Back in 2009 Cynthia and I had just bought this property. It was going to be a few months while she and I created the house plan and the architect did his work and got all the approval stamps. I was sitting in the house that we were renting and I was bored. I needed a hobby.
Hi there. I bet you thought you would never hear from me again. Well I’m back with an update and possibly a reboot of this blog. For those who want more shipping container house building info, my future posts may be disappointing. The container part of the house build is done and it has been done for more than three years now. `
For the past three-and-a-half years, this shipping container/art house has been for sale. As in much of the world, the housing market here is absolutely flat. Only a couple of properties have sold here and they were priced well below what the sellers wanted and way below what we were asking.
Meanwhile, Cynthia and I have been living here. Real living and not just the five-year all-consuming exertion of creating and building this house. We’ve had time to be creative with our arts. We’ve had time to just sit and relax in the master bedroom porch and watch the birds. We’ve had time to know each other more deeply. As time passed, we explored other places to live when the house would potentially sell. Medellin, Colombia (we’ve been there five times now). Guanajuato, Mexico (wow, but stairs, stairs, and more stairs make it not a place for Cynthia with her new knee). Greenville, South Carolina (fair weather, progressive culture, health care, etc.) and Austin, Texas (Cynthia’s family).
But through all this time, two factors have become important priorities.
One factor is that we love the rich nature and relative seclusion of where we are. Every morning we wake to something we’ve never had before. Recently it has been a family of Aracaris (Toucan like birds). And the flock of wild parrots absolutely prevents sleeping in and missing these wonderful mornings. To start over somewhere else and miss a significant amount of time (years?) without just sitting and being has become a less inviting idea.
The second factor is really a matter of time and energy. We have created something here and it took a lot of energy and a lot of years: this custom house that is a joy to live in, a workshop that I have organized for the first time in my life, a new glass studio for Cynthia, a watercolor painting studio for me, and more is in the works. We want these things in our life and to start over with the diminished energy of age is looking more and more unlikely and un-enjoyable.
As an example of what I am doing when not building a house, here is a cabinet I built for my art supplies:
So with a substantial and significant amount of pondering, realizing, and talking, we have come to the “ah-ha!” decision to remove the house from the market. Not that it is selling anyway, but we have come to settle on all the good points of staying put.
Over the next while I will post Part II of the reserve water tank project, our studios, an orchid wall that I built, and a major project that is underway.
That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by. Fred
At long last, the house is what I am calling 99.9998% complete! I have a very short list of unfinished items, most of which I can do in a day or two. But yesterday and today Cynthia and I staged the house and took photos inside and out. Here is a video with 93 pictures. To save you from me imposing my music choice on you, there is no sound. You can make it full-screen if you like:
So that’s it. Five-and-a-half years and all I have to show for it is 93 lousy photos!
I still hope to make a nice video. Stay tuned.
That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.
Working the punch list of unfinished projects, I finally had to deal with the underside of the bathroom sinks. I didn’t want to build cabinets (moisture, mold, termites), but I did want to hide the pipes:
So I cut some of the aluminum that I had left over from making the kitchen drawer bottoms and bent them on my DIY sheetmetal brake. I drilled holes under the counter tops, inserted plastic anchors, and screwed the aluminum skirts up into place. Now the undersides of the sinks look finished. Here is the skirt in the half-bath under the stairs, ready to screw into place:
The master bathroom:
And the second bedroom bathroom:
That’s one more of the few remaining items to scratch off of the list!
In other news, we have had more than our fair share of birds flying into our big windows. With 800 species of birds travelling through this area, something is always in the air. Apparently, the birds see trees reflected in the windows, fly toward the trees, and hit the invisible force field of the glass. We’ve been able to save most of them; we hold them cradled in our hands until they can shake off the stunned ?-what-?-just-?-happened-? look. I did some research and found a couple of solutions. One was to apply decals that look like birds-of-prey or other shapes.
