The Reality of Living in a Shipping Container [video]

Maroon shipping container home - The reality of living in a shipping container

In this video, author and journalist Kyril Plaskon interviews Jaci and Joe Chambers, a couple from the U.S. state of Nevada who took on the ambitious task of building a shipping container home for themselves and their kids. Here, they share their triumphs and challenges, and let us know whether they’d do it again.

Video Transcription

Jaci Chambers:

People in general were kinda like, you know, you’d tell ’em what we were doing and they’d be like, “You’re gonna do what?” Like they thought, I think, that we were just gonna live in a container as it comes. Like, well, are you gonna have a toilet? Yeah, I’m gonna have a toilet, you know… so it was kinda hard to explain; some people had actually seen ’em before so they were totally on board, so it was kind of a 50/50 of people who got it and people who didn’t, but everybody who’s seen it’s like, they’re amazed. Just to come see, the tax assessor would come out just to see what we were doing, ’cause he was like, I’ve never seen this before, I don’t really know how to put you guys in the program but it’s interesting, so…

Joe Chambers:

Well, the process started back in ’09, actually, when the real estate market crashed, home values went down, we kinda had a realization that it wasn’t sustainable to live with the big mortgages and things of that nature, so we had a real desire to get out and basically build something that was sustainable, that we could basically build outright and own, so that way we could insulate ourselves from further economic pressures, if you will.

Believe it or not, a stick-built house would have been less expensive and faster to build. We had to do quite a bit of engineering. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first one that’s been permitted in Washoe County. We went through about a year of permitting, so there was a lot of costs involved with engineering, there was a lot of costs involved with special fasteners to attach it to the foundation and things of that nature. So it really drove the cost up, that and the cost of the containers are, you know, anywhere from $3000 to $4000 apiece, where you get ’em, and you still have to frame out the inside to create space to put insulation and put drywall and things like that on, so it’s basically a house built with-inside of a house.

Jaci:

It’s my little tiny home, and I love it. So I used to do architectural drafting, and so I’ve always been into architecture, and I’ve always been into like, upcycling and different ways to do things, and stuff like that, and I came across a shipping container house, and I told Joe. I was like, “God, that’d be so cool to build one of these!” We had one container that we had out here, that we were just storing stuff in, and so then we picked up another container and just started playing with the layouts, and… came out with what we have.

Narrator (Kyril Plaskon):

And so, if you could describe what it looks like for me, how would you describe it?

Jaci:

It’s… what do we call it? My little modern, rustic shipping container house. Yeah, so we have the exposed container, and then wherever there’s a window or an opening, we put in the wood siding, to kind of blend the two together. Well, we weren’t allowed to use a plasma cutter, so we went through what, five or six grinders?

Joe:

Yeah, the engineer specified that we had to use a grinder to cut all the steel out of the container. I think they were worried about the heat… deteriorating the structural quality of the steel. So it was… yeah, I think it was more like about eight or nine grinders that we went through to cut all the openings in the steel out of the house.

Jaci:

I kinda was thinking that it might be a little bit less expensive… well, when we started looking at it, you could get a container for like 900 bucks. So it was like, well that would be… we actually had a much bigger plan, we were gonna go with a much bigger house.

I think we were up to like six or seven containers with some framing in between, but then when the price shot up, we decided well, we had the one, so we got the second one and we kinda figured well, we’ll use what we have, and then eventually we’re gonna have to build another house down there, ’cause the kids are gonna get bigger, but… and we’re only at 511 square feet [about 47 square metres].

So it’s pretty small, which works for us right now, ’cause the kids are small, but yeah, I thought it would be… well, ’cause when you do the research on the internet, it’s all, you know, you can build it for $5000 dollars, and you can do it in a month, and I was like, “Whoa, well, let’s try it!” But realistically, it was much different than that.

Joe:

You get it on a slab foundation, it could have potentially gone on a post and pure foundation, although the engineers didn’t like that idea… hindsight being 20/20, I would have pushed harder… to put it on a post and pure foundation, and it would’ve saved quite a bit of money… it would’ve been something I could have done myself versus the foundation that’s there now, was something, one of the things that we contracted out for. So that added some expense into it, like the hardware to attach that.

We ended up spending, I think it was close to $2000 on additional steel and special fasteners to meet the county’s idea of what the requirements should be for as far as attaching to the foundation… we cut a lot of materials, we… again, we did it all ourselves so we saved quite a bit on labour. But we did go with some higher-end materials on the siding, and on the interior with some of the stuff that we did in there. Again, it was a smaller, you know, a smaller area, so when you’re paying nine bucks per square foot for flooring, and you’ve only got 500 square feet, it’s kinda like, “Why not?” versus trying to do 10,000 square feet [929 square metres] at that price.

The containers and the construction of it was probably what drove the cost up the most. A lot of… when you’re in a… in traditional construction you can build, and if things aren’t perfectly square or whatever, you know, you whack it with a sledgehammer and kind of tweak things to where it is they’ve gotta go. When you’re doing interior framing inside of a fixed structure, there’s no room to move anything around, so you know, a mistake or something like that and you’re, you know, going back a couple of steps and spending some more money. But again, it’s… the cost of the containers was a big factor too, it… we spent probably, in total, right around $7000 on containers.

