue deteriorated and the ceiling fell loose and seriously injured the person below.
View of Outside – Note the bracing.
The brick wall in in danger of collapse. By this time the building was condemned and apartments cleared out. It could have been much worse. The repairs were done (by replacing the subwall with an engineered one) and the building put back in service.
Every time I go to the old low income apartment buildings I come back away irritated. The shoddy construction is downright criminal, and shows a total lack of concern for the people that live in the buildings. The structural problems are many, and in addition the bathrooms are never adequately designed to contain the moisture. In every building of this type you will find rotted wood all around the bathrooms. This is not only a danger for the structure, but presents a great place for mold to grow. Also, the windows are usually improperly flashed, so you will see moisture in the structure around the windows – again, causing structural issues and mold.
How was this allowed to happen? Were the building officials corrupt? Were they incompetent? Were they racist (figuring it was primarily minorities that would live in these buildings and thus they didn’t care)? Was the system itself too lax? Most likely it was a combination of all. The sad thing is it hurts people that have no other options in life.
By the way, every time I go to these buildings I talk to a lot of the people that live there. They don’t seem like the stereo type “welfare recipient/drug dealer/thug” to me. All of the ones I’ve talked to just seemed like regular people, the kind you’d be happy to have as a neighbor. They have jobs, families, hopes and dreams. They just are poor. That makes it even more irritating to me.
Above all else, it shows how when people don’t do their jobs, it can seriously hurt other people.
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.
The University Lofts in Binghamton, NY is a cold formed steel framed building 6 stories high. The project consists of a replacement for a six story section of an old department store that burnt down, and a two story addition on top of the rear of the existing building. The main thing about the structure is it is completely cold formed steel. The sections are all custom roll formed on a Howick Machine, and the trusses and wall panels are pre-fabricated in Winchester, VA and trucked up to New York. The roll forming and prefabrication was being done by Vanguard Steel and we did the structural engineering.
What I like about this system is the freedom I have as a designer. Look at this truss:
Pre-fabricated Cold Formed Truss
The web is cut automatically by the forming machine, and if you look at the crimping in the flanges of the top and bottom chords, that is done too as part of the roll forming. Even the holes for the screws are cut by the Howick machine.
Here’s some photos of the process:
Assembling the Wall Panels
Fabrication of Panels and Trusses Are Done Indoors
The System Is Assembled On Site
The easiest way to explain this is to show this video:
Since everything is custom cut directly from the shop drawings by the machine, there is much less labor, and very little waste. It allows very fast construction. I like the system because it fabricates directly from the shop drawings to the machine, which provides more assurance that my design is being followed. I don’t have to worry about all the members being put in the right place, the connections being done correctly, or the right size members being used.
In addition, the trusses like the ones I designed would be next to impossible to do with standard cold formed steel construction – to cut out the flanges and lips in the top and bottom chords and cut the webbing would be horribly time consuming for labor and time. Yet, this type of truss is phenomenally strong and allows us to make long spans and carry heavy loads. Using this system they are exceedingly easy to fabricate.
This project involved the conversion of a large warehouse to a movie studio. It had large expanses, but the owner wanted more clear space for the floor, so two columns were removed. This was a rather difficult undertaking, we explored a few different ideas, and the best idea in terms of construction and cost was to erect large beams under the existing girder trusses to provide the support. Here’s photos of what we did:
The column has been removed and the beam is ready to erect
Close up view of the temporary support we designed.
Lifting the beam into place.
We also had to provide much larger foundations
The beams and new columns are in place. The remaining tasks are to install blocking, lateral bracing, and remove the temporary supports.
These projects in Canada are in the northern part of Saskatchewan Province and were designed for 3Twenty Solutions. 3 Twenty Solutions provides prefabricated buildings for remote sites that are used by oil companies and mining companies. These sites are inaccessible most of the year except by plane, and the only way to haul supplies up is during the winter over ice roads for many of the sites. Since it is hard to get construction equipment to these sites, and the weather is far from perfect, as much as possible must be assembled prior to transport. So, modified shipping containers fit the bill perfectly in most cases.
Inside a Typical Bedroom
Lifting Modules Into Place
In the Kitchen – This was more difficult to design because of the open area.
End View of Completed Building
Another View of the Containers Being Lifted Into Place