As was alluded to in a previous post, the last of the windows have been installed in the container home end cap. It’s a highly satisfying finishing touch that makes the interior look and feel bigger while also adding a touch of class to the curb appeal.
Interior acoustics have improved, too, versus the previous metal doors, and it’s warmer on the couch now that there’s less thermal transfer between the outside air and the interior surface of the end cap.
Last, replacing the industrial look of the natural cargo doors with sleek glazing from Thermal Windows definitely brings the project into the 21st century of modern design aesthetics.
(For the technically minded, these are Comfort Select 36 low-E argon gas-filled dual-pane windows. Much like the Pella windows throughout the rest of the container home, they were selected for their energy efficiency.)
Here’s how the process went down last week:
First panel for the container home end cap
It was a crew of three led by John (kneeling behind window above, obscured), who has 15 years of experience installing windows. His young crew members were attentive and efficient in working as a team to steady the heavy glass panels during a rather windy afternoon.
With the first panel tenuously held into place with one screw on the left-hand side, the second panel was brought in to butt up against it. A strip of vinyl known as snap trim was later hammered into the thin channel between the two panels and would eventually fill all the gaps between panels and the end-cap frame.
This weld in the end cap’s frame, as well as its counterpart on the other side, threatened to be troublesome for the installation of the third panel. The original measurements had allotted for some expansion of the frames, but all three panels would need to be raised simultaneously to make a proper fit.
Through the use of shims and a pry bar, the crew was able to work around the welds and slide the third panel up and into place.
From there it was just a matter of installing the rest of the snap trim, drilling the remaining screw holes and inserting screws through the window frames and into the end-cap frame. Last, a bead of caulk was run along the interior and exterior borders of the window frame, and the glass was cleaned with a spray solution and paper towels.
Of course, the next thing to do is get some curtains. It feels a little like living in a fishbowl or some kind of weird performance-art piece at the moment, especially at night when the lights are on inside but it’s dark outside.
I hope to get some that can be raised UP from the floor instead of DOWN from the ceiling. That way I can get the benefit of the light, sky and trees without exposing myself to the neighbors.
One last note: As was planned, the cargo doors remain operable. Although I intend to leave them both wide open 99 percent of the time, I will have the option to close the end cap in case of extreme weather or extended absence.
From the get-go, the plan had been to fill the opening where the standard container doors go with floor-to-ceiling windows. Unfortunately, budgeting issues caused me to delay that mostly aesthetic aspect (or so I thought) in favor of paying for more practical things that I could actually afford.
The unexpected snafu caused by that delay only became apparent as the weather grew colder. Because the natural doors have no insulation and are essentially one sheet of metal, the inside of the doors basically gets as cold as the outside of the doors. When the weather sank into the teens in Oklahoma City during December, I was getting massive amounts of condensation on the interior of those doors, which is right behind my couch. Further, that condensation was eventually freezing, so it was like I had a big block of ice right in my living room.
So much for thermal efficiency.
Through a combination of determined miserliness and motivation borne from being uncomfortable at home, I finally pulled the trigger on calling a regional company’s OKC offices, Thermal Windows, and getting a quote on floor-to-ceiling glazing for that much-neglected yet highly costly aspect of the project.
I was struck with a bit of deja vu upon being presented the options for solving my end-cap problems. Looking at the image of computer renderings above, the models on the left and right sides were quoted far cheaper than the one in the middle. At the same time, the one in the middle was the one I really liked. After some hem and hawing, I decided to go with what would make me happiest, and soon enough a representative came out to get the measurements exactly right.
These will be similar to the Pella windows installed throughout the rest of the container: dual-paned and thermally efficient, with a layer of argon gas filling the inside space between the panes.
Hiccups in the process
I was told from the time I ordered the windows (late December) that they would not be available for install until sometime in mid-February. Once again my ignorance with regard to lead times in contracting for residential construction needs was laid bare, but at least I had my foot in the door.
Or so I thought.
There was some confusion as to the color of the window trim I had chosen. I forget the specifics, but it was something like the color I had selected originally wound up being unavailable in that particular material. So, I had to re-submit a signed order form. Then, I received a phone call one Friday morning in January from the install guy who had originally came out to do the initial measurements. He told me he was notified earlier that week that the factory had “lost” the measurements, which had “never happened before.” Although he could not properly explain why he waited several days to tell me of this delay, I advised him to come out right then to redo the measurements.
