basic container design – insulation

Since mankind crawled out of the caves and began building shelters for ourselves we’ve been obsessed with maintaining a comfortable interior temperature. This is especially true when working with a steel shipping container…after all, IT’S STEEL! If left in the heat, unprotected, interior temperatures will rise higher than the inside of your car on a hot day – and we all know what it feels like to sit on hot leather seats…OUCH.

So how do we insulate a container, not just to maintain interior comfort but also to ensure that our finished structure will remain safe? (note – heat greatly effects the physical properties of every product used in a home or building) There are various types of insulation we can use based on insulating characteristics and cost. Common types of insulation are:

Batt or Roll Insulation: Most common. Found at any hardware store. It’s “the pink stuff”. About R-3 per inch. Cheap and easily installed. In a typical 2×6 stud wall you’ll get about R-18…at least so the label tells you. You’re really getting less than that because it’s nearly impossible to install perfectly, which means you get all kinds of voids and crimples, etc. that affect the R-Value.

Loose Fill or Blown Insulation: Also found at most hardware stores and is made from shredded blue jeans or paper or cellulose. About R-4 per inch. Also cheap, but requires renting equipment to install and can be difficult to fill stud cavities in existing buildings. It’s great for attics and other large spaces.

Rigid Board Insulation: Typically Polystyrene or Polyisocyanurate (plastic). Comes in sheets that are easily cut to size. About R-4 to R-7 per inch. Sort of cheap and easily installed. Can be cut to size and placed in stud cavity. A typical 2×4 wall will give you up to R-21, but again this is affected by voids and joints in the boards.

Spray Applied Insulation: Either open cell or closed cell. Open cell will absorb moisture, so it should not be used in moist climates. Closed cell creates an air tight barrier and is expensive. Both require skilled installers. Most bang for your buck in terms of performance. About R-4 to R-6 per inch (though some say it can be as much as R-10 or R-12 per inch). When insulating containers, I find it best to insulate one of three ways: exterior, interior or both interior and exterior. In extreme climates, warm or cold, it’s best to insulate both interior and exterior to achieve the maximum R-Value without sacrificing too much square footage while still protecting the container and providing necessary cavity space for electrical and plumbing.

Poured or Injected Insulation: Similar to spray applied. Installation is either through a series of holes cut into existing walls or through the sill plate at the top of the wall. Great for renovations and retrofits. Expensive and requires skilled installers. R-values similar to SPF – about R-6 per inch of thickness.

Radiant Barriers: This is a new technology and has not been well tested over time. You may have seen things like ceramic coatings featured by Bob Vila and others touting their sometimes miraculous benefits. I’m optimistic for the technology, but will reserve final judgement for when the product has been time tested and proven. The basic principle is in the name – it creates a barrier that radiates heat energy away from the surface without allowing it pass to the interior.

Any of these insulating materials are suitable for use in a shipping container home. Remember that the container itself is just a building block, one component of the building envelope, no different than wood or metal studs and sheathing. So just like with any other material, it’s important to figure out your cost/benefit scenario early. Options are wide spread and it is simply finding a balance between what you want your home to look like, how you want it to function and how much money you want to spend. Consulting trained architects and designers early on in your project will save you lots of time and money down the road as well.

boy, it’s HOT!

This time of year I’m always reminded of a bit from the movie “Good Morning Vietnam” with Robin Williams where he’s giving the “weather report” for the day and says:

“So Reginald, what’s the weather like out there today”
“It’s HOT, damn HOT. It’s so hot, I saw this dude in orange robes BURST INTO FLAMES!”
“So, what’s the weather look like for tomorrow?”
“HOT and WET. That’s alright if you with a lady, but it ain’t no good if you in the jungle.”

Friggin hilarious movie. I could watch it again and again and again…it’s that funny! 🙂

So what does this have to do with architecture or container architecture? I’m so glad you asked, cause I’m gonna tell you.

The most common critique that I find, and the most common internet search aside from “container homes”, is how to practically insulate containers for hot weather. Recently I was asked to submit a design and fabrication proposal for a 8 unit dormitory in Puerto Rico to be constructed out of 40′ High Cube ISO shipping containers. The number ONE concern of the client was quote “is it possible to insulate these containers to ensure a comfortable interior living temperature?” The answer is YES.

