Permits come easy for OKC container home

NOTE: Permits were actually approved BEFORE the foundations were poured. In my eagerness to bring readers up to speed on current progress, I overlooked this important step and posted foundation pics in a previous entry.

People often ask about the permitting issues I’ve encountered while building the container home. I immediately respond that the city has been quite amenable to my plans. It helps that I hired an amazing architect to act as my general contractor and liaison during the project’s outset, but it wasn’t particularly necessary.

During a permitting meeting in June of 2014, Larry met with City of OKC officials to review comments on our proposed plans. They said it was the first they’d seen for residential container living in OKC. So, to be first (on paper anyway) is nice.

They had some changes though: The front door would have to be widened to 36″ to meet code (I think it was originally 24″ or 30″), and the proposed driveway would have to have a little peninsula that abuts with the perimeter of the home. Last, any fence we install would be limited to a max height of 8 feet, and I think we were thinking 9 feet originally. Making the changes was easy enough, and I understand that plans can be approved with penciled-in edits created right there in the meeting. With that, we got our permit (#BLDR-2014-08295, which you can look up here) approved for the building and fence. Fees totaled $70.50.

Really, submitting plans successfully requires little more than a drawing on paper with all the rooms and dimensions labeled. It doesn’t even have to be to scale, and it doesn’t need to be a fancy blueprint (although mine was). So, I didn’t NEED an architect to complete this step for me, but I was working on oil wells at the time and usually several hours away (plus working nights and asleep during the day), so I couldn’t have boots on the ground in OKC. I’ve also been trying my best on this project to have everything done as professionally as possible; no “Billy Bob” shenanigans, if you will. Hiring an architect definitely cut down on the amount of back and forth I likely would’ve experienced trying to do this on my own from the outset.

So, unless there’s zoning restrictions or historical considerations related to a potential build site, I imagine a container home that adheres to codes would gain approval anywhere in O-City. It wasn’t a matter of pulling strings, greasing palms or knowing the right people; just follow the rules and it should work. For the next project (assuming there will be one), I will likely do my own permit leg work.

Container homes that fail the homeless

As the container home concept began percolating in my brain, I considered potential uses for sheltering the homeless and otherwise providing low-cost, high-quality housing for those who could really use it. As it turns out, there are a couple of significant barriers to doing this, mainly cost, organizational and bureaucratic oversight, and the thinly veiled greed of outside collaborators.

It costs to control the climate

As Richard McKown, a key developer in the OK SEA container development in OKC’s Deep Deuce, recently said in Territory Magazine, containers are actually very cost-INEFFECTIVE versus traditional building, at least during the construction phase. (Unfortunately, I can’t link or quote him because Territory [inexplicably] doesn’t post articles online, and I didn’t memorize the quote when I read it in print.) Containers are basically specialized building materials, and they require specialized machinery (like cranes) and specialized trades (like welding) to erect as habitable buildings. Instead of cost effectiveness, the key benefits actually lie in their modularity, which potentially allows for cost-effective mass production in a fabrication shop offsite; and durability, providing a more stable and permanent structure versus mobile homes and temporary shelters.

Still, it’s the costs of insulating and climate controlling a container that make low-income housing difficult in erratic and extreme climates like Oklahoma’s. In more stable climates, like the tropics where it’s always warm, sparsely insulated containers as a low-income solution make more sense, but there should still be SOME insulation, some kind of thermal envelope that reduces energy use and, subsequently, costs. Which brings us to two examples of failed container-based housing developments.

St. Petersbug, Florida

In 2006, nonprofit agency St. Petersburg Neighborhood Housing Services, industrial services company Tampa Armature Works, and the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes planned to develop two termite- and hurricane-resistant homes for the low-income neighborhood of Bartlett Park. Home Depot’s charitable foundation pitched in $185k, and the government’s NeighborWorks America also provided funds. Designed for “first-time home buyers with total household income at or below 80 percent of the area median income,” the 1,800 square-foot homes would resemble traditional houses in the block, as A-frame trusses would be added to form pitched roofs, and the corrugated steel exteriors of each container would be replaced with 16-gauge sheet metal, which was then sprayed white. Home improvement guru Bob Vila visited the project and filmed five episodes about it.

It sounded like a win-win program, but, even four years later, only one of the homes got built, while the other was demolished before completion and a traditional home erected in its stead. The completed home was purchased from St. Pete’s NHS for $170k in 2006, but comparable houses were going for $106k in 2010, so there goes the idea of affordability for that project. Plus, NHS ended up owing TAW $100k and subsequently went bankrupt.

