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shipping container remote cabin - exterior open

The ability to button-up and secure remote cabins helps thwart would-be thieves. Tiny buildings made from shipping containers are naturally easy to secure when left mostly intact. Cutting holes for windows and doors not only opens the home up with natural light, it opens opportunity for break-in.

In this design exploration I show how windows and glass doors could be sealed simply with some hinged and lockable steel shutters. Just for fun I show how the small solar panel array could also be secured inside the center shutter – which opens by folding down. This would keep the panels away from the pry bars carried by thieves, but means they can’t do their work charging the batteries when closed. One solution for this would be to mount a single, 5th, panel on the roof for slowly topping-off the batteries, while the bulk of the solar investment sits safely behind the shutter.

shipping container remote cabin - exterior closed

The exterior of a shipping container should be water proof, so a secondary roof should theoretically not be needed; but anyone who’s been inside a metal shed on a hot day knows that without some shade, metal boxes get hot. Flat roofs also provide little to no potential for shedding water and snow. So adding a second roof over the box to shield it against the elements might be a wise decision. In this illustration I’m showing a metal roof with metal framing.

Another ever-present danger to remote cabins is fire. Trimming a fire perimeter around buildings located in high fire danger areas is always a good idea, and required in some regions; but building entirely with non-famable materials on the exterior can also help save the cabin in a worst case scenario. It’s not a sure bet since it could also cook like an oven inside if the fire outside was to close and/or too hot – but the steel exterior would definitely help. The only exception to this material selection shown here is the wood deck.

Another advantage to building a self-contained cabin from a shipping container is that it can be constructed off-site and delivered by truck. The roof shown here would pose a slight logistical challenge, but the container could be brought in and set onto pre-installed concrete footings. The roof could be mostly pre-assembled off-site and brought in by truck, or assembled in parts and bolted together on-site. It could also be added permanently to the cabin prior to deliver but may need a wide-load permit for hauling unless the eaves were shortened.

In any case building where it’s convenient and not on top of a mountain can speed  construction and reduce cost. The main logistical issues left would be getting the cabin to the site by truck on the windy dirt forest roads and connecting it to any on-site utilities like power, water, and sewer. If the cabin were designed to be very frugal, truly off-grid alternatives could be used for these as well.

A rain water collection tank and plumbing could be added to that shed roof. A composting toilet could be installed in the bathroom. A grey water system could be used to handle the water from the shower and sinks. All power could be derived from the solar system if sized properly with the expected power consumption. A propane tank could be located outside if gas water heat or heating were used.

Inside this cabin could be a bathroom, micro kitchen, table, and sofa/bunk bend.  But many other configurations are possible, especially if the bathroom were smaller or the container longer.

shipping container remote cabin - floor planshipping container remote cabin - inside at night shipping container remote cabin - inside at dusk shipping container remote cabin - living room shipping container remote cabin - bathroom

Most shipping containers come in two standard sizes, 8×20 and 8×40. There are other sizes but these two are most common. An 8×20 is shown here. The cost of containers is fairly standard but costs rise the father they must travel from ports. You see these boxes are what’s used to ship goods from overseas – but many don’t find their way back. Instead they are resold for other uses. The farther you get from a port, the more expensive they tend to be. Check your local craigslist.org for businesses that sell containers near you.

I’m not sure how much of a DIY project a shipping container cabin would be. Certain parts would likely require some professional help, like the transportation. The metal work would also present some challenges to the average owner-builder. But in terms of cost I think a cabin like this could be completed for the same kind of money as a wood cabin. So at the end of the day the main decision factors would be aesthetics and function. If you felt the benefits of a steel box out-weighted the aesthetics of a wood cabin then a cabin/house like this might be the right path.

The illustrations were drawn with SketchUp and rendered with Podium V2, a photo-realistic plugin for SketchUp. I draw design concepts like this mostly for fun – and share them to help introduce ideas to others. Enjoy!

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If you’ve read parts 1 & 2 you might remember that I’ve been using this shipping container exploration to test a photorealistic SketchUp plugin called Podium V2. Well I’ve had so much fun it that before the 30-day trial ended I bought the plugin.

As I learn more about how to best render images I’ll post some how-to videos but in a nutshell the main trick is to add light sources inside the drawing. You can also use their photorealistic-ready components (like the Jeep and trees in the image above) and textures to help add to the realism too.

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Building on the last shipping container concept it seemed logical to add another 20-foot shipping to see how much more space that could really provide. I didn’t do anything vastly different with the interior – mostly just moved things around. Instead of using the storage sofa/bunk beds this time I show two queen size futon sofa beds, making it possible for this space to sleep four people.

