With partners, I own land in a remote part of California. It has wild beauty, and some need of environmental restoration. Our first years there were spent in basic infrastructure such as water and road. To be there on a more regular basis, though, we needed to not spend hours setting up and tearing down a tent each time we visited. My partners built a yurt. I am building a house framed by shipping containers.
Create a livable structure that I make with mostly my labor, accomplishable in a remote location.
- Everything must be carried out or disposed of onsite. The less waste, the less impact.
- There is a winter stream 100 feet from the site. I did not want debris clogging a water source that feeds into endangered salmon habitat. I did not want to engineer any erosion control such as retaining walls.
- The temperature can go below freezing in winter and reach 115° in summer, with generally a 40-50° temperature swing during the day. I wanted to be as smart as possible about heating and cooling to use the fewest resources.
- I did not want to have a structure that I would outgrow and then need to upgrade. I wanted to do this only once because ultimately, I'm lazy. I also thought having space for guests to sleep so they didn't have to pitch a tent would be nice, too.
- Had the luxury of spending some months focusing on project, but wanted all future projects to be doable in a weekend between work.
- I did not want to spend more than you would on an RV, for two reasons. I wanted this solution to be repeatable by others who are not rich. Two, I wanted to conserve resources in order to have a lesser impact on getting materials onsite (less oil consumed) and general consumption (leave what I don't need for the future).
- I do not like correcting my mistakes. I'd rather not make mistakes in the first place. Mistakes waste energy, money, and resources. I would rather spend three weeks contemplating something that will take two days to do, if that makes the result near flawless.
- I wanted the house to be modern, but cozy. I like beautiful objects and great design, but did not want to feel like I live in a hotel. I wanted the house to feel like an individual made it.
- I wanted to reduce, reuse, recycle materials. While part of this has to do with onsite waste, I'm also referring in a larger sense to mitigating other people's waste.
- There's only a 5-10% chance that we'll go to hell in a hand basket due to energy and water shortages, as well as climate change. I'd like the place to be self-reliant and off-the-grid for that possibility and on general principle.
- I wanted to figure out the best way of doing something, based on other people figuring stuff out. There's no need to reinvent the wheel in certain endeavors.
- Conversely, I wanted to do something that hadn't been done before. If I was going to devote a fair amount of time to thinking, I'd prefer it to be somewhat original thought. Of course, it's not like we haven't been making shelter for tens of thousands of years. But I want my jet pack. I want a lot, it seems.
I have been mightily influenced by Christopher Alexander, whose work I became acquainted with when I published an interview with Will Wright on making The Sims. I read the whole Nature of Order series. It appealed to the computer enthusiast in me, as well as my aesthetic. I have also been influenced by the permaculture movement as a response to the climate change crisis. Several of my friends had taken courses. After some online investigation, there were two things I could not figure out how to do by myself: Make the thingamajig you use to make contour lines for a swale, and what the consistency of cob should be. So I took a course led by Starhawk, called Earth Activist Training. My takeaways from the course: Build soil and clean water at whatever level you can. Early on I also liked the idea of Earthships. While my solution is far afield from their idea, I've used some of the concepts.
What I picked up from Alexander is that you shouldn't foist a complete solution upon a situation. Rather, everyone can do something to fix the situation organically. It's all part of a learning process. And his patterns are not just geometrical objects, but rather the pattern ends up being the method you use to make things more lively. His golden rule of architecture - make things prettier, while taking your neighbor into account, and this makes the whole better. This notion was reinforced in me by reading up on permaculture. Many permaculturists also referred to his work.
I'm also inspired by my partners' work. They're about a year ahead of me, and I've learned a great deal from their methods and solutions.
This project would not have been made possible without the work of others who propagated their ideas, from seventies hippies rediscovering passive solar design to the Fairfax County, Virginia building department publishing the code for decks. I've also checked out many, many books from the San Francisco Public library. I have visited many, many web sites from conspiracy theorists to This Old House. There is nothing really new under the sun. It does not cost an arm and a leg to learn how to do any of this. Curiosity and force of will does help.
I find much modern building to be ugly and lifeless. Alexander's work helped me put a finger on why. At the same time, the science fiction lover in me likes the mechanical and industrial. I don't think technology has to be a bad thing. But. Our modern lifestyle of overconsumption has led to serious problems with the environment. In the future, not only should we think about the effects of our technology on the environment, but we should develop something that fixes a past problem at the same time. I also believe that modern architecture can be uninspiring and depressing, and when one is depressed, one cannot produce great work. Fixing up architecture is a way of making people more psychologically able to solve problems.
So, this is my contribution to propagating solutions to problems. The ability to have a playground to put ideas into practice, for tangible study, pleases me greatly. Having said that, there is far more romance in the idea of a shipping container home than the actuality of building one. Working with metal is a pain. You need to know metal-working skills or someone who has them. It is dangerous to work with power tools of course, but angle grinders and welders are especially not for the faint of heart. I am of course happy with the result, but this has been harder work than I imagined, and I didn't do the hardest labor. And as far as project management goes, I would not try anything larger than this as a DIY hobby project.
