the brighter side of Sandy


As the eastern seaboard was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, I remember thinking back to all of the hurricanes I had sat through, and a few I had surfed through (a small salute to a seriously misspent youth) and all of the destruction over the years, some big but mostly small. But mostly what I thought of may be considered a bit morbid to some, but being a “glass half-full” kind of guy, I thought “man, this is going to be huge for architecture and construction”.

I know, I know. You’re thinking “but dude, this was horrible. It was a travesty. Lives were lost and some lost everything in flooding or fire.” And that is all true. And my heart goes out to those people and their families and I sincerely hope that the rebuilding effort is swift and as uncomplicated as possible. But, there’s my point. “The rebuilding” is important.

Natural disasters, while terrible and devastating can bring incalculable opportunity in the rebuilding process. Take Joplin for example. Almost an entire city destroyed in a single day by one massive tornado. Rebuilding will go on for years, but the citizens and the leadership are using this as an opportunity to make their town something better. The same opportunity is there all over the northeast in areas hit by Sandy.

Imagine, instead of just rebuilding what you had or taking your insurance money and buying some other house that isn’t quite right, take that money and invest in a home or an addition that truly suits your family. Or even better use the opportunity to redesign, rethink and rebuild an entire community. Here is an article from the Huffington Post that talks about some of these opportunities.

The point here is, even in the face of tragedy and destruction, there are opportunities for good. Sometimes things must be torn down in order to take a more critical look at how we can make our lives better through architecture for generations to come.

Container Architecture – a reality

I’ve talked about this before….many times. But it seems that I have to do so again, and again because there are others out there who quite frankly keep lying to people and it gets annoying.

So, here are three things you need to know before entertaining the idea of building your own home from repurposed shipping containers. Please keep in mind these are not the ONLY three things you need to know, but rather these are the three things that I notice most often send potential clients running away in frustration and even bewilderment.

1. In order to build a house – no matter what material you use – it will cost you money…lots of it.

Your home, that thing that keeps your family safe and secure from the elements, is the single largest investment you’ll ever make in your life. You will not build a house, even if you build it yourself, for $50 or $60 per square foot. I don’t care what anyone tells you, this just isn’t going to happen unless you get all your appliances and half your building materials donated or from a junk yard….in which case I doubt your home will be very safe or secure. You’re not Mad Max, nor do I suspect you’d like to be. Take the time and spend the money on quality design and engineering at the front end, then hire qualified builders to construct your home. I guarantee your family will thank you and you’ll secure your investment for the future.

2. Unless you’re a trained designer or Architect you do not want to design your own home.

This is especially true when dealing with shipping containers. Containers are huge steel boxes that are designed and constructed to act as a single structural unit. Once you start chopping holes and welding pieces together you change the properties of that structural unit which can lead to dangerous living conditions. A well executed plan is first properly planned.

3. There is value in design and construction services.

Below are a series of photos – both DIY container homes and container homes that were properly designed, detailed and constructed. You tell me which ones are the better investment both financially and for the safety and security of your family.

DIY #1this one actually isn't that bad...but still, it could be better.

DIY #1
this one actually isn’t that bad…but still, it could be better.

DIY #2yeah, I don't want to live here either.

DIY #2
yeah, I don’t want to live here either.

DIY I even have to comment?

DIY #3
….do I even have to comment?

ah, a real home. designed, detailed and constructed properly.

ah, a real home. designed, detailed and constructed properly.

a smaller home - more of a cabin really. but still well designed and executed.

a smaller home – more of a cabin really. but still well designed and executed.

And, just in case you’re wondering, a typical American Home, whether built out of wood studs or repurposed shipping containers, will still cost you in the neighborhood of $150 per square foot and up. This cost is beyond what you pay for your land, your design and engineering and is completely dependent on the quality of materials that you use. If you do all the work yourself (not recommended) you’re still going to end up around $100 per square foot. And that’s assuming you do everything perfectly.

So please, PLEASE when someone tells you that you can “build your own corten castle for pennies on the dollar”…..RUN.

vacation and vallidation

That’s right! I’m back! The family and I had an awesome vacation visiting family in Kansas City, MO for 10 days. Not only did I get to actually get to take some real time off from work, work and work, but I got to hang with some really awesome people and spend time in a city that has embraced it’s urban center. If you’re following my instagram you’ve seen the photos, mostly of my kids and their shenanigans.

While there I didn’t JUST take really awesome pictures of my awesome kids doing awesome stuff and generally just being…you guessed it, AWESOME, but I also got out in the city and even gasp the suburbs to take a look at the local architecture and get a better feel for how things work and where things are. And as I’m exploring, and interesting notion was validated for me – a city does not work without the cooperation, collaboration and investment of it’s officials, citizens and most importantly ARCHITECTS.

