Looking Back Through Thousands Of Photos

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

Mezcla! ~ Walls Around The Staircase!

When a crew gets together to do a repello (stucco) job, they break into two groups. One group will mix the mortar and the second group will place the mortar. When the second group runs out of material, someone will lightheartedly yell out, “MEZCLA!” (mortar mix!), urging the delivery of more mortar. If everyone is getting tired, the mixing crew may yell out, “NO!” or “MANAÑA!” but will of course they will mix as fast as they can. Same goes for a concrete job.

And so it went this last week. Armando, Alex, and new guy Beto started the first coat of repello on the foam building panels that were already in place at the outside of the staircase. While they worked, Aramis and I placed more foam panels. He and I also used our ubiquitous 2″x2″ tubing to make railings at the tops of the walls. We welded short pieces of rebar to the tubing; the rebar will be firmly embedded into the mortar to hold the railing in place:


No, Kilroy wasn’t here. That’s Armando’s hand — he is stuccoing the other side of the wall.

In the next photo you can see that the first of two coats of repello is completed on the outside of the angle wall. You can also see that Aramis and I have installed panels that will make the loft railing. Note the holes in the panels — Aramis and I welded two-inch pieces of rebar to the container wall and pressed the foam over the pins. Then we welded scrap pieces of flat stock to the rebar and used baling wire to tie the foam panels to the flat stock:


Armando and Beto worked hard while Alex tried to keep up. “MEZCLA!”


Aramis and I stayed ahead of the mud men. After the first coat of mud, we put wooden strips at the edges of the walls. These strips set the thickness of the second coat of mezcla:


The second coat on the outside of the angled wall is just wooden floated (and not steel troweled smooth) because we won’t be painting the wall. More in a future post…

Aramis and I installed the panels in the half bath under the stairs:


We had a fan blowing to extract the welding and foam fumes.

Meanwhile, the mud men applied the second coat to the big wall:


Aramis and I were caught up, so he joined the mud crew, helping apply the second coat to the big wall and making it smooth for painting.

The big wall came out really well and dead straight:


But the stairs are a mess. We will have to use a muriatic acid solution to remove the cement scum from the metal.

The backside of the loft railing wall still needs a second coat:


While everyone else was focused on the big wall, I stole away and erected a few foam panels to make a four-foot by eight-foot closet at the far end of the kitchen:


We will permanently padlock the container end doors closed. We still need to make the door frame and weld some rebar pins to the container to support the foam panels, and then the crew can apply the mortar.

With the mezcla applied to most of the walls, we can now better see the satisfying geometric shapes in this big room. Also, Aramis and I found some time to hang the six sliding door panels in the living room west wall. We still need to order and install the glass. But all in all, we are getting quite close to being able to lock the entire house!


I took this photo from the stair landing that leads to the second bedroom.

In other news, I am thankful that we have so much inside work during these heaviest rains of the rainy season. By the way, when it stops raining, the water recedes as fast as it came:


And finally, The Trash Report — It has been many months since we have generated any real trash. Here is the spoil from the current job:


Two plastic bags of scrap foam and a small pile of foam panel scrap await the Thursday morning trash pickup. Yes, we have had some metal scrap, but it all went down the mountain to the recycle scrap yard.

And wow, I just noticed that the hit counter at the right of the page has passed the half-million page hits count. The most searched for phrases have been DIY sheet metal brake, cutting shipping container walls, and installing doors and windows in shipping container. I’m happy to have shown people what has to be the hardest way to build a shipping container house!

That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.

Too Much To List

Now that we have moved in, have somewhat of a routine, and have rested a bit, it is time to turn up the heat again.

We have been removing the wall between containers #1 and #2. We used the first piece, twelve-feet-long, to make an exterior wall. Up until now, the door to the second bedroom has been outside. It looked like this (the bedroom door is on the right side of the photo):


Here we are lifting the heavy piece of metal into place. Once cut from the container, the siding wants to flop around like a wet noodle:



Aramis welds, I hold pressure for a tight weld, and Alex and Armando “inspect.”

Here is the completed wall. Note that Armando and Alex have completed the rock work at the bottom of the wall. We may still put a window in the wall to light the doorway to the guest bedroom.