Jaci:

So like all the cabinets are custom, you know, you really have to make sure you’re utilizing every square inch, so instead of just throwing in Home Depot cabinets, you know, we did custom cabinets, and things of that nature, so it drove up the cost there, but it was worth it.

Joe:

Just the heart and soul, the blood, sweat and tears, it was amazing. And it… the whole journey was full of little things like that, you know, the foundation getting in; I mean, there was a huge day when after the foundation was done, that the crane truck showed up and both containers were sitting over here where the goats are now, and they picked them up, flew ’em through the sky, and they landed them right on the foundation.

It was like, it just became more and more real, like something… we kept waking up, the whole thing seemed like a pipe dream the whole time we were doing it, even though we were making processes, it was like, yeah, we’re gonna stall out at some point in time. But it just kept moving forward. So you know, every day, every week, it was just some next major thing that was like, “Oh my God, this is real, it’s happening,” so it was just an [sic] really cool and amazing adventure.

Jaci:

And at one point we thought about just painting ’em both the same colour, but you know, leaving all the steel exposed, but we decided it was kinda cool to have ’em two different colours, and they have so much more character with all the stickers and everything on ’em, so yeah, we just left ’em.

Joe:

I worked with a gentleman named Darren Nelson of Modern Storage, he sources the containers wherever he sources them from. So thanks to the courtesy of YouTube videos and my motto of never letting what I don’t know stop me, I taught myself how to weld and bought a secondhand welder on Craigslist, and spent the… we had to have special inspections done, the county doesn’t do welding inspections, and as you and I were just talking, some of mine look OK and some of them you can tell I was learning how to weld.

So the special inspector that came out and looked at these, he was just blown away at the amount of engineering that went into this thing and said that it was just so overdone as far as the amount of connections to the foundation. I’m pretty sure you could hook a chinook to this thing and either the foundation’s coming out with it or it’s not going.

Jaci:

Well, I wanted to make sure that there was a place that you could come in, you know, that wasn’t too crowded, ’cause I didn’t want it to feel claustrophobic. And then we cut out so, right about here, yes, here, is where the two containers came together, so we cut out the whole section from in the back jog, where you saw, from there all the way to this end, we cut that whole section open.

So, as you can see, it’s a pretty tight space, but it kind of keeps the kids from hanging out in their bedroom all the time, and they interact more with us and interact more outside, so instead of it being you know, a place where they run away to and hide, they’re being more involved with everybody else and what’s going on, and playing outside and helping in the garden and things like that.

Edsel and Eleanor Ford House - The reality of living in a shipping container home
To put things into perspective, this mansion measures 20,000 square feet or 1858 square metres.

I mean, one of the houses that we lived in was what, 23,000 square feet [about 2137 square metres]? And it was so big, and it was like everybody was always in a different space and you didn’t really see each other, and I didn’t like that. I didn’t want to raise my kids that way. So you know, part of the thought of going tiny was that we would be more connected with each other, so that was one reason I don’t mind living in a tiny home.

Yeah, I actually work for a custom cabinet shop so yeah, we drafted everything out to maximize everything we had, and yeah, I drew all the cabinets and sent ’em over to the shop and had ’em build ’em for us, and then we stained ’em and installed them and put everything together.

Joe:

She makes it sound a lot easier than it was, and she’s not giving herself nearly enough credit. She’s been doing custom kitchen and bath design for going on 10-plus years now, and what she did in here with the cabinetry and the utilization of space was just amazing. It’s what made the whole thing work: everything’s got a place; everything’s highly organized; I mean, she took advantage of every single nook and cranny.

As you can see here, we’re standing in front of her desk. She works from home, where she still does kitchen and bath design, so she was even able to in a house this small, get herself a dedicated workspace, so… and we can show you some of the other things that she did that proves pretty darn creative, as far as finding space, but…

Jaci:

OK, so in the kitchen, the kitchen was a big one, ’cause I like to cook a lot. So having a tiny kitchen in a tiny home is… was kinda hard, so this was one of them. We took a chunk of metal that we cut out for one of the windows and made the back wall, or this wall of the kitchen and, as you can see, I love cast-iron, so these are pans that I actually use. So instead of having to take up cabinet space to store the pans, I just got heavy-duty magnets and it’s a decorative piece, plus useful. It was… it was a tricky balance of keeping it modern and clean so that it wasn’t too busy, but adding warmth back to it.

So it’s actually funny, one of the ways that I saved money was we went with poplar doors, which are typically a paint-grade door because people don’t like to see the grain of the poplar. There’s a lot of colour variations in grains and things like that, but I thought it stained really nice, so that’s what we did in the kitchen, and then in the toe kicks, like Joe was saying, we were trying to utilize every square inch we had, so I did drawers in the toe kicks. And they’re not huge, but they’re, you know, big enough to hold foil and extra spices and things like that, and then they just slide back in and you can’t even notice that it’s there.

