The Goal = Turn Two 8’ Wide Metal Boxes Into A Shipping Container Home, Part #4

Priority #3 – My Bedroom & I’ve Got Coffee In My Hand Stair Access

Truth – My husband and I aren’t getting any younger.  Access to the second story (master bedroom) of our home was a major design issue.  Not only did the access need to be functional, user friendly, but I also wanted it to be aesthetically pleasing. Oh, and I needed to be able to carry my beverage of choice upstairs while traversing the staircase.

Bedroom 1

Fact – A traditional staircase is 36” wide and needs up to 15’ of room to construct.  This was simply floor space that we didn’t have to spare in our footprint. My husband, always the practical man (God bless his heart), wanted to install an elevator like platform attached to a car winch system with chains.  I may have laughed outright 😉 Again, I am a PNW girl, but I have some standards!

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Initially, we didn’t have a good solution to our upstairs bedroom access.  Our state’s building code is very specific about the requirements. I couldn’t figure out how to meet their requirements and have the room to implement them in the floor space we had available to us.  Were the stairs going to be piece that derailed our dreams? Not if I had anything to say about it!

Side Note – If I could give any advice, it would be this: take the time and effort to develop a good rapport with your local B&P front office staff, your plan reviewer and most importantly your inspector.  Don’t ask them to design your project – do your homework and make sure that you have acquired the practical knowledge and good solid solutions to make your design work. But, this rapport helps when you get to an area like we did, our stairs.

And so, to the county building Dave and I went.  This wasn’t our first visit. We had already been in prior to this to introduce ourselves:)  When we asked what we could do for an option, the senior plan reviewer immediately suggested a ship ladder design.  He said that because the area we were accessing was a single room, less than 200 square feet and without a bathroom, there was an exception in the code that we didn’t need a staircase 36” wide.  

While this was awesome news for us, we (I specifically) just couldn’t wrap my head around how I was going to make it up and down a ships ladder with my morning coffee, evening beverage, laundry, etc.  As previously stated – I’m not getting any younger, and am sure I need 2 hands to climb a ladder to a second story – girl probs ;). This suggestion, of course, got my husband all excited about his elevator idea.  Oh, boy, I had my work cut out for me to find a reasonable solution that would work for everyone.

Again, because we had taken the time to build this relationship, B&P was more than willing to spend the extra time to help us find a solution.  In our county, we are the first (and only) home of our design. Additionally, they had next to no experience with even a wood built tiny home. The movement hasn’t taken hold and so they really had a limited knowledge base.  This also meant that they didn’t have any preconceived ideas about what they wanted to see. I can honestly say that the entire department was interested in our build and wanted to see us succeed. These people can make or break or build.  I’m thankful that we had the foresight to befriend them 🙂 This didn’t mean that we weren’t held to the same standard, it just meant that when we ran into a problem, they were more willing to lend some of their knowledge and expertise.

The Solution – Spiral Stairs

Here is where my ‘outside the box’ thinking skills became useful – Google became my friend. After our meeting with B&P and having a rough idea of what I could get away with for space for my stair footprint, I started searching the internet for options.  And the solution was so obvious, I don’t know why we didn’t think of it before – Spiral Stairs. Spiral stairs are unique in that they can be custom designed and built for your space.  I found an online company that had good reviews. Almost immediately I was put in touch with our awesome expert, Brett at paragonstairs.com who showed immediate interest in designing the stairs for our unique home.  After a few back and forth emails/phone calls, I had a preliminary design in hand that would fit into our footprint. Yes, the treads were narrow and the accent was steep, but it was 100% BETTER than a ships ladder.  

Side note – this is not an ad – Brett is just that awesome and went above and beyond for our project and build.  If you need stairs, contact him and tell him Jaimie sent you 🙂  He is amazing and you won’t regret it!

I emailed B&P with my discovery and asked, ‘If a ships-ladder would be acceptable, would they consider Spiral Stairs instead?  The senior plan reviewer responded that he would see what he could do – and a few days went by before I heard back from him. Much to his credit, he went to bat for us with the State Board that oversees building codes.  He requested on our behalf, and was granted a variance for the exact staircase I had submitted! Thank you, Jesus – that is the first thing that came to my mind!

Fast Forward – I remember at the very end of our build, right before the spiral stairs were to be installed, our inspector, who had been with us the entire project, commented that he just wasn’t sure how he was going to be able to pass the access to the second floor.  Are you kidding me!!! First, if he had a concern, shouldn’t he have mentioned it long before we come to the pass or fail part of the build?!?!? Second, not everyone designs their project completely in advance with all the elements pre-approved – thankfully, that is exactly what we had done.  So when Mr. Inspector made his comment, I quickly and easily had an answer for him – ‘Don’t worry, Mr. Inspector. As you can see here in our approved building permit and documents (100’s of pages), the stairs that we are installing have already been designed, engineered and pre-approved by the WA Board.  You don’t have to worry about them at all. Your job here is done!’ In fact, the stairs had been sitting in our storage for almost 10 months at that point, just ready to be installed. This was just one tiny benefit of all of our pre-planning and hard work paying off. An inspector that didn’t have a job to do when it came to our stairs – and that was our final piece to have legal occupancy ;).

Again, taking the time and effort to identify these seemingly small pieces of our build prior to committing to our project paid off in the long run.  Researching and finding solutions, having open dialogue with the building department, and educating ourselves saved us a lot of time and energy in the long run.  I promise!