We placed the next piece of removed interior wall by the door to the master bedroom:


Cynthia and I were away when Armando did the stone work. I had him redo the top row of rocks; it looks a lot better in future photos.

As you can see in the next photo, we are making good progress in containers #1 and #2. All the interior adjoining walls have been removed, the three windows and the security bars are installed, and all four ceiling beams are welded into place. Our process was to remove a wall section, install a beam, then remove the next wall section, install a beam. Rinse and repeat. Additionally, on the floor you can see that we are fabricating the security bars that will go in the big hole in the living room wall:


Aramis was on a roll installing windows, so after he completed the three in the kitchen, he moved upstairs and cut in the three windows in the loft/roof deck wall:


Lastly in the window and wall department, we raised another cutout interior wall panel to the back end of the loft, welded it into place, cut a hole for the big window, and welded the window and bars into place. In the next photo you can see the window on the second floor. You can also see that we have added a twenty-one-foot header for the doors in the living room:


In the next photo you can see that Aramis and I have completed the security bars in the living room. It took four of us to move the bars out of the containers and lift each of the two panels into place. We used the same homemade hinges that we used on the windows to make these panels open-able for painting and window cleaning. These panels are heavy! After we got the security panels in place, I put Aramis to work fabricating the window dividers above the bars:


Here is a good shot of the long wall in the living room/dining room. You can see that Armando has repaired the rock work on the master bedroom stair landing at the left side of the photo:


Because we have such a nice year-round climate, it is easy to blur the difference between inside and outside. With the rock “foundation” for container #3, this photo looks as if we are outside of the house, but we are really in the living room.

There were empty spaces above the new wall panels that we just installed, so I had Aramis fabricate wedge-shaped panels and weld them in place:


This was the easy one.

Because we have no more wide panels of container siding, we had to make the next panel from several pieces. It will look fine once the panels are painted. Believe it or not, it took the four of us to get this floppy panel in place:


A lot of the windows still needed the angle iron locking brackets fabricated and welded into place. They look like this:


With two of these brackets, one welded to the container and one welded to the security bars, the windows can be secured with bolts and/or padlocks.

But I have been having a very hard time drilling the half-inch holes in the angle iron. In the previous photo you can see that the hole isn’t all the way to the correct diameter. I just couldn’t drill all the way through the metal.

Yes, I have drilled a smaller hole(s) first. Yes, I have used the slowest speed on the drill press and kept my pressure light. And yes, I have been using a good quality cutting oil and lots of it. I even Googled the problem. One entry said to heat the metal to dull cherry red and let it cool, which I did. But no mater what I did, when the half-inch drill bit gets partway through, it just stops cutting. No amount of oil will get it to cut and it just starts squealing. This has happened with a dozen holes.

So I delayed the job until I could go to Panama City and buy a better drill bit. I recently went and made my way to Central Industrial, a large store that carries all kinds of tools, screws, and various other hard-to-find industrial items. I took a number and waited my turn.

A half hour later I was at the counter talking to Luis. I explained the problem to him and showed him the angle iron and a new drill bit (DeWalt brand), same as I had been using. He didn’t believe me and took the angle iron and drill bit into the back room to try it for himself. He came back and exclaimed, “That is one tough piece of steel!”

So with that knowledge in hand, he searched the computer database and disappeared into the stock room. He emerged with a Champion brand bit that he said would do the job. I bought two.

And indeed it did do the job. In short order I had all the holes drilled in the metal. It was like cutting through butter. Here is a photo of seven failed DeWalt bits and one Master Mechanic bit, and the new bit. Not a burn mark on the new bit but the others are toast:


The failed bits aren’t all DeWalt. The last one in the line is a Master Mechanic.

The reason that I have droned on about this is to say, you get what you pay for. The failed bits cost three-to-seven dollars each. The Champion bit cost about fourteen dollars each. I have always heard that you should buy the best tool that you can afford. I now say, break the bank, bust the budget, buy the best!