Another option, the one we are going with, is rolls of 1/4-inch wide tape. The tape has 1/4-inch square dots every two-inches. You roll out the tape, rub the dots to adhere them to the glass, then peel back the tape leaving the dots on the windows. It is labor intensive! The dots add a modern look and you can barely see them from inside the house. The product is called Feather Friendly and is made by 3M. Here I am in the process of applying the dots — I had to take a break as it was about to rain and the humidity was too high and the dots wouldn’t stick:
With the kitchen cabinets done, I no longer needed to work in the carport/bohio and it was time to clean the floor. Sawdust from the caoba (African Mahogany) didn’t stain the porcelain floor tiles, but it stuck like glue, and with the addition of some dog pee here and there (thanks very much Jabo), it made the floor difficult to clean. We tried soap, then bleach, then vinegar, then scouring powder, and a lot of elbow grease. Finally, Armando suggested that he clean with a water/muriatic acid solution. This did the trick in
short order a couple of hours:
And remember Ramiro who helped with welding and painting? He is between jobs so we brought him back to do some painting. Here he is sanding, wire brushing, two-primer coating, and two-finish coating the bars on the master bedroom bump out. He is a meticulous painter and this paint job should last a good number of years:
Here it is all bright and shiny:
And of course, Cynthia and I managed to sneak in a nine-day trip to the pueblos surrounding Medellin, Colombia to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. Our gracious AirBnB hosts made us a fabulous celebratory dinner. El Retiro turned out to be our favorite pueblo in the area. It is located in a forested, mountainous area about a half-hour from Medellin’s airport in Rionegro. Much of the industry of the area relates to wood, with a plethora of furniture makers turning out excellent pieces. Thanks to some of our blog readers who came for our 25-cent house tour, for recommending the area!
That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.
This past two-weeks have been mostly a flurry of tiny, unphotogenic tasks, and I am often ticking off several orphan items per day. Touch up this paint, install this small piece of trim, grout this small area of tile, fabricate a foot-rail at the breakfast bar, install some kitchen ceiling trim, put plastic gliders the dining room chair legs, and on and on.
But two items stand out from the crowd.
First, our two garden globes and three homemade birdbaths, as nice as they are, were each sitting on top of a few round, rough concrete blocks. Cynthia and I decided to have Armando sculpt the stands to represent tree stumps with vines wrapping around them. I gave Armando very little direction, told him to be an artist and to have fun with it. We think he did a pretty good job. Here are some photos:
Last Saturday, I decided to head out to find wood for the kitchen cabinets. As you drive down the mountain, there are several roadside woodworkers who make chairs and tables from local wood. Most of the furniture is very rustic and not to our taste. But I stopped at them anyway and asked where I could purchase wood. They all sent me to the woodworker in Coronado near the El Machetazo store. My order was for too much wood for him to sell me from his supply, but he gave me the name of a man, Marco, in Penonome’ who sells wood.
I called Marco and he suggested that we text via WhatsApp, which we did. He also suggested that he visit us on Sunday so that he could show us some samples. I thought that was above and beyond the call as it is about an hour-and-a-half to Penonome’. He arrived right on time, bringing his wife and daughter along for the ride. After a cup of tea, we talked and settled on Caoba wood (African Mahogany) as he promised easy working (like butter he said), and a rich, deep red finish with several coats of clear polyurethane. It would go well with our wood-grain ceramic floor tiles.
Marco said that he could deliver the wood on Wednesday or Thursday. I took his word with a grain of salt as he didn’t say which Wednesday or Thursday; he had a fair amount of work ahead of him. I told him that I would give him a nice tip if he came when he promised.
I was amazed when he drove up to the house on Wednesday morning! I told him to back his truck into the driveway, but he wagged his index finger back and forth (the Panamanian word for no, no, no). He drove straight in.
We unloaded what looked like the right amount of wood. I started to pay him, but he directed me to the “Secretary and Treasurer” (his wife) and I paid her the $3 per board foot that he had quoted me. (I got independent estimates of $2 to $3 per foot; I thought the $3 was at the high end, but he did make two trips here and delivered as promised.) I joked that damn, he came when he promised and now I would have to give a nice tip! The Secretary and Treasurer smiled and gave me a thumbs-up; Cynthia and I suspect that she is also the Project Manager in their family.
We said our goodbyes, and then Armando and I pushed him out of the driveway as his reverse gear had been broken for years! The wood is rough sawn and I will need to plane it to the thickness that I want. I can’t wait to start working with it. My thickness planer had rusted from lack of use and I have ordered a new thickness-adjusting-gear from the States. It should arrive just about the time that the wood is ready to size.
