"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Home made from shipping containers

By on September 27, 2017 in Featured Homes with 0 Comments

Story by Susan Lagsdin

Photos by Donna Cassidy

It seems simple in theory.

The end view shows the foundation work, specially modified for a metal structure. The bay doors open to reveal more south-facing windows, and the entrance porch leads to a small foyer, staircase, and utility room.

Buy some shipping containers, stack ’em on top of one another, stick ’em together, cut some holes and Voila! You have a super-sturdy, affordable low-maintenance home.

And as with all deceptively simple plans, the devil is in the details. And the details in this case were all heavy metal.

Rob Sorenson admitted that building this two-story, six-container house “was very difficult. But… I like difficult!”

He and Brandon Littrell of One Way Construction in Leavenworth were proud to show the progress on the home that they’ve been working on for over a year. The hardest part is done, and they envision by Christmastime Greg and Rania, the home’s owners, will be relaxing in soft couches, cuddling their first newborn child and reveling in cozy comfort.

This distinctive second home is custom-made for family vacations: a sensibly-spaced three-bedroom, three-bath home with a long open living area plus a utility room and two big south-facing decks. Huge barn-door-style shutters made from the cut-out metal siding will slide over more delicate French doors when the owners are away.

And the exterior finish? No board and batten or cedar shingles to disguise this honest bunch of boxes: the shipping containers, with their distinctive hinges, corrugation, bolts and rods will all be industrial dark green, with some accent trim. Just paint.

Just a few years ago, the young owners, living in Seattle but with north central Washington roots, were ready for their own ski retreat near Stevens Pass. They were thinking remodeled shed, cabin, tiny house — something small and conventional.

They liked the looks of a neighbor’s place, they contacted the architect, he liked a certain builder… and they were pleased that Syndicate Smith (architect Todd Smith of Leavenworth) and One-way Construction together had this relatively new budget-conscious idea they wanted to try.

By the summer of 2016 the owners had eagerly embraced the concept of a container cabin; Greg is in the maritime industry, so he was familiar with the ubiquitous 8’x20’ shipping containers, at least theoretically. Then they expanded the idea, and the little house on its timbered 2.5-acre lot near Lake Wenatchee grew into a more luxurious six-box structure.

Game on! Designs were approved and permits acquired.

The foundation, deeper and bigger than first envisioned, needed to accept a metal rather than wood foundation, so plates were imbedded in the concrete to allow the steel base(s) of the building to be custom-welded to them. This house isn’t going anywhere. Rob and Brandon presume it will only shift if the Cascades shift.

In September of 2016, the eight 8’x20’ containers — two are for outbuildings — purchased from Northwest Container Services, were one-by-one trucked over Stevens Pass to a staging area at a nearby highway rest stop. From there they were moved to various spots on the site for preparation (with the neighbor’s approval and undoubted curiosity) and were eventually hefted into position with a boom-crane. Picture six bricks piled into a two-brick high long rectangle. Only bigger, much bigger.

The most grueling part of the process involved metal on metal. State building codes required a state-certified welder for this job, which was deemed industrial rather than residential.

Accordingly, One Way’s welder received advanced training and certification in time to do most of the exacting work of connecting the six metal boxes (The other two are for storage adjacent to the garage.) Creating flashing — U-shaped tube steel faux beams to cover the interior seams — forming the patio roof and cutting and placing wood windows and doors into metal openings was relatively easier.

Rob explained as he showed the seams between units, “These containers are all held together with two-inch-long welds at four-inch intervals.” (For non-builders, that’s a lot of labor and expensive welding compound.)

He said the whole crew was very fire-conscious. “All summer long, we had a guy with a water hose just standing on the roof — and his only job was to watch for sparks.”

Walking around inside the almost-finished house, it’s easy to appreciate the symmetry and simplicity imposed by 8’x20’ components. There’s no wasted space; upstairs bedrooms are small and serviceable, decks are roomy and protected from the elements.

The long sweep of polished cement flooring in the downstairs living area unites the three spaces for cooking, dining and comfy seating, and the wall of south windows visually adds dimension to its 16’ x20’ footprint. The “high bay” containers offer 9.5-foot ceilings — a real boon to the builders.

Brandon said of the owners, “They’ve been great partners over this project. Rania especially had good design ideas and they were both willing to embrace the realities of a container house.”

They visit frequently and have become intimately familiar with the unique building process.

The pace of building slowed to accommodate some changes the owners made over the year.

A third heating source was added — now there’s hydronic (hot water in pipes) floor heating up and down, a propane stove, and a ducted forced-air system. That and three to five-inches of R-38 insulation — the standard is R-21 — in roof and sides insures winter comfort and walk-away ease.

The original plan for wood flooring in the second story turned into “gypcrete” poured over the floor piping, then completely covered with artisan tilework, and the first-floor concrete patio was extended out from the house for more outdoor living space. Bedroom reading lamps, once sconces, became pendants, with different wiring.

Brandon thinks that the growing repurposing ethic and advances in trade technology will mean more people using shipping containers for residences.

He’s sure that his company will keep experimenting with applications like this one, whether high-end or money-saving.

“When you think that the eight boxes, shipped to the site, only cost about $20,000, you can see that a smaller house, especially a single story with standard finishes, could be very cost-effective. This house — exactly what the owners wanted — pencils out to about the same as a stick built house of the same quality, maybe a little more.”

Give this boxy metal house some months for the tree-toned paint to blend it into the lot, and for the inevitable softening of fabric, furnishings and fixtures. Give it a year to settle into the landscape, with native grasses growing to the patio, silent woods surrounding it.

And give a hand to the architect, builder, and owners who gladly took on this almost crazy, really smart project.

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