The one common experience of all humanity is
the challenge of problems.
-- R. Buckminster Fuller
first met Colin Reedy about 12 years ago. He had just
returned from studying design in Milan and I had just
returned from Rio de Janeiro. We found ourselves stuck
in Portland, Oregon, I as an owner and designer of
artist lofts, he as a struggling designer of furniture
who happened to end up living and working in one of
my lofts. It was apparent from the first moment I
saw Colin's designs that he was a maverick genius.
A lot of artists passed through those lofts over the
years. Some of them went on to a great deal of fame.
I can think of few whose work was as immediately exciting
as Colin's. Colin Reedy carries with him an enthusiasm
for creativity and for his work. He has had a good
deal of success, all of it deserved. He travels frequently
and has lived much of the past 20 years outside of
the United States. He first presented the idea of
a nomadic house to me several years ago. I've been
pestering him for the past two years to put the concept
into a written form for EscapeArtist.com Here's the
Creating A House To Roam The
In Part 1 of this article I introduced the idea of
a portable dwelling based on a standard international
shipping container. As a housing alternative to renting
or buying, it¹s one that offers a high degree
of portability, customization, and security. In the
second half I want to get specific and lay out plans
for moving the idea closer to reality.
What you start
For starters, how many containers make a suitable
"home"? After walking inside several and
imagining the possibilities, I¹ve long thought
two 40 foot containers would be good. I foresaw one
container as a living space and another as a work
studio with tools and storage. But I now think just
one container would be an appropriate challenge.Perhaps
a second container could be acquired locally at new
destinations and used for additional space as needed.
I still want to discuss arrangements with more than
one container, but I see a different level of customization
for each container. For instance, the primary container
might be equipped with plumbing for bathing, a toilet,
and a sink.
It would also have electrical outlets connected to
a fuse box and a propane system for a stove, refrigerator,
and heating/cooling. A secondary container might only
have basic electricity (maybe just an extension cord
running through the wall) for lights and a few appliances.
So how do we start with a huge metal box and not end
up feeling like we¹re living in a huge metal
box? For a true rugged global nomad, this would not
be an issue, because they've learned to sleep in stranger
places and live out of backpacks for weeks and months
on end. I've been there. But I want to create a level
of comfort and security closer to "home",
just without the mortgage or rent to tie me down.
Ideally, this container home isn't just a cheap place
to sleep, but a place you enjoy spending time and
can live comfortably. OK, here goes, let's design!
What you end up
Electric power. To run lights, tools, some appliances,
computer, and a stereo. The idea when planning all
utility systems for the container home is to be flexible
and prepared to handle as many diverse situations
as possible. Obviously, broader flexibility and or
adaptability will create more opportunities for locations.
Access to a local electricity source would be the
easiest solution. A small opening on the outside of
the container to accept a heavy duty extension cord
would allow the whole plug inside and secure it so
no one could accidentally or easily unplug you. Two
or three of these plug-ins could create different
circuits to keep the computer and stereo power separate
from tools or charging batteries.
Surge protectors and a power converter are basic
electrical accessories to include. A small fuse box
with 2-4 breakers would be great if you planned to
have a more direct power source. But I think well-placed
standard "power strips" (multiple socket
rack with a built-in fuse) and extension cords can
offer just as much function.
Locations away from local power means generating your
own. This is where you realize which appliances suck
up power and which don't. I'm not going to recommend
specific solar power systems because a huge array
of products exists. There are options from reasonable
to expensive that will keep your lights, music, and
Power tools and any heating or cooking appliances
will probably demand more than reasonably priced photovoltaic
solar power will deliver as far as I'm aware. Gasoline
or propane powered generators might be considered
if your situation really needed the electricity and
you had the space and could tolerate the noise. My
choice is to be ready to plug into local power and
also capable of solar powering the necessities like
lights and computer. Television is not a necessity.
Water: arguably the most important utility and one
of the main factors determining the placement of your
container home. Any decent water system requires a
source, pressure, maybe storage, heating, and the
plumbing to deliver it where needed. The easiest situation
would allow you to hook up to a municipal water source.