But first, the program. I was asked to provide a design proposal, originally, for a minimum of 12 dorm units on a single piece of property in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The lot, being only about 300 square meters is…let’s say it’s “small”, and unfortunately shortly after I began the design process, the client informed me that there is a 2 story height limit, which totally cut down the number of units we could have. That being said, we’re left with the 8 units. Each unit is to have a bedroom with a storage closet, a full bathroom, a kitchen area, study area, dining area and living space. All within a 40′ x 8′ x 9′-6″ space. Yeah, it’s a little tight, but I made it work. And I think it works quite nicely. Obviously we’re not talking about a ton of space to party in, but it certainly functions the way a dorm needs to. This is the typical unit plan.

copywrite 2011 r | one studio architecture - typical unit floor plan

The bedroom is probably larger than it needs to be, but then if you used a Murphy bed, you could have a bedroom and office space in one.

So, how do we take this single plan and make a multi-unit structure? We stack them horizontally and vertically, 4 across and 2 high, giving us the 8 units. Circulation to the second level is made by a simple prefab metal stair and balcony. The entire building will sit on poured concrete pad foundations at the 4 corners and intersections of the units. This GREATLY decreases the need for lengthy site work and coordination. This is the first floor plan showing the horizontally stacked units.

copywrite 2011 r | one studio architecture - first floor plan

In order to insulate these big steel boxes and provide comfortable temperatures inside without completely breaking the bank with our electric bill, we’ve insulated both the interior and exterior wall faces with 2 1/2″ of closed cell SPF insulation for a total thickness of 5″ or about R-30. Basically, we created a cooler with a steel core structure. Oh yeah. 🙂

In the rendered images below you get a feel of the simplicity and scale of the structure. While shipping containers are small, you can see that they can be modified and designed in such a way to provide adequate living space for almost any building type.  Think for a second that we needed 2 bedrooms units. We simply remove the demising wall in the main living and kitchen area, modify the kitchen to be larger, possibly with an island, and we’ve created a double unit that is more open and inviting than just the single unit. Small changes make a big difference in this type of structure.

copywrite 2001 r | one studio architecture - overall looking down at entry

copywrite 2011 r | one studio architecture - front view @ eye level

copywrite 2011 r | one studio architecture - view @ rear patios

So, if you’re considering a multi-family structure, or even a single family, think about containers and then give us a call. We can save you time, save you money and build something that will last.

it’s granted, and I took it – @letsblogoff

These days, what DON’T we take for granted? We EXPECT so much out of life it’s a wonder that a third world war HASN’T broken out yet. As technology continues to push forward at breakneck speeds, we continue to take more and more things for granted. Electricity, microwaves, TV dinners, the Culligan Man, the internet, WiFi, Starbucks, those little chocolates on our pillow…the list just goes on and on.

And this is increasingly true in architecture and practice. With the widespread advent of digital architecture, clients, and even more than a few bosses, take for granted the time, concentration, talent and expertise it takes to produce a work of architecture…or even just a constructable one. And this time, this effort, translates to billable hours that are the first thing to be widely scrutinized and bargained for with clients and bosses.

One of my favorite little nuggets that always gets thrown out by both sides is “well, that should take you just a few minutes in AutoCad right?” It’s as if, with the advent of AutoCad, everyone now thinks that Architects and designers suddenly have all this free time. Architecture is now an instantaneous endeavor requiring no skill or thought or TIME. This, by far, is the one thing that is constantly taken for granted and is only getting worse with the push towards BIM software like Revit and Archicad. These new “pioneer” softwares are being hailed as the holy grail of architecture. They are the master key, the secret handshake, the special sauce that just makes architecture WORK….well, like any tool, it’s only as good as the person using it. And the person using it is still human. We can not alter the fabric of time, defy the laws of physics, nor can we be God (much as we think we can most days).

While new and sophisticated tools tend to make our jobs easier, they also come with their own brand of headaches. Take BIM for example. BIM is wonderful. It has allowed for nearly seamless Integrated Project Delivery, something that was almost unheard of 10 years ago. And it’s wonderful; we’re cutting down on mistakes before we get to the field, we’re coordinating more efficiently with consultants on the various building systems, BUT (there’s always a but) it also adds work and adds complexity to a project which is going to add time and additional expertise which is an added benefit to the client and will cost more money. But yet we continue to charge and get paid LESS for our services…..that ain’t cool.

