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The long version...

The conception of the container house. The initial main design constraint was being able to build a house and get a view over a hill to the mountains, while also maintaining the mother-in-law status of <1200 ft sq. A conventional wood framed 3 story home was designed. (Also knowing the view of sleeping lady was over the hill, I wanted to have it open up like a movie scene as you walked further into the house, the view steadily increasing until the climax of entering the 24’ tall living room).  The home and land were ready for county permit submittal, when in the spring 2015 a smaller 20 ft container was purchased for a mere $2,000 as a "job shack" to store tools and get out of the weather, while building the wood home. Two used windows were purchased from Second Use and my best friend who is a welder (and degreed engineer, same class) help me cut, frame and install the two windows in less than an hour...we were both amazed at the ease and cost effectiveness as well as modularity, and with that, it was back to the drawing board. A few months of design research was done, but at the time not much info was available regarding container homes. Keeping the previous stick frame rough floor layout and design, (shed roof, 3 stories, glass facing the view), it was re-engineered into the constraints and dimensions of 40L’ x 9.5’H x 8’W containers. As a Manufacturing engineer the modular design concept was exciting, as well as the challenge, knowing that there would be many unseen hurdles still to overcome. One saying in engineering is that steel is cheap, so throw steel at it, (the subtext being that the savings of overdesigning with steel vs cost of engineering time to maximize a perfect design can be a money sink). The idea was to build a super structure, (exo-skeleton), out of standard I-beams, to “load” the containers into, almost like a cradle for best efficiency. (Crane time is also a huge cost and factor, so fewer hours on site the better). With that, the County was skeptical but I found a great professional engineer, Structural Phil, who ran the calculations on the current design and maximized the weights of the structural steel. (A nice 90 page document of calculations was provided and overwhelmed the county with information). With the green light for the structure given by the county, the next step was to have the structural steel designed in CAD, to be sent to a fabrication shop. Being that the structure is 34 feet tall and 16 feet wide, it acts as a giant sail in high winds, as well as very high snow loads in winter, all of that force needed to be transferred from the top down, via the I-beams to the foundation. (The containers themselves don’t see very high loads, other than the weight of themselves, the rest of the loads are transferred through the beams). To help anchor this tall structure, an unconventionally large amount of concrete was used, 83 yards of concrete in the foundation alone, with 72, 24” x 1.25”Diameter all-thread epoxied dowels to secure the foundation to the structural steel.  (All roto-hammered by yours truly)!  Once the 72 bolts were epoxied into the foundation, the prefabricated structural steel arrived and was placed with an off-road fork lift like a big erector set and bolted together. 30,000lbs of structural steel and 3000lbs of nuts and bolts were used in the structural portion.  Containers were found on Craigslist and eventually DryBox in Tacoma where they were picked out individually in the yard, to choose which exposed sides were in best condition and ones being removed could be damaged. A special pricing agreement was made for 5 containers, at 2500 delivered to Leavenworth, totaling 12,500 for  exterior walls, floors and ceiling, “in the dry,” and out of the elements. A big logistical issue was that, the large crane needed for loading and stacking cost 600 dollars an hour, port to port, as in leaving the yard from Wenatchee to Leavenworth, set up and take down time of an hour each, cost 3.5 hours x 600 just to get ready to work or load. That was the biggest pain and savings point…crane time. It only took one hour to load the containers each time the crane came out, but still costs thousands of dollars including transport and setup, teardown. If all containers could be completed in “one pick” vs three, would be a huge savings. (The issue with this property is I wanted to keep some trees and didn’t have the physical space for all five containers used). The future designs will incorporate this process.  Four containers were loaded into the exoskeleton or erector set, and the fifth was fabricated horizontally, and then erected vertically to create the stairwell.  

Once the containers were in place and secured to the super structure, it was time to frame and sheet the shed roof. Standard wood joists were used, secured to the structural I-beams with thru-bolts and SDS screws. It was great having the container roof as a walking/building platform to work from. Although 30 feet in the air, we weren’t on scaffolding setting up rafters in ice.  We worked through ice and snow to install the joists and sheeting. (Izzy and I). Once the roof was complete it was time to “gut” the place.  January through February 2017 were spent with cut off wheels, a cost of 600 dollars in just wheels, It could have been done with a plasma torch much faster,* another lesson learned. Either way though, it was nice to be out of the weather underroof. 