Here are some photos of the wood, starting with the photo that Marco sent to me via WhatsApp:
Marco arrives with the wood:
I finally painted my shop door!
And Jabo solarizing on the front steps:
That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.
It has been some time since my last post. But in there was a cold that put me down for a week, plus a trip to Medellin, Colombia. And our very poor Internet service hasn’t helped; I attempted to write all last week, but although we are paying $110 a month for 3 megs, the best we could get was 0.33 megs or so. Uggh. But now we have a new provider, 5 megs/$38 per month, and we are getting a good, solid, better-than-four megs, depending. I’ll call it a success!
A while back we tiled the floor in the half-bath between the living room and the master bedroom. Since then, I have tiled the counter, painted the walls, installed the sink and faucet and the toilet, hung the door, and painted the walls a light, warm gray.
I started off with a problem. A few years ago when I poured the concrete counter, I failed to make provisions for the counter to be thinner at the faucet and drain so that I could install the fasteners from below. I just didn’t know. So using a concrete drill and a hammer and chisel, I cut out two holes:
Then using slices of PVC pipe as forms, I made two, 1-inch-thick concrete doughnuts:
When the doughnuts cured, I stuck them in place with some bondo:
Later, when I tiled the counter, I filled in the gaps with mortar. Here I am starting the tile job:
We chose an iridescent blue-gray glass tile. I got lucky-as-could-be in that I didn’t have to cut a single tile! Here is the counter, the pedestal that I made out of a concrete culvert, and the rest of the bathroom all done:
Here are some more bathroom photos:
We’re good and happy to have this last really raw area of the house done!
In other news, now that the driveway is free of piles of sand and gravel, we spread an additional eight-yards of crushed gravel. Here’s Armando chipping away at one of the piles:
After a year away from her glass bead studio, Cynthia is turning out some lovely beads. Here she is working on one at her torch:
Our Medellin trip was only for five days, but here are a couple highlights — Every morning we had breakfast at a small natural food store/restaurant called Salud Pan (healthy bread). The two pictures in the next photo are hanging on their wall:We met up with my girl cousin from Massachusetts for the trip. Even after all these years, I still can’t help but pull her pigtail. Here we are at Jardin Botanico (Edit — actually, the next two photos are out of order — we are really at Parque Arvi, higher up in the mountains, hence Cynthia wearing a jacket in the cool air) :
And Cynthia and me:
Some flowers and plants at the botanical garden:
The garden isn’t just about the plants. There are lots of birds and other critters, including this gargantuan iguana (taken with a telephoto as you don’t want to get too close — these critters aren’t afraid to run at you full tilt)!
Luckily they weren’t just sunning but were kind of active. Here’s a short video:
We went to Plaza Botero again on this trip, always fun to see Botero’s work. Here is Cynthia with the cat:
Another view is like something out of a 1930’s earth invaders sci-fi movie:
It was quite warm in the plaza, so we took refuge in the air conditioned museum. I have to stop eating all those arepas!
So that’s all for now. Now Cynthia and I are pulling the last of the wiring for the master bedroom and bathroom and a few other spots. Thanks for stopping by.
This blog entry marks my 200th post on PanamaShippingContainerHouse.com. Cynthia and I began this house-building project on June 6th, 2010, just two-weeks away from five-years ago. And now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel!
Tackling much of this Big-Person’s Erector Set myself, I’ve had to push pretty hard, and keep on pushing pretty hard, if I ever want to see the project completed. As such, there has been a never-ending stream of items-become-reality.
I have become conditioned to frequently having something new to enjoy, appreciate, be frustrated by, and be proud of. As an artist, I like the creative process. It feeds me. It stimulates my brain.
This is not to say that it hasn’t been exhausting and that I haven’t wanted to walk away. Many times. The size of the project, the learning curve of creating a unique, owner-designed and owner-built shipping container house, the new skills that I have had to learn, plus the general decrapitude of my age (I can see 70 from my house), have been daunting.
But artists wouldn’t have it any other way, would they?
