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. Continue reading
To recap from my last post, I have for some years now wanted to try my hand at aquaponics. Aquaponics involves fish and vegetable growing. In short, the fish excrete ammonia, which is toxic to the fish. But bacteria process the ammonia and produce nitrite and then nitrate. Vegetable plants are grown in the water that is rich with the nitrates, feeding the plants, and then the water is returned to the fish. It is a nearly closed loop system, just needing input of fish food and an occasional small dose of, for example, iron. But to do all this at the scale I want, I need a greenhouse. Continue reading
PART I ~ A Very Long-winded Introduction To A Significant Project
Sorry, no pictures this post.
Time sensitive note: I’ve wanted to write this post for some time, but the COVID-19 pandemic kinda knocked the wind out of my sails. But today I determined to sit down and write. I hope you are all well. We are watching the world change in front of our eyes.
For some years now, I have wanted to grow our own veges. But our soil is rock hard and would need significant augmentation to be successful soil. And if the bugs flying in the air and/or the leaf cutter ants marching on the ground don’t eat the leaves, then the grubs underground will eat the roots. And then there are the rabbits. And the windy season would leave the leaves in tatters. And the dry season requires constant watering as the soil turns to stone. And the torrential flooding in the rainy season is no help either. And who wants to bend over and work the soil at 70+ years old anyway. The only dastardly thing we are missing here is deer! So I tabled the desire. Continue reading
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
I haven’t posted in a long time because I haven’t done anything much write-down-word-worthy lately. But I felt like writing this morning and cranked out the following bit about the month of April here in the mountains of Panama, and I thought I’d show you a little project that I have been working on.
As I do many mornings, today I was on our roof deck sweeping away a few dry leaves and watering the plants. From the roof deck I can see the woodpeckers that, as they do every year in April, are making new nesting holes (in preparation for babies and for protection in the rainy season) in the trees in the next lot over from us. It’s quite a show.
Every day I put several bananas in the dead tree stump in our front garden. We’ve covered this stump in bromeliads and orchids, and nesting birds have made the tree a bird condominium. They have a wonderful time darting in and out of the plants on their way to and from the bananas. There are black birds, black and red birds, black and yellow, green, and even blue birds. Robins, and the woodpeckers, too, come for the bananas. Small reddish-brown doves peck in the freshly-tilled garden and finish off the banana peels that fall to the ground. The bird banana buffet gives Cynthia and me hours of enjoyment as we watch out the kitchen windows.
The tall trees in our front garden turn golden-crested in April, and the loudly-chirping hummingbirds work the blossoms all day long. Soon, bees will arrive to take the nectar that the hummingbirds leave behind; their buzzing is very loud and reaches a crescendo in the heat of mid-afternoons.
I also love April because now, after several very dry months, we are starting to receive several rain showers each night. They don’t last long, but come down in brief sheets, signaling that rain is on its way. The fragrance of freshly-dampened soil smells good and I go back to sleep.
The other day our gardener, Armando, pointed out a loudly singing bird that was “calling the water,” he said in Spanish. I’ve really enjoyed learning Spanish so I can pick up these bits of local knowledge – such as when the breezes that start in November and December are called “brisas de Navideña,” — the breezes that bring on Christmas. Many of the local workers here may not have a lot of book learning, but they know the wildlife and the subtle rhythms of the seasons.
With everything so dry, the birds enjoy the three birdbaths that we made for them; keeping the water refreshed is a pleasant part of my daily routine, too.
Recently we noticed that the mango trees are in full-bloom in our area; we should be picking mangos fresh off of the trees in late June and July. Because we are in a micro-climate zone, our mango schedule is quite different from down in town or just down the mountain road a few kilometers.
There are distinct seasons in Panama, not as dramatic as, say in New England, U.S.A., but they are distinct in their own subtle way. I love April; there is a lot to observe and to appreciate here.
In other news, the other day I got a call from a friend of ours. She has been taking care of the home of someone who had recently died, and she lost the keys! She asked me if I could get into the house. Of course I could, houses are my business, but locks, unfortunately, aren’t.
I did a survey of the exterior of the house and decided to remove the security bars on a small bathroom window (the window was small, and so was the bathroom, come to think about it). Fifteen-minutes with a hammer and chisel and I had the bars removed from the concrete block house. It would be minimal work to mortar the bars back in place. I climbed through the window, removed the screws from the two deadbolt locks, and opened the door. Our friend bought two new deadbolts and I installed them in just a few minutes.
