In Panama, houses must be designed by architects. They have the big rubber stamps that make the drawings official. Although we know exactly what we want in a house, and I have drawn a detailed set of architectural plans, we still need the licensed architect to bless them with his stamp. The standard form of house construction here is to construct concrete/rebar columns and beams, then to fill in the empty spaces with concrete block. Then the whole structure is covered with a stucco finish and painted. From the poorest person’s one room casa to entire highrises, this is the way it is done.

So, given that we want to use shipping containers, it was with some trepidation that we scheduled a preliminary meeting with an architect. The man we chose works in the office where plans are drawn and stamped by an architect and are then approved by the government, so at least we have only him to convince, and not a long line of bureaucrats above him.

When he arrived at our house for the meeting, rain was threatening, so we first walked the short distance to our building lot. He got the lay of the land, liked that it has a slight incline from front to back, and agreed with me as to which trees should be preserved. On the walk back to the house, I presented our idea of a shipping container house. This, of course, was new to him, so we sat at my computer and I showed him numerous websites from around the world that feature shipping container houses and other structures. I also showed him a recent Sunday paper advertisement for shipping containers converted to all types of buildings right here in Panama.

He immediately had questions.

  • “Are they strong?” “Yes! A shipping container is built to carry up to 67,200 pounds of cargo! And, you can stack these loaded containers ten high!”
  • “Will they sit on the ground?” “No, I plan to make concrete footings and columns. This will allow storm water to run underneath and will reduce the number of critters that might want to wander in. The containers will be above the splash of rain falling on the ground so the paint will last longer. Being up in the air will also make underside access for future maintenance easier.”
  • “Do you need an elevated slab for the containers to sit on?” “No, by design, containers can be supported at the four corners only.”
  • “Where will the pipes and wires go?” “With at least 18-inches of space under the containers, most wires and pipes can be attached (brackets welded) to the underside of the containers. Inside, we have no objection to a more industrial look, so the electrical boxes can be welded to the containers and exposed conduit run for the wires.”
  • “A metal box will be hot. What about insulation?” “We plan to have ‘green’ roofs with several inches of gravel for drainage, a ground cover, and ornamental or vegetable plantings in pots. Also, we have a ceramic insulation additive that is mixed into paint. The exterior walls will be painted a light, reflective color.”
  • “Do you need stucco on the outside or drywall on the inside?” “No, just paint the metal the color we want. The corrugations of the metal become a design element.”
  • His final comment was, “Wow, this is fast and cheap!” “Yes!” Cynthia and I responded in unison.

During our Q&A, I showed him the scale model I had built, and we referred to the plans I had drawn. I watched him think and ponder, assembling the house in his head, and he seemed to smile as the fluorescent, energy saving light bulb went on in his head. “So, what do you think? Do you see or foresee any problems?” I asked. “No, I think we can do this,” he replied.

So, as the meeting reached its natural conclusion, I gave him my square footage (actually square meter) calculations and all our pertinent contact information. He headed out, promising to put a quote together for his services and email it to us shortly. He estimated that because Cynthia and I had done so much preliminary work that the process should take about a month. As I like to say here in Panama, “We’ll see.”

12 thoughts on “Architect

  1. Is there a view the higher you go up? Will you put gravel or crushed rock and or a concrete slab under the house? Could you go up about 48” this would give space for servicing the utilities, adding anything new and storage and you wouldn’t have to crawl around in the cob webs, I knew a guy who did that for a living a lifetime ago.

    • We are hopeful that from our bedroom on the second floor that we will see a wonderful mountain rock formation in the distance, called La Puerta (The Door), from our east windows. We surely will be able to see it from the roof deck above the bedroom (equivalent of the third floor); it will be a great place for a hammock!

      I think we will raise the house up about 18-inches to make it more stable during the small earth tremors we occasionally get here. Four feet up and we might be swaying in the breeze and knuckle down like a kneeling elephant.

      Yes, under the containers I plan to clear the first few inches of richer soil, put down black plastic, then a few inches of crushed rock. It will be easy to pull the weeds that do grow, especially if someone else does it. Ah, you remember my sorted past of working in crawl spaces. At least this under-house space will be open on all sides and not dark and dank as you remember my work in Seattle.

      Back to the rock formation: One day Yamileth, our maid, had some bulky items to take to her house, which is about a 4 or 5 kilometer walk (uphill both ways) on a rocky dirt road from Cynthia and my house. I said I would drive her home with the stuff; she was mighty happy. Anyway, in 4-wheel drive on the way to her house I could see the rock formation and thought for sure that it would have a name, so I asked her in Spanish, “What is the name of that rock in the distance?” “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe,” I said, “it is Montana de Yamileth!” She laughed and giggled and said, “No, no, no, but I will ask my father.” A week or two passed, and she said, “Oh, Senior Fred, my father said that the name of the mountain is La Puerta, as it is what you see as you approach the town. So now we know. For me, it begs the question, why do we have to know the names of stuff? For example, I see and hear incredibility colorful, beautiful, singing birds in our yard every day. Instead of saying, “I wonder what kind of bird that is?”, I’m trying to train myself to simply say, “Wow, how wonderful this all is!” It brings a wonderful peace.

  2. How about a thumb nail sketch of how the containers will be located and stacked. What I’ve seen here they are stacked, with space inbetween, one side living quarters bedrooms, on the other kitchen and utility rooms, livingroom in the center.

  3. Just stumbled on your blog, I am in the planning stages on doing the same thing for my lot in Panama. Mata Oscura, Western Azura. Can you give the name of the architect, and do you still know of the guys who are building these in Panama as metioned in the newspaper Add.

  4. Hello Guys, I just found your blog also, I am considering moving to Panama and doing the shipping container build too, love to hat about your experience


  5. Hi,
    Just found your blog!
    I’ll be retiring in Panama in a few months also. As one of the replies asked, can you give the name and contact info for your architect ?
    I’ll be building as you have done, which looks like a great job.
    Please reply to

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