I know that the house isn’t done yet, however several readers have asked me if I would do it again — If I knew then what I know now, would I do it again. It’s a hard question to answer (indeed even some of our political elite have fallen into the trap and bungled the answer). And like a politician, I’d like to dodge the question and ask a different one.
Are we glad that we built this shipping container house? The answer, from both Cynthia and myself, is a resounding, “Yes!”
Would we do it again? (Ah, you still want me to answer that question…) “NO!” But not for the reason that you think. We think that building anything from shipping containers is a cool idea. We think that this has been a worthwhile exercise. We have learned a lot. We can’t identify any major mistakes along the way that have made this a stupid idea. We love the way that it is turning out.
But we wouldn’t do it again because we are more artists than builders. A builder can replicate the same house a thousand times, maybe flipping the floor plan every other time. But an artist — an artist is in it for the creation of new ideas, new expressions, new processes, new enlightening. So no, we wouldn’t do it again.
The house “works” for us in its design and materials. The containers provide a modular design grid that allows for a very fluid and usable living space. The large spaces, such as the 16’x40′ kitchen/family area, work well here in the tropics where airflow and ventilation is everything.
The still-somewhat-uniqueness of using shipping containers has enlivened the project, even more so than if we had built a good design from the standard concrete block method. We’ve enjoyed knowing that we’ve taken four containers out of the junk pile and up-purposed them into a home that has a lot of living potential.
Lastly, Cynthia and I have created this design from the ground up. We didn’t buy plans on the Internet, and we didn’t hire out any of the creativity. We’ve worked well together to solve really-difficult issues. Often Cynthia won’t like my ideas or I won’t like her’s.
But our philosophy around this is that if one of us doesn’t like the other’s idea, we look for a third option. We’ve discovered that the third option is never a compromise. Neither of us has had to give up anything along the way. The Third (or Fourth — or Seventh) Option that we find is always better than what either of us has thought of individually.
To everyone who has followed along, subscribed, or commented, thanks very much. I haven’t “monetized” this site because I like it the way it is. I’m not even selling the idea. This blog is my diary, and I’ve enjoyed making it public. I hope that you have enjoyed reading it.
That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.
For E.V.E.R. now, we’ve had a back door but no steps up to it (or down from it, depending on where you stand). And in the carport, we still had a small pile of mixed sand and gravel from the river. In order to pour a floor in the carport, this pile of material had to go.
So instead of moving the pile, we decided to use it up by making steps to the back door. Armando, with me helping on the technical layout and the concrete pours, spent about five days on the project. And now, just like that, we have back steps — one more item to cross off of the To Do list. Here are some photos:
While Armando focused on the steps, I worked the list inside the house.
We had yet to finish the wall under the bench in the master bathroom shower, so one day I couldn’t put it off any longer. This was a nasty little area because the container wall was quite dented. I wanted to attach tile-backer to the wall, but the dents wouldn’t allow it. So with Armando outside with some screws, and me inside with a couple lengths of 2″x2″ square tubing, we attached the tubing to the wall. Now with straight lines, I glued and screwed tile-backer to the tubing.
