Shipping Containers – Are They Really Just Giant Oversized Legos? Part #6

Friends – for those of you who have read our story to this point, I apologize for the long delay between this and my last post.  We have been so busy these past 6 months LIVING!!! That’s one of the perks of tiny living; it means you get to REALLY LIVE 🙂 I will write more later on our many adventures and additions to our property, but for now, the OCD in me is requiring that I continue telling our story and how we built ‘That Tiny Life Love.’



To start, I think that many people, us included, think that building with shipping containers is a lot like stacking Legos.  In reality, it couldn’t be further from the truth. I can’t tell you how many times people have said to us over the years – ‘Well, at least you can just stack up a couple more when you want to add on or remodel.’  Since we built our home, we have seen where there were added features to a shipping container home that allowed for the possibility of a future addition. Unfortunately, we didn’t know this information when we built our home, and so our home is not easily adapted to additional square footage.  If we could do it again, we would have put in a floor to ceiling style window that could be have been removed and acted as the transition between our current containers and a future addition. But, as our home sits, it would take an unreasonable amount of work and welding (welding that would create a huge fire hazard because of our insulation) that makes adding ‘Legos’ onto our home unfeasible.  And that is okay – but I am glad that we have gathered knowledge and information over the years to possibly help others along the journey of their build 🙂

Well, we finally had approval and after almost 8 weeks of design and engineering, we honestly felt that getting our building permit in only 3 weeks after all of the hoops we had to jump through was a sign of good times to come!


Choosing our Shipping Containers

As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, our structural engineer recommended that we purchase (1) tripper containers.  For those new to the shipping container building world, it means our containers only made 1 trip across the ocean. Some of the benefits of these ‘newbie’ travelers included less dents, more structurally sound, less rust and easier acceptance by your local B&P, just to name a few 🙂  Another thing that we decided on when choosing our containers was to go with high cube containers. This added additional ceiling height and helps our home feel much larger than it’s 83” finished width.

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We purchased our containers from a local shipping yard in the Portland Oregon area, as it is only about 50 minutes from our home.  Once again, we worked well with our sales guy and he gave us outstanding customer service and hand picked our containers after learning that we were using them to build a home with.  We met him onsite and looked over the containers he had available, but there was only our 20’ that would work well for us. He spent the next week looking over all of the containers that he received to find us the best 40’ container he could find in his inventory for our home.  4.5 years ago, when we started this journey, building homes with them was still pretty new in our area and so, once again, there was enthusiasm from the people that we worked with to help us succeed in our dream of building a home! He also helped coordinate a great trucking company that was willing to deliver them to our hilly, goat country property.

Side story – when our 40’er (1) tripper was delivered to our property,  it already had a ‘skylight’ in it. Mind you, we had just paid 2x as much for it and bought them on the recommendation of our engineer from a reputable dealer.  The container had been damaged when loading and their was a 8” x 8” hole in the roof. The dealer sent his mobile field team to attempt a field repair at our property, but were unsuccessful. Unfortunately, they had to reload the container and haul it off for repairs. As I mentioned earlier in our story, our property is a rocky goat trail on the side of a cliff. It was an anxiety ridden day the day the containers were dropped off and even more so when they had to reload the damaged container and haul it away for repairs.  I prayed – a lot that day! Thankfully, it was re-delivered a week later, good as new. An early lesson for us that no matter how much you plan and what you pay, we weren’t really in control of the process, we were just trying to mitigate the outcome to our benefit.


The Schedule

I am a planner, and we wanted our containers delivered around the same time as our foundation was going to be formed and poured.  Our foundation needed to cure for 30 days prior to placing any weight on it, and we knew that we could use that time cure time to modify the containers per our design.  We received our building permit at the end of May, our foundation was poured on June 28th and our shipping containers were delivered on June 29th. Things were happening fast, and it was starting to get really exciting – and really hard.  Working with metal and steel is dirty, exhausting, hard work. Maybe not for you life long fabricators, but for desk jockey accountants like myself, it was back breaking work! My learning curve was steep, but my hubby was patient (kind of) and I quickly learned how to cut, grind and prep steal for the welding process.


The Foundation

We hired a local company to form and pour our foundation.  We decided to go this route, because after doing the math, we realized that after we purchased the form material, did the extensive homework necessary to learn how to form our foundation correctly and then spent many, many weekends laying it all out, we realized that we could hire a professional, and they could have it done within in a matter of a week or two, for only slightly more than we would have paid doing it ourselves.  Sometimes, even diyer’s have to accept that there are better and more cost effective ways of achieving your goal 😉

Once the foundation was poured and as it was curing, it was time to start fabrication on our containers.  Most of these modifications could have been done by the company that we had purchased our containers from, just and FYI, but we wanted to be hands on and do the work ourselves.  Also, we thought it would save us time and money to do the work ourselves. In hind-site, it probably didn’t save us much, just another lesson learned along the way.


The Windows

The first order of business once the containers arrived was to remove the cortex siding for the window placement.  What we quickly learned is that once the cortex is cut, the structural integrity of the containers are VERY compromised.  It took little or no effort to have the entire side of the container ripple in the wind once just one window panel was cut.  We knew that we couldn’t move the containers again or place them until we had reinforced the containers with our window design.  We had A LOT of work to do in the next 30 days to get these ‘Legos’ ready to set in place!

