We have had several question and answer sessions with different people in the shipping container world. We welcome conversations with those who have completed their journey since we all can learn from their triumphs and from their setbacks. This interview is with Jaimie from Kalama, Washington, who contacted us after she and her husband completed their shipping container build.
Here’s what she wrote:
I wanted to share a couple of pictures with you on our finished home. It is totally permitted and legal for occupancy, and except for the foundation and dry walling, we designed and built the entire home by ourselves.
We have been blessed and we love our home, and the lifestyle it affords us to live and the memories we are able to make because we aren’t tied to a bunch of upkeep or a mortgage 🙂
It was a huge challenge, especially considering its size and the unique challenge with building codes, but we really enjoy it.
Jaimie has some noteworthy ideas and also offers some crucial insights into building permits.
We hope that you enjoy the interview:
How did you get the idea of building your home with shipping containers?
My husband and I wanted something unique and different from what anyone else had. I have always loved the aesthetics of metal and my husband has worked in the metal fabrication field for years. I figured this was right up his alley – ‘honey, can you please build me one of these homes?’ kind of request.
He did have to test and qualify for his WABO welder certification to build our home. This was just one of the many obstacles that we had to overcome to build it legally and permitted. Thankfully, he was able to accomplish this quickly, and without a lot of difficulty.
Why did you decide to build your home out of shipping containers?
Before we settled on a shipping container home, we looked at many different options. We had just purchased 5 acres in a rural area and wanted to build our home mortgage free so that we could get up to the property as quickly as possible and out of the townhouse we were living in at the time.
Ultimately, we decided on building our first home out of containers because it seemed the most cost effective method of reaching our goal. Little did we know the processes and hoops we would have to jump through to make our home legal and livable in our state of Washington.
How long did the home take to build?
From the time we decided that we were going to build our home out of containers, it took us 11 months. This includes the design, which we did ourselves, to structural engineering that was required by our county Building and Planning department, to permits, fabrication, interior and exterior work.
We did all the work ourselves, except for the foundation, insulation and sheetrock – mostly because it was just as cost effective to sub these items out.
My husband and I spent every evening and weekend working on our home. We experienced a major setback when, about halfway through the project, my husband suffered a major brain bleed. This delayed us a couple of months, but we were very blessed by our family and church friends who helped us to at least get the house weatherproofed during this time as we were headed into winter.
Part of his rehabilitation and therapy process was centered around some of the smaller projects he could accomplish on the home. This brought him both a sense of accomplishment and worked toward his overall recovery and return of function.
While this health crisis was not something we were prepared for, it brought us closer together, and made us realize just how blessed we were to be able to complete and finish our home, which only adds to our Shipping Container Home story.
Roughly how much did it cost to build? Can you give us a high-level breakdown?
This really was the most shocking part of the entire project; nothing is cheap when you are working with a unique metal home design.
We spent about $175 per square foot on our home in materials alone. This doesn’t include any of our labor. We couldn’t repurpose as many materials as one would hope when building a home of this type, especially when trying to build it all to code.
We are the first home in our county, and they struggled trying to fit our ‘metal box’ into their ‘round peg’ rules. We were able to meet all existing codes, with the exception of our spiral staircase, which I had to go to the Washington State Building & Planning Commission for an allowance.
According to the current code, we could have had a Ship Ladder Stairwell, but our Spiral Stairwell had to have a special variance, which thankfully we were granted!
Can you talk about the process of building your home? What were some of the highlights of the process?
We chose to go with one-trip containers. Unfortunately, our 40-foot container was delivered with a gaping hole in the roof of it. It was quite a job to get it repaired so that it still met our engineering requirements.
Probably the most time-consuming and expensive part of the build process was our windows. Each window frame was fabricated with angle iron and square tube steel and then welded front and back on a flat surface to make the frame.
They were then welded front and back into the container walls, which is its own challenge. We then had to go through the long checklist of installing the windows so that they were completely waterproof around the sills. This was a process of vapor barrier, caulking, foam board, stainless metal screws and finally cedar trim.
We then framed the interior walls with wooden 2 x 4’s, essentially building a wooden box inside a metal box. The metal and wood couldn’t touch at any point, again because of condensation transfer. (Editor’s Note: This should probably be ‘heat transfer’, and is referring to thermal bridges. Read our article here for more information.) Once our electrical and plumbing were complete, we had our foam insulation blown in.
Our finished home has a living room, full size galley kitchen, washer and dryer, full bathroom and small second bedroom in the 40-foot container main floor. Up the spiral staircase into the 20-foot container is the master bedroom that opens out onto a 20-foot deck that overlooks our gorgeous Pacific Northwest valley.
How did you insulate the containers?
We used closed-cell spray foam to meet all county building & planning requirements for the walls, ceiling and floor.
This was very expensive and one of the things we would change if we could do it over. The closed-cell foam was used as both a vapor barrier and insulation. If we were to do it again, we would use a vapor barrier product (which we used in another container on the property as storage and have had no issues with condensation transfer) and then use a panel insulation. (Editor’s Note: While we appreciate Jaimie’s thoughts, we recommend using closed-cell polyurethane spray foam in most circumstances, especially in containers used for habitation in cold climates. Read here for our explanation about why this is so important)
We estimate this would have saved us about $5,000 in insulation costs (Editor’s Note: We aren’t able to verify the validity of this estimate, so take it with a grain of salt. It’s also difficult to know if this was for comparable R-values, etc.). But if we have learned anything about this project, it is that you literally learn as you go.
In your experience, what are the advantages of building with shipping containers?
Well, our home can withstand five times the wind that a typical wood home can ;). Other than that, we would have to say that it has a definite wow factor and will be here long after we are gone.
Unfortunately, the process of building a home of this type is a challenge, and not for the faint of heart.
Would you recommend building with shipping containers?
Honestly, with what we spent building our tiny metal home, we could have had a very nice tiny wood home for half of the cost (Editor’s Note: As before, it’s impossible to verify this, so take it with a grain of salt. It’s very easy to find yourself in an unfair apples and oranges comparison unless you have detailed line-item costs you can compare against).
Yes, our home is unique, but logistically it was a very difficult process and not nearly as cost effective as we thought.
Ultimately though, we did achieve our goal of being mortgage free and living at our property in less than a year. So we accomplished what we set out to do! We really do love our home and most importantly, are enjoying the freedom it gives us to really live, take adventures, make memories and experience life with our family and each other.
With the challenges we faced building our home, including my husband almost dying, we realize that life is precious and time together is both valuable and such a blessing!
A special thanks to Jaimie for taking part in the interview and sharing the knowledge she gained through her build.
There are two big takeaways from the interview. Notice the importance of finding a suitable location to build. In Jaimie’s case, she was the first in her area to build a shipping container home. This meant everything was a first for both her and her local planning department. This can be expensive and time-consuming because there are no established precedents for any issues which can arise.
Shipping containers aren’t always the cheapest building material to use. The merits of shipping container construction should be carefully balanced against the unique requirements of your particular build. For more information, be sure to read the article on when to build with shipping containers.
Let us know what you think about this build in the comments.