Today is Feb. 10, and I haven’t heard a peep from Thermal Windows. I expect they could be coming to install any day now, and I can’t wait to take those pictures, but dang: not a very professional company so far. We’ll just have to wait and see how their final install works out and if they’re willing to give me a discount should the delays add up to a significantly longer than expected install date.
Now that I’ve been living in it for a few months, I wanted to examine my container home energy use. It’s an exercise that not only helps me visualize my energy costs, but it illustrates for interested parties the real-world rewards of container living.
For the record: I’m not a miser when it comes to energy use. When I leave the house for work in the morning, I’ve left the AC running several days this summer (by accident), and I almost always keep the thermostat set between 73 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit. At the same time, I have a pet peeve about lights on in unoccupied rooms, and so I am generally anal about that, but for the big energy drains (fridge, central heat/air), I keep myself happy.
Container home energy use data
The data in the following table come from OG&E’s weekly energy summaries, which I get delivered to my inbox (just about) every week. My email inbox indicates my first one was from late March, but I didn’t begin living in the container full-time until May. Still, energy use from before Spring reflects heater and wall-socket use while construction was ongoing. Energy use from May forward reflects actual, daily living activity.
OG&E’s weekly summary emails contain three categories relevant to this study: average use, efficient use, and my use.
Green boxes indicate weeks where I was more efficient than OG&E’s qualifications; red boxes indicate weeks where I was less efficient than that rubric. Some weeks are missing because they don’t appear in my inbox or I just can’t find them 😛
(7 DAYS TO)
During the 17 weeks of available data, I have spent a total of $160 on electricity as charged by kilowatts per hour, which is almost $100 less than an “efficient” user during the same period and well over $800 less than the average user. (Granted, average users live in larger houses that contain more people, so it stands to reason that, even in a traditional home with only adequate efficiency measures, I would likely surpass most average users as a single occupant.)
My overall average for the period comes in at just under $10 per week. Meanwhile, “efficient” users average $15.18 weekly for the available dates and average users spend almost $60 per week.
As you can (hopefully) see, there were only two weeks back in Spring where I was less efficient than OG&E’s measure for that category. Otherwise, I have beaten their “efficiency” standard by an average of $5.76 each week and crushed the average user by about $50.
While the construction of the container home repeatedly exceed my budget estimations to the point of being more expensive than traditional contruction on a per-square-foot basis, the useful life of the container home seems to be paying dividends in the form of consistently reduced electrical costs, even compared to OG&E’s definition of an “efficient” user.
Last, I can’t tell you how many people tell me I should get solar or go off the grid, and believe me, that would be great if I had the capital to fund such an addition, but I think the current data illustrate that I don’t even need solar to realize incredible energy efficiencies. The combination of a small living space with thorough insulation and a full-sized central heat/air unit removes the need to employ drastic technological additions. Plus, it’s just so much easier to be on the grid at the moment … and I get the added enjoyment of sticking a metaphorical middle finger up at the utility provider that would seek to charge an extra fee EVEN IF I DID HAVE SOLAR.
So, come visit. I’ll set the AC to whatever you like.
There’s nothing like the addition of trim to make a room feel finished. I really wanted my trim to pop in the OKC container home, so I opted for a high-contrast, black-on-white color scheme that also gives a nod to the modernist-minimalist aesthetic I try to bring to the space.
Before getting into trim, though, I just wanted to mention that I came up with a solution for those ugly HVAC ducts: bedliner. I think Morgan actually already had a partially used can, so I set to work applying black bedliner to each of the HVAC ducts that run from above the bathroom to the edge of the living room. At first, I used a brush, but those results were unsatisfactory, so I switched to a small roller, and that was really the ticket. The thick consistency of the product allows imperfections in the surface to be completely masked by a new layer of texture. I’m really happy with the results and plan to use bedliner in other areas.
Trim goes in
The first thing we did was measure all around the windows, doors and along the wall where it meets the floor to discern how many linear feet we would need to buy. We wanted to paint the trim before it went on, which would actually save us some headache as opposed to painting the trim once its installed against our nice clean white walls.
A miscellaneous post including the pouring of the parking pad for the OKC container home, passing final electrical inspection, passing plumbing rough inspection, and installing one of two pocket walls.