The rainy season is shifting into high gear. October, November, and the first half of December deliver the heaviest rains in Panama. Indeed, as we approach October, the rains are heavier and longer-lasting than they have been the past few months of the rainy season. The new rain-off-the-roof splash pad is working well:


I mention the rain because the road from our house out to the main road gets quite muddy when it rains. In November the 150-meters (about 500-feet) become impassable. So one day I called Melvin, a man who has several dump trucks and drives up and down the main road every day. He came and inspected the job. We decided to have a backhoe (a “retro” in Spanish) dig out the mud and then he would deliver 60-yards of a compressible crushed gravel. The retro would then spread the gravel. Here Daniel is clearing the road with the retro:


While Daniel spreads the gravel, Melvin delivers another load:


The next photo shows the road with about four- or five-inches of new gravel, still in the compacting stage. There are a few dips and holes, and maybe we will be able to afford a few more yards when the dry season arrives. But for now, we have spent just shy of $2,000. The road is so, so much better and we no longer fret about the arrival of the really heavy rains:


It rained so hard the other day that the runoff water ran over the road. You can see the debris on top of the road. But you can also see that none of our precious new gravel washed away in the storm. Good deal.

Why did we spend our own money on upgrading the public road you may ask? Well, we’ve been here long enough to know that this road is not on the government’s ToDo list. Not even at the bottom of the list. It just wasn’t going to happen if we waited for the government to come to our rescue.

To end this post, I’d like to show some nice pictures of the crew:







That’s all for now. Other projects are in progress and I’ll post soon if our Internet connection remains good. Thanks for stopping by.

Interior Walls ~ Part 4

Quick! What takes 36 ninety-four pound sacks of Portland cement, about eight yards of sand, and three weeks of work by one 29-year-old guy and a 60-something-year-old guy?

Answer: The two coats of repello (stucco) on the M2 (foam building panels) interior partitions in the two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and the laundry room in the container #4 area of the house.

You can read about building interior walls in our shipping container house at these links: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 

We are finally done and today, other than sweeping and washing the floors at the rental house, while Cyn did the laundry, I took the day off! Armando will be cutting grass at the rental and at the new house for the next few days so I will have some time to finish smaller projects such as the outside bathroom door and my sheet metal bending brake.

To bring this part of our shipping container house to a close, here are some photos of the repello process:

Armando brings a wheelbarrow full of mortar into the house and shovels it into the box above on the plank:

Obviously this photo and the next few are of applying the first coat.

Then he gets a trowel full of mortar…

and spreads it on the wall:

Rinse and repeat:

Although very rewarding when the job is done, this is wicked, wickedly strenuous work for all arm and leg muscles. Add in all the other muscles, too, as the job requires keeping one’s balance on the 2″x10″ plank and not falling into the wheelbarrow below!

Here is the laundry room second coated and the mortar cleaned from the electric switch and receptacle boxes:

The next photo was taken from the second bedroom looking into the laundry room on the left. I’m really pleased how dead flat and straight the 15-foot long wall turned out. For this wall we started at 6:00 a.m. and finished at 5:00 p.m.

Also, you can see the detail of how the door frames connect with the wall. We still have to smooth the edge where the repello meets the door frame; we’ll use a paste of cement and water smoothed on with a trowel.

The door frames are massively strong and are completely connected to the repello-ed wall; they aren’t going anywhere! The door detail in the next picture is in the master bathroom. Some of the bathroom wall is smooth for paint; we left the rest of the wall slightly rough and ready for tile or to be covered with a large mirror:

With these interior walls ready for paint or tile, this big chunk of the building is now behind us. Cynthia and I find ourselves walking through the rooms talking about color and decoration. How exciting!

Next I plan to complete installing the metal ceiling panels and move on to the floors and windows. It is starting to look like a house!

That’s all for now, more soon!


Interior Walls ~ Part 3

I had asked Armando to see if he could find another man to help with the stucco (“repello” ray-PAY-oh in Spanish), but with all the holidays, those without regular jobs were still under the weather with what I call “la gripe (grippe) de cervesa” (the beer flu). So yesterday and today he and I worked the repello by ourselves.