The kitchen also features a taller refrigerator and table for four. I didn’t add a range imagining that a portable hotplate could be used. I’ll spend more time working out the interior details in part 3 of this series.

You’ll also notice that I’ve drawn a shallow pitched hip roof for this version. This approach would be more fire proof than the large overhangs of the last design. You see when a wildfire come across remote buildings one of the easiest things to catch fire are open roof eaves. Boxed eaves (closed in framing) can help reduce the risk of a building catching fire so the absence of eaves plus a metal roof and exterior should be even safer.  I can’t say I like the way this roof looks but like the utility of it for a remote cabin.

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Using old shipping containers as houses is nothing new but I thought it might be fun to start playing with some tiny shipping container design concepts. Pictured here is just my first pass at using a 20-foot shipping container as a remote cabin design. It’s laid out to sleep two people in a convertible bunk bed, provides some storage for gear and food, and has a small kitchen and bathroom. The main feature is that it would be difficult to break into. No building is perfectly secure but one that locks up tight will be less inviting to criminals.

There are no windows or door openings cut into the original steel walls. Instead the original container doors would conceal an exterior wall with a door and window. This would provide that added security the cabin needs when uninhabited while at the same time giving the house a more usable front facade when in occupied.

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Heather Levin over at The Greenest Dollar shared a copy of a new ebook with me that she and Alex Klein recently finished called, Introduction to Container Homes & Buildings. It’s not a complete how-to book (that’s their next book) but it is an excellent overview of building homes from ISBU containers, and Alex is a true expert on the topic. Here are some of the things you’ll learn in this ebook:

  • Why ISBUs are one of the most frugal ways to build a home
  • What’s possible with ISBU construction
  • The benefits of living in an ISBU home (including how much you can save living in these structures)
  • How to make your ISBU home look just like any other home
  • Roofing options that will save you literally thousands of dollars on your build
  • 20 house plans that illustrate what you can do with ISBU containers (plus the build budget for each design)
  • Options for insulating your ISBU
  • What you’ll face when you go get financing for your ISBU build
  • The benefits of using 20′ containers instead of 40′ containers

The ebook is just under 100 pages and costs $9.95. Visit Alex’s blog or  The Greenest Dollar to learn more about Introduction to Container Homes & Buildings. Below are three of the 2o floor plans you’ll find in the ebook.

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One of my regular readers, Malcolm, spotted this little building on Oregon Live this morning and passed this onto me. It’s a little home office built from an 8′ by 20′ shipping container. Mike Corvi, a Southwest Portland resident and businessman, bought the gently used empty metal shell for $2,900 and then with the help of a couple of experienced builders, friends, and some sweat equity had a usable building within 6 weeks for a cost of $8,000. It sounds like the next step for Mike could be a business manufacturing complete units like this for about $16,500 each. Thanks again for the tip Malcolm!

Backyard Shipping Container Office



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Now here is a company that seems to be very well funded building tiny portable homes out of shipping containers. The houses are a bit plain but if you like the industrial look of shipping containers and spartan interiors these little houses might look like home sweet home to you.

Global Portable Buildings Inc, located in Santa Rosa, California has a bunch in stock too, so if you need one right away they can load it on a truck and deliver it to your property. They say no foundation is needed but best to check with you local building department to see what kind of permits might be required.

They also have a variety of different layouts, some with kitchens and bathrooms, and serve are permanent of temporary housing. The smallest basic unit starts at $12,000.

I personally think they could have made them look a bit nicer. I’ve seen a lot of cool modern homes build from shipping containers. These look a bit too much like barracks to me. But I have to admit, a simple home delivered to your doorstep at a reasonable price, maybe they’re a pretty good deal, but if you follow that logic a Domino’s Pizza looks like a good deal too. LOL

What do you think? Discuss at Tiny House Forum.

Photo credit Global Portable Buildings Inc.

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I’ve been playing with a SketchUp plugin called Podium V2 that helps you make more photo realistic images of your SketchUp drawings. I’m just getting my feet wet with this sort of thing but so far I’ve been very happy to find how easy it is to make slick looking images.

SketchUp is a free download and Podium gives you a 30 day free trial. Both work on Windows and Macintosh so it’s free to take it for a test drive. So if you like to draw and you’ve not explored drawing in 3D be sure to explore SketchUp.

So far it seems that the main trick to making these 3D drawings look more realistic is to add light sources to your drawing. The textures, reflections, and transparencies also make a big impact but the light sources are the key. Inside SketchUp alone you can turn on and off shadows to simulate the sun but that only helps a little. Podium lets you add light sources inside the drawing which makes the rendered output look far more real.