For some reason, finding and hiring a concrete contractor to pour the parking pad was one of the most difficult hires of the whole job and spanned the course of two seasons. One guy quoted me more than $5,000, but I had already had an earlier bid for around $1,200. Another guy played phone tag for about a month before sending his son, but his son was such a greasy slime ball who tried to upsell me from the bat that I couldn’t trust them at all. Eventually, I put a message in a bottle and tossed it into the high seas of Craigslist. Since I wasn’t needing a licensed contractor, all I wanted to do was find an able body with the time, know-how and will. And right price. I found that person in Seattle native Bryan Childreth. He had pics of previous work and could start ASAP, so we worked out the details and he was able to perform and provide labor, arrange the gravel and concrete deliveries, and hire the Bobcat driver for a smooth $1,000. The work was completed during one below-freezing day in mid-January.
Now that we had all the drywall completed and lights installed (including that pesky “future plug” in the bedroom), we were ready to have MinnTech call in final inspection.
We passed electrical inspection.
Plumbing rough inspection
With the hot water heater installed, we called for the rough-in plumbing inspection and passed
Installing a pocket wall and door
The installation of the pocket wall and door was actually one of the first things Morgan and I had wanted to tackle once I hired him, but we soon realized we would need to have that area drywalled before the pocket door kit could go in, and at that point we just decided to drywall the whole place before starting on this otherwise silly wall.
After that, it was just a matter of painting and priming the newly installed partition.
NEXT TIME: Trim all around and some progress on the kitchen.
The tedium of drywall continued even after all the panels had been measured, cut and screwed into place.
The process continued like this:
Cover each and every screw head with drywall tape.
Smear drywall mud over each taped area.
Smear and spread drywall mud into joints where edges meet and corners where edges fail to meet corners flush.
Wait a day for the mud to dry.
Spread mud over entire wall to create desired surface (textured in living room and kitchen, smooth in bathroom and bedroom).
Wait a day for mud to dry.
Sand dried mud and reapply to create smoothness/a
Prime and paint the newly textured/smooth walls
Morgan devised a nifty solution for bringing the walls flush with the natural contours of the container’s ribbed ceiling: By shooting expanding foam into the gap between the top of the drywall and the bottom of the ceiling, we could create a tightly sealed surface on which to apply mud. Then, we could caulk the very top where the mud meets the metal of the ceiling. Prime and paint that and we’d have a seamless wall that conforms to every angle of the ceiling.
Around this time, we also had a problem with Kluck, the plumber. Although generally a mild-mannered and soft-spoken guy, I had encountered what was revealed to be his hot temper way back when the plumbing was starting. He had become irate at the fact that there were some variables to be sorted out in the midst of planning and cutting holes for the plumbing system’s various drains and vents. All of a sudden, he began raising his voice and swearing at me on that day, and I really didn’t know what to do. After his blow up, he left, and his son explained to me that that’s the real Fred Kluck, and although I don’t really want to work with anyone as unreasonable and rude as that, I needed a plumber, so I decided to give him another chance.
Well, Kluck blew his second chance when, in the midst of Morgan and I trying to figure out how we could complete drywall under the sink, Kluck blew up in a similar fashion at Morgan. Although I wasn’t there, Morgan told me he thought they were going to come to blows. So, I allowed Kluck to return once more to collect a check and then fired him directly after. While it’s good riddance on one hand, I’m left having to find a new plumber to complete the job on the other.
Meanwhile, our toil continued. Here’s some pics of the painting and texturing:
NEXT TIME: A miscellaneous post including the pouring of the parking pad, passing final electrical inspection, passing plumbing rough inspection, and installing one of two pocket walls.
Given how small the container’s interior is, I though drywall would be a two- or three-day process.
I was wrong.
At any rate, Morgan and I purchased 26 or so 3/8″-thick drywall sheets from Home Depot. We decided to complete the drywall installation for the bedroom first; that way, we would have one room in which we could store all the crap piling up in the container while we worked elsewhere.
The first part of our drywall process basically went like this:
Measure for the space that requires coverage.
Measure out and mark with a pencil that space on a drywall sheet.
Measure and mark for any outlets, switches and other abnormalities in general.
Use an Exact-O knife (with a sharp, fresh razor blade) to cut along the pencil lines. Rather than actually cutting THROUGH the sheet, this merely scores the top side.
Position the scored sheet so you can break it along the score lines using your knee.
Use a rasp to file off any irregularities in the cut edges, and use a drywall knife to cut out rectangular holes for outlets/switches.
Place the cut sheet against the wall and affix using drywall screws. (Ours were self-tapping screws suited specifically for the aluminum studs framing the container interior.)
