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.

The Big Roof ~ Part Two

Monday I moved the welder back onto the top of container #1. Although the welder is really heavy, I pretty much lifted it with just one finger:

Once the welder was on the roof, I wanted to move it to the other side of the wall. How? Cut the doorway between the roof deck and the loft, of course. I felt my anxiety level rise because if I spent time cutting the doorway, I wasn’t working on the big roof. And if I wasn’t working on the roof, I was losing the race against the rain.

But as I have said elsewhere in this blog, I don’t run the job, the job runs the job. It takes the time it takes; you have to do things in the order that makes sense. Otherwise, you will work a lot harder to accomplish the same results.

Here is the doorway opening completed:


I made a video of me cutting part of the doorway. Notice how I let the heavy angle grinder and gravity do the work. You may also notice that I take breaks to gasp for air; I hold my breath as I cut. I would wear a mask, but I am allergic to latex:

Ever wonder what a latex respirator allergy looks like? Check this awkward mug shot of me taken about six years ago:


Yes, it is painful and burns like a bad sunburn. Itches like crazy too. My eyes are watering. It took a good three or four days to go away.

Now back to the roof… Um, not yet. First I needed to weld more of the big wall to the containers below; when I raised the wall I had only tacked it at the floor in a few places. That took about a day of welding on my hands and knees. This was a hot job with the sun beating down and the heat from the metal roof reflecting up at me.

Finally it was on to the roof. Armando and I lifted the three beams that I had previously welded together, onto the roof. Armando went back to cleaning the drainage ditches, and one by one I nudged two of the beams into place, each ten-feet from the previous one. I temporarily affixed them with clamps and ratchet-straps. But before I welded the beam to the 2×2 frames under the beams, I had to make the wall plumb. I used a tow strap and a come-along to ratchet the wall to be perfectly vertical. The next photo is a panorama composite; the beams really aren’t curved. But you can see the first of the three up in the air, as well as the come-along and the yellow tow strap connected all the way over to container #3:

Panorama -- Roof Rafters

When I was happy with the plumb of the wall, I spent an hour or two welding the ends of the beams to the supports below. I paid quite a bit of attention to this task. I would look darn silly if a strong wind sent the roof flying; this is a big roof and the lift on it will be substantial. Here is how it looks with the front wall done and the two new beams in place:


I find it hard to believe, but plumbing the wall and affixing the two beams took an entire day. Much of the time was eaten up playing the Up-The-Ladder-Down-The-Ladder game. There went Wednesday!

Thursday was taken up with other business. Friday morning I noticed that the two new beams were bouncing and swaying in the wind. Here is a video of how much a 40-foot, unsupported double carriola bounces. The birds in the nearby trees are my constant companions:

I decided that this was the appropriate time to install a previously-planned-for column, at the edge of the loft, for each of the two beams. Again I paid a lot of attention to detail making good thick welds, difficult to do without burning holes in the thin metal carriolas. For each weld, I welded for a while, then ground the weld with the angle grinder to make sure the weld was sound, then welded and ground some more. I’m not a stress engineer, but I am sure that thin, wimpy welds wouldn’t stand the test of time; metal fatigue, generated by any roof flexing in the wind, would tear inferior joints apart. These welds took a lot of time. Here are the two columns in place:


That’s where the roof stands as of Saturday afternoon. Next week I’ll be welding the roof rafters in place.

In other news, Armando is nearly done cleaning the drainage ditches (cunetas [coo-net-ahs])We are adding one new ditch; when it rains, all the water has to drain from the hills behind us, past our lot, flow under the road, and work its way to the main road where it goes under the road and starts a new river.

One of the several bottlenecks is where the water crosses the dirt road in front of our house; the water backs up into our yard. Our neighbor to the east and I replaced the twelve-inch under-the-road drainage pipes at our adjoining lot line with eighteen-inch pipes; better, but the water still backs up. Much of the water comes through the lot to the west of us, so Armando and I decided it would be a good idea to put another under-the-road drainage pipe at our west lot line. Here’s Armando hard at it:


Photo taken from the roof deck on container #1. By the way, that square of concrete is the top of our well.

Mango season has started. Down at the lower elevations, the mangoes are already in. These are big mangoes and cost a dollar and a half to two dollars if you buy them at the market. Better prices can be had by buying from small roadside stands. Mangoes at our elevation of about 2,200 feet (670 meters) will be ready closer to June. Here is one of the super-sweet beauties I bought the other day. Made a great breakfast:


These mangoes are big. How big? So big that the mango can’t fit through the mango slicer!