All that'd needed is a range of fittings and a hose,
and the fittings could be purchased locally since
they'll undoubtedly be of local size standards. That'll
give you the source and pressure you need, but not
a hot shower. Storing large amounts of water and continually
heating it for immediate use is amazingly stupid no
matter how much space and money you have. I can¹t
believe this is the standard in the United States
well, maybe I can. I once lived in an apartment in
Milan, and we had a box on the bathroom wall with
gas and water pipes running thru it. Gas flames jumped
to life and heated the water pipe immediately upon
turning on any hot water faucet. I was amazed. So
It's called an "on-demand" water heater.
I found another "on-demand" system in my
Peruvian hotel last April that used electric coils
in a large shower head. But the idea of 220 volts
in my shower is a bit unsettling. I also learned that
for safety concerns, some cultures aren't yet comfortable
with gas in the house to cook or heat. They prefer
electricity. However, I think a wall mounted, propane
powered, "on-demand" water heater is the
best solution for an efficient container dwelling.
I have found models available for USD$300-700. Most
have electric ignition but one uses two D size batteries
that supposedly last 2 years (Aquastar 125 = USD$600).
There are also solar versions that preheat the water.
Sizes are all similar, in the 30x18x10 inch range
(75x45x25cm) and 40-60 pounds (18-28 kg). Installation
would require the propane connection and a 4-5 inch
(10-12cm) hole cut for venting to the outside. More
self - sufficient water systems would involve building
pressure and even collecting and storing some of the
water needed. Small electric pumps are readily available
to bring water up from wells, river, or lake sources.
Some also pressurize it to create a shower. Hand pumps
are a simpler option. One product called the "Hot
Man Camper Shower" (from Wyoming River Raiders)
is essentially a hand pump garden sprayer made in
stainless steel. It's a 2.5 gallon tank (9.5 liters)
with a pump, temperature gauge, hose, shower head,
and a valve. It can be placed directly on a heat source
(such as your propane kitchen stove) and delivers
five minutes of continuous hot shower. And at $100-120
it's a lot cheaper than the gas heater and offers
pressure and plumbing.
Awning Cover &
Water storage then becomes an issue. I imagine using
a large plastic container with a removable top. These
are often available from farm supply stores. I have
seen many sizes in South America molded from durable
polypropylene and used for roof top water storage. How
much water you need or want to store will largely reflect
the situations you intend to encounter and how self-sufficient
you want to be. If you have an "on-demand"
water heater and municipal water with pressure then
you need no storage. Add a good filter to your sink
and you don't even need to store drinking water. But
I want to expect situations where water is pumped, delivered,
or collected from rain.
A good awning cover could be designed to send rainwater
to the large plastic container for pumping later into
the shower or sink. And the same container could accept
water delivery or be filled from other sources. For
hand pump pressurizing, however, a smaller container
would be better. Three to five gallons is plenty of
water for washing or showering and many people can
do with half that after some practice. The idea of
using the "Hot Man Camp Shower" as a cheap
source of pressurized water for doing dishes (cold
water) or heating it and taking a shower seems like
a simple solution.
Frequent refilling of the 2.5 gallon tank might become
tedious, but the cheap cost plus flexibility could
make the choice over more expensive options that still
require plumbing and pressure. Plumbing. You have
to drain out the used water from bathing and washing.
And I get tired of fussy plumbing that won't accept
a few coffee grounds or bits of vegetables once in
a while. Go big. Easier to clean and avoids clogging.
Two inch (5cm) diameter PVC plastic pipe is cheap
and simple to use. In my design, I only have two water
outlets (shower + sink) and two drains that quickly
merge and exit the side of the container. Raising
the floor in the bathroom area about 10-12 inches
(25-30cm) allows working space for pipes and enough
incline for water to drain out well. A factory made
fiberglass shower unit solves a lot of plumbing, draining,
and water sealing efforts.
- Buckminster Fuller
And I can get one for less than $200 at the local
building supply store. I¹d anchor it to the wall
and brace it with floor to ceiling steel or wood beams.
As in any efficient home, water fixtures are grouped
to allow minimal running of pipes. I'd put the shower
back to back with the sink. I recommend putting all
utility access/drains/vents along the same side of
the container in case location requires blocking one
or two sides. Another thought: it may not be possible
to continuously drain out water. For situations where
you need to be a bit more discreet, a 20-30 gallon
reservoir that can be emptied with a valve might be
desired. In this case, raising the floor and planning
the drain flow gets more critical.
