I was recently asked by the YouTube channel, SHELTER MODE, if he could feature our container house on his channel. He asked for a short story about our build and for some construction photos. In sorting through thousands of photos, I thought, hey, why not make a post about it for him. And anyone visiting here for the first time could see some of the process we went through without plowing through all 200-plus posts. Here is the story. At the end are a lot of photos from the way-back machine.
Our Story About Building Our Shipping Container House In Panama:
We are Fred (I am writing this) and Cynthia, retired expats from the USA living in Panama for the past twelve-years. We built a shipping container house in the mountains here. The house consists of four high-cube, forty-foot containers and three (welded metal) stick-built infill areas. Construction took five-years, six-days a week. The house is approximately 3,000 square feet (278 square meters). After the house was complete, I was taking pictures of the exterior and said to Cynthia, hey, look, this is (Tropical) Mid-Century Modern design!
I am a carpenter by trade, so it is only fitting that in my retirement that I should learn new skills and build a metal and concrete house! In the design process, to help Cynthia see in 3-D, I made wooden blocks to the scale of containers. We spent many hours stacking and re-stacking these blocks. One design looked like a precarious game of Jenga, but then we got back to reality. I drew a complete set of architectural plans, and then because it was required by law, we had an architect redraw the plans and get all the official stamps. We thought it would be much more difficult to sell the architect on building with containers, but we showed him projects from around the world and he was actually excited. Having worked in construction most of my life, I did my best to work to USA building code. When all was said and done, there was only one inspection, a final one, where the fire department glanced at the wiring connections in the main electrical panel.
The house is sited on a gently sloping lot. At the container corners, and in places where I cut out significant parts of container walls, the containers sit on concrete columns one-to-two-plus feet high off the ground (depending on the slope of the land) and go into the earth a meter deep, sitting on footings a meter square. There are twenty-two columns total. I accomplished much of the electrical wiring and plumbing under the containers.
I usually worked alone or with one helper, but when it was time to pour concrete or lay the expanse of floor tile, for example, we hired local workers. All concrete was mixed on site on the ground with a crew of five-or-so men, as is the local practice. All off-the-ground pouring is done with ramps and wheelbarrows or five-gallon buckets and ladders.
Our location in the mountains of Panama means that we can design for windows that are open year round. We need very little insulation and need neither heat nor air conditioning systems. We used a couple strategies to keep the solar gain from creating an oven inside the containers. On one container roof we laid a one-inch thick layer of Styrofoam insulation and then poured a three-inch concrete slab and laid tile to make a roof deck. On another container, which received rainwater from two opposing sloped roofs, I installed a sloped corrugated metal roof about a foot above the container. All the rainwater from the entire roof cascades off this roof. It creates a great place to take an invigorating shower in a downpour!
I cut the container metal with a nine-inch angle grinder and probably used hundreds of cutting disks. Now that the house is done, (of course) I recently bought a metal cutting circular saw. I highly recommend it verses the angle grinder! I tried a cutting torch but I don’t like how it burned the paint, causing nasty fumes and destruction of the protective original coatings. For window and door frames, I welded two-inch by two-inch square steel tubing frames. These frames got tack welded into their openings. This made realigning any warped container metal easy. Then outside and inside of the frames I ran a bead of urethane caulk (I like Sika brand) to seal the space between the metal siding and the frame. This makes a very strong and very water-tight seal that receives paint very well. I should have bought stock in Sika.
I was able to use most of the scrap container metal siding that I cut out in other areas. Using a winch, we dragged one entire wall panel out of its container and onto the roof and made a second-floor wall to support the stick-built roof. In other areas, I used cut out metal to make a clerestory wall. Very little went to waste.
The only issue that we have encountered after now living in the house for nearly four-years is a small amount of condensation that forms on the interior of the north container wall when temperatures drop below the dew point. (Physics: Beware condensing surfaces!) I could fix this with insulation and an additional interior sheathing, but it is a small issue. I just wash the interior walls once or twice a year and all is well.
Shipping containers lend themselves to stark industrial design, but we chose to make the home warm and inviting. Our Interior Design Department (Cynthia) brought exterior materials inside, and took interior materials outside, such as rock walls and floor and wall tiles. We call our design style Natural Industrial Bling. With the wide open spaces, we were able to use dramatic colors, such as charcoal gray, to ground the large spaces. And although we have a minimal number of furnishings, guests say how inviting, comfortable, and emotionally-warm the house feels. When guests first hear that it is made from shipping containers, they think it will be cold and stark. But after seeing it, they change their minds and frequently say that it is not just a metal box but instead is an art house.