“Financially, it just never made sense,” said Thomas de Yampert, the city’s manager of housing and community development. “But we were trying to do something to support one of our nonprofit agencies, and to see what we could get done.”

What went wrong

Besides being financially insolvent, the St. Petersburg container development illustrates some of the perils of early technological adoption and the machinations of greed behind seemingly philanthropic pursuits. First, that project got going in 2005, the same year Katrina wracked the entire Gulf Coast. Containers seemed like (and are!) a good defense against strong winds and flying debris, but the impetus to build a hurricane-proof house was derailed by efforts to make it look like any other normal house in Bartlett Park. By removing the CorTen steel exterior and replacing it with sheet metal, builders were downgrading the structural integrity of the original container. Further, the addition of wooden trusses to create a pitched roof and the addition of shingles to that roof represented a step backward into traditional building on a project that was begging for innovation to lead the way. Last, the builders SEEMED like they were embracing innovation when, instead of using any type of insulation AT ALL, they opted to merely coat the sheet-metal exterior of the house with Super Therm, a ceramic-based paint called that SUPPOSEDLY has an R-value (measure of insulating power) of 19 (equivalent to six inches of fiberglass). Spoiler: IT DOESN’T. It’s basically snake oil, and builders were merely cutting corners. (Btw, where were you on that one, Vila?! Oh right, you have a long history of putting your bearded shill before the prosperity of your fan base.)

Given Vila’s blessing on such a gross construction oversight, it becomes clear that the builders in charge of the project were essentially just milking a cash cow. The milk came from the city’s loan to NHS, the donation from Home Depot (*cough* corporate tax write off *cough*) and the effete bureaucracy of NeighborWorks America, which Bloomberg authors recently slammed as “… a house in disorder—with sweetheart contracts, document fudging and unexplained departures of top officials.”. TAW, which supplied the container frames and did the fabrication for the openings, were just piggybacking on some “free” money, hence their desire to lower labor and materials costs through the use of Super Therm and nothing else. If the desire is to create an affordable dwelling for low-income residents, then the operating costs of that residence be lowered through the creation of a highly efficient thermal envelope that reduces energy use throughout the dwelling’s lifetime.

Brighton, England

Fast forward to 2013 and jump across the pond to jolly ol’ England. Richardson’s Yard, a 36-container, five-story apartment complex featuring partial solar power, green roofs and a food-growing initiative, opens for people “at risk of homelessness” in December of that year. The project cost about $1.44M and was completed by QED PropertyWCEC Architecture, and the Brighton Housing Trust. In an independent report, the residents generally approved of their living quarters, but the number-one complaint was inadequate insulation during winter months, which in turn raised heating costs.

A reporter for Vice spent a night in the compound to investigate tenant conditions and sentiment in person. Based on the fact that residents there still must pay rent (often subsidized by the BHA), the fact that the compound’s lease expires in 2019, and documents alluding to further development of the otherwise blighted area, his take-away included the cynical observation that Richardson’s Yard represented, “another formula for wealth extraction.”

The chief of Brighton Housing Trust, Andy Winter, responded to the article in a rather transparent and measured fashion, admitting that heating issues were a failure on their part but asserting that profit from the endeavor would be minimal if realized at all. To his defense, I’ve noticed most Vice writers lack proper journalistic training, and many of their articles lack facts and proper research as a result.

People still need homes

At the end of it all, we still have people right here in Oklahoma that could benefit from a well done, properly funded container compound with independent oversight. Richardson’s Yard illustrates the lessons we can learn from St. Petersburg’s colossal failure: Let container homes look like containers, beware the influx of “free” money from would-be do-gooders, and lock in costs to a fixed budget that can’t be exceeded without severe penalties for third-party contractors. Further, we learn from Richardson’s yard that not all such charitable initiatives are permanent, and companies usually in the business of turning profit can’t be expected to suddenly give away their products for free.

I remain faithful that a charitable, philanthropy-based container development could be a win-win right here in Oklahoma City or the state at large. Part of this confidence stems from the state’s embrace of the form and my own personal learning process of how to do the dwellings the right way. Although my budget has been blown several times over and mistakes have been made during the creation of my own container home, I have always been ready to accept error as part of a learning process. Hopefully, the things I learn might one day be applied toward a greater good in the form of some sort of charity-based housing development.