All of these things are taken for granted under the simple and small assumption that time, and therefore billable hours, has decreased thus the fee should decrease. This is all caused because multiple people throughout the process are taking things for granted. The sophistication of the software, the talents and skills of the intern, the management from the project manager, the design skills of the principle and his/her ability to convey intent to the project managers and interns and the clients desire to spend as little money as possible on a project of increasing complexity and creativity.

If, instead, everyone involved could present themselves and their work product in an apples and oranges kind of way, do we think that less would be taken for granted, that less abuse would be dished out for us to take simply to retain a paying client? I think this bleeds into the larger issue of Architects more successfully selling themselves and the value of their services and sticking to that value. What do you think?

you mean it’s not a container!?

Recently r | one studio architecture was chosen to design a modern cabin retreat in the great state of Wyoming….yes, WYOMING. Truth be told, I had to look it up on Google Maps, because I had no idea where Wyoming was other than a general “over there” direction. As it turns out, Wyoming is actually quite nice.  It’s north of Colorado, south of Montana and sits between Idaho and South Dakota.

Cody, Wyoming, where our little cabin will be situated is in the northern part of the state east of Yellowstone National Park and north of the Shoshone National Forest.  The property has fantasic views of each.

The clients, a father-son duo, want a modern cabin retreat that they can use as a vacation rental when they are not in residence. The program is quite simple:

2 bedrooms, 2 baths, living, dining, kitchen and a 2 car garage with room for work space and tools (they are avid car enthusiasts). Like any good client I received lots of imagery depicting the style and materials they want to use. Budget is a concern, but they are going for a minimalist aesthetic, so that works to our advantage. Innovative uses for common materials will be key to the success of this project.

I am very excited about this project and I plan on posting regular updates as the design progresses and especially once construction starts, which will hopefully be in the fall before the snow starts falling and the ground begins to freeze.  Below is the conceptual floor plan. Things are still in development, but I think we’re getting close to nailing it down. And as always, I welcome any and all comments, suggestions and critiques (I do not cry easily, so don’t hold back). Cheers.

image copywrite 2011 r | one studio architecture

House the World – Jamaica

I’m so excited about this project and this organization.  House the World is a non profit organization who’s mission is:

“to provide sustainable housing solutions through open-source development. Our adaptability to ever changing scenarios, integrity to provide honest solutions, and charity to the poor defines the organization. House The World hopes to inspire others through transparent teamwork that leverages talent and aligns resources to help those in need. House the World will make a difference by providing safe, habitable, and vibrant housing solutions for people living in poverty. House the World’s long-term goal is to use technology to enhance collaborative networks, inspire others to help the poor, and provide culturally and geographically specific housing solutions for communities.” –

I was contacted by one of the founding partners of the organization to provide designs for a affordable single family residence that could be partially fabricated offsite and finished with local materials and labor in developing/struggling nations around the world.  Their first “site” is Jamaica.

I got a little overzealous and actually created two designs for them.  One is a design that I’ve been working on as a relief shelter that can be fabricated offsite, completely finished, dropped on site and be ready to go as an off grid shelter.  The second is a combination of shipping containers and earth bag construction, creating a design that is able to be constructed half offsite and half onsite with locally sourced materials and labor.

Both of these designs will be published as open source under a creative common’s license, which means that anyone can offer their own input to either alter or improve the original designs in order to make the most efficient and cost effective residence possible.

Concept No. 1

image copywrite 2011 - r | one studio architecture &

Concept No. 2

image copywrite 2011 - r | one studio architecture &

fakes, frauds and freeloaders

image courtesy of google

There’s an old saying an architect friend of mine once told me that has really stuck with me through the years. He said “good architects create, great architects copy”. I remember at first being extremely offended by this statement because it was my belief that all architects create. Eventually I came to the realization that my friend really is correct because quite simply, it’s all been done before and we’re all just recreating the same themes in different ways over and over again but to different effect.

But when do we cross the line from “copy” to “theft”?

I received a phone call last weekend from a non-profit organization, which for now will remain nameless, asking for help on a project because the “designer” they originally paid to provide a design for them to present to some interested parties for affordable housing had quite blatantly STOLEN work from ANOTHER non-profit and tried to pawn it off as his own. LUCKILY they did their due diligence and discovered this guy’s fabrication before trying to market these materials as originals and opening themselves up to legal liability.