Kyril:

Cool!

Jaci:

Yeah, we did the trashes in there so it wasn’t out taking up space. It started a long time ago, ’cause it was just trying to think of, you know, where are we gonna store this at? And where are we gonna put this? And you know, being the person who runs the household, you really think, you know, when I go grocery shopping and I come home with a cart full of stuff, it’s gotta go somewhere. So it did take a while to figure out where we were gonna put everything.

One of my favourite rooms, which is the bathroom… I saw a wine barrel shower on the internet that somebody did in a tiny house on wheels, and I thought, what a cool idea. And in here, because it’s such a small bathroom, we really had a hard time figuring out, you know, we couldn’t do a full-size tub; I didn’t want to do a standard shower enclosure because it would really, again, tighten up the space, and not make it feel open, so we found an extra-large wine barrel and Joe not so lovingly cut it in half… he was not on board the whole time with the shower, but we made it work, and I just really think it turned out to be… it’s one of the coolest parts of the house. Trying to think outside the box and finding things that would normally go, you know, to waste or to trash or… and turning it into something useful.

Joe:

Structurally insulated panel - The reality of living in a shipping container
An example of a structurally insulated panel (SIP)

We like it so much that the, we’re basically going to base the design of the next house off of this one and make it just as big as it needs to be to be able to fit everybody in. We’re not using a container now; we’re probably going to use a structurally insulated panel. The cost, the speed of construction, kinda been there, done that now, so you know, we came, we saw, we conquered. I would like to build one more just to use what I’ve learned and apply that in another one, but I just don’t think that the containers would be suitable for the next houses, ’cause again, its only gonna be a little bit bigger, so then it comes into, you know, is it the best material to use for the job, and I just don’t think it’s gonna work on the next one quite as well as it worked out here.

Jaci:

Well, and you’re kinda stuck because the container’s already it’s own size. You’re stuck with that layout, there’s not a whole lot that you can do, so you’re a little more confined with what you can do.

Joe:

I would say it was probably 10 to 12 thousand dollars more than if I would’ve stick-built it. I think we’re probably into it right around 65 [thousand].

Jaci:

But that includes the solar, the septic, I mean, things that people don’t think about when they’re building a house. So we didn’t spend that on the house, but overall, to make it a living, you know, place where you could live with running water and electricity, that’s about what it was.

Joe:

I’d do it because you wanna do it, not because you’re looking to save money or you’re looking for an easy path. It is very very rewarding, it is challenging and if you’re up for the challenge and wanna live in a shipping container house, absolutely go for it, but those should be your primary reasons for doing so.

The biggest challenge of it all was… how to do it. I mean, it was, everything is, again you’re building inside the box… hell, outside-the-box thinking; well, it’s really outside-the-box thinking, but you have to stay within the confines of the box, so you’re, you really have to plan five or six steps ahead because what you do here may prohibit you from doing… oh, now that doesn’t work… so it’s just a lot of… there’s a lot of challenges that come through the whole building process.

Anybody, you know, the million dollar piece of advice would be, anybody that’s looking to do it, is get two shipping containers that are exactly the same. I did not do that, mine were two different containers, although dimensionally the same, their construction was different, which created some additional challenges. So get two containers that are exactly the same. You know, it was, I was gonna build this house or die trying, so it was… no, we just kept moving forward. And again, you know, there’s a lot of rewards along the way, there’s those little pieces that come along that just say I’m inspired and fired up for the next challenge, because look what we just accomplished.

We could definitely save some folks some of the headaches that we went through, and some of the expenses. We’ve had a couple of people contact us asking, “Hey, I’ve got a friend that’s thinking about doing this,” but we haven’t spoken to anybody yet, but we’re completely open to helping anybody that wants to come down this path, you know, to learn, to experience, we can share what we’ve done along the way, and you know, consult or advise or something along those roles. It really is a rewarding project, but again, don’t do it ’cause you want to save money [laughs].

Jaci:

I wanted to do it just because it was a different type of construction. It was something different, something exciting, something I haven’t really seen done out here. You know, working in the architectural industry, you see a lot of the same repetition, you know, everybody thinks they’re doing something different but it’s pretty much all the same at the end of the day, and yeah, I just thought it would be an interesting project to do and something to be proud of, you know, this is ours and we did it different, and yeah.. sort of like a [sic] art piece.

Joe:

I did it to see if I could. That was me, I was… she really wanted to have it, she was down for it, I was up for the challenge and it was, let’s see if we can climb this mountain. So that was my driver. I would characterize it as just the beginning. It’s just the beginning of our new life, you know, we talk a little that we’re starting the quail farm, I’ve got 72 acres [291,374 square metres] here of land, you know there’s going to be new challenges, there’s going to be new opportunities. We’ve got three kids that we’re going to be raising out here… obviously, Dutch being the youngest at just almost barely two years old, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the adventure.

For more information on sustainable living, be sure to read Small is Beautiful: Reverse the Trend of Buying Big>>


video: Kyril Plaskon (Creative Commons); image 1: pxhere; image 2: Ken Lund; image 3: Wikimedia Commons

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