There will be much MUCH more about this in future posts. So stay tuned.

manic monday – the architect is in the details

They say “the devil is in the details”. And they are usually right, except for today – today they are wrong. So there. 😛

I prefer to think that the architect is in the details. Details, while never perfect, are the “guts” of a set of construction documents. And well thought and well crafted details not only tell a contractor how to properly construct a building, but in my opinion they are also quite beautiful and even, dare I say, artful?

Design is wonderful, don’t get me wrong. Design is typically the one thing that keeps me from jumping out my first floor window most days. But taking the time to properly detail a project that is headed for construction can be just as enjoyable and I think most architects and even a few interns would agree with me.

I kept is short and sweet this week, because, well, I’m blessed enough to be fairly busy. 🙂


manic monday – modern living in 128 sf

The Tiny House movement is BOOMING. It’s all over the news, blogs, the web…it’s everywhere. And in searching through so many of the “tiny home” blogs and websites, an interesting trend emerges that I wanted to talk about: They all look almost exactly the same. There is a decidedly “traditional” style to the majority of tiny homes out there on the market and I am wondering why this is. Is there just a tiny home “style” that naturally takes shape because of functional concerns or is it just an aesthetic choice? I propose that it’s mostly aesthetic. Let me explain.

If you take a typical Tiny Home design, what do you see? You see a typical rectangular plan with a steep gable roof that accommodates a loft space. There are obvious height and area concerns here because most tiny homes, in order to be permitted need to be attached to a trailer frame to be classified as a mobile structure. This is the only way to get around building and zoning code requirements for living spaces (which are really stupid and arbitrary by the way).

Image courtesy of tiny house blog

So, above is a picture of your typical tiny home. Most designs will take cues from this theme – a simple framed gable structure on a 8′ x 16′ trailer. The roof is typically a steep 45 degree pitch in order to accommodate the loft with enough head room to use the space underneath. Now, I ask, is this really the most efficient way to design a roof structure when square footage is a premium?

Answer – not really.

This isn’t to say that the above design isn’t functional or even efficient, but like any thing else in life there is room for improvement. Let me also say that I doubt I’m the first guy to think of this either. I’m clever, but not THAT clever.

Solution – a dome roof.

example of domed roof on tiny home trailer without loft

I know…simple, right? Well, after pouring through page after page of google images it seems it’s not so simple. I did come across a few examples of tiny homes that had domed roof profiles, but these were few and far between. What’s so special about a dome roof on a tiny home, you might ask? Well, when your goal is to maximize the usable space while minimizing the overall height of the structure, a dome is the way to go. If you think back to geometry class, if you draw a diamond shape (half of the diamond would be our gable) and then draw a circle with a diameter equal to the diagonal of the diamond (half of which would be our dome) then you easily see the square footage that you’re gaining in this type of roof.

square (gable) within a circle (dome)

So, again, I’m not the first guy to think of this. But I wonder, why aren’t there more popular Tiny Home designs that take advantage of this simple design aesthetic? I’m hoping a few tiny home enthusiasts will see this and offer their own 2 cents to the discussion. Tiny homes aren’t for everyone, much as container homes are also not for your average homeowner, but they do offer unique and interesting solutions for those looking for the ultimate in “downsized” living and I hope to see much more of this alternative architectural style in the future.

manic monday: SIPs – why they’re awesome and why you should care

I love new technology, especially when it means that I get new stuff in my materials library.  The last couple of years, one of the hottest new technologies for modular construction has been SIP panels.  So, this prompted a little investigation to find out what are the benefits and ideal uses for this wondrous material.  Here goes:

First, what is a SIP?

typical SIP wall

Well, Wikipedia tells us that a SIP (Structural Insulated Panel) is “a composite building material. They consist of an insulating layer of rigid polymer foam sandwiched between two layers of structural board. The board can be sheet metal, plywood, cement or oriented strand board (OSB) and the foam either expanded polystyrene foam (EPS), extruded polystyrene foam (XPS) or polyurethane foam.

SIPs share the same structural properties as an I-beam or I-column. The rigid insulation core of the SIP acts as a web, while the OSB sheathing exhibits the same properties as the flanges. SIPs combine several components of conventional building, such as studs and joists, insulation, vapor barrier and air barrier. They can be used for many different applications, such as exterior wall, roof, floor and foundation systems.” – thank you Wikipedia.

Further investigation into SIP technology will tell you that this is not really a “new” material.  Investigation into these types of stress-skinned panels for construction began back in the 1930’s but didn’t gain much attention until the 1970’s. What I find interesting about that is, according to wikipedia, research into stress skinned panel construction began by Forest Products Laboratory as a way to conserve forest resources way back in the early1930s and yet here we are some 90 years later still relying mostly on stick frame construction for our homes and even light commercial buildings.

The modern structural insulated panel got it’s start in the 1940’s after it was determined that the stress skinned panels could be designed to take on all of the structural load rather than just a portion. Various types were developed, some with plywood or hardboard, and even treated paperboard but this was not suitable to outdoor exposure. In the 1960s polystyrene cores were used and have remained in use even today.