The Bedroom

Now that we had an approved access plan to the second story, it was time to design our master bedroom.  Our room is comprised of a 20’ container situated on the back 20’ of the lower 40’ container. I knew I wanted lots of light and a glass door to access what would be our private deck right off our bedroom.  Because the space was dedicated solely for our bedroom and I didn’t have to fit anything else into the square footage, other than the stairs and door, the space was one of the simplest parts of our design. Compared to how many separate ‘spaces’ we have managed to fit into the lower 40’ container, (livingroom, dining room, kitchen, laundry room, bathroom & second bedroom), having an entire 20’ all to myself was heavenly.  

We did have a couple of design obstacles, including exact placement of the spiral stairs. We were planning on cutting an opening into the roof of the 40’ and a hole in the bottom of the 20’ to install the spiral staircase in.  This hole had to be measured precisely, because directly on the other side of the opening was the outside wall and future deck area. As I’ve mentioned before, it isn’t a simple process to ‘reinstall’ a piece of the Cortex metal once it has been cut.  Thankfully, these very precise cuts and the resulting structural reinforcement took place prior to Dave’s brain bleed. 8.5 months later, when we went to install the spiral that we had so meticulously planned for, it fit like it had been built in place.  Measure 3 times, cut 1 time 😉

bd6

Our Private Deck

Off of our bedroom, we have a 20’ x 8’ cedar deck.  We designed and built a roof structure over the 10’ that is closest to the container for weather protection and left the other 10’ open to the sun.  Our hand railing was also our own design and build. It was my idea – and one I was pretty proud of 😉 The uprights for our railing are all made out of rebar.  What a process. In fact, it was in the middle of building our handrailing, that my husband suffered his ICH. Thankfully, we were done with the structural welding on our home just prior to his bleed and were working on the decorative pieces.  

deck5deck4

Ultimately, our bedroom, the spiral stair access  and our private deck are one of the most rewarding portions of our build.  We have 20’ all to ourselves. Our stairs are gorgeous, functional and most importantly, I can carry a beverage up and down with ease 🙂

Fast Forward – The structural pieces of the deck and hand crafted railing that my husband almost died over, to this day brings tears to our eyes.  We often talk about the specific section he was working on when he bled. Over the next couple of weeks, while Dave was recovering, and yet still so impatient to get back to building, his brother came and helped us.  He assisted in the welding of the next 2 sections of railing, and as hard as he tried and as much as we appreciated his help, those 2 sections will never be as meaningful as the 2 before them, and never as hardly fought as the 2 sections after them.

Have I Mentioned My Husband Is My Hero, And Amazing?

Dave picked up his welder just 3 weeks after his initial bleed, with little feeling having returned to the right side of his body.  He had fought to live just weeks earlier – his main motivation, to finish what we had started . He was determined to finish our railing and deck..  With the tenacity of a bull, he worked on those final 2 sections for 2 days – something that would have taken him half a day just weeks earlier. He was determined – and I never left his side, a ‘sous’ fabricator helping him more so much more than I ever had before. After those 2 days, and when the final railing upright was complete, my amazing husband had his first seizure. The ICH had caused so much damage to his brain, and the welding that he was too impatient to wait to finish until he was more healed had exacerbated the injury. The result was a seizure disorder that plagued him for years following that fateful day. In just 3 short weeks, my strong, able bodied husband who had worked 18 hour days, 7 days a week for years, had a 2” blood clot in his brain and a seizure disorder that prevented him from driving, welding or working.

I share this part of our story, because it is interwoven into the very heart of our home.  It is the fuel that drove us through the hard times. It is the fire that pushed us to keep on going, even when it all seemed impossible.  When our dream seemed totally beyond our reach, we focused on what we had already accomplished. We focused on the hard stuff we had already made it through, including living.  Dave should have died that day in August of 2015. The doctors have no explanation as to why the bleed occur, and absolutely none as to why he lived. The location of the clot should have killed him immediately.  The damage to his brain should have left him paralyzed at the very least. Instead, 8 months after his bleed, and just 10 months after we had been given the go ahead to proceed, we were handed our Certificate of Occupancy.

WE HAD ACCOMPLISHED THE IMPOSSIBLE.  Not only had we successfully built a shipping container home, but we had finished it against all odds – even life and death odds.  WE CAN DO HARD THINGS. To this day, when things get really hard, we remind each other that we can survive the situation we are in. We have survived far worse and we can do it again.

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There is so much more to our build story, and our life story.  I promise, I will continue sharing with you how we made it through B&P and got our building permit.  I will share all the details of actual construction. But right now, when talking about designing our room and deck, I have to pause and remember the miracle I was able to witness.  The miracle of my husband and his desire to love and finish the hard stuff. His desire to give me the home we had both dreamed about.

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Building a shipping container home is hard.  But remember, if your still here, reading this blog, you’ve lived through 100% of your hard days.  If your chasing your dream of building a shipping container home or a tiny home, don’t give up! It isn’t impossible. Yes, it challenging in the beginning, and the middle and the end.  Yes, there will probably be surprises along the way that no matter how hard you prepared for, still aren’t expected. There certainly were for us. But remind yourself – if it was easy, everyone would be living in a gorgeous shipping container home.

Next up – The permitting process

Catching our dreams,

Jaimie & Dave

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