Homesteading with a Shipping Container House – Part 6, The Foundation

Kevin Hayden

March-June 2011

This week, I have some relatively good news regarding the shipping container project.  Part 5 covered the theft that occurred in which I lost over $5,000 worth of tools, guns and ammunition, not to mention my beloved little bug-out trailer.

This entry should be a bit more uplifting, especially when it comes to construction progress on controlling entry and the concrete pillars on which the container now rests.

After the theft, I started collecting spare metal pipes from my job.  We’re going through major re-construction and remodeling efforts, so there are lots of scrap pieces laying around in the dumpsters.  It’s amazing what gets thrown away.

This gate project is temporary in nature.  I may build upon it, but eventually, I foresee nice stone or masonry at the front.  A small stone wall, perhaps?  But, in order to make progress, I need something to stop vehicles and thieves, however crude and ugly.

In regards to the front gate idea, I stumbled across a 16′ foot cattle gate on Craigslist for only $50!  It was brand new; the owner had chosen the wrong size and it had been sitting on his property for months.  I gladly picked it up, even though it was about 30 miles away.  These typically retail for closer to $200.  I snagged some hardware to hang the gate with and headed to the property!

After doing some measuring and brainstorming, I started digging holes for the 9 foot post the gate would be hung on.  With a 4″ inch width, I felt as though this pipe would be plenty strong enough to hold the 16 foot gate.  I had pre-drilled several holes for the hardware and bolts to slip through, and after setting it in 30 inches of concrete with rebar, I realized this might be a two-man job.

You see, while I’m 5’11” and about 160 lbs., trying to man-handle a 16 foot tubular gate is no easy task.  Then, add in additional laws of physics, and you have a circus act.  Having to try and hang the gate on small hardware, lift it, balance it on random objects that I found nearby, run over and tighten that nuts, prevent the wind from blowing the barely-balanced gate over, and then run back to keep tightening it was surely a class act for the cows at the corner to watch.

With two people, I could have hung the gate in under 10 minutes.  Instead, I spent roughly 45 minutes wrestling with it exploring the English language in all of it’s fiery glory.  More lessons to jot down under the heading of, “Duh!”

After finally getting the gate hung and double-checking it’s ability to swing open with ease, I used a pair of pliers to flatten and strip the exposed threads, preventing the nuts from being taken off.  I might even come back later and spot weld them a bit.

Once the gate was in place, I used several 5′ and 6′ foot scrap pipes to create a vehicle barrier extending out towards the bar ditch near the roadway.  The picture does not do it justice, but the ditch is quite deep and only gets wider and deeper, surely stopping any but the largest of Jeeps or off-road vehicles.  After setting them with rebar, I filled all of the posts with concrete, including the main gate post.

With the entry more secure and my neighbors on the lookout, I was able to focus on the actual shipping container project – finally!

The goal was to get the container up on concrete columns in order to create some air flow underneath and provide a level platform.  The original plan I came up with called for flat metal plates, welded to rebar, to be placed in the wet concrete columns.  That way, I could weld the corners of the container to the tops of the columns, providing cross-wind support and to make sure it didn’t “slip” off the column easily.  In my haste, I decided to pour the columns first and later, expand the size of them.

Instead of welding it to plates, I will run heavy-duty chains through the holes in the corners of the container and sink the chains into the additional column/platform concrete, providing a secure “tie-down.”

But first, the delivery of the container!  My advice to you, if you are receiving it via flatbed or roll-off – build and pour your first two columns or platforms first!  Have the driver carefully set it on the rear columns, if possible, and save yourself a lot of backbreaking work!  I had to not only dig under the container to place hydraulic jacks, but then I had to dig holes under each corner for the columns.  Do this ahead of time and you’ll thank me (that is, if you aren’t pouring a full slab or some other type of foundation support).  If your columns are low enough, you can pour all four and the truck can simply drive over them, but I wanted my container up off the ground a bit, so this was not possible.

I won’t bore you with pictures of every single hole that I dug, but you can get the general idea from the following pictures:

This was the second column footing being dug with a line level in the shot, leveling it to the first one that had already dried and was in place.

I used standard, cardboard sonatubes as concrete forms due to their ease.  I could have simply used scrap wood to build a form, though. Obviously, when filling any hole with concrete, gravel is a good idea to assist with drainage.  I found that by placing the form up on a small concrete block, I was able to get the block level, thereby assisting in making sure that the form was level.  I then bent and placed rebar around the column and two 24″ rebars placed inside the column.  Is this up to code?  Probably not.  I’ve never poured concrete in my life!  Haha!  But it sure seemed like a decent idea.  I suppose time will tell.

In the above photo, you can see how I lifted the container with a jck.  Initially, I used two standard jacks – both from a vehicle and one on each side – to hoist the container up high enough.

The above shot was from the rear of the container.  After finishing the front two columns and returning the following week to work on these, the ground had gotten a bit softer.  Almost too soft!  Using the car jacks placed on both sides of the container, I would crank one up a bit, run to the other, crank it up a bit… but the jacks kept sinking into the ground and angling sideways – backwards – and forwards as I lifted the rear of the connex.  Ugh.  Everytime I would crank it up a bit higher, it would simply push the container.

I parked a pickup truck next to the container, placing on old tire between the bumper and corner of the box, but that didn’t seem to help much.  The front of the container was about to fall off of the columns!  This is when I started using a true hydraulic bottle-jack and I placed it at the rear-center of the container.  You can find these at any auto parts store for $25 approximately, and will lift 8,000 pounds.  20 foot container? 5,000 lbs.  Much easier.  I highly recommend using one, as pictured below.

Why didn’t I do this to begin with? Well, there just aren’t very good spots to place a jack on that back lip.  I was hesitant about doing it, but gave it a shot and it seems to have worked.  I certainly bent the bottom lip a bit, but it held up while I worked.  You’ll notice the ample concrete blocks under this small lip in case the bottle-jack should fail, sink or the lip become too bent.

During my most recent trip out to the Elysian Fields Project, I was able to get a small tractor and brush hog out there to assist in the ever-growing wildgrass.  While there, I had the driver push the container back onto the columns and square it up with the front-end loader.  It worked perfectly!  Annnd, the place looks great now!  The below shot is nearly from the front gate, looking back towards the shipping container build-site (hidden by the large pecans trees).

The next step, now that the tough part of the foundation is completed, will be to work on replacing the wooden flooring inside the container.  I researched numerous ways in which to simply “seal” the floor and keep it from off-gassing the horrid insecticides and chemicals that they soak the wood with, but 1) I’d rather not chance it if I don’t have to and 2) of the two typical chemicals used, I’ve got the worst of them, which makes it harder to seal.  I would rather paint new plywood with a quality, weather-proofing sealant and then paint over it with a safer enamel, but we’ll see what happens as my plans typically change. Hah!

(Editor’s Note: I’ll be discussing the differences in these chemicals at length in the next installment.  My container floor is soaked in Phoxim – and you can find what chemicals were used on your container by looking at the Customs / Import tag found on the front door and checking the ‘Timber Component Treatment.’)

In Parts 7 and 8, I’ll discuss some of the additional projects going on out at Elysian Fields, including raised garden beds, alternative energy efforts and water delivery and filtering!

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