It wasn’t that bad, but it did make Armando run a bit more. He had to sift the sand, mix it with the cement, deliver it by the bucket full to where we were working, then spread the mortar with me. A third man could have done all the sifting, mixing, and hauling, leaving Armando and me to specialize with spreading the mortar. Maybe tomorrow he will have better luck, but any way it happens it happens.

Since my last post, I made and installed the two door frames in the laundry. In the next photo, the door frame is primed red. The wood that is attached to the frame will be the level of the second coat of repello. You can see short pieces of rebar that I wove into the wire mesh of the M2 panels; I welded the rebar to the door frame. These pieces of rebar will be embedded into the repello, locking the door frame in place:

The big wall was still a bit wobbly so I added some more bracing to keep it in place while we applied the repello to the other side:

Yesterday we spread most of the first coat of repello in the guest bedroom bath, and today we did two walls in the laundry room, or as Cynthia calls it, “My laundromat.” In the next photo Armando brings in one of many buckets of mescla (mortar mix):

In the next five pictures, at the end of our work day today, I stand in the same spot and pan around the laundry room from looking into the master bedroom to looking into the guest bedroom. What you don’t see is all the scaffolding we had to erect and take down to get to the higher parts of the walls:

We’ll spend the rest of the week spreading this first coat of repello, then next week we’ll start the second coat.

Bonus photos:

When it is time for Jabo to jump into the pickup truck bed, we just say, “Load up,” and up he jumps. But for extra special behavioral enrichment occasions he now knows a new command, “Circus dog!”

The next photo is of the small fruit and vegetable stand two kilometers down the hill. They get their deliveries on Friday mornings so I try to schedule my weekly vege run for Friday afternoons before all the weekenders pick the stand clean. This is the man who usually waits on me; we always have a laugh about something, such as when he hands me a penny change and I exclaim, “Soy rico!” (I’m rich!). He was more than happy to pose for me.

Cynthia and I have tacos planned for supper, then we’ll probably stay up way beyond our bedtime, sitting on the edge of our seats awaiting the results of the Stateside 2012 Presidential Election.

That’s all for now.



More Interior Walls ~ Part 2

About a year ago I built some interior partitions and wrote about it here. I used steel carriolas (metal 2″x3″s) and a cement board called Plycem. I used Plycem instead of drywall because of the high humidity here in the mountains. These walls were relatively quick and easy, and I used them where sound transmission from room to room was not an issue.

However now it is time to build walls between the master bedroom and bedroom number two, and we want little or no sound transmission between the two.

Of course Armando is most comfortable with concrete block construction, but the weight of the walls would be quite massive and would put too much burden on the support columns. Even he could see that blocks were not viable. We ruled this out.

We decided to use the polystyrene panels covered with a welded wire mesh, locally called M2. I think there has been a re-branding and the name may have changed, but I asked for M2 and the clerk at Hopsa knew what I was talking about. There is a producer in California that calls the product 3-D or Tridipanel. Previously I used this material on the electric service entrance wall and on the two flying buttress columns in the carport.

M2 is wonderfully light weight to work with. Cynthia and I went to the Hopsa store in Penonome, about an hour and a half away. We came home with the pickup stuffed high and long with about 20 sheets and the truck hardly seemed to notice. One person can easily move and place a 4-foot by 10-foot panel. As I was moving a panel I said to Armando, “I’m moving seventy-five concrete blocks with two fingers!”

Armando was cutting grass for the better part of a week, so I worked solo placing the panels. Although the walls go up fast, the tedious part of working with this material is that when it comes time to cut a panel to size, you have to use wire cutters to cut dozens and dozens of wires. I managed to blow out a blood vessel in one of my fingers from the repetitive snipping. Black and blue and OUCH! To cut the underlying foam panel, I found it easiest just to use a hacksaw blade. When joining panels, you use special crimping pliers and small wire crimps to join wires from the adjoining panels.

We are installing these new walls in the space between containers 3 and 4 and in number 4. The big space that we are dividing with walls will delineate the two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and the laundry room. Here is a photo of the first wall all braced and ready for stucco on the opposite side:

The metal carriolas and the wood 2″x4″s are wired to the wall to give it strength while stuccoing the other side of the panel.