SIP wall and roof intersection

Why you should care.

As the process of manufacturing SIP technology continues to improve, I begin to wonder more and more why this modular material is not used more often? Obviously cost is the gut reaction item that comes to mind. But not when you compare a typical stick frame wall of R-19 with a SIP wall of the same value. A SIP wall, being what it is, has almost no thermal bridging, whereas a stick framed wall has thermal bridging every 16″ o.c. This significantly effects the total performance of the wall and even effects your HVAC system design, thus costing more money. But even still, why would any homeowner trade such an increase in performance and time (construction time that is) for what is arguably a minimal savings in overall construction cost?

The answer almost always comes down to ignorance – clients/homeowners simply are not aware of the real benefits and savings of various “high tech” materials over conventional stick framing. BUT, there is a second and more important answer here. And it’s a problem that I’ve talked about quite a bit – Architects do not advocate as they should for increased building performance when faced with budget issues. Compounding this problem is the contractor trying to save a buck wherever possible to increase project profit.

Architects, being constantly at a disadvantage when it comes to advocacy and education, are nonetheless the last line of defense for our clients to ensure that the building they get will not just respect an arbitrary construction budget, but will also perform to a higher quality standard. Products like SIPs, ICF, Insulated Metal Panels, AAC walls, and others are available to help architects and contractors create more efficient and, hopefully, more beautiful buildings that perform to a higher standard saving precious energy and money. Architecture is about more than initial cost. A building must perform as efficiently as it was built.

basic container design – structural considerations

It seems like it’s been quite a while since I did a post about something relating to container architecture. Well, let’s rectify that right now.


When designing a home constructed from repurposed shipping containers, one of the most important areas to pay special attention is structural. We can make containers look good all day long. A cutting torch, some bar steel, a few rain screens and some storefront and you’ve got yourself one archisexy container home. But will it stand up? Will it resist wind shear or rain/snow loads? Will it simply buckle and collapse due to a lack of pier supports? Hopefully the answer to these questions is no because you consulted a qualified architect/designer and structural engineer early on in your project to ensure your building is safe, structurally sound, beautiful, and functional.

“But why is this so important? Aren’t there a bunch of guys out there telling me that I can just buy a container and make my own home for pennies on the dollar?”

Yes, there are guys like that out there. I suggest running the opposite direction from them as fast as you can, preferably towards someone with real training and expertise in building construction.

would you rather live here, or (see next image)
would you want to live here?

 To illustrate this point, I’m going to rely on someone who has several container projects under their belt and one currently under construction. He also happens to be a structural engineer so he knows a thing or two about how buildings stand up.

George Runkle, with Runkle Consulting, Inc. in Atlanta, Georgia posted a sort of structural dissection of a shipping container a while back in which he used 3D computer modeling to simulate typical structural stresses and looked at the weak points of to container components. Here are some of those images.

image courtesy of Runkle Consulting, Inc.

This first image is an exaggerated view of the steel deflecting under loading. You can read a great description of what is going on here on George’s blog.

image courtesy of Runkle Consulting, Inc.

The image above is of a standard 40′ container under 40lb/sf live load and 24lb/sf roof load or 90mph winds, which would be typical for most residential areas on the east coast. As you can see, no red (failing) areas in the structure.

image courtesy of Runkle Consulting, Inc.

Now in this image we see some areas where the stress was too great and some members have failed. Though, in this instance the container was loaded to 50lb/sf or 200mph winds. This would be in the neighborhood of a CAT5 hurricane.

Both of the above containers are loaded “stock”, or without any modification. While these numbers are impressive and certainly make a good argument for container homes, at some point you’ll want to add things like windows and doors, so we need to look at what happens when the sides are removed.

image courtesy of Runkle Consulting, Inc.

Above you can see the container with sides removed as you might do if you wanted to join containers together or add large expansive openings. Under standard loading, similar to the first image above, you can see the container fails miserably. This is because a container is designed as a singular unit with all pieces working together to create that amazing structural integrity. If you remove parts of that system, the unit begins to fail under general loading. Those openings need to be properly reinforced and braced to ensure stability.

This is exactly where qualified architects/designers and structural engineers become so very valuable on your container home project. Because without proper design and engineering you could be putting your home and family at risk. The money you might pay upfront for design and engineering services is completely overshadowed by the benefit you receive from solid design and engineering of your home. I hope you’ll think about this post the next time you see some other website/blog touting all the benefits and money saving tips for “DIY” container homes without consulting trained professionals. While anyone can build a home for themselves with the right knowledge, tools, and equipment, you still need proper design and engineering to ensure your safety, security and investment.

Special thanks to George Runkle, of Runkle Consulting, Inc. for letting me steal his content and images. 🙂