Foundations for the container home

Staked corners and property line marker
Here’s a better image of the staked corners (click image to enlarge). The front-most stake to the left of the image marks the property line on that side of the yard.

After surveyors staked the corners of the container home, we were able to get moving on the foundations. My architect began using the mantra “think like an engineer” with regard to the needs of our foundation (and everything else). This mantra dictates that instead of calculating our needs and building to suit, we calculate our needs and then build something exponentially stronger/more powerful. As a result, we hired an engineer to design the foundations.

There are generally three ways people go about designing their foundation: full basement, crawl space, or slab on grade. Full basement consists of a space beneath the structure that is big enough to stand in; crawl space offers a smaller volume beneath the structure but still allows access to the underside of the home; slab on grade offers no volume beneath the structure and is basically like setting the box on the ground.

We went with a crawl space approach, basically because a full basement was unnecessary, and our blueprints at the time weren’t quite finalized enough to commit to the placement of water utilities, which should usually be in place before pouring a slab on grade. Plus, the crawl space approach has the advantage of allowing air to circulate beneath the container for cooling during hot months, and it also allows access to the underside for construction purposes. Last, this space will likely serve as storage once construction is complete.

To create the crawl space, we needed to elevate the container, and that’s where the engineer came in. We went with 360 Engineering, which is a Tulsa-based firm. Larry got in touch with one of its principals, Elli Johansson, who has testified as an expert witness in legal cases involving structural failure. He’s a pretty interesting guy.

The foundation design he came up with is kind of innovative: Three walls feature a “notch” in the middle to allow for utilities to be run lengthwise beneath the container. Further, each wall features metal plates embedded in the tops, which allows for the bottom rail of the container to be welded into place on each wall. The pictures below make it more clear than I could in words:

Fill dirt added to lot
Fill dirt was added to the location of the foundation to ensure a level base from which each wall could be poured.
Hole
Holes were dug for each foundation wall. Each hole extends two feet into the ground and then flares out by 8 inches at the base.
Foundation walls
Finished foundation walls, from front to back. See how they feature notches down the center? This allows for greater access and versatility during the installation of utilities under the container.
Foundation detail
It’s kind of hard to see, but there is a metal plate embedded into the top part of each wall. Two plates in three walls make a total of six, and this is where the box is welded to the foundation.

So there you have our overbuilt foundations, engineer-approved and signed off with the City of Oklahoma City. Steve over at TinCanCabin.com also has quite a foundation for his 3×20′ structure, and, while he admits he could’ve gone with a series of piers instead of the full-on walls running the length of the building, he preferred the look of walls over piers.

I really like the way my foundation looks, especially now that the container is welded in place atop it. But first things first: The modification of the box off-site will be reviewed before we get to see the delivery day…

Staking off the container home

Now that I had the land and some plans for my container home, I needed to get a surveyor to tell me exactly where the property lines were on the lot. Only then would we know exactly where to stake off the would-be corners of the container so that our concrete contractor could pour the foundations in exactly the right spot. Larry (the architect) wanted to know “… all the typical data: property lines, center of street, any utility data they have, trees, fences, concrete curb cut on your lot. I would like to have the adjacent dwellings (just the adjacent sides) located as well …”

I contacted three companies for this work, but Red Plains Surveying Company was the only one to call me back. They were able to give me an upfront quote and also complete the job within 14 days of receiving the green light from me. In fact, they began five days after receiving notice. That was in April.

It wasn’t until July, however, that we were able to get the four corners of the box marked. Reviewing my emails, I remember now there was a billing hiccup on their end that delayed scheduling, and also some back and forth about CAD files between Larry and their technician. Having reviewed this, I will likely look elsewhere for future surveying. (Although I’ve found that, often, the best quote for any contract work is the quote that actually gets the work done.)

Here’s a photo of the surveying process:

The first thing the surveyors did was set up a GPS networking device that could communicate with their other measuring equipment.
The first thing the surveyors did was set up a GPS networking device that could communicate with their other measuring equipment.

And here’s a photo of the finished staking:

Might be a little hard to see, but there are four stakes with pink ribbons at the top. Each stake represents a corner of the container and helps guide the placement of the foundation walls.
Might be a little hard to see, but there are four stakes with pink ribbons at the top. Each stake represents a corner of the container and helps guide the placement of the foundation walls.