Here is the same wall from the other end:

In this picture you can see from the second bedroom into the laundry room. Note also the clerestory windows twelve-feet off the floor. The airflow and light from the clerestory windows is really nice.

Installing plumbing pipes and electrical conduit is a breeze. Just pass a heat gun or propane torch over the polystyrene and the heat melts a nice groove behind the metal mesh. Then just thread the pipes behind the mesh. It all disappears when the stucco is applied. Here is the laundry room underway:

The red and blue pipes are PEX tubing. The on-demand water heater will be mounted here. A concrete floor slab will lock the walls in place after the walls are stuccoed.

I have a couple more days of installing pipes and conduits. Then next week when the current spate of national holidays (Day of the Dead where people visit and spruce up the cemeteries, and Independence from Colombia) is over, Armando and another man and I will tackle the stucco. While concrete blocks take just one coat, the M2 takes two. The first coat fills all the voids in the corrugated foam panels out to the level of the wire mesh. The second coat covers the mesh and renders everything straight and flat.

After months and months of building my shop, the carport, Cynthia’s studio, the gardens, and not accomplishing much on the house itself, it is an extreme morale booster to see the walls taking shape. Next on the list will be to complete the windows and pour the floor slabs in this space.

There is talk between Cynthia and myself about moving into this part of the house as soon as possible. We plan to finish the second bathroom and build a camp kitchen. It won’t be fancy, but we will be out of our rental house. That will free up some extra cash every month, Armando won’t have to take time to cut the grass, and it will boost our spirits immensely.

Stucco (“repello” in Spanish) is next.That’s all for now.

Interior Walls, Wiring, & Plumbing ~ Projects In Progress

This post is mostly about building walls inside shipping containers.

Having been in construction since I was six, I know that there is a natural rhythm to most construction projects. There are periods of time when important work is being done but progress is not very visible. The job seems to be crawling. Then there are the periods of time when the job seems to be flying and progress is very visible. One’s moods can swing on these phases if one is not careful.

I think that the job has just moved from a crawl phase to a flying phase.

Having worked six weeks in the yard, Armando has finally finished filling holes, leveling humps, and removing lots of trunks and roots. He has planted some grass and the yard is starting to be a yard. Additionally, yesterday we moved five coconut palm trees and two other palms (Cousin Christine — yours is being planted this weekend) that we had been holding in a nursery area at our rental house. We planted three of the coconuts by the electric service entrance wall at the southeast corner of the lot. Instant transformation, they are softening that concrete corner. This progress is exciting and a big boost to our moral. We can actually begin to see The Warmth of Home emerging from Job Site Mud and Muck.

Three new coconut palms soften the corner of the lot.

The floor between container 3 and container 4 is ready for rebar and concrete, but we are holding off on that until we do some more infrastructure in the area. It is nice to be able to walk on the floor and be able to more accurately gauge how the spaces will feel. Here is the floor ready for concrete:

We’ve been working on the interior walls in number 3. I used 2″x3″ galvanized steel carriolas to make the wall framework. I framed the walls with the 2x3s as horizontal purlins (a style seen in old barns; the purlins go sideways so that the exterior board siding can be installed vertically). We will screw 4’x8′ Plycem (tilebacker / cement board) sheets to the steel stud work.

Building the walls goes like this: First, determine where a wall will go. I have chosen to place the wall so that the framing is in alignment with an outward bend of the corrugated siding of the container. Perhaps a photo will help:

You can see that the framing for the new wall is placed where the container siding is outward.

Next, I cut a carriola bottom plate to fit between the walls of the container. I drilled some holes in the carriola, measured from two points at the end of the container to get the wall parallel with the container, and screwed it to the floor with 3.5″ drywall screws. After the Plycem is up, the concrete floor will lock this wall in place, so the screws are only a temporary placeholder.

Then, as you can see in the photo above, I cut a vertical stud to sit on the bottom plate. At the top of this stud, you may have to cut a notch out of the stud to fit around the beam at the top of the container like this:

The top beam sticks out more than the bottom beam so you have to cut a notch.

I did this at both sides of my new wall and welded the studs in place.

Then, I cut purlins and welded them in place every two feet on center up the wall like this:

Plycem can now be screwed to the purlins.