As I learn to use Podium better I’ll post more details and how-to videos. Until then feel free to play with the original SketchUp file of this 20-foot shipping container house and take a look at these rendered images. 

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The folks at faircompanies tipped me off to an interview they recently had with Daniel Gross, the entrepreneur behind a company called WorldHaus. WorldHaus, an Idealab project, has developed a low cost prefab building system intended to provide families in places like Kenya and India a safe and secure place to live for as little as $1,000.

It sounds like a wonderful idea but the interview left me questioning some bigger issues their research surfaced.

Here’s a quote from the latter half of the interview:

“It (natural building materials) fails in the aspirational standpoint, which means, a lot of people love the idea of bamboo, they love the idea of earth houses but it’s not something they want to pay for to live in, it’s not their dream house. We’ve yet to find a natural material that when we go to villagers and we say  - how about a house made out of this – it’s something they are actively willing to pay for. And that’s one of the key building blocks of WorldHaus and one of the key areas we’re going into is – we want something that people will want to pay for and want to finance.”

I hesitate to pass judgement on the project since there’s not much information about their house kit or the research they performed available on the WorldHaus website. But knowing that most people around the globe live in homes made from natural materials I was surprised to hear that they would prefer to pay him for a prefab home.

So instead I’m just going to say that I’d personally hope to see more projects focused on using local materials and labor instead of manufactured homes shipped by the hundreds to remote locations in shipping containers.

Two great examples come to mind immediately.

Earthbag Roundhouse

This earthbag roundhouse in Thailand was built by Owen Geiger (and team) for just a bit more than $2,000. It’s made from local materials and was assembled by local people. The end result looks like a wonderfully comfortable small home. The best part is that once people learn how to build with earthbags there’s little stopping them from building more.

Arial Home Initiative

The Arial Home Initiative is focused on bringing prefab construction methods to local communities. Instead of shipping prefab panels to developing nations they teach people how to make the prefab panels themselves. The houses go up in no time and cost very little money.

It’s hard to say if approaching housing challenges in developing nations would be more successful by taking a capitalist approach – or if an altruistic teach-a-person-to-fish approach would come out ahead. Like I said above, I’d hope the altruistic approach would win but who knows, maybe more people can be served by running it like a businesses.

Tough call.

In any event it will be interesting to see how successful WorldHaus becomes and how these kit homes perform for their owners.

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Juliet, the principal architect at Jibe Design, shared this clever container-based home design with me and thought it might be interesting to readers of Tiny House Design. I think she’s absolutely right and applaud her for this new take on shipping container based homes.

The main design challenge was to squeeze a small off-grid home into a 15-foot wide city lot. Shipping containers are 8-feet wide, so immediately you might see how some creative solutions would be needed. After all if you placed two containers side-by-side they would extend one foot beyond this tiny space.

So she teamed up with Naquib Hossain, a frequent collaborator, and produced this novel solution. Stack two shipping containers and cut a third diagonally to open the interior space up while maximizing the available lot size. This approach resulted in an interior that measures 628 square feet on two levels, made from three 30-foot shipping containers.

While this diagonal cut and stacking would add to the fabrication effort, it should definitely help the home feel a lot less like a narrow metal box. The total expected cost to build this home is $50,000.

Here’s what Juliet says about the project:

The Free Agent House explores the urban possibilities of living efficiently and affordably “off the grid.” The home is constructed of three shipping containers sliced and stacked to fit on a fifteen foot wide city lot.  The efficient layout maximizes passive heating and cooling. Glazing on the southern frontage receives the winter sun and sliding louvers block the summer heat.  Vacuum-insulated-panels super-insulate the building envelope’s tight perimeter and achieve an exceptional R-value with minimal thickness. A seasonal heat collector augments the passive heating system.

Low voltage appliances run off a rooftop photovoltaic array.  The sun also heats the home’s water.  The only municipal utilities the home connects to are the water and sewar systems.  A stormwater collection cistern irrigates the extensive vegetable garden.  At an estimated price of $50k, the building houses a free agent, liberated from high construction and operating costs.

Jibe Design built a physical model of their design, a rarity now that computer renderings have become the norm. Stuart Goldenberg of Goldenberg Photography shot pictures of the house model as an art project.  Stuart’s photographs expand the project.  The photographs express a certain melancholy and sense of silence.

When asked “Is that cost estimate achievable?”, she answered, “The cost has been rigorously analyzed.  The key to the low cost is the client himself – a skilled craftsman in many trades – who will build much of the project with his own hands.”

To learn more visit Jibe Design. Photo credit to Goldenberg Photography.