Toilet. This feature still has me searching for alternatives.
Great composting toilets exist that use no electricity
or a little (12volts), no plumbing, very easy installation,
claim no odor, and require minimal maintenance. And
they¹re long time proven in boats, RV's, and
summer cabins. However, they start at $900 or more
(SunMar Ecolet, Biolet).
I think they are ideal, but the cost is extreme and
I haven't yet found many options. One toilet designed
for river rafting trips offers a sealed box and a
normal looking toilet seat for USD$120 (another product
from Wyoming River Raiders). It claims "50 user
days" which seems like a long time between emptying
(especially in a closed container!), but the cost
and simplicity are there. The toilet choices I¹ve
found so far either give you an expensive fiberglass
chambered system with a bacteria rich mixture to break
down and absorb wastes, or a glorified zip-lock baggie
and bucket set-up.
Top View of Your
Propane. Readily available in most of the world,
cheap, and relatively safe, propane offers the container
home a fuel source for cooking, refrigeration, and
heating both water and air. Good steel propane burners
are widely available in camping stores for USD$75-200
depending upon features. I¹m interested to learn
what is required to convert a standard compact gas
oven/range to use propane. My cooking skills are primarily
stove top based, but having an oven could be nice.
Propane powered refrigerators are less common and therefore
more expensive. Figure USD$400 or more (unless you can
find a used one) for a compact unit that will fit under
the kitchen counter. Many models can use both propane
and electric power which would be my choice when steady
local power is available. I found one refrigerator that
runs very efficiently on kerosene, but kerosene stinks,
especially in a small space.
I'm not going to spend much time here considering propane
space heaters. After 17 years in Chicago winters, I
don't mind when temperature drop into the 50'sF (10C)
and even lower at night. That's what sweaters, warm
blankets, and girlfriends were made for. But there are
numerous inexpensive propane heater units that bolt
to the wall or free stand capable of warming a shipping
container. Just be careful on placement for fire safety.
The last propane appliance would be the gas "on-demand"
water heater previously discussed. I recommend 2-3 smaller
propane tanks for easier filling and transporting instead
of a single big one. I considered a big tank secured
in a steel closet located near the door for east access
and filling, but more than likely you will need to carry
a couple tanks some distance to get propane. Multiple
tanks also means you can have one tank dedicated to
cooking and another to supply a steady trickle of gas
to the fridge and water heater.
Again, group the gas appliances closely along one
wall to simplify the pipes and access. Please see
the links at the end of this article for a good website
offering numerous propane products and information.
Ventilation. For safe use of propane appliances and
fresh air in general, multiple vents are smart. A
hood and vent located directly over the stove will
be a necessity to take out cooking smells (after that
Cajun blackened redfish dinner!). A good one with
a decent fan can also go a long way to moving air
through the whole container. A 12 volt fan won't do
much, but a good hood design and placement can do
wonders for directing cooking odors. I imagine a more
powerful fan in place and used when electricity supply
permits. The toilet and gas water heater have vent
pipes included requiring 3-4 inch (8-10cm) holes to
the outside. Neither need fans but a 12volt battery
fan for the toilet is an option. I don't know about
a need for venting the propane fridge yet. For all
vent openings to the outside (and drains for that
matter), some method of closing and securing will
be necessary during transport of the container home.
Any roof vents also need a rain cover.
The roof of a shipping container seems to be the
only weak part of an otherwise bomb-proof structure.
I've walked on several and the sheet metal flexes
and warps under foot. Because the four sides carry
all the weight on heavy steel columns, the roof doesn't
need much support. However, if the roof is to be used
as a deck area or have holes cut for light and venting,
some re-enforcement is needed. I'd simply weld square
tubing on the inside like joists (every 24 inches
or 60cm) and then weld the flexible sheet metal to
these joists from inside. The same steel square tube
can make frames around larger holes cut in the roof
for vents (24x24 inches) or skylights. During transport,
the holes can be covered with sheet steel and bolted
Furniture. Endless options here depending upon personal
tastes and building skills.. I recommend minimal to
begin and adding as you define needs. Considering
the space as if on a sailboat is a good approach.
