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.”