This is a brief video of how we do the structural engineering of a shipping container building. If this video is received well, we will post a more in depth video.
We get a lot of requests for engineering in California, and we have turned them all down. Why are we doing this? Wouldn’t it be better to make the money? Turns out it is not so simple. There are really severe problems that we can’t overcome right now. Let me go through it:
1. I am not licensed as a Professional Engineer in California. To get licensed requires a specific Seismic Exam, which I have not had time to take. I had to first complete my Master’s Degree, and now I am preparing to test for the Structural Engineer license.
2. I have had people say they could get a Professional Engineer to stamp my drawings in California. “Plan Stamping”, where an engineer stamps another unlicensed engineer’s work is forbidden in every state. While this restriction is sadly universally ignored, if something happens there can be very severe adverse consequences to my license and my liability.
3. One way we have worked around the “Plan Stamping” is that I have partnered with another engineer in California. This has caused my costs to go way up because I’m working with another engineer that lacks experience in this type of work and we end up spending a lot more time then budgeted on the project. Worse, the partnering engineer also spends more time than he or she budgeted, and that runs their costs up too.
4. The distance. We are thousands of miles away from California and 3 time zones. If there are problems with a project, this can be a serious issue. To fly out to California to deal with an issue will take up 3 days and a significant cost for air fare, car rental, and hotel.
It just doesn’t make sense at this time for us to take up projects in California, so for the foreseeable future we won’t be able to help you in that state.
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:
A few years back Bob Vila did a show on building a shipping container house with all sorts of claims, here’s a link. Part of what he covered was this miracle product, a ceramic paint, and I’ll quote directly, “TAW uses xxxx insulative coating, which is sprayed on both sides of the remaining container walls to prepare the house for heating and cooling loads. Supertherm is a high-performance, four-part ceramic coating that carries an R value of R-19 and adheres to the steel surface of the shipping containers. “It really worked,” says Shannon Locklair, project superintendent for the North Charleston house. “We had an open house one day when it was 85 or 90 degrees out and the air was at least 10 to 20 degrees cooler inside. This was before we had even installed the windows.”
Naturally every time something appears on the web about shipping containers, I get deluged with calls. This time was no different, and the idea of insulating paint interested me. I was rather confused, since I have done design work with Appendix J of the ASHRAE standards, and I have had thermodynamics in college. How could a material as thin as paint stop heat transfer? A ceramic pain manufacturer sent me a book of test reports along with a letter from the testing agency claiming the product had an “R19 Equivalent”. No explanation, just that statement. No information about the guy that signed the letter. Was he an engineer? What was his qualifications? I have no idea.
So, I read through all the test reports, and I didn’t see ANYTHING that indicated that this material had any sort of R value. Understand that R value is the inverse of the “U” value. U is a measure of conductance of thermal energy in a material. Let’s say you make a chamber and divide it in two with an insulating material. You heat up one side. If you measure how long it takes the heat to cross over the insulating material and heat up the other side, you can calculate the thermal conductance. That is a fraction, so you invert that number and you get a whole number and some decimals. Round it to the nearest integer and that is basically how you get R value. Think about it – how can a thin material stop the temperature from crossing the barrier?
For the scientifically inclined among you, lets get to the molecular level. Heat is energy and it causes molecules to move about faster. By moving faster, the molecules force a solid like ice to become liquid, and as they move faster they cause the liquid to become a gas, in the case of water, it becomes steam. In that warmer side of the chamber the molecules are moving faster than the molecules on the colder side of the chamber. The moving molecules bump up into the molecules of the thermal barrier and cause them to move faster. They in turn bump into the molecules on the other side of the chamber causing them to move faster, and that side of the chamber to heat up. With a thin layer of dense material like steel, this transfer of faster moving molecules happens really fast, which is why a steel sheet is a bad insulator. The best barrier is a vacuum between two sheets of any material, like you have in thermos bottle. There are very few molecules to bounce into each other. Since vacuums like a thermos bottle aren’t feasible for a building, a thicker less dense material, like fiberglass is used to slow the heat transfer down.
