This should answer many of the questions around the project and container construction in general. Please review these before contacting me with any questions.
Q: How do I contact you?
A: First, please read the information contained in this blog site. I took the time to post it here so that I won’t have to repeat it over and over in person or on site. Then, after looking over the information within, the Contact page has a way to contact me or some of the contractors that agreed to have their information published (or that I wanted to make known).
Q: Why containers?
A: Shipping containers are strong, fire proof, long lasting, hurricane resistant, and have common characteristics. The United States is currently importing more than we are exporting, which often means we have more containers coming in than going out. Many ports have containers stacked up as surplus. A brand new container can cost $9000 or more, while a used container that has a few overseas trips under its belt can be as little as $2000 in usable condition. They are designed to be transported, stacked, and locked down.
Q: Isn’t it cheaper to use containers for construction?
A: It can be, but not always. While containers themselves are relatively inexpensive, the modification and engineering can exceed what standard construction might cost, especially in an area where construction costs are typically low. It is very likely that a project with 1-3 containers will cost less than standard construction. Going above that number, stacking, unique arrangements, open floor plans, and many other factors can make the price adjust to the level of standard construction or even much more. It is all design and experience dependent.
Q: I want to build with containers. Where do I start?
A: The internet is filled with a wealth of information. Learn as much as you can about containers, how they are designed, how they work, and hire experts for the parts that are unique. Container construction is becoming more common so there is more information out there about it. However be careful the source. I have purchased a couple of self published books that were little more than references to other sources and common knowledge. Some could even be considered outright misleading. There are blogs written by “experts”, but nothing to back up the commentary (no pictures of projects, little to no references, nothing to substantiate the claims). Anyone can write about something, but if you choose to read it and utilize the information, make sure it is from a reliable source. Once you become more educated on the topic, visit existing projects. Austin, Las Vegas, and many other major cities have large scale container projects that are open to the public. If you have never built or are not a container expert, plan on visiting several places in person and hiring professionals. This can still be tricky but necessary.
You will want to become a container expert or at least attempt to be. If you are not willing to learn as much as you can, understand the terms and capabilities, or pay someone to do that for you; then container construction may not be for you.
Q: Is a structural engineer required?
A: Yes and yes. You have probably seen YouTube videos with people doing their own projects, cutting container walls, grinding away, telling you how easy it is to modify containers. Keep in mind that as soon as you make one cut in any part of a container, you have altered the structural integrity. Containers are designed to work as a whole and when you change the whole of the structure, even with just one cut, you have changed the structure. Any cuts or modifications have to be made up with adding structural support back in to compensate for them. Yes, you could stack 8 containers high just like they do on the ocean liners. But once you factor in windows, doors, access, or stairs; you now need to make up for that with structural modifications and additions. Even just leaving container doors in an open configuration must be accounted for, since they are designed to stack and ship with the doors closed. Most cities require a structural engineer to approve or stamp a plan anyway. Using containers makes it more difficult to find a qualified structural engineer to work on the project. Plenty of people are interested in working on it (I hired someone with no container experience at first, but they had to resign after they realized it was over their head), but fewer have done projects with them. If you were working with one or two containers and not in an area with strict permitting, or planning on not stacking them, then you could probably duplicate parts of a good design and get the structural you need for simple modifications. I have one container with nothing stacked on top, that was approved to have much of one wall cut out without adding any substantial beams to it. I am not going to risk a multi level structure on guesses though. You shouldn’t either.
Q: Can you use a standard foundation?
A: Maybe. Containers are a little heavier than standard stick construction. IF you are going one or two stories, chances are you will be using a standard foundation. If you are going beyond that, then you will likely need helical piers or something similar to deal with the weight and the shearing effects of wind on a tall, heavy structure. I was not familiar with helical piers prior to this project. It seemed like a good idea when I heard about it, but it did complicate things and add to the expense. However in the long run, it will be a much more stable foundation. Not only do they provide a more solid footing for the structure to rest upon, but they also prevent lift in a situation where high winds may push on a tall structure causing a more vertical force upwards.
Q: Is it permitted with the city?
A: Yes, of course it is. Contrary to what you may have heard, the city of Houston allows container construction. It is viewed as steel construction, so as long as an appropriate structural plan is included, then it will be approved and permitted like any other structure. There is really only one additional step with a container structure for permitting and that is having a steel inspection. They simply verify that the fabrication was done to match the approved structural plans. You wouldn’t need this for wood, but the city requires third party inspection for steel since they are not experts in welds and metal gauges, for example.
Q: Isn’t it going to get hot in the Houston heat?
A: Yes. Just like any other metal surface, it will get hot when the sun is on it and it is 100 degrees outside. But just like all of the other houses and structures that use metal, that can be mitigated. This is just like using metal siding or roofing. Insulation on the inside, a thermal break, and an appropriate coating on the outside will reduce or eliminate any heat transfer to the inside.
Q: I have seen them stacked and turned all sorts of ways. Aren’t they like Lego blocks?
A: No. They are designed to stack as a whole unit, in one orientation, on top of each other, with specific locking mechanisms. You can do this up to 8 tall on a stable foundation, using the proper locking, and there will be no issues. However, as soon as you start cutting, turning, staggering, cantilevering, or anything outside of the way they were designed; you must have an engineer and it must be analyzed. The crazy shapes and structures you have seen online often required EXTENSIVE engineering and added structure to make it look simple.
Q: Aren’t the floors toxic? Or don’t you have to remove all of the flooring?
A: No. There is a ton of controversy around this. Most of it is not based in fact. Containers, just like everything else that is imported, are under regulation. We do not allow the importation of items using toxic substances in their production without loads of warnings. Containers are no different. There are ways to possibly track what was carried, but I would not rely on that. If you are very concerned about this, then one trippers may be more your speed. For at least the last 15 years (but really longer than that), the pesticides possibly used in older container flooring have been regulated and some banned. With the US being the largest importer of products worldwide, containers are not going to be made with a material that we ban. That is not to say that chemicals weren’t potentially transported in a container you might buy. But that is no different from anything else. As these containers are used, your car, your food, your kid’s toys are all transported in these same containers that potentially carried other chemicals on another trip. The risk is relatively low and there are ways to eliminate direct contact with the flooring anyway. Epoxy coating is the most common way.
Q: Will you consult on a project that I want to do?
A: Maybe. I have learned a ton. I have had some wins and some mistakes, while being VERY hands on with this project. Does that make me an expert? Possibly, at least compared to many others. I have gained a great deal of resources that will be valuable for another build and I have learned tricks to save time, money, or make the project better. Because I am already involved in the construction industry to a degree and I have worked in design for years, I have a handle on designs, what is efficient, what prices should be, and what alterations may work better. My design was transformed into a built structure, through an engineer, with minimal structure added and no functional changes to what I had put together. I even gave feedback to the structural engineer based on real world usage. Going by the feedback I have already received on this project, I think that it has been a very well received design. I would consider doing this for the right person or project, but only on the residential side. For commercial projects, that is a whole different ballgame that I am not interested or willing to enter at this time. Someone with a real project and real financials to back it would be a consideration for a meeting to discuss consultation using some of the resources I have acquired. Be prepared to buy the beers if we do meet up.