Author Archives: robert

Even Starbucks is building with containers!'s upcycled shipping containers

Beautiful pre-fab

It may not be a container, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t beautiful…

Sunset house – 20′ conversion!

Sunset magazine commissioned a 20′ container refit as a small <200’^2 (well it’s 160’^2 shoulda called it just > 150’^2).  The building was built for $60K and was developed by HyBrid Architecture.  Their cargo focused site is

Cargotecture Sunset HouseOne aspect I really like and would like to validate is their kitchen/bath space. Rather than placing things into the end of the container as I have planned (yes, it’s still a plan, and hasn’t been executed), they have the two spaces laid out across from each other in one end of the container (in this case, the door end).  I like the idea, and will look at working that concept into my plans as well.  If nothing else, it potentially removes the need for an extra sink (though there are two in their plans).  It does add the extra overhead of having a wet wall on either side of the container rather than just one as my plan has, but there may be better space related value there.  Something to look at for sure.

I do like the bed concept though, with both a full size (7′ wide or long depending on how you look at it) and a fold down “double” bed, makes for an effeicient use, and it looks like the bed is desinged as a fouton like folding couch as well, which is also quite efficient.


A new container home

Just saw this on Gizmodo:


I love the ideas people come up with, and I do hope that the city council in Long Beach can see their way clear to allowing folks to do unique things like this.

Still, I don’t plan on doing anything quite this crazy with containers any time soon :-D


PS – It’s good to be back posting again! Soon we’ll be able to proceed with our plans at the property as well! Container REsidence



Power in the middle of nowhere

One thing we love about our piece of property is that you really feel that you are in the middle of nowhere. Even though we have a neighbor, and at least at the initial home site, he’s a 2 minute walk away, there’s a real feeling of being “out there”.  But with that feeling, comes some challenges, after water, comes a need for power.  We do after all still live in a connected world that requires power, and connectivity creates international communities that I hope we never lose.

So, how do we deal with power when we don’t have any?  The most obvious answer, given where we are situated, istoduse solar energy for day to day uses, including lighting, and even heating and A/C.  Well, at least that’s the idea. And while it is feasible to put together a big enough solar system for all of this, I think it’s more realistic to assume that we will still end up with a generator providing at least some level of peak power support.

Well, a generator seems to be a reasonably un-controversial source of power, until you realize that in the great state of California, we mere mortals are no longer allowed to purchase high efficiency diesel generators (that could also run off of bio-diesel, or even vegetable oil).  At least not new ones, and while I’ve done a little bit of searching, and have found a few diesel generators floating around second hand, diesel still has some negatives, especially for a generator setup that at least initially might only be used once every couple of weeks or months.  That is that even though it is a more stable fuel than gasoline, it still has issues with sludge buildup and water contamination.  Gasoline, on top of being less efficient, is even less shelf stable, and would effectively require being cleaned out after every use.  On top of which there are a number of other issues (such as carburetors gumming up even if they are used regularly, etc.) that make gasoline a less than desirable fuel, last but not least being that the price is starting to creep up again, and I do fully expect to see 5$/gallon gas by next summer.

So how to resolve this dilema?  It turns out that we will likely be getting a gas generator after all, and that rather than gas, it will be set up to run off of propane or natural gas!  This provides equivalent efficiency, cleaner burning gas, no gumming of the system, effectively infinite shelf life, and the ability to use the same fuel to run a number of other systems as well (such as a LNG refrigerator and/or Air Conditioner!).

There is at least one company that makes retrofit kits (, and the retrofit looks mighty easy to boot.  So for an extra 2-300$, you get an efficient power system, a fuel that doesn’t need to be stabilized and used in a limited time frame, and a generator that could still be run of of regular gasoline in a pinch!

Now the only question:  what size generator to get?  Oh, and electric or pull start?  Oh, and should I get one big enough to run my welding outfit?

Actually that last question is a good one. One of the areas I’m currently investigating, and will be writing more about in the future, is using DC to run a welding setup (see the prior post on welding with batteries). I’m looking at the best way to tie all of these power users and generators together for all of the different needs in building and maintaing, and most importantly enjoying this home away from home.

But before I get too far off topic, I want to leave you with one last thought.  Given that I mentioned bio-diesel and other alternate fuels, I though it interesting to consider that there is an alternate fuel for a gas/gasoline powered engine as well… Methane.  We don’t have animals, so this isn’t actually a great solution for us, but if we were to get perhaps a couple pigs or even  a bunch of chickens, it would be possible to ferment the sewage from the animals to make gas as well!

The danger of averages

Historically, we should have gotten an average of 5.5 inches of rain in and around our property in the month of January.  Actual total?  1.7″ image of rain

Given my prior modeling calcuations for rain catchment (360 ft^2*.5ft*7.5gal/ft^3) I should have been able to capture 1300 gallons of water.  In reality, we would have only captured 340 gallons.  Given our modeling around having enough water to last through the dry summer months, it now becomes clear that unless February exceeds it’s average goals, we may not be able to capture enough water to last the weekends we are anticipating to be up there this summer.