More optimistically, I am happy if you use any of my ideas. Let me know if you do. I'm also happy to answer any questions, send me email using my user at domain as address. This is also a work in progress, I welcome constructive suggestions. If you want to republish this work, or use my ideas to generate income, however, contact me first.
I spent several years contemplating both the kind of house I wanted and where to put it. I cannot stress this enough if you have the luxury. Thinking about the problem before doing can prevent errors. Of course, real artists ship. Never doing something because you're afraid of making a mistake doesn't get you anywhere.
I considered several prefab options. My partners and I looked at Michelle Kaufman's Glidehouse when it was set up at the Sunset Living festival. I was impressed by it, but one of my partners really wanted more of a hobbit house. However, even modernist me thought the house did have a few flaws. I could hear a constant hum from the ventilation (which would mean the house needed constant power). The walls felt un-solid. I think I have a reaction to drywall. It was also too expensive for our needs. And it didn't feel homy enough. But I like where she's going with things. We think natural building techniques are great, but one thing I've learned is that for them to actually be effective, you need to gather materials onsite. And while you're doing that you need shelter.
I found fabprefab.com and investigated various other projects in progress. Well, the only other problem is that you can't get a 40' truck over our road. Prefab at that point became problematic. As would be dealing with getting a foundation and onsite construction crew. There aren't many such resources in the area.
I thought about various tent-like objects and domes. When I went to the earth activist training, I saw a yome, halfway between yurt and dome. I'd been thinking about one, and the yome was nice enough, but really more for just one person/couple, without a lot of room for expansion. I visited a yurt at the Solar Living center in Hopland, and it was overly hot without any shade on it in the summer sun. My partner's yurt has more insulation, but still suffers from stuffiness in the middle of the day. Unless you take the windows off. Which attach by velcro and some are hard to reach. Yes, I'm that lazy.
I then considered, well, what about a lincoln log cabin, or some other kit home. I looked at the tiny homes on fab prefab, and the other fab projects they had. And well, I know nothing about framing, I'd probably make a lot of mistakes. And it looked dangerous to make a two-story building. And it looked like there would be a bunch of wood waste. And I wanted to conserve resources.
Also on fabprefab was a section called ContainerBay. I read the stories and looked at the advice. I began playing with the idea of two shipping containers, remembering the people living in storage lockers in Snow Crash (I know, that was supposedly dystopia). Then, my boyfriend Nick said he'd help me create a shipping container house, but would not help with a dumb wood cottage. Or words to those effects.
I envisioned the dream myself: me, my laptop, and sketchup. It would have remained pixels in the sky without the aid, assistance, and ass-kicking of the following folks. I've been amazed and gratified by the selfless contributions of time, things, and ideas to make this dream come true. When the foundations went in and the containers were placed, I was secretly pleased. When the interior began to take shape, and the deck was done, I became openly smug. While the project is far from complete, with a kitchen and roof addition, I'm righteously satisfied. Thanks everyone for making it so.
- Moral support, making cord that connects welder to generator, encouraging telephone use, cost research, foundation vetting, anchorplate idea, site squaring and hole marking, stake pounding, batterboard construction, laser sighting, string tying, construction grout solution and implementation, beer opening, salsa fetching, photo documentation, arch idea, general tools such as hammer, screwdriver, level, straightedge, wrenches, chisel.
- M clan
- Shelter pioneering, foundation idea, use of yurt while under construction, tool acquisition including mitre saw, generators, socket wrench set, spade bits, cordless power tool set, level, chalk line, PVC, ladders, solar to recharge power tools. Solar brainstorming, deck help, general moral support, probably lots more I'm forgetting.
- Foundation moral support and civil engineer recommendation, front door, scraps, engineering ideas including weathertightness and ship's ladder, whisper-quiet generator, pressure washer, plywood work surface, spray foam tool. Metal studio equipment including band saw, drill press, sanders.
- BA plus helper
- Site clearing.
- Neighborly rescue more than once including jump starting a car.
- Containers, loan of angle grinder.
- Repetition of "make sure you do watertight welds" over and over again. Vanity with mirror.
- Initial footing idea. Foundation support and brainstorm. Trencher, utility cart, workers.
- Civil engineering.
- GG and RG
- Digging holes. Pouring concrete. Trenching and filling french drain.
- 2 more workhands
- Grinding away rust and painting.
- KW plus helper
- Loan of laser level, container placement with forklift.
- Coffee percolator, coffee mug, coffee filters, 1-burner butane stove to make coffee, plates, silverware, towels, sheets, broken flashlight. General daughter support as always.
- Uncle Don
- Kerosene lantern, lazy susan, knives, glasses, more random kitchen stuff.
- Sounding board, tile.
- Grinding, welding, carpentry, implementation of arch idea, shop vac, welder extension cord, deck stair concept, all around know-how to fabricate odd concepts, shelving units, drafting table, workhorses. And the kitchen sink.
- Small window
- Clerestory and roof garden ideas.
- Heat exchanger idea. Telling me about the efficiency of top open refrigerators.
- KH and BC
- Two wardrobes, desk.
- Sideboard, roof observatory idea.
- If I forgot something you did, please let me know.