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


2 thoughts on “naysayers and pessimists, or “The Can’ts”

    • it’s a subject that gets me going for sure. though, to be honest, even I catch myself in the “but you can’t do that” trap. luckily, it doesn’t tend to last long – a mild contagion only. 😉

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