We like the look of the container walls in our rooms. They give the advantage of deadening echos; we once had sixteen people in the kitchen and everyone could hear as they talked in smaller groups.
There is one downside, or should I say labor intensive component of the interior of the exposed container walls. I had to scribe and cut each and every floor tile as it met with the container wall. But persistence and hard work often makes the difference in how a project turns out.
Did I enjoy the process? Yes! I learned a great deal and it gave me a great feeling of accomplishment. There isn’t a day that goes by that one of us doesn’t remark on how much we enjoy this house. I would definitely build with containers again. But Cynthia and I love this house so much that we hope that we never have to leave it.
Here is a video of the all-finished exterior:
And here is a 93-photo slide show of the all-finished interior. No sound. If you want music, sing to yourself.
Here are a bunch of construction photos that show some of what we did:
I made a rough concept model so Cynthia and I could talk about the design and floor plan. The numbers are the containers. We still refer to the numbers, as in, “I need to paint the roof over three.”
Let the games begin:
A high water table made for too much fun. We dug twenty-two, one-meter-cubed holes for footings and columns. Armando was hoping that his wife wasn’t serving soup for supper:
Armando and I cut and tied 5/8-inch rebar for the twenty-two footings and columns. Here is some of our progress:
Here we are pouring a footing. This is truly elegant work:
On top of each column, I drilled holes in 3/16-inch thick steel plate and welded the rebars to the steel plate. After, I cut off the rebar flush with the plate. We welded the containers to the steel plate:
Here we are putting down black plastic, topped with sandy gravel we dug from a local river bed. This keeps the weeds down and makes a somewhat comfortable floor to roll around on under the containers while putting in plumbing and electrical:
I used a nine-inch angle grinder to cut out wall sections and all the window and door openings. Here is some of the spoils:
We mixed concrete in the traditional on-the-ground method. We could mix about three batches in a day with a crew of five or six men:
Aramis and I worked the screed board on this three-inch slab over one of the kitchen containers. This floor is to be a tiled roof deck:
Bucket by bucket, we moved concrete to the second floor:
We went overkill on the brackets that hold the concrete roof overhang. It gives the house a pleasant repeating design element, It reminds me of an old train station:
To make a wall on the second floor, we used one of the container walls that we cut out from the kitchen below. Here we are using a come-along to move the heavy metal out the doors of the container:
Once we had about twelve-feet sticking out of the container, we used another come-along on the second floor to bring the metal up on the roof. It took us about two-hours of strenuous exercise to move the metal to the roof:
You can see the wall standing in the next picture. It was some fun raising the metal to vertical — this involved more come-along action. Here the dining room glass wall is framed and the roof is going on, and we have poured the broad and wide front steps. Cynthia and I think that the generous front steps make it feel welcoming, as if you are entering a theater:
Another angle. The two containers on the left make up the kitchen,half-bathroom and family room. The stick-built area is the dining room in the front and the living room behind it:
It took four of us to get some of the 1/4-inch glass panes up the ladder and put in place. It was windy and we were all nervous!
This next picture is of the rear pod. It contains two bedrooms, two bathrooms, the laundry, and an eight-foot square “deposito” for garden tools and the like. (A funny story — the crane that placed the containers on the columns was having hydraulic difficulties and had trouble lifting the containers over the columns. The operator asked, seriously, if we could remove one of the columns so he could swing the container into place. Request denied!)
This is the other end of the bedroom pod. The clerestory wall above the left container acts as a beam to hold up the roof of the container. We also put in a couple steel columns to support the big wall cutout, and there are additional, smaller support columns under the long cut out wall:
We used Styrofoam building panels to make some of the walls in the house and these flying buttresses that hold up the carport roof. We filled the core of the buttresses with concrete and finished the exterior with a cement mortar stucco:
Here we are building the staircase from 1/8-inch steel diamond plate. I built a heavy-duty bending brake to bend the steps. The flight of stairs is assembled from bent pieces that make up the riser and tread of each step. Each one of these riser-tread pieces is welded to the next:
Jabo was our constant and loyal building companion. He had a great sense of humor and we miss him. He died a short while ago from a spider bite. We rescued him as a very young puppy and had a good life until he was twelve-plus-years old:
Building in Panama had a lot of challenges as far as getting materials is concerned. We had to do a lot of creating, inventing, and trying to make many things work. It was a ton of work, six-days a week for five-years. We wouldn’t have done anything differently.
That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.