So, we repeat that process ad nauseum, with Morgan doing the measuring of the space and telling me what to write down, then me measuring and cutting on the actual sheets. Then Morgan would screw them in place as they became ready.
Next time: Drywall work continues with taping, mudding, texturing, sanding, priming AND painting. PLUS: A nifty solution for bringing the walls flush with the natural contours of the container’s ribbed ceiling …
The installation of insulation constitutes perhaps the easiest step so far in vastly improving the container and making progress toward a livable space. The worst part about the task is working with insulation.
In my younger days I sought employment as a day laborer in Durango, Colorado. My first (and last) day of work for that company consisted of manually unloading a semi-trailer’s worth of hard-to-grip, mostly torn insulation bundles. We were issued neither gloves nor safety masks, but hey: This was 1999.
Even still, I wonder if, as I and a few other misfits desperate for cash bungled our way through that Herculean effort, the concept of a cargo box as dwelling unit wasn’t subconsciously burrowing into my psyche. The lasting impression of that task, besides a phenomenal case of itching once it was over, was that semi-trailers may look big from the outside, but you really have no idea just how big they are until you’ve plumbed the depths of a loaded one from front to back.
At any rate, here’re some shots from the OKC container home’s insulation install, taken over the course of three days in December 2015. Luckily, I had stashed two pairs of coveralls along with some other old oilfield gear in the container several months earlier, which allowed Morgan and I to work itch-free:
My biggest concern about installing the cheaper insulation is that it may hinder my ability to gain Energy Star certification. The organization has minimum requirements for WOOD-FRAMED buildings, but nothing for a metal structure like a container. My only consolation is that I remain able to afford at least having the exterior of the roof and floor covered in closed-cell spray foam and then weatherproofed, so maybe that will help offset whatever deficiencies arise upon examination of the interior insulation.
Next time: The arduous (and, inexplicably, contentious) drywall process begins …
After plumbing had commenced and electricity was past initial inspection, the installation of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) for the OKC container home became the next major challenge to tackle.
It took a long time to decide upon and finalize the choice for my ultimate HVAC solution. A combination of multiple options, unknown needs, financial considerations and aesthetic preferences all combined to make this one of the hardest decisions in the entire process. Yet another complicating fact is that, in Oklahoma, the climate varies greatly in line with all four seasons.
So, there was considerable back and forth with my architect regarding potential solutions and how they would be implemented. For example, window units would provide an ultra-cheap-but-ugly-and-noisy candidate. I wanted something a bit more sophisticated for this project, which sits in a residential neighborhood. Mini-split systems, in which a wall-mounted unit handles air inside while an outdoor unit pumps heat, were also considered to be too noisy and potentially ill-equipped to handle the job. These systems are commonly found in hotel rooms around the world and look sleek, with most units employing remote controls, but their cost and the need for more than one eventually eliminated them as a viable option.
Eventually, the architect convinced me to “think like an engineer” and opt for something that would potentially exceed the requirements of the space. Better to have it and not need than need it and not have it, as the saying goes. Unfortunately by June 2015, Treece & Rhines, an OKC-based installer of HVAC systems whom the architect and I had consulted with in March 2015 leading up to the container’s June delivery, inexplicably blew me off completely once I tried to contact them after the cube was lifted into place.
It was yet another case of contractors writing me off for unknown reasons (too busy, too small a project, too little money to be made, they go out of business, lose their license, etc.). I really tried hard to reconnect with Don Treece, making multiple phone calls, sending multiple emails and making unannounced stops by their office in Bethany to only leave a message with the receptionist, but I couldn’t get so much as a call back.
In the interest of moving the project forward, I eventually chose a system based on the advice of the shitty first electricians. They had an in with a York representative that would allow me to purchase a sizable split system at cost, and indeed I felt like I got a deal on the air handler and 1.5-ton York heat pump I bought from the rep. The same electricians who led me to Mr. Hungate would have eventually installed it as well, but I fired them before they weren’t even close to having power connected to the cube anyway.
In the meantime, the outdoor unit crammed up the inside of the cube for awhile.
At first, Jason seemed like an OK guy, and definitely one of the more intelligent and attentive contractors I had met throughout this process. He met me promptly after Scott contacted him, took notes and seemed very interested in the project overall. He originally quoted me $3,446.
I felt this was a bit high, and, after doing some research online, I found some averages for HVAC installations broken down by square footage, and by all accounts those numbers supported my suspicion that the bid was too high.