Remember the old saying – measure, measure, measure and then cut?  Good advice. As our entire home had been designed within inches, it was vital that we measured and removed the container wall exactly where we planned on placing a window.  After measuring, we created a cutting template with blue painter’s tape and used a grinder with a cutting disk on it to cut the steel. Once we removed all (7) window panels of differing sizes, it was time to start reinforcing.

The window frame design was my husbands, and our engineer signed off on it.  To create the window frames, we used 1.5” tube steel and 1.5” angle iron. We had purchased all of our windows at this point so that we had the exact finished dimensions of the windows themselves.  Again, for those like myself who had never worked with metal, metal isn’t like working with wood and you can’t ‘recut’ or ‘wedge’ any errors. It has to be right the first time – thankfully, my hubby is very OCD about these things and I was confident that our windows would be exactly where we wanted them 🙂

After we had the exact dimensions of the windows, we fabricated the tubing into a rectangle, allowing for the thickness of the angle iron.  The angle iron was welded to the inside of the tubing to create a ‘lip’ for the window to sit on and be attached to when the time came to install them.  When we cut out the cortex siding from the container, we cut out our template allowing for the dimensions of the tube steel and angle iron, so approximately an additional 1.625” on each side of the window. Example, if the finished window dimensions was 24” x 24”, the opening that we cut was actually 27.25” x 27.25”.  We then built this back up with our 1.5” tube steel & ⅛” angle iron to create the finished opening of 24” x 24” that we could attach our window too. I know – as clear as mud 😉

To fabricate the window boxes, my husband welded the tube steel into a box and then welded the angle iron inside of the box.  He welded both sides, front and back so that there was a complete weld all the way around. This allowed for a watertight surface since this was our finished product and we weren’t going to side our container.  Cortex is a challenge when welding. It has a low melting point, and can be difficult to attach to. To successfully create the window openings, Dave first welded cool on the inside of the window opening (inside the container).  This held the frame in place and secured it. He then moved to the outside of the window and welded completely around the tube steel frame to make a weather tight seal. Essentially, each of our window frames were welded 4 times – a long, tedious process, but completely worth it!  We have been in our home for 3 full winters now, and we live where it rains and is windy 9 months out of the year and we have had no water or moisture problems around our windows or the frames. Word of advice – Don’t cut any corners; take your time and make sure you have an airtight seal – you will appreciate that you don’t have any mold, mildew or moisture problems later 🙂

During this part of our build, my husband and I were both working our ‘day’ jobs.  My, but those really got in the way 😉 We would work Monday – Thursday at our paying jobs, and then work 12-16 hours Friday to Sunday on our home.  It took us every single working minute of 3 weeks to fabricate our window wells and prep for the placement of our containers. Hard work, but because of the tiny footprint of our home, there was an end in sight.


Sealing the Gap

One of the challenges we were facing was figuring out how to create a weather-tight seal between the 2 containers.  Our containers would be open up to each other through the roof/floor section for our interior stairwell. Our engineer had written into our plans that there would be a cedar ‘faux’ sill plate and Volcom caulking between the 2 containers to see the air gap.  We spent an entire day, laying out this per design on the back 20’ of our 40’ shipping container in preparation of placement. Unfortunately, the reality we discovered after placing the containers, is that this sill plate was not going to work as designed. And so, after the containers were in place, we began the hard job of chiseling out the cedar wood and volcom caulking between the 2 containers.  What we ended up doing to make our containers weather and air tight between the 20’ and 40’ers was to weld an 8” piece of flat plate as a band around the 2. This not only sealed them completely, but looked much better than what our engineer had designed. Common sense, and onsite problem solving are so important when building a home that is not traditional. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when building tiny!

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The Sub-flooring

The final step in preparing our containers was to address the pesticide soaked marine plywood that come standard in shipping containers.  While this floor is stout, and already there, we were concerned about future health problems if we left the plywood as it came. There would be absolutely no way in the future to remove our subflooring if it caused health problems, and we were pouring way to much of our heart and soul into our home to take any chances that it wouldn’t be livable for us in the future.

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Decision made – we removed it ALL.  Every last bolt and washer and 1-¼” piece of the heaviest plywood you have every carried in your ENTIRE life.  (This stuff still lives on at our property for various hard tasks, and so I am occasionally called on to assist with moving it.  I usually give my hubby the stink eye when he asks me – this stuff is that HEAVY 😉 ). We didn’t replace the sub-floor prior to placing our containers on our foundation, but by removing it prior to craning them into place, this lightened the overall weight of our containers. The containers have C-channel or I-beams along the bottom, so removing the sub-flooring didn’t compromise the integrity of the containers – not like cutting out the windows did :).

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Next up – placing our future home!  I know this I am covering a lot of information, but for those of you that are considering a shipping container home, I wish that we would have had the information I am sharing when we started.  There is so much that we had to learn along the way, and if we can help even one person, then everything I am sharing is so worth it!

Comment or send me a message and let me know if this information is helpful 🙂

Until next time ~ keep chasing your dreams!

Jaimie & Dave


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