How does this translate to ceramic paint stopping heat transfer? It doesn’t. It doesn’t work. Just today I found this article. Basically what happened was a guy used a ceramic paint to insulate his house and then sued the HVAC contractor. Fortunately the mechanical contractor “won” the lawsuit (it probably cost him $50,000 to $100,000 in attorney’s fees). As I started reading the article, I realized it would be pretty easy to test the house to see if the product worked – an infrared camera would tell you whether it worked or not.
It turns out the owner of the house hired a mechanical engineer to find out what was wrong, here’s what happened when he testified in court (he used the infrared camera like I would have):
“At that point King contacted Curt Freedman, a mechanical engineer, and asked him to figure out why his house was so hard to heat and cool. Freedman later wrote, “During one of my site visits, with outside temperatures of 28ºF, temperatures in the home were noted only to be in the 48ºF to 60ºF range.”
Freedman told me, “I inspected his walls with an infrared gun. I was getting very irregular readings of the inside temperature of the wall surface, so I told him, ‘There is something terribly wrong here. Is your house insulated?’ It’s a big house. I went up to the attic, and I was astonished to look at all the joists with nothing in between them. There is nothing there. So I’m thinking, ‘What’s going on?’ The owner is boasting to me, talking about xxxx. He said, ‘This is the warmest attic in Longmeadow.’ I told him, ‘There’s a reason for that — all the heat from your house is coming up here to your attic, because there is no insulation on your attic floor.’”
“After examining the entire system, Freedman evaluated the thermal insulation throughout the home,” wrote Justice Fields. “Based on his assessment, Freedman determined that the R-value of the xxx was essentially zero.” Freedman determined that the actual design heating load of the uninsulated house was 365,133 Btu/h, so it wasn’t any surprise that the 183,000 Btu/h boiler couldn’t keep up.
Some time afterwards I was contacted by other insulating paint suppliers, and of course they didn’t make the same outrageous claims, but they did claim their product reflected radiant heat. Do they? Possibly. Is it any better than white paint? I don’t know. Is the ceramic based paint better for corrosion, wear, and so on? I don’t know. Typically epoxy paint is used by container manufacturers.
I checked out company in question’s website, and they still make some pretty impressive claims. I also found this article on the American Ceramics association website: http://ceramics.org/ceramic-tech-today/insulating-ceramic-paint-distributor-falls-for-his-own-grifter-tale
Anyway, it if sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true.
Sometimes when you build a project the story behind it is interesting in itself. Right now I am sitting in a camp chair on 7th Street in Washington, DC writing this post. We’re putting up the second floor of this three story apartment building near Catholic University. How did this happen? It starts out with Matt Grace and Sean Joiner. Both are Catholic University graduates; who began investing in real estate around the university. They bought homes and rented out to students. The house at this address was in pretty sad shape, so continuing to fix it was not a great idea. It had cracked foundations and many other problems.
As luck would have it, Matt’s girlfriend, Kelly Davies, is an architect who works for Travis Price Architecture. Travis is a well known architect in DC and he frequently lectures at Catholic University, and makes yearly trips to Ireland for various projects. Matt met with Travis, and after some discussion the idea of shipping containers came up. Kelly started the design work and began searching for a structural engineer that does shipping containers. Kelly found me on the web, and gave me a call. As luck would have it, I was visiting my sister in the DC area, so we met about an hour later. This I believe was back in April. I began my design work immediately.
This project, like most container projects required a lot of back and forth work between myself and the architect. When I could work it in my schedule I went to Kelly’s office in Georgetown and worked there. My first iteration was rather expensive, but I didn’t get “do we really have to do this?” (I hate that question) Instead, I got – “what if we do this? ” We developed a number of cost saving innovations in the process.
One of the days I was at Kelly’s office we were discussing who should be the contractor to do the container modifications. The company Cube Box came up, and Kelly called them. It turned out that one of their representatives was in Baltimore, and he came down to see us about an hour later. They got the contract.
I had to get my license in Washington, DC which took about 6 weeks. If I had been one day earlier with my paperwork, it would have been 2 weeks, but that’s how things work sometimes. Still, the permit application went pretty smoothly. There were minimal design comments, which we responded to immediately. Matt walked the plans through the permitting office and got the permit last week. We started yesterday and all the units should be up today. The project is to be completed by mid-August, and Kelly and Matt get married in September.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.