Transportation will cause bumping and tilting of the
container, so latches on all drawers and cabinets
are necessary. Everything should have "lockdown"
capability including dishes, tools, appliances, and
fixtures. I imagine welding "L" brackets
to the steel walls and attaching any wood cabinets,
counters, cupboards, or tables to these. In my sketches,
I put a table hinged off a narrow counter that flips
down for more space. I like big tables and maintaining
some horizontal surfaces is good for me I'm a pile
person with magazines and files and mail and whatever
else I drag home. Long narrow counters are great.
Eight and a half to ten feet of height (2.6-3m) in
a typical shipping container offers a fair amount
of storage above head level. Under the bed is another
big storage space. Beds can be folded or converted
into couches, but I chose to make the bed at seat
height for use with the table next to it. And I'd
put large drawers on plastic glides (not wheels) under
the bed that can be pulled out and hold quite a bit.
I¹ve been a furniture designer for ten years
so I could fill pages with design plans, but that's
the fun part of customizing this container home.
I want to map out the necessary utility systems,
make a few furniture recommendations, but let the
readers do their own layouts. Anyone who seriously
considers making a home from a shipping container
probably needs little advice about cupboards and tables.
Entrance. Here's a construction design thought: make
a secondary entrance to the container. I don't mean
cutting another doorway in one of the 3 walls (although
that's a fine option, and a bigger project), but something
located just behind the big metal swinging doors.
Unlocking and unlatching the closure mechanisms, then
swinging open a 4x8 foot heavy metal door each time
you enter will get tedious. Personally, I would keep
closed and locked all the time, but build a doorway
(probably wood and steel) with a more standard locking
residential or security door. Advantages: door windows
and screens would allow light and air to enter, easier
entry/exit, and a real door goes a big step toward
removing the feeling that you might be living in a
big metal box. Bigger reason: how do you lock yourself
inside at night if the container doors were designed
to open and close ONLY from the outside? Seems like
a necessity. In fact, I might even make sure the open
door was locked in an open position until I wanted
to close it for security when away for longer periods.
Some simple passive features would make a container
home more comfortable and pleasurable. Depending upon
climate (and maybe season) painting the outside to
reflect or absorb the sun's heat. I haven't discussed
insulation. A metal box would heat up and cool off
fast. Refrigerated shipping containers are insulated
with four inches all around (10cm). The outer walls
are always made of aluminum with stainless steel interior
walls and floor. But I think this would cause difficulty
for cutting vent holes and windows. A twelve inch
deep refrigeration unit covers the entire rear wall
and normally runs off of electricity supplied by a
truck, train, or vessel. For insulating a basic steel
container, I'd plan on wood paneling with some foam
or fiber-fill that might add two inches or so onto
the interior walls. Or I might pick the right climates
and skip insulation altogether. That plan would also
keep my water pipes from ever freezing.
Lockdown. When moving or transporting the container
home, I imagine a significant amount of time spent
securing and packing it. Drawers and cabinets need
to have good latches to hold in packed contents. All
loose items would be packed or tied down. Outside
vents, ports, and drains would be sealed. The empty
living spaces can be filled with gear and equipment
such as large water tanks, awnings, canopies and poles,
generator, greenhouse panels, bicycle, maybe a motorcycle.
Roof vents and any windows should be bolted over with
steel to insure structure and attract less attention
from customs officials. Then kiss it good bye and
wait for it to arrive at your next new home town!
As I said before, I originally thought about using
two 40 foot containers to create a living arrangement.
Now I see no need for more than one container unless
you plan to develop an elaborate site. However, for
greater ease of moving and site locations (especially
urban sites) I think it¹s interesting to consider
just a single 20-foot container. In my design efforts
I first tried to solve the issue of efficient basic
utilities like a shower, toilet, and kitchen. After
making full-scale floor plan drawings, I developed
a kitchen and bath layout I think is comfortable using
only twelve feet (3.6m) of the container. And it includes
lots of storage and a big table. Tightening the layout
could easily shave a couple more feet, but it's comfortable
and fits within a 20-foot container leaving space
for a bed and closet. I'd put the same 12-foot bath
and kitchen plan in a 40-foot container and just have
that much more living space. Take a look at the sketches
and let me know what you think.
Signing off: I am very interested to develop and
discuss any projects relating to conversions of shipping
containers into homes or studios. Please contact myself
or join the discussion group established to share
and develop these concepts.
- Part 1