But this got me thinking — how much easier it would have been on my senior citizen body if I could have just picked the locks and not had to mess with shoe-horning myself through the tiny window and making the high drop to the floor. YouTube to the rescue. Over the next couple of weeks, I watched a couple-hundred videos, maybe more, about lock picking. I now dream about picking locks.
So I thought that I would buy a set of lock picks. They can be had for twenty-bucks, or a high-quality set for under a hundred. But then again I thought, why not make them myself? There are lots of videos on YouTube showing how to make picks from hacksaw blades and the thin pieces of spring steel that sit under the rubber part of most windshield wiper blades.
Our car needed new wiper blades anyway, and a few bucks bought a handful of saw blades. A day or two later I had my very own homemade lock pick set (I still have a couple more picks to make…). I think they came out pretty well, all ground, sanded, and polished to a bright shine. Here are a few photos:
So now it is time to see if I have what it takes. I have a pile of old padlocks that I am gearing up to practice on.
By the way, if you are the least bit interested in how insecure most of the locks that most of us use, here is a video by a man named bosnianbill. Locks are his hobby and he enjoys figuring out the puzzle of each lock he touches. Bosnianbill is part of an international group of people who consider lock picking a grand sport. They have competitions and swap locks and information among themselves, picking for the fun of it. Here is one of his 600-or-so videos:
Now, after a bit of practice, maybe I will be able to open a lock the next time I get a call from a panicked friend. I’ll “keep it legal” as these sport pickers say at the end of their videos.
That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.
Three days ago I finished applying the Feather Friendly window dots on our large front windows. I am happy to report that not one single bird has even come close to colliding with the glass!
This past week in addition to finishing the bird dots on the windows, I’ve spent several days washing windows and making the house shine. Ramiro is still washing the house inside and out and touching up paint as he goes, and Armando has been cleaning the exterior rock work with the power washer. I still have a couple small tasks to do — install an electrical plug, tie some wires up under the house, install a plumbing vent — but everything is all but done. However I did want to show the finished bird-proofing of the windows.
Here are some photos:
This first photo is in progress. You tape two ruler guides (provided with the rolls of dot tape) to the window. Then you roll out enough tape to go across the window and cut it to length. Then, following the ruler, press the tape onto the window, one row every two-inches. Lastly, run a credit card over each dot to stick them to the window and then remove the carrier tape. Only the dots are left on the window:
I took the next photos just after sunrise:
You barely notice the dots from inside the house. Jabo does report, however, that he is seeing spots:
As I get closer and closer to completing every little item on the punch list, Cynthia reminded me of what I said when we first met about eleven years ago. We met online, eHarmony.com. In our emails back and forth, I told her that I was in the process of doing a down-to-the-studs remodel of my 1920s Craftsman bungalow home in Colorodo. This was a Big Red Flag for her, as the photos that I sent to her were “ugly” as she says.
But I told her that, “I finish projects,” and I emailed her my resume, if you will, of other houses that I had completed. Well, that sales job sealed the deal. Cynthia moved from Ohio to Colorado and we spent the next three-years finishing the bungalow.
Here is the bungalow on the day that I bought it. It was pretty nondescript.
And here it is just before we sold it, windows washed and everything:
Now our shipping container house looks finished. It really feels good to have so much to show for our five-years of work:
That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.
We’ve spent the past week or two essentially electrifying the rest of the house. With very few exceptions, the electrical phase (pun intended for you electrical engineers out there) is now all done.
The work involved several days of me under the house and Cynthia inside the house, the two of us fishing, running, and pulling about 500-feet of wire. After all that wire was placed, I spent the better part of a week wiring all the plugs, switches, and lights, and installing the switch-plate covers. The results are illuminating and it feels very good to be able to walk through the house and turn on any light we want. Cyn is thrilled to no longer have to trip over extension cords.
I may have mentioned this before, but many years ago when I was in my early twenties, I helped an older electrician by pulling wires and crawling under houses, doing the work for him that he could no longer do because of his failing health. In the process he taught me a lot, including the principle of “a path of light” through the house. So now, thanks to Ernie, we can walk from room to room to room, switching off one light switch and turning on another without ever being in the dark.