One mango fills a soup bowl. Ripe, sweet, and juicy. Delicious!

That’s all for now, more next week.

Clerestory Windows

Work on the house has been slow lately. There have been a lot of prolonged power outages, several days of non-stop rain, and I have needed a day off here and there to take care of personal business.

But one day, Armando and I moved two palms that we planted at the rental house four years ago. They have grown like weeds, and I’m glad that we didn’t wait any longer as these palms were heavy! We planted one by the electrical service entry wall and one outside the master bedroom. These palms grow into large multi-trunked groups. Here’s the one by the bedroom:

Our soil is wet, wet, wet, so we dug a small drainage channel to the left of the palm and connected it to a drainage ditch. We filled the channel with gravel. So far the palms seem happy.

Clerestory windows are windows that are up high on a wall. They serve to let light in and if they can open and close, they let rising heat escape from the room. Clerestory windows look like this (source):

If you have just tuned in to my blog, no, this is not a photo of our house. But we now have four clerestory windows of our own at container 4.

In the next photo you can see the process of installing the windows. It is the same process as the door frames and the other window already installed. On the left, under the yellow level, is one of the window frames that I fabricated back in November(!). I drew around the frame with a Sharpie. You can see the temporary wooden legs that I made to hold the frame off the roof of container 4. The second window is in process of being cut out. I have settled on using the big angle grinder with a metal cutoff disk rather than the oxy/acetylene torch to cut these big holes because the grinder gives a much neater cut; slower, but fewer fumes, no burning paint, and no metal globs to clean up with the grinder:

After all four frames were placed in the openings, I tack welded the frames in place. You can see that I am in the process of picking up my tools; it is 2:00 and the rain is about 15 minutes away:

I used the fan to blow away the small amount of fumes. I still have to seal the frames to the container siding with urethane caulk, inside and out.

Then I welded the security bars to the window frames, just as I did in the first window installation, including the big hinges and locking hardware so I can open the bars, wash the windows, and paint the trim as needed:

I used the electric winch to raise the heavy welder into the air. This way I had access to the on/off switch while I was working out on the roof.

In other news, while I was working on the windows I noticed that the roof had sagged just a bit after I cut the holes, so I jacked the roof back into place and installed three 2″x2″ steel columns. These columns will be enclosed in the walls that I will build to divide the bedrooms, bathrooms, and the laundry. Not much to see, but sparks in photos are always exciting; here I am cutting notches out of the 2″x3″ carriola wall that will be sheathed in plycem; the steel column will fit into the notches:

Additionally, Armando completed the little rock wall around the garden. Simple, inexpensive, done!

I have a stonemason cousin that would cringe, but our little wall is so, um, Panamanian!

I still need to caulk the new windows, but after that I plan to start one of Cynthia’s studios, the greenhouse, a sidewalk and a couple steps in front of my shop door, and a couple small planters by the flying buttresses. Armando is spending a few days cleaning the yard at the rental house. We have badly neglected it recently and we need to get the grass cut and the bushes trimmed. It’s not just for aesthetics; there are snakes out there…

That’s all for now.


Cutting Metal, Making A Wall

I’ve been working on cutting the rest of the long wall out of container number 4. I had already cut out half of it and used that metal to form the high wall for the new roof to sit on. To cut the metal, I’ve chosen to use a nine-inch angle grinder with a thin cut off blade. I have a plasma torch which I think might be a better tool for the job, but it is broken and I am having difficulty getting it serviced here in Panama. The only other option is an oxy-acetylene torch, which I don’t own. The angle grinder/cut off disk makes a very clean cut, perfect for welding other metal to it.

It is often low-tech that saves the day here. Anything electronic is at the mercy of a fluctuating, erratic Panamanian power supply. If that doesn’t do you in, something else will. A year ago my computer died. Actually, a gecko died on the motherboard and shorted the works. Anyway, angle grinder it is, and this job is not for sissies. It takes a great deal of gymnastics and concentration to control the machine as kickbacks happen easily.

Cutting along the floor line is very easy as I could just slide the blade guard along the floor for a perfect cut. The cut at the roof line wasn’t too bad either, as there is a 2″x2″ beam to ride the blade along. I found it easiest to make this cut from the outside of the container so my head wasn’t hitting the inside of the container roof, and I wasn’t eating a flood of sparks. But it was cut six inches, move the ladder, re-tie the ladder with a rope, cut six inches, move the ladder, each time carrying the grinder up and down the ladder. The most difficult cuts seemed to be the vertical cuts. Sparks made the line difficult to see, there is nothing to ride along, and there was the constant threat of a kickback. I write all this for those of you who are thinking of tackling a container project. This was a difficult task and it ate lots of cutoff disks. I dragged myself home for a much needed shower and a siesta.