Here I am just about to attach the tile-backer:
The special screws for tile-backer are an engineering marvel. The “point” drills through the tile-backer, then into the metal stud behind the tile-backer. The two “wings” enlarge the hole in the tile-backer that the “point” made. As the wings contact the metal stud wall, they are sheared off and the screw part advances into the metal stud. Finally, when the screw head hits the tile-backer, “teeth” on the underside of the head grind away the tile-backer so that the head sits flush. Ingenious and not cheap per each:
Next on my list was some trim work on the wall between the master bedroom and the master bath. This entire area
looked was unfinished. I cut, fit, and painted some wooden boards, and now the area is transformed. Here is the bedroom side:
Beyond the bed in the bedroom is a cozy sitting area. I trimmed the top of this wall, too, and hung a fun lamp. We still need a round mirror for the wall:
In the master bath, I got to check a tiny item off of the list — I drilled a hole through the concrete shelf, passed the lamp cord through the hole, and attached a new plug. The toilet area is a pleasant place to sit a spell:
The bedrooms were still a bit macho, so we found some nice curtains (on sale!) at Novey. Here is the master bedroom with the curtains hanging:
The second bedroom:
In the kitchen, morning light was just too bright coming through the glass block windows. Curtains here make the space much more pleasant:
I did a few smaller projects as well, including repainting the bottom few inches of the container wall in the kitchen. The white paint was dirtied when we grouted the floor. If you are going to build a shipping container house, realize the extra work involved here:
With the exception of the carport floor, the last significant outside job is done. This is a good thing because the rainy season has begun. That last job was to finish the west end of container two:
Here is this end all painted, window washed, soffit panel installed, and the scaffolding disassembled and returned to its owner after two-years:
Trim was still lacking in the two bedrooms at the top of the clerestory wall. It looked unfinished with the uneven ends of the zinc ceiling panels. So I installed a metal angle which provides a more crisp look. The next photo is looking up at the ceiling:
While I had the hang of being on ladders, Armando and I finished the kitchen ceiling by installing the last piece of zinc panel. In the seating bump-out, we hung a piece of tilebacker (no drywall in this damp climate…) on the ceiling and painted it gray. I still need to hang one of Cynthia’s red lamps:
Since I had the gray paint out, I decided to continue in the hallway to the master bedroom. Long ago primed with red and white paint, the area was very dirty. I washed the walls and ceiling, sanded and primed rusty areas, and ran beads of caulk around the door frames. I painted everything two coats of the middle gray. Now this hallway doesn’t stand out as an eyesore:
In the meantime, we now have about sixty-four new plants in the ground!
To the left of the driveway turnaround, we planted sixteen purple Mexican Primrose. These grow and spread well, so this area will be much fuller a few months from now. At the left side of the next photo is a new bush — I’ll build a trellis for it to vine up and over the carport entrance. It will have flowers for the butterflies and hummingbirds:
We put a row of the same Mexican Primrose along the yellow “Shrimp Tails” by the front gate. Again, these will fill in nicely:
And five red-flowered trees that the butterflies and humming birds will like:The back yard is filling out nicely and is a good spot for one of the bird baths:The fern garden was doing well but looks better with the addition of a bunch of large-leaf purple plants. And we like the little flowers that Armando surprised us with:The hibiscus struggled through the dry season, and they were attacked numerous times by leaf-cutter ants. But they are doing well now that they have had a couple deep drinks of water:That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.
The number of significant tasks is dwindling! The only two large items remaining, things that will take more than a day or two or three each, are to build out the kitchen cabinets and to pour concrete and install tile on the carport floor.
When I build the kitchen cabinet doors and drawers, I want to work outside in the carport so that I’m not breathing a lot of sawdust. But I’d like to work on a nice floor rather than on the dirt that is there now. But I can’t pour the floor yet because it is the dry season and there is no sand and gravel running in the rivers to make concrete with. So these items are on hold.
In the meantime, I have decided to tackle remaining projects in order of their greatest visual impact. For example, painting large areas will make a larger impact than installing a light switch. After so long at it, we really need the illusion that the project is moving along rapidly.
With this guideline in mind, I made an ordered shortlist of projects.
I decided to start with painting the walls in the loft. Some time ago I had prime-painted the container wall that divides the loft from the roof deck. The knee wall overlooking the living/dining room was still raw stucco. Cynthia and I decided to continue the same warm, medium-gray that we have used elsewhere in the house. I went to work.
I spent four days in the loft and it has made quite a difference. Cynthia is using the loft as her hot-glass studio so I had a few things to work around. The loft sure looks a lot better now. Here is a photo taken from the east end. The screened openings at the roof line are open year round; they suck the rising hot air out of the house:
Cyn was looking for a way to store sheet glass, so we came up with the idea to make racks from plastic cutting boards and quarter-inch rebar. One important storage issue for her is that different glasses have different coefficient-of-expansion (COE) ratings. You can’t mix ratings or your glass will crack. Now she can keep these COEs separated, each COE in its own rack. Here are three of the four that I made for her:
Here is a photo of the loft from the west end:
As I worked my way out of the loft and around to the stairs, we realized how badly-worn the charcoal paint looked in the stairway and in the dining room. I spent another day two-coating these walls. It made quite a difference:
In the photo above, you may have noticed the two sconce lights that Cynthia made and I installed on the wall. Here is a closeup with the light off:
And here is a photo with the light on (daytime). The triangles of glass match the triangles on the chandelier over the dining room table:
The next visually-important area to paint was the window and door framing on the west wall of the living room. I’ve been avoiding this because, well, it promised to be a tedious task. But the order of the list is the order of the list and so I began.