Following are some photos that show the completed electrical work:
Back in the kitchen, there was a big-ugly-stinking-mess at the shelving and electrical panel to the right of the refrigerator:
Using my homemade, DIY sheet metal bending brake, I formed some aluminum shelving and also a cover for the electrical panel. To cut the aluminum, I set up shop in the carport:
My shop is a mess, but I had just enough space to bend the cover for the electrical panel:
Here are the shelves and panel cover in place:
The door can be opened to access the electrical panel:
So with just one or two tiny electrical details left to do, I can almost cross this one big task off my list. I consider the electrical work a success — I had just two small issues to figure out — I transposed two wires on one three-way light switch, and in the bank of switches in the kitchen I inadvertently screwed a switch mounting screw into a bunch of black wires, causing a dead short when I flipped on the breaker. Once the smoke cleared, both issues were easy to figure out and fix.
Next week I have some more aluminum to cut and bend to make shelves for the little office, plus make a few remaining shelves for in the walk-in master bedroom closet.
In other news, I spent a lot of last Sunday modifying my new GoPro camera. GoPros can take excellent quality photos and video, but the fixed lens gives somewhat of a fish-eye effect. Also, the focus is fixed so that the foreground and the background are always in focus. But a modification kit exists called the Backbone Ribcage that removes the stock lens and allows for using virtually any other lens made for photography. Of course I had to give it a go. Here is what the modification entails:
Here I am readied to do surgery. The original GoPro is at the bottom left. The other parts and pieces are for the modification:
Here is the camera all torn down and ready for the rebuild:
And here is the final product with a nice little wide-to-telephoto lens:
Everything worked well, but when I tested the camera, the video came out black even though I had removed the lens cover. I sent a quick email to tech support and heard right back from the owner. He told me that he once made the same mistake — the iris in the camera was shut completely down, preventing any light from hitting the sensor. Duh Fred.
That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.
As I mentioned in my last post, the long shipping container wall in the living room/dining room/entry was calling out for some art. So Cynthia and I looked through our photos and found eight pictures of flowers that we had taken around the property. I uploaded the photos to AllPosters.com and received the prints a couple weeks later.
Now what to use for frames? Easy would be to buy some frames off the shelf at Machetazo or other local store. But as you know, this whole house project isn’t about easy. So, NO!
But what? With our concrete counter tops, benches, and shelves, well, why not concrete picture frames? That sounded exciting so I got right to work.
Last time, I posted the following photo of the form work for our concrete picture frames. I still needed to apply some strips of wood to make a recess in the back of the frame to receive the glass and pictures:
After I had the forms assembled, Armando mixed a rich (more cement than normal) batch of mortar and placed it in the forms.
Two days later, I pulled the forms. The new concrete frames looked quite good, but they had air holes and honeycomb here and there. They looked even better once we applied a coat of dark-gray grout to all the surfaces that would be seen. When the grout was dry, I sanded the frames smooth.
Next, Cynthia and I, each with a sponge, walked around the table a dozen times applying 24 coats of sealer as we made our rounds around the table:
The next photo shows the frames all sealed, although they still need to be fine sanded and one more coat of sealer applied. These things are heavy — fifty-pounds each! My next step of the process was to drill holes in the tops of the frames, tap in some plastic expanding anchors, and screw in heavy-duty hooks.
Now with the frames ready for hanging, I moved inside the house. Armando and I screwed a 20-foot length of sliding door track high on the wall.
We chose to hang these frame-beasts with chain hanging from wheels that I inserted into the sliding door track. Here is a photo of the wheels:
Cynthia and I cut the chain and set the glass and photos in the frames.
With everything assembled, finally, we hung the frames on the chains and we were done.
Here are some shots of the photos mounted in the frames and the frames hanging on the wall:
Here is a panorama of the entire wall:
Now, isn’t that better than a huge blank wall?
We couldn’t be more pleased, and the whole project — enlargements, glass, wood for the forms, screws, sand/cement/sealer, door track, wheels ($14 each and we needed 14 of them), chain, and miscellaneous bits and pieces, and Armando’s labor sits at around the $500 mark plus about six person-days of work. It couldn’t have been easier!
Plus, we have one photo/frame left to hang in the half-bath off of the living room.
That’s all for now. 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.