And on top of that, this all assumed a 2 person event, but given the interest in helping, even if it’s just for one weekend, we’re going to need access to quite a bit more water anyway.

Luckily our neighbor will help us out with some water (he runs his well from a generator though, so from an environmental perspective, it’s _VERY_ expensive water).  The other solution is that we could drive out to a local spring (there are a few near by) and collect water that way. This is also expensive, as we still have an overhead fuel cost which we might be able to mitigate if we can find a spring on the way, rather than out of the way.

This leads me back to the idea of providing a larger water catchment area in order to accelerate our time to cistern filling, which I believe is one of the more sensible solutions to this, as it continues to leverage the free water that does arrive, while also better dealing with the fact that averages can easily be deceiving.

Oh, and December was 1.5″ over average. And we still don’t have a catchment up and running, so this is all conjecture anyway.

Next steps – February 2010

With the containers mired in the mud field, I’ve been trying to figure out where I can continue to make progress, and I believe the following areas bear further investigation.

1) Since the site is going to have to remain off grid for a while (there is grid power, but we have at least 1 mile of new power lines that would need to be put in place to get power to our property line), I am going to start documenting the components of a combined wind/solar system to provide power for at least our weekend stays.

2) The water system needs work.  While I’ve done some thinking about rain catchment, the rest of the system (do we want hot water? water under pressure? etc.) still needs to be designed and can be tested at our headquarters here in San Jose. I’ve also had a look at the roof of the containers, and while they are certainly going to keep rain from pooling (they do have a good camber on them) I’m not quite sure what the best method for capturing the water and diverting it without creating a standing pond is going to be, so some thought/study is needed there.

3) Blackwater/Graywater needs to be evaluated as well.  I do believe we will end up with a composting toilet, as it makes plenty of sense for a couple two weekends a month (and with the right system, could easily handle a longer duration/permanent use model), but we’ll also need to deal with shower and dish run-off, and given the water situation, we’ll want to be able to re-use/reclaim whatever we can.

4) Insulation/windows/doors/shutters.  Lots more to consider there, along with welding, painting, exterior sun-shade of the walls, etc.

And the deck, and a graveled drive (to help stabilize the mud areas going forward) etc., etc. etc.

It’ll unfortunately be at least a month before we can get back up to the land as well, so planning, and some evaluation is effectively most if not all of what I can do in the near term.  At least we are making some progress towards this dream!

A week of sun

We had 10 days with no rain, and that gave me the brilliant idea to try to move the containers from the cul-de-sac where we dropped them off, out onto the property.  That we did.  A rental forklift got the boxes up off the ground, and with the help of my neighbor Gary, we managed to get the containers all the way to the main section of our property.  The trip of about 1 mile went smoothly, with a few twists and turns, and a couple of high lifts to get over poorly placed trees, we managed to move them near to their final destination.

Now, you’ll notice I said near, but not exactly to their final destination.  As we were moving the first container into place, we decided to skirt the mud bog that had been crated a few weeks earlier when Gary tried to clear a path to lay down some gravel for a drive way.  We did skirt it, but on two occasions we almost sank the forklift into the ground.

It’s hard to describe how strange a sight that is.  The ground felt totally solid, and even though I logically understand that there’s a huge difference between 250# and 5000#, it still doesn’t prepare you to watch your machinery just start to sink into the muck that looked completely solid a second before.

We ended up dropping the first container in a reasonable location, and decided to get the second before we really got the forklift stuck (it did actually sink in to the front axel, but the rear tires were on solid ground and were easily able to pull the machine back out).  The second container was even easier than the first, with no real issues getting it onto the main flat area where it currently rests.  The lift did start to sink a little right as we set the container down, but I didn’t think anything of it.

So we decided to move back to the first container, to attempt to move it into a better position so that it could again be picked up, and moved closer to its final (now future final) destination.  That’s when the previously solid ground really opened up. I’ve never seen anything sink so fast.  One second things were going fine, the next one tire started to sink, and a second after that, all 4 tires were in up to their axels.

After an hour of rocking the machine, lifting the front tires up with the lift boom (using the container for leverage), and throwing massive quantities of log/rock/debris under the tires, we finally managed to get the tractor free.  After no deliberation, we decided that lifting the containers any further would have to wait until the summer.

And that should have been the end of this story (at least for now), but it’s hard to leave well enough alone, especially when the ground seemed so solid in most places, and sure we had managed to get the lift stuck, but we un-stuck it as well.  So, somewhere along the way, I decided it would be a good idea to try to drag the containers rather than trying to lift them.  After all, it seemed like the lift was fine so long as it didn’t have an extra 5000# hanging off of the front end.