Preparation work is a large part of painting almost anything; I sanded, wire-brushed, and cleaned the long-ago primed metalwork and ran beads of urethane caulk at adjoining joints and seams. Then I spent a day re-prime painting everything, including all the metal rivets that had never been painted. As of this writing, I am most of the way through the project, just two top-coats of gray to go on the sliding doors:
Cynthia dragged me to Westland Mall to buy some new work clothes. I guess I was looking quite shabby — she likes her workman to be smartly dressed. I’ve had a difficult time finding comfortable shoes for my old, arthritic feet, but so far I really like my new Nike Air running shoes.
Here is a photo looking from the loft to the upper west wall windows:
Although I’m not done with painting the west wall of the living room, I had to wait for paint to dry, plus the afternoon sun was in my eyes. So I moved on to the last remaining large area to paint — the master bedroom. Because we didn’t want to sleep in all the toxic paint fumes, we relocated to the second bedroom, which is nice because the bathroom there is fully-functional including the shower. No photos of the master bedroom yet.
In other news, Cynthia continues learning and enjoying working with fusing and slumping glass. She has a few new projects to show off including this bowl:
This bowl has some transparent seams and adds dimension to the glass. Here I held the bowl up to a window:
Cyn is gaining enough confidence and quality of execution that she is almost willing to sign her name to her work and even part with some!
Here is a tray that she made from stacks of different color glass. The effect is called mosaic and is made like a pyramid, making numerous stacks of five pieces of glass each, and then slumping the assemblage in the kiln:
Using the same technique, Cynthia made organically-shaped cabochon beads that she will wire together to make a necklace:
The next photo is of a bowl. To me it feels primordial, elements swirling in The Great Nebula or perhaps plankton and primal fishes in the depths of the ocean. But it is art — you decide:
Cynthia would like the ability to grind and polish some of her glass creations, so in my free time I’ve been building her a lap grinder. These things can be bought, but I can build one for a fraction of the cost.
A motor (that I don’t have yet), will spin a one-quarter-inch thick, twelve-inch-diameter aluminum disk, on which she will put various-grit diamond disks. I made the stand with PVC plumbing fittings. Still to do is to buy and mount the motor, make provisions for a small water pump, and construct a water-splash apron. For the top, I used an aluminum, large baking sheet. Here it is so far:
One of the downsides of living in the tropical mountains of Panama is the termites and the rust. A few years ago, I think I posted a photo, I made 48 wooden drawers and a metal rack to house Cynthia’s 1,500 watchmaker’s tins full of seed beads. Well, over the years the termites have reduced the wooden drawers nearly to dust and the tins have started to rust. What to do? We purchased a bunch of aluminum, full-sheet baking trays to hold the tins. In time, I’ll build a new cabinet to hold the trays. So for four days, and one remaining to go, Cynthia and our maid have been cleaning each-and-every one of the 1,500 watchmakers’ tins and moving them to the new trays. It has been a tedious, onerous task but will be worth it in the end. The living room is in disarray from my painting and from the stacks of trays:
But one of the wonderful aspects of living here in the tropical mountains of Panama is the multitude of bird life. With my smartphone, I recorded three very-short MP4s of birds.
First, an owl just before dawn:
Second is a flock of wild parrots that flies through most mornings around 6:30 and then later in the day:
And third is a toucan in a nearby tree. Not as good of a recording because Armando was trimming bushes nearby. Toucans sound a lot like frogs:
Finally, I have been chomping at the bit to make some videos of the house. But I’d like my work to be a bit more professional looking than just walking through the house with a jittery camera. Friends are coming to visit us in two months, and although they don’t know it yet, they are going to bring with them a few small items that will make my videos much better looking. I won’t promise cinematic quality, but I think that I can improve a lot on my previous attempts. You’ve been asking for videos, so stay tuned.
That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.