Homesteading with a Shipping Container House – Parts 3 & 4, The Failed Cabin

June, 2010 – Feb, 2011

A lot has happened since my last entry about the shipping container project.  Almost 9 months, to be exact.  When I last wrote about the project, it was still a field.  I had cleared some land for the housepad, albeit unconventionally, and started construction.  My initial plans called for a shipping container, exclusively – but as most of my plans tend to go, things change.  As most people who dream of a shipping container home have discovered, there is no easy way to get one without a sizable sum of cash.  And that means several thousand dollars just for the container, bit more for delivery.  If you want it lifted anywhere or placed on piers, you can throw in another $500 or so.

Again, after discussing possible options with some colleagues, I decided on building a traditional timber-cabin which would incorporate the shipping container as an add-on, later.  This way, I could purchases the required materials to build a modern cabin (roughly ~$1,800), gain more square footage, have a roof over my head that was not a metal oven and to be honest, I really liked the concept.  Things were still going well at that point, but it took a dramatic change in direction, as you’re about to see.

I purchased a large, lofted wooden shed in order to store building materials and possibly camp in if I were to stay the weekend at the property while working.  It was a decent size – 12′x16′ – and purchased from a local Mennonite builder who has allowed me to make payments until it is paid off ( more debt? At least it’s local and on a handshake ).  I also finally got the land company to get the septic company out to the property in order to install the septic tank.  And that was one of the worst mistakes I could have made.

This septic company continually failed to show for appointments and I continually called both them and the land company.  Either it would rain too much or they would simply blow me off.  We had scheduled another date and I was very vocal about wanting it done so that I could really start building and have a working septic system.

Well, it rained quite a bit the night prior to the installation and I assumed we’d have to reschedule since they had told me time and again they couldn’t install it in mud.

The next morning, I was awakened by large diesels and tractors pulling up next to the shed.  They had completely torn up the trail/road I had blazed and turned it into a literal pig sty.  It looked like a Sunday morning motocross track filled with slop.  Being as I had to go to work that day, I showed them the housepad and where I planned to have a future road into the back portion of the property, along with intended parking areas.  They assured me that they would install the septic lines away from the padsite and leave ample room to drive.  And I believed them.  Mistake #2.

I returned the next day and at least 1/3 of my property had been turned to sloppy mud that almost swallowed my 4×4 Jeep.  Needless to say, they installed the septic across the entire width of the narrow property.  Furthermore, they failed to give me any instructions as to how to care for the concrete tank, such as filling it with water, etc.  Luckily, I knew that a new septic should be filled with some water in order to keep it from ‘floating’ up and dislodging the line connections.  So I made about a dozen trips to the local firefighter’s station to fill up water barrels and poured them down the pipe drains.  Apparently, that was not enough as it still floated up a bit.  I’m hoping it didn’t float too high and damage anything but I’m no plumber.  I’m thoroughly angered, to say the least.

Life continued on and I built a small outdoor bathroom and shower on top of the tank.  I hooked up an on-demand hot water heater and installed a standard toilet to the septic line.  I used wooden pallets for the floor, built walls from extra 2×6′s and surrounded it with a tarp.  I built shelves in it and it was quite nice.  Refreshing, actually; to be able to look up at the stars while taking a steaming hot shower in the middle of nowhere.

And this is where the plan took another dramatic turn, as mentioned at the beginning.  I talked to several of my friends with AlphaRubicon (which I am no longer a member of – long story.) and they thought it might be easier to build a small timber cabin first and then add on with a shipping container.  I debated this and after crunching the numbers, decided that I could build a 14′x24′ cabin with 14′ ceilings and a loft, and get it dried in, for a bit less than the cost of a shipping container.  I weighed the choices for quite awhile and finally decided to give it a shot.  The final cabin, paired with the shipping container, would look great.  It would