It’s honestly hard for me even to write about this without jumping into a very long winded and profane rant about ethics and honesty and honor, etc etc.  So, instead, I’ll put it out there to you all – have you had experiences like this?  And, if so, how did you handle the situation and what advice can you offer as a way to vet future designers/architects to make sure that they are not a fake, fraud or freeloader?

a huge shout out and thank you

I’ve been at this blogging thing for a while now – coming up on 2 years to be exact.  I did not start this blog to be famous or to get lots of followers or clients or pick up chics or anything like that. I started this blog because I wanted to have a place to show my work (cause almost none of it has been built so far…) and to create an outlet for my musings on all things architecture, design and professional practice (I’m a legend in my own mind).

And in this pursuit I hope I have been successful and enlightening and entertaining and caused you to question some things about the “norm” in architecture. But that’s not why we’re here today. We’re here because over the last 8 months I have seen a monumental increase in readership on this blog and I need to take a moment and thank those who I have been lucky enough to associate with who have helped me along the way.  I truly would not have reached the level of influence I have without a bare few who said “hey I like what you have to say. tell me more.”  And allowed me a spot on their own digital platforms.  But before we get to that list, let me just show you how these few have affected what I’m trying to do each day.

blog stats from November '09 thru June '11

Above is a snap shot of individual hits to my site since it’s inception in November of 2009.  As you can see….well, I was unpopular the first year.  But that’s ok because anything worth doing is worth doing right and taking the time to build up. *editor’s note: snapshot taken on June 30th at mid day*

As you can see, since November of 2010, I’ve had a steadily increasing number of readers hitting the site. This is a result, almost unanimously, due to my experiments and investigations into container housing design and construction.  And also, thanks to those few bad ass bloggers listed below who have either supported me with tweets/links/posts/etc or allowed me a place on their blog rolls. This is not an exhaustive list, so if you’re not there it’s ok, I’ll still respect you in the morning. 😛

Bob Borson – Life of an Architect
Molly Block – Contained: All things container
Ronique Gibson – Stagetecture
Jody Brown – Coffee with an Architect

A special thanks to these mentioned above, and others who continue to support this blog (against all better judgement I’m sure) and to everyone who clicks a link and takes 5 minutes out of their day to read what I’m slingin. Thank you, thank you and thank you!


naysayers and pessimists, or “The Can’ts”

Some people will tell you that there are only two certainties in life: Death and Taxes.

image courtesy of google

Well I’m here to tell you they are only 2/3 correct. There are actually THREE certainties. The third is “with enough time and money, anything is possible”. For this reason I LOVE naysayers, pessimists, and what I call “The Can’ts”. You know who they are, the ones who always say you “can’t” do this or that or the other thing because of a million different reasons and things that they’ve spent their entire life thinking about instead of just shutting their trap and DOING IT. Basically they are saying “you’re problem isn’t important enough for me to think creatively about, so I’m just going to take the suckers way out and say ‘can’t'”. Yeah, “that guy”.

Disclaimer No. 1: While, certainly, anything is possible, some things are either improbable or just plain silly. Apply as needed.

Obviously I want to focus this post a little bit more than simply taking on the entirety of those who “can’t” do one thing or another. In architecture, and specifically container architecture, there are those that will tell you that you “can’t” use a green roof, or that you “can’t” use drywall as a wall finish, or that you “can’t” stack containers more than 3 high, or that you “can’t” *fill in the blank*. These people really get on my damn nerves. There are lots of “experts” out there in “container architecture” that want you to believe they have all the answers, that they’ve “written the book” or whatever. The truth is, and please read carefully here, that there are no hard and fast rules about building other than GRAVITY (this is an obvious exaggeration for emphasis of my point). You can look back through history, even recent history, and pick and choose the “rules” that no longer apply because someone took the time to think “outside the box” and get it done. This is called INNOVATION and EXPERIMENTATION, and are the corner stones of a progressive and growing society. Without these simple acts we’d still be living in natural caves and other shelters eating raw meat off a wildebeest that still has a little kick left in it.

Disclaimer No. 2: I do not claim to be an expert, an authority, or even a guru when it comes to container architecture or architecture in general. But I know what to ask and I know who to ask in order to find the answers that are needed.

Now, lets look at some of the “can’t”s in container architecture.

First, Green Roofs. Recently I did a post about this and got this long winded email from a guy about all the reasons you “can’t” do a green roof on a container, including that it provides no R-value at all. First, let me just say that “green roof” technology is about as old as mankind…so, yeah I’m thinking there is something to be said for it’s ability to hold out the elements and keep the interior temperature cooler than the exterior. Ever heard of a thatched roof? :-\  But I’ll get into that more in a second.