Tune in next week for the really exciting stuff: breaking ground on the foundation walls …

Tiny homes vs. container homes

After a year of speaking with people about this project, I feel it’s important to clarify some terms. While I’m not militant on the issue, there’s a difference between what people generally call “tiny homes” and the “container home” I’m building. The difference is mainly one of size, mobility, and permanence. For the following discourse, let’s assume “tiny home” refers to a trailer-based dwelling, which seems to be the most common method on TV and in online plans.

It basically breaks down like this for the tl;dr crowd:
Tiny home pros – mobility
Tiny home cons – smaller than a 40-foot container home; more like an RV re: utilities; vulnerable to extreme weather.

Container home pros – larger than most tiny homes; more like a traditional house re: utilities; more permanent but with potential for relocation; durability in extreme weather.
Container home cons – not truly mobile.

Tiny homes are generally smaller
Search the term “tiny home.” It’s likely Tubleweed Tiny Homes is the top result. These guys have been around since 1999 and sell plans for a tiny home that resembles a highly customized RV. Using a flatbed trailer as the basis for the structure, the footprint of the home is generally limited to the size of the trailer bed. At 238 square feet, the Cyprus Horizon is Tumbleweed’s largest floor plan.

On the other hand, the footprint of one 40-foot container is 320 square feet. After framing, insulation, and wall board, the interior of my container will equal about 270 square feet of livable space. Most of Tumbleweed’s plans call for less than 240 square feet, with many falling below the 200 sf mark. While the company does sell a customized 26-foot trailer, this will cost between $6,100 to $6,900 depending on options just for the trailer. Notably, this is comparable to the cost of my foundation walls (which are admittedly over-engineered and could be substituted with a different foundation for much cheaper).

Further, most people use more than one 40-foot container for their container-based projects. This allows for expansion on an exponential scale without necessarily doubling the price of construction. This guy offers a good example of keeping a three-container home within a budget (although it took him several years to complete the work by himself…).

Tiny homes are mobile
As mentioned, the creation of a home on a trailer gives it a mobility similar to an RV. Like an RV, there will generally be utility hook ups for water and electricity (most favor electricity over natural gas, although propane tanks may be used for the cooktop and water heater; don’t run out during a shower or while cooking!). There will also be an RV-style toilet or composting toilet and all the tank and maintenance issues that go along with them. While some people choose to place their tiny home on land with permanent hook ups, thereby avoiding the RV-like maintenance issues, one can see how the trailer-based tiny home is really more like an RV than a traditional “home.” But then again, it’s mobile! Owners can choose their own adventure depending on the seasons.

Meanwhile, shipping containers generally lack wheels, so they’re basically immobile. I would say they’re portable rather than mobile, though, as the box itself was originally designed for hauling via ship, train and semi truck during international transit. While my container is currently welded to the top of its foundation walls, those welds could be cut off and the box lifted via crane and placed on the back of a goose-neck trailer hauled by a dually truck (which is the reverse process of how it was installed). Still, my container home will feature city water and grid electricity (which may change to solar in the future…stay tuned), thus avoiding the RV-like problems inherent in similar tiny homes.

Tiny homes lack permanence
To piggyback on the concept of mobility, tiny homes lack permanence compared to a container home. With axles and wheels separating the trailer from the earth, one need only refer to the idea of a mobile home flung skyward during a tornado to imagine how one of Tumbleweed’s models might fare in Tornado Alley. Unlike an RV, which generally sits covered in a port or garage when not in use, these ornate tiny homes are meant to be seen. They generally sit unprotected to mimic the independence of traditional houses. Also, because they use traditional building materials like lumber, shingles and nails, owners essentially get about 200 square feet of sticks mounted to a trailer on wheels. I doubt the ability of even the best-constructed Tumbleweed house to survive winds like those experienced in the OKC metro earlier this year. Tumbleweed indeed!

Meanwhile, my container home isn’t going anywhere. The crane operator who lifted it onto the foundation informed me it weighs about 10,000 pounds, which is about 10 more pounds per square foot than a mobile home of equivalent size. In addition to being heavier, my container home is “permanently” fixed to the ground. Although it could be moved with some elbow grease and heavy equipment, Mother Nature will likely fail to even dent the exterior should an EF 5 rip through its neighborhood in SE OKC. I’ve also taken some precautions to protect the more expensive glazing, but more on that later…

So, when you’re talking to people about your dreams of living off the grid or owning your own home some day, I hope you keep in mind the difference between the various options available. Both of the above options are small by many accounts, and while a tiny home may satisfy your wanderlust, only a container home can offer exponential expansion, worry-free comforts, and increased durability over traditional building.