By placing the wall where the container corrugations go outward, I can now put the Plycem in place and it will make a nice inside corner. I’ll probably run a small bead of urethane caulk around the Plycem to seal any insect highway gaps.

Here's a scrap of Plycem showing how it will make a nice corner against the container.

Here’s an overview of the three new walls in container 3.

Three new walls framed.

At the far end of the container is a hallway; I will cut holes in the container for a doorway from the living room, into the hallway, then into the master bedroom. By the way, this is the only hallway in the entire house. I avoid hallways if possible; they are major space wasters.

The next space toward where I am taking the photo from is a half bath, accessed from the hallway.

The next, larger space will be a walk-in closet off the master bedroom and studio space for Cynthia’s torchwork (making glass beads), her seed bead stringing, and fabric storage for sewing projects. These spaces will be dehumidified.

The final space, the one that I am standing in in the photo above, will be an eight-foot square deposito (storage closet), accessed by the existing container end doors. This deposito will be for outdoor tools and equipment.

But before the Plycem goes up, I have to do some rough electrical and plumbing. Here’s some electrical roughed in in the half bath:

I cut holes for the conduit with an angle grinder with a cut off blade. I welded the rough-in box to the wall framework.

As an aside, I finally got my plasma torch repaired in the city. Two, four hour round trips, $50 to diagnose, $25 to repair, and $0.39 for the new part. When I got it home, I fired it up, cut a nice round hole in a carriola for the electrical conduit. Fantastic! Then when I went to cut a second hole, it made a wild clicking sound (relay going bad?) and shut itself down. Okay fussy, finicky machine, fine, die that death if you want to. I’m done. So instead of nice round holes, I have nice square holes cut with the angle grinder. No law against round peg in square hole.

The above wall happened to be placed above a container floor beam so I couldn’t drill straight down for the hole for the conduit. Instead, I used two elbows to relocate the hole. Later, the concrete floor will cover this conduit:

Oh, one thing I discovered is that where there it a forklift pocket on the side of the container…

there is a steel plate under the wooden floor, so it is easier just to swing the conduit and relocate the hole through the floor away from the steel plate. This is all working for me because we will have the three-inch thick concrete floor to cover these conduits throughout the entire house.

By the way, speaking of the wooden floor, the floors in our containers are mahogany, just a tad under one and a quarter inches thick. We will be pouring a concrete slab floor because it is the surface that we want. Also, it will cover the wood which is no doubt heavily drenched in pesticide. Before I work in the containers, I use a large fan to flush the fumes. Otherwise it can make your eyes water.

So far I only have roughed in the water supply for the toilet in the half bath. I brought some PEX tubing with me when we moved to Panama and decided to use it to make the pipe stub-ups. I like PEX a lot, but so far have not seen it here in Panama. Here is some PEX, the brass fittings, crimps, and the crimping tool:

Blue for cold, red for hot. Same stuff, just color coded for easier identification .

Here’s the toilet stub-up:

You can warm PEX with a torch, bend it, and it will keep its new shape. I welded two pipe clamps to the side of the container. Later, this bathroom wall will get Plycem. That and the concrete slab will hide the plumbing.

The PEX, the PVC electrical conduit, and the PVC water pipes can all be cut with this dandy pair of shears made for the job:

In the meantime, Armando has been working for two days grinding away remnants of the container siding webbing in container 4. I’m glad that he has the Power of Youth still on his side.

You can see that he is wearing safety glasses (and not-seen earplugs), and the guard amazingly is still on the machine. I insist on it even though most workers here think these safety devices are mere nuisances. I’ve seen two nasty cuts from guardless machines and I’d just as soon not make a trip to the hospital.

Next I’m on my way down the mountain to see if I can get the DeWalt angle grinder that Armando has been using repaired. I think the switch has given up the ghost; it has had some rough duty during its life on this job. I’ll probably buy a second one, too; a guy can’t have too many angle grinders.

If you are considering a container house project, I hope that I have given you some good tips from my experience. Take what you want but you are on your own. Have fun. Keep the guards on your tools and be safe. It’s a jungle out there. At least it is here in Panama!

That’s all for now.