Secondly, it is true that the roof of a shipping container is not designed to carry large loads. The side rails and corner posts are designed for this purpose and work very well. That is not to say that the roof of a container can carry NO load, just not one as large as a heavily planted green roof.

image courtesy of google

So how do you properly set up a shipping container roof for planting? I talked about this a little in my previous post. I’ll post the readers digest version here. Starting at the container roof and moving UP you have:
– a perimeter frame made of steel angles at least 4x4x1/4″ with additional plate steel welded to the outside to height of final planting grade
– lightweight steel joists spanning the 8′ dimension at min. 16″ o.c. or corrugated metal decking
– 2″-4″ reinforced lightweight concrete (over metal decking) or 3/4″ exterior grade tongue and groove plywood (over joists)
– waterproof membrane (sheet or liquid applied)
-drainage layer (this is important so that the soil can breathe and so water can move thru the system
– layer of either crushed concrete or gravel 1″ think to help drainage
– layer of aerated soil between 4″ and 12″ depending on what you are planting
– planted vegetation – preferably local vegetation that requires no irrigation

This is the basic “how to” for a green roof. It’s not complicated and it’s certainly not impossible. It’s even DIY friendly if you’re handy with a welding torch and have very strong friends.

To stay on this topic I want to get back to the insulating properties of earth on a roof surface. To ask the obvious question, if earth has no R value then why do people build homes out of rammed earth blocks and even bags filled with the stuff? It is true that the R value of earth, or dirt/soil is low – about 0.25 per inch of thickness/depth.  This is very low when you consider that a typical wall should have an R value of about 12-19 and a good roof at about 19-30 and above. BUT, what the naysayers, pessimists and “The Can’ts” don’t tell you (most likely because they haven’t done the cursory google search beyond “earth r-value”) is that earth acts as a thermal mass.  This means it stores heat energy from the sun during the day and releases it at night which helps to maintain the interior temperature at a comfortable level.  This is MUCH different than simple r-value which represents only thermal resistance. Modern materials are designed to mitigate the flow of heat from one material or surface to another. Earth, on the other hand, simply absorbs heat energy, storing it up, preventing it from passing thru to another material or surface, and then releasing it during the night hours. This is why if you dig a small hole in the ground the earth feels more and more cool as you go down. That is because heat energy only passes so far before temperatures become stable (hence the huge success of berm housing). I could go on and on but you get the picture. And this is just the soil. Once you add vegetation you are only adding benefit upon benefit to your thermal performance.

Let’s move on to another typical “can’t” in my little world. “You can’t use drywall as an interior finish because the container moves too much and it will crack and buckle unless you use an insane amount of control joints.”…..Do I REALLY need to address this? REALLY?! The container moves, eh? Yeah, no duh. So does every other building on the planet. Even the earth moves. Ever heard of a place called California? I’m pretty sure they still use drywall out there regardless of how much their buildings “move”. Ugh *smacks head on desk*. To iterate, steel moves and shifts and buckles and wiggles, yes. So does wood, concrete, plastic, aluminum, fiberglass, butter and jello. They move because natural forces act on them like wind, water, heat and air. These pressures affect the material to one degree or another. This is where your structural engineer comes in. When constructing a building you have to take into account the movement of the principle materials being used. Material manufacturers even provide basic information about the expansion and contraction of their products. The bottom line here is that with proper planning of a building and proper stiffening of the structure you can use whatever finish material you want. Even butter, though I don’t necessarily recommend that. 😛

The suggestion that I’ve heard as an alternative to gypsum board? OSB sheathing….let me ask you, would you want this stuff on your walls visible for everyone and their mother to see?

image courtesy of google

I don’t care what you do to it, it’s ugly. If this is what your architect/designer suggests as the alternative….fire him/her and find someone who will do some real research and find a more pleasing and intelligent alternative.

Here are some container home interior shots that I gleaned from google. And the next time you are looking into building a home or a studio or a garage or a relief shelter and you run into one of “The Can’ts”, ask yourself this: do you want to work with someone who’s going to tell you all the things you can’t do, or do you want to work with someone who is going to find cost effective and responsible solutions to all the things you want to do and in return get you the most value for your money?

interior framing of a container home

interior living space of a container home

interior bathroom shot of a container home