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This is just a fun design exploration I’ve been daydreaming about. It’s a tiny ceramics studio that measure 6′ by 6′ and is configured for a studio potter. You see before the internet took-off and web design took my professional focus, I was a studio potter. While I studied architecture in college I ended up graduating with a BFA in ceramics.

Back in the mid-90s the internet was just beginning to become interesting. Google hadn’t been founded yet and few people had heard of eBay. So to sell my pots I had to take them on the road on weekends. I lived in a 450 square foot cabin in Mendocino County, California and built myself a little 160 square foot studio that was really more like a drafty shed. My electric kiln was on the porch of the house and shared a plug with my clothes dryer.

I’m not sure why but I’ve been really longing to make pots again, but I figure 36 square feet would be just enough space. So the other night I started this drawing and added a little gas kiln and mobile tiny house showroom to round out the day-dream.

I often wonder what I might be doing now if Etsy and eBay had been booming back then. I have no regrets on the path I chose, but I can’t help noodling over what it would be like to be a potter again, even if it was just part-time. I guess that’s the nice thing about paths and life, we can follow our noses where they take us if we give ourselves the permission to dream.

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One of the most common questions I hear centers around where people can live in tiny houses legally. The challenge is that in many communities the definition of what qualifies as a residential home has been too tightly defined. For example, one of the things you’ll find are square footage minimums that define the smallest size a home can be, which can often be several hundred or thousand square feet.

I personally think all these rules are insanity because who in their right mind could determine a fixed minimum house size for everyone in a community. If the powers that be are trying to protect home values in the neighborhood they’ve also lost touch with reality because real estate appraisers will typically use similar properties for value comparisons. Luckily there are some ways to work within the system – to get around the system.

Photo credit Kahili Mountain Park via Tiny House Blog.

Some Loopholes

  1. Avoid building codes – Begin by finding communities that don’t have a lot of building restrictions. There’s a good ebook to start your search called No Building Codes written by Terry Herb at Containerist. The ebook outlines the building codes for each US State, at the state-level. If you are open to relocating and want to a quick reference by your side when seeking out states with few (if any) restrictions this is a good ebook to have.
  2. ‘Camp’ on your land – Trailer-based tiny houses are usually seen by most municipalities as RV trailers since they are built on wheels. So you can typlically live in a tiny house anywhere it’s legal to ‘camp’ on your own land. This is not always permitted so check the local ordinances with local law enforcement and/or the planning department. Other issues may still apply like how you’ll need to deal with waste water and drinking water.
  3. Alternate zoning – Look for multi-family zoned land. Typically there is no minimum unit size defined for multi-family zoned property which allows apartment building to have small apartments. It’s possible that with the right proposal, a planning department may approve building the first unit of a multi-unit tiny house development.
  4. Trailer park – Rent space at a trailer park. Some trailer parks have restrictive requirements like many homeowners’ associations, so avoid those. But many will be happy to have you park your custom trailer home in along side the other trailers.
  5. Build an eco-village – Consider buying an existing trailer park or campground with friends and turn it into an eco-village. This is one of my favorite tiny house community concepts because the zoning and infrastructure are already in place at these kinds of properties; although I’ve yet to see someone give it a try.
  6. Move out to the countryside – Many rural areas, even near major metropolitan areas will be more flexible with living solutions. There are many areas where migrant housing has already set precedents and paved the way for tiny house living.
  7. Backyard camping – A friends backyard might be a viable option if ‘camping’ is be allowed in your area. Setting up a tiny home in a backyard may also legally comply with the laws that support ADUs (accessory dwelling units). Even here in regulation-ridden California we have laws that permit the addition of in-law units.
  8. Hide in plain sight – I’m not advocating breaking the law but many people have found that simply setting up housekeeping in plain view works fine. The reason this works is that something so cute and in plain view is seen as a quality contribution to the neighborhood, not an eyesore. Onlookers seem to assume it’s some kind of cute shed, playhouse, or home office and just smile and continue on their way. Few would assume someone actually lives there, after all, who could live in a house so small? LOL
  9. Seek a variance – This is essentially asking the local planning department to consider an exception to the rule. If you work the green angle and diversity angle you may get more traction. There is quite a bit of risk with this approach because you have to buy the land before you can apply for building permits.

Wrapping Up

Finding a place to live in alternative housing requires thinking outside the box and looking for pre-existing loopholes. By all means try to avoid breaking the law and risking loosing your home. Building your home on a trailer can reduce the risk because you can simply move it if asked to by authorities. But it’s alwasy much nicer to find a place where you’re welcome to stay as long as you like.