While I understand that taking a straight percentage with regard to size fails to account for labor and materials, I fail to understand how my job could be priced at almost half as much the cost of a job for a home that’s three times bigger.
Bottom line: I want you to do this work; I NEED you to do this work; but I also need to save money wherever possible or else I won’t have enough left to finish the project.
Is there any room for you to come down from your original quote of $3,446?
Thanks again for your time and cooperation. I really appreciate it!
Lo and behold, he actually acquiesced and lowered the quote down to $2,200, which was right where I needed it to be. Treece quoted me $5,600 to install a Daiken 1.5 ton mini-split in March of 2015.
What I did not need, however, was the ensuing headache of asking him to redo basically all the work he did for me.
For example, after the first day of him working, he got a lot of work done alright, but it looked terrible. Under the container, the supply lines were sagging, strapping was bent and twisted, and the lines protruded in an ungainly fashion as they eventually exited from beneath the container to connect to the heat pump. When I pointed this out to him the next day, he agreed to tidy up the work beneath the cube, but he was unwilling to disconnect the heat pump so that it could be moved and oriented in such a manner so as to reduce the angle at which the supply lines stuck out of it. Code requirements had determined the orientation originally, and my ignorance led to this detail going unaddressed until it was too late.
At this point, I’m just glad things are progressing again, and quickly at that. I had paid him for half of the work about five days after hiring him, but there would be a delay while the duct work was being fabricated. In the meantime, there was an unsettling incident in which we were scheduled to meet at the container, but he wound up arriving an hour earlier than we had discussed. Because I thought we would be meeting at the originally scheduled time, I had not left a key hidden in its usual place. Rather than call me to say he was early or wait for me to arrive, Nelson just goes ahead and lets himself in, picking the lock of the door handle to the back door. He does what he needs to do and leaves without telling me anything.
When I called him later to ask how he as able to get in, he admitted to breaking in, which was almost as refreshing as it was disturbing. (It should be noted that a garage apartment I had been living in earlier that year was burgled while I was out working on an oil rig, and damn-near EVERYTHING of value that I had was stolen, so I was still very sensitive to the idea of home security and protecting my space.)
The bright side of that unfortunate incident was I now knew not to rely on the door handle’s lock alone, and instead always deadbolt the doors. I also knew the HVAC guy couldn’t be trusted.
Once the duct work arrived, Nelson installed it, but, again, it’s a very sloppy job: the ducts aren’t hung straight, strapping is bent and sloppy, and there’s mastic compound smeared in an ugly fashion at each of the duct joints. When I raise this concern, he tells me it’s all pretty standard and that I can just paint the ducts, which is what I’ll have to do, because he also refused to clean up the job unless I was going to pay him more.
Oh, and one more thing: When he had tightened up the supply lines below the container, he also managed to shoot a screw through the metal floor of my bedroom, something I had to point out to him specifically and ask him to remove.
From there, it was just a matter of getting the system inspected, but to do that, a contractor friend (FINALLY someone I know and can trust!) would have to perform some specific tasks so that the thermostat could be mounted and the last air vent put into place.
As I mention in the last post, I had been working under a pretty long-held assumption that I would eventually install a drop ceiling along the interior of the whole OKC container home. This would allow for the installation of lights and HVAC ducts to be hidden from view. I had told the electricians as much, but then, after we failed our first inspection, they told me that I would have to have that drop ceiling installed so they could finish out the lighting install and re-order an inspection.
So, I began researching drop ceilings and how to install them. It seemed easy enough, as long as one was working with a traditional ceiling. Because the container ceiling is metal and shares its material with the roof (a detail that differs greatly compared to a traditional roof/ceiling relationship), there were no trusses on which to install the drop ceiling. I thought for awhile about improvising a solution based on a grid of ceiling wire from which to hang the ceiling grid, but it ultimately seemed like too much work for too uncertain an outcome.
I decided instead to forego the drop ceiling altogether.
At which point, it became necessary for the electrician and I to work out a system for mounting lights. What we came up with was, I think, a great compromise in terms of practicality and cost, and it provided a further benefit of augmenting the overall INDUSTRIAL feel of the container’s interior.
Scott from MinnTech even helped me pick out the lights to use based on the features I wanted and the overall aesthetic of the cube.
Now that we had the lights mounted (and dumped a bag of concrete on the remainder of the exposed conduit leading from the back of the cube to the meter pole), it was time to call in a re-inspection.