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Self-Contained Living ~ Mi Casa Su Caja
Global Nomadic Housing For Expatriates ~ Part Two

by Colin Reedy

The one common experience of all humanity is the challenge of problems.
-- R. Buckminster Fuller

Editors Note:
I 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 Here's the first installment.

Creating A House To Roam The World

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.

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What you start with
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!

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What you end up with....

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 computer running.

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 smart.

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.

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Awning Cover & Green House
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.

Dymaxion House
Dymaxion House - 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.

Nomadic House
Top View of Your Nomadic House
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 closed.

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 one door
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.

Elevation Cut-Away
Elevation Cut-Away
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. - -
Thank you.
Colin Reedy

Self-Contained Living - Part 1






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Roatan Living Real Estate

Century 21 Roatan, J. Edwards Real Estate
Office: Mayan Princess Beach Resort, West Bay Beach
Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras

Philip Buck
Roatan: 011-504-9970-3378
US Voip # That Rings in Roatan: 831-359-4244

Roatan Living Real Estate and property for sale serves Roatan the Bay Islands of Honduras. Selling Real estate and Property for sale on Roatan! You can find an assortment of properties to suit your needs. Whether you are looking for an investment property, business opportunity or just an island hideaway property. Roatan real estate includes luxury homes, condos, resorts, beachfront homes, land for sale and development properties located in developments such as Mayan Princess, Parrot Tree Plantation, Marbella Beach, Pristine Bay - Roatan Golf Club, Rohan by the Sea, Palmetto Bay Plantation, Lawson Rock, La Sirena, Infinity Bay, Keyhole Bay and Coral Sands.