Once the interior walls and ceilings were removed, we began to install the steel studs. (Steel studs are used in industrial construction. They are light, never warped, (i.e straight walls), easy to install, and also have punch outs for running electrical or plumbing when that time comes). They were basically place holders for insulation and sheetrock. Being that the exterior walls of the container were the structure, the interior studs were placed at 2’ centers as they were not structural. 

Once the windows were framed, (internally), the windows were cut from the exterior of the container, using the window frame as a guide for straightness. Also, the steel studs were framed 1.5” larger on each side, (the true dimension of the 2” in 2x4.) so that a wood window frame could be built and extended through the exterior container skin, using a 2”x8” to attach the window and trim to using conventional wood methods. 

For the first floor however, it was decided to use conventional wood framing and a standard concrete slab, being one large room 24’ x 40’. (It was designed to be the same dimensions as 3 containers across, and look like 3 containers, and we even reused the container walls that were removed as the siding.  However, initially when I ran the numbers, the cost was negligible using three actual containers, but with that, another realization. (Secret Sauce). 

Electrical was done by my cousin and myself. He provided me with MC cable, another industrial construction product, that has a great installation system for use with steel stud, and as mentioned, the steel studs already have prepunched holes so labor time was reduced. 

Plumbing was subcontracted out as well as the HVAC system, (mini-split). There were some valuable lessons learned in working with subs, although few, on this project. (They had never been involved with this sort of construction either, so we learned together). 

Once all the systems were installed in the wall, one of the few county requirements was to use Polyurethane spray foam insulation. Their primary concern was water abatement around the windows. The added benefit also is that it becomes a structural element of the entire structural system, and adds strength to the house. 

The sheetrock was subcontracted out, being more of an artform, I wanted someone experienced. Being that the steel studs were on 2’ centers, thicker 5/8’s” sheet rock was needed for  wall straightness to bridge the gap, and is incidentally a fireproof regulation. In short, the walls are 5/32nd steel, steel stud, Polyurethane insulation which is flame retardant, and the sheetrock is 5/8ths which has a higher burn rating. This is a very good thing for a home built in fire country.  


The rest was very much like finishing out a standard wood home with a few exceptions…The original container floor was refinished, and is a nice hardwood teak laminate, that can handle small forklifts loading and unloading them. The container doors were gutted to leave the usable/moveable steel frame and glass was installed. The finish wood and trim is from the 2015 OK Carlton Complex fire, (which was the biggest in WA history and my sister was a hotshot firefighter on). Also the ceiling boards translate through to the outside eves, being each one is so unique, so it appears as if the roof was dropped on top. 
The house was given a full occupancy certificate by the county which means it follows all the standard rules of 2019 for houses in Chelan County. With that, to help with the banks and financing, my Professional Engineer wrote a letter that compliments the house construction. 

The banks however, were another story…Firstly, a construction loan was out of the question.  Under most construction loans from a bank, the owner cannot be the primary builder, (and I couldn’t afford one, especially when I could do it)? But they all said, “come see us when you have your certificate of occupancy.” 

When the certificate was received, I went to no less than 16 banks, and only one would even consider hiring an appraiser/assessor.
The biggest problem was it had never been done before so a “comparable” was required.  Because it was so “unconventional,” the Federal Mortgage backers, like Freddie and Fannie wouldn’t buy it, (at the time), so the bank would have to hold the loan in their own in-house account... 

A comparable is a similar house in which to assess, and base value for its look, size, location etc. Being that this type of construction had never been done on a container home, no bank wanted to touch it, being “too risky.” 

After I went to those 16 banks, only one would even entertain the idea...The next step is an assessor. An assessor has a reputation and if I kicked the bucket tomorrow and it was worth 500k in his eyes, the bank better get their money soon, or the assessor is blacklisted.  16 banks, 1 agreed and called 12 assessors, and only 1 assessor agreed to take the job.  
They came out and were very impressed, and it assessed at a very good value, much more than I put in financially. (Sanity costs not included. ) 

And wouldn’t you know it, the day it closed I received a letter informing me that Freddie and Fannie bought the note from the bank I used. This sets the precedence for any future build in regards to container hybrid design and the worst hurtle of this entire project, Financing. 

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