Now I’ll back track just a bit. I have read on other sites about how containers lose their stability when you cut a wall out. This is very true. I had already welded in the new wall above the wall I was going to cut out, so the roof remained stable. But when I cut the floor line, the floor became bouncy like a trampoline. To counteract this, I welded a piece of 5/8″ rebar vertically at the center of the cut out wall, thereby hanging the floor from the reinforced roof if you follow. This rebar will ultimately be buried in the wall that divides my shop from the bedroom. I will most likely put a footing and a column at this point below the floor.

As I got toward the end of cutting the panel from the container, I started thinking about how the panel was going to act when it was finally cut free. The section I had nearly cut free was 12-feet wide. The stuff is very heavy and flops like a fish being landed in a boat or like Jello being nailed to a tree. And the edges are sharp enough to sever body parts. Again, I was working alone. Analyzing the situation, I decided to use a rope and force the free part of the panel to curve. (Like if you take a flat piece of paper and bend it into a circle and tape it, it will stand on its own.) This seemed to work well, but I planned my escape routes just in case. When I made the final cut, the panel moved about a quarter inch then just stood still. I could then wrangle the rope, opening the curve slowly and guide the panel to fall in a controlled manner. It made quite a crash-bang when it finally hit the floor of the container.

The piece that I have just cut out will become a wall section in my workshop — the 12-foot open space between containers 3 and 4. While the panel was laying flat, I welded a piece of 2×2 square tubing to what will be the top of the new wall. It was much easier to weld it there on the container floor than up in the air. Also, this tubing stiffened the wall, which is sure to make installation easier.

After welding the 12-foot stretch, I ground the welds clean and applied a coat of anti-rust paint. I’ll give the paint a day or two to dry, then Armando and I will figure out how to move this heavy piece and weld it into place.

Two days later: Armando and I set some metal 2x4s on the ground as a track to slide the wall section on. We slid the wall out of the container and onto the tracks. It moved quite easily. When we got it to the other end of the container, we lifted one end up onto the floor of the open container (#4). Next we lifted the other end and set it on the top of the concrete column (at #3). We needed to get the slab of steel vertical. We used a clamp, rope, and pulleys to lift the top of the section up, but the pulleys just didn’t have the mechanical advantage to get the job done. Also, we decided that more manpower was in order. So we asked two local guys, Samuel and Ramiro, and I also got the tow straps and the come-along from the trunk of the car.

I slung the tow straps under the panel and over an overhead beam, hooked up the come-along, and clicked it up into place. Armando and I probably could have done it alone once we had the mechanical advantage, but the other guys had fun too. Once vertical, we tickled and prodded it a tiny bit and it fit right into position. I locked it into place with a couple clamps then welded it so it wouldn’t run away. This advancement in the project was a big psychological boost and we all shared a high-five. I place a very high priority on not having accidents, and I made sure to compliment the guys on emerging from the experiment safe and sound; no toes were guillotined in the wall lifting process.

Next, I’m going to complete the welds on the high wall above container 4, then move to number 3 and do the same high wall act. Then it is cut the appropriate holes in number 3 and get ready for the concrete floor. Whew.

Here are some photos:

Here's the 12-foot section tied in a curve and cut free.

Mr. Wobblie safely flat on the floor. The entire wall is removed from the container, but it is being supported by the wall above the container roof.

Here's the wall section with the 2"x2" welded in place and prime coated. I can't wait to set this wall in place at the far end of the container.

Here's the space between the containers at the start of the day.

Now with the wall section in place. This 12-foot section of wall basically cost me a little labor, some cutting disks, and some welding rod. The brown stain is just dirt from welding; it will wash right off. At this point, the roofline looks a bit anemic. This will all change when the carport is built out toward where I am standing.

Looking at the new wall from the inside. I'll weld a steel 2"x6" carriola at the bottom of the new wall so that all the lines outside line up. This new wall helps close in my workshop.

Here is a detail for future container house builders: Looking from the inside, this is a detail of where the new wall meets the container corner. The blackened area is the new weld. The red arrow area is the heavy metal structural corner. It is at least 1/4" thick. The green arrow area is the wall panel. It is about 1/16" thick. I chose to make the corner at the same location where these two thicknesses used to meet before I cut the container apart.

Here is the other corner from the outside. This end of the panel hasn't been welded yet. As you can see, the new wall indents from the corner of the container.

That’s all I know for sure right now. Thanks for visiting.

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