We attached a chain to the bottom of the container, and move the forklift into position. Nothing happened.  The forklift didn’t move, and the container didn’t either.  And then, in the blink of an eye, the wheel’s started to slip and immediately dug themselves down to their axels again…..

Yep, live and learn.  But the lesson is simple.  Don’t play around in northern california clay in the middle of winter.

So we did finally manage to get the forklift out again, after copious amounts of trees and rocks were poured int massive gashes in the ground.  And the containers are on our land proper now, so we don’t expect any complaints from anyone (the only person who can actually see them is Gary, and he likes containers).

Clearly, we have to wait until it _actually_ dries out now before we can attempt to move the containers any further, so in the intirim, I’m going to continue to refine the designs and plans for the container, and some time ~ April or even early May, I’ll get back out there to move the containers into their actual location, and we’ll start the finaly retrofit.

I also still plan on getting up there to do some cistern/rain catchment work, but that may well have to wait until mid March at this point given other projects that are begging for some attention as well.

Moving the containers – II

Since the helicopter idea is a non-starter (at least not during this budget cycle), we’re going with big-yellow machinery, namely an industrial scale forklift. Often these are used around lumber yards, or construction sites to move pallets of supplies around and  up 20+ feet in the air.  We’ll be using one to at least get the containers into the property proper rather than sitting out in the cul-de-sac where I’m sure the nieghbors love their new modern art, but I’m less than enthused, as I can’t even container camp in them where they are.

With the forklift, we’ll be able to at least get the containers close to their final destination, and given that it’s been nice for the last week and a half, I am hopeful that the soil may be more co-operative at this point, and may even let us move the containers close to their current destination (note, I still have hopes of eventually moving these containers to their “final” destination on the other side of the wash in the future).  However, I’m also thinking ahead to the potential eventuality that either we can’t lift them directly into place (which would be one of the benefits of the use of a forklift of this scale), or that for whatever reason, we still need to drag them into their final resting spot, to which I’ve designed a sled to lift the back of the container off of the ground to hopefully simplify the process of moving the containers around.The stacked 2×6 beams should provide enough clearance for most of the obstacles I’m trying to get over, and the 2×4 beams across the back provide both bracing for the skids and a “cleat” to catch the back of the container.  The actual positioning of the cleat and the angular cross beam and front cleat will depend on the actual container construction, so I’m not yet convinced that this is the right exact model.  But I believe that this is a solid enough solution to keep everything together at least for a drag across the ground.

The 20′ containers that I purchased also have forklift pockets (I was not able to find a forklift locally with tines that can spread wide enough to fit in these, but that’s what they are there for), but my intention is to string a heavy chain or a lenght of tubular webbing through the pocket, and around the front cleat on the sled to keep the sled oriented in the same direction as the contaienr, and to help it get over any rough ground more efficiently.

Well, enough planning, I’m heading up to the property on Thursday evening to see if we can’t do what we weren’t able to do a couple of weeks ago…


In thinking about how bad the soil is this winter, and how many times my neighbor has gotten bigger and bigger tractors stuck in what looks like perfectly serviceable and compacted soil, I started to think about other methods for getting the containers moved to where I want them.  A winch was one such component, but even finding a winch big enough to drag the containers an appreciable distance (I don’t want to do this 2 ” at a crank with a come-along), requires a winch on the order of a small tractor.  Which we already know has a propensity to sink into the muck, which I don’t want to do to a rented winch.

So what else is possible?  How about a helicopter?  I’ve seen images of other houses being installed into various locations by heli-lift, and this seemd like a great way to move these containers to their final resting place.

Well, seemed like a good idea at least until I found out what it actually costs.  It turns out that a Bell 214 can carry a sizeable load (the particular helicopter I was looking at has a 6600# lift capacity), so an empty or even slightly loaded (with ~1000# of gear) container could well be moved to wherever one might want it to go. Now, it turns out that this particular company is located at the airfield in our nearby small town, and they usually do forestry service work (fire-fighting, moving equipment into the far back reaches of the forests, etc.), but they have actually moved 20′ containers in the past, so this wasn’t even an unusual request!  And in the owners opinion, we weren’t even all that far away from their base of operations, so there was no need to set up a remote landing site, which would keep costs down.

Bell 214To top it all off, we weren’t even talking about moving the containers very far (~1/2 mile as the crow flies), so all in all, this really is about as inexpensive an operation as you can get.

But inexpensive it isn’t. I bought the two containers for $1900 each, and spent another $900 moving them to where they sit now.  The price for flying them the last 1/2 mile?  ~$5500.

It’s totally a bargain if there’s no other way to get them where they need to go, but in this case, I guess I’ll fork out the $400 for the forklift, and then do it again when the ground hardens up some more (though with one more week like the last one, we may be ok in the next week or so).  Even if I have to rent the big dozer that they’ve got, and the forklift… Well, I’m still only ~$1500 for 2 days of heavy equipment.  I think I see my future, and it’s big and yellow.