Structural Engineers

Category: Projects

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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Movie Studio

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:

Beam in place

The column has been removed and the beam is ready to erect

Temporary Support

Close up view of the temporary support we designed.

Lifting the beam into place

Lifting the beam into place.

Larger Foundations

We also had to provide much larger foundations

Beam in place
The beams and new columns are in place. The remaining tasks are to install blocking, lateral bracing, and remove the temporary supports.

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Shipping Container House on the Weather Channel

The Weather Channel recently did a short video on one of  the shipping container houses we designed in Atlanta.  Glen Donaldson the owner/builder leads the tour.

[youtube]http://youtu.be/HRxA25AR4GA[/youtube]

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Shipping Container House, New Haven, CT – The final product

The shipping container house that we designed in New Haven, Connecticut is now complete. Below is an excellent video that was produced by the builder which shows how the houses turned out. We’re beginning design shortly on the next house in that area, and were hoping the lessons we learned on this one can be applied to lower the costs and make it even better product. In previous posts of expressed a lot of skepticism about the costs of building shipping container houses. However, based on the lessons we’ve learned on this house and as we move forward I believe we can keep the cost down significantly below conventional construction.

The key is to proceed just how we have done. Build a prototype unit see what went wrong.and you are a there is the rare as see what went right and then build again.I’ve seen a lot of projects on the web and been contacted by a lot of people about a lot of projects that proposes very grandiose structures without first working on prototypes. The problem with doing this is there is not a large body of experience available on container housing construction, it’s  till somewhat experimental. So attempting a large project to start without first working out  he bugs and the smaller prototype is a huge  error in my opinion.

So, here is a video showing the house has its constructed and its interior.

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Pictures of Our Projects In Canada

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hallway View

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lifting Into Place – Note supports at ends.

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Shipping Container House, Connecticut

Here’s some pictures taken by the client for the shipping container house in New Haven, CT. This house was built from six containers, and features a more traditional architecture for the front. This project was built by Marengo Structures, and the designer was Christian Salvati. We worked closely with him to produce the structural design, and the intent of the project was to build an attractive house at an affordable price.  The house was built on a vacant lot in an older neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut.  The builder wanted to make the house fit well into the architecture of the neighborhood, which consisted of houses built in the 1920’s.  To make a container house do this, you have to cover the containers up to a certain extent, which was done in the front of the structure.  Please see the video to get the best feel for scope and intent of the Project:

 

The front is being furred out to allow a more traditional siding to be placed over it.

 

The house is finally starting to take shape!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Final Product

The final product is above.

The video below provides a very good explanation of the house and shows some interesting views of it while it was under construction:

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3d for Residential Structural Design

This is one of my more recent projects, the architect was dencity Design in Atlanta.  It’s a very difficult house – look at the cantilevers:

3d Structure of Residence In Decatur, GA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This kind of strucutre is difficult to engineer because you have to visualize a very complex 3 shape from a 2 drawing.  To make things easier, the Architect, Staffan Svenson, sent me a rendering done in Google Sketchup so I could visualize what was happening.  I then built a 3 model in RAM Elements software to cover all the different forces we would encounter.  The problem you get is not only vertical forces in a complex structure as this, but the wind action.  How do you brace it?  I used fixed connections to the foundations, which required me to spend time engineering anchor plates, anchor bolts, and very large foundations.  I could do this by hand (and I have) would be very time consuming, and you run the chance of what I call “calculation fatigue” – you do so many calculations you get blind to the errors due to simple mental fatigue.

Here’s a view of the rendering from RAM Elements:

Rendering From Structural Design Program – RAM Elements

 

 

Working this way, I was able to model all of the effects of the structure – note how I put in concrete walls in the basement and OSB (Oriented Strand Board) walls on the first and second floors.  All of this could factor into the design.  Once the structural calculations are done, it’s time to do what the illustrious professors I had as an undergraduate didn’t think was important, but is actually critical – translate it into a drawing that can be understood and constructed.  This is a pet peeve of mine, I run into engineers that can’t seem to understand how to develop their ideas into drawings.  In such case you may as not have any ideas.

I personally had two choices for drawing this, well I guess three:

1.  I could send the drawing out to a CAD service with hand sketches of what I wanted.  We could go back and forth for a week or so until I got what I wanted.  Maybe two weeks.  Well, really four weeks.

2.  I could draw it myself in AutoCAD – there is another type of fatigue you encounter when drawing.  After working so hard to do the calculations, now you are drawing all these boring details, and repetitious joists, and then trying to make it all work.  I could do this drawing in about 40 man hours.

3.  Draw the drawing in Softplan, and use exported details from RAM Elements for the connections, foundations, and baseplates.  RAM Exports details in DXF (Drawing Exchange format), so it’s easy to import into Softplan.  Softplan generates drawings in 3d from your floor plans, and automates a lot of stuff like drawing columns, foundations, walls, and joists.  The beauty is you can have a 3d model that constantly updates as you create your drawing.  That way you can catch things you might overlook.  I was able to make sure I had load bearing walls stacking to the floor, and that I had foundations placed properly under all walls.  Also I was able to show the Architect, Staffan, what I was trying to do.  To do this, I shared the model over GoToMeeting with Staffan, and he did point out a few changes I needed to do.  I modifed the drawing, showed the model to Staffan again on GoToMeeting, and finished it.  It worked out really well.

As you can see, I chose Option 3 above.  My father was an engineer also, and he generally did his own drawings.  He could draw well and very fast, and he said the time it took to explain his ideas to a draftsman (women weren’t in the business in his day), he could the same drawing several times over.  I have the same issue.  I can’t hand draw like my father could, I never had to put the time into it to learn the skill like he had.  However, I’ve taken a lot of courses on AutoCAD, and I think I’m pretty good at drawing on the computer.  I’m also pretty fast, so like my father, it’s not worth it for me to use a CAD person.  I do use my son on many jobs because we’ve worked together enough he knows what I want, but some jobs like this I really feel like only I could do right.

Anyway, the design of this project worked out pretty well.  The next stage is construction.  I hope to intimately involved in the construction.  My contract requires the client to contact me for a minimum of two site visits.  I also explained to the builder that I want to go over everything with him to make sure there are no misunderstandings.  The builder told me he has  a great steel supplier, and he understands how critical this structure is.  I have great hopes for this job, the key to making any job work is close communications between all parties.

Here’s a final view of my model in Softplan:

Structural Rendering of Residence From the Side

 

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Marvin Windows, Atlanta, GA

This project was an older retail store that was built in the 1950’s, and had been modified a number of times.  We had to analyze the floor system to determine if it was capable of handling the increased loads from the floor displays, which meant we had to do extensive measuring in order to model the building (no drawings were available).  We also did design work on the fascia of the building, some of the modifications over the years were rather ill advised.

 

 

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