Guest Post by Steven Schneider
Truth be told, I didn’t choose to build with shipping containers because I like the look of them. I’m also not trying to save the planet by recycling them – not that there’s anything wrong with that. Rather, I felt forced into it by the continued theft and damage at my property in northern Wisconsin. What I really wanted was just a small log or timber frame cabin, but that was not to be.
I had long been planning to replace my old hunting shack with something a little bigger and nicer, but had been discouraged by an incident a couple of years ago, when someone broke into it and started a fire with a kerosene lantern. I was fortunate that they put it out with a fire extinguisher I had there and that no one got hurt, but that was the last straw. I began searching the net for ideas on building a more secure cabin, and was intrigued to find that others were using shipping containers. From a security standpoint it was near perfect – I just had to figure out how to make it work for me.
One of my main goals in designing the cabin was to keep it as simple as possible. Many of the shipping container cabins I have seen on the net are interesting from an architectural standpoint, but difficult for a non-professional like me to build – I’m actually a computer programmer by profession. I also wanted to limit the openings to just the original doors so the cabin could be completely secured when I wasn’t there.
The first thing I had to do was determine just how much space I really needed. This is where the Tiny House Blog was a great help, because I was able to see how other people designed and actually lived in their tiny houses. Most of the small house books I found at the Library and on Amazon didn’t have much in the way of < 500 square foot houses. After what seemed like hundreds of pencil and grid paper designs, I settled on a three container cabin with about 450 square feet of living space. I know this is somewhat larger than most tiny houses, but it fit my need for housing four to five people for a weekend.
When it came time to create the detailed drawings for the cabin, I turned to Google Sketchup. This is the most amazing piece of software an amateur can use to design a building. I’m not sure I could have completed this project without it. Since there really wasn’t an instruction manual for what I was doing, Sketchup allowed me to try myriad ideas without wasting any building materials. It also allowed me to virtually furnish the cabin, using the Google Warehouse site, and tweak the layout to my idea of perfection.
While building the cabin has been fun, it has been more time consuming than I thought it would be. I do believe that a conventional stick built structure would have been much easier to build, although then it wouldn’t have been as secure. As much as I like doing the work myself, I have had to hire a fair amount of it out; the foundation, roof, deck, insulation, and removing the interior walls. I could have done the roof and deck myself, but time was running out before the onset of winter both this year and last. Just about everything is done on the outside now, except for some siding on the exterior walls. Now I can focus my attention on the inside and hopefully have it completed by this summer.
Kent asked about permitting, and I’m very fortunate with regard to this. My building permit cost me a whopping $5, and there are no limits or inspections associated with it. When I applied for the permit I said it was for a cabin, but the tax inspector has since classified it as a storage building. I have tried to build everything as safely and correctly as possible, but I doubt it would meet code for a permanent residence.
The reaction from my neighbors and workmen has been mixed so far. When I first started the project, I did get some strange looks and a lot of questions about why I was doing it. As they’ve heard my explanation, and seen the cabin progress, I’m getting a lot more positive comments. For example, when the containers were delivered and set in place, several of the workers became very interested in the idea of containers for secure storage. A more distant neighbor tracked me down to ask where he could buy a 40 foot container for storage on his farm. One of the deck builders even said his parents were considering a shipping container cabin for themselves.
I’m sure one day I will be asked “Was it worth it”? I honestly don’t know how I will answer that. While I still long for a log cabin in the woods, the peace of mind when I lock up this cabin is priceless.
If you would like to see more details of the cabin and its construction, you can visit my blog at www.tincancabin.com. I’m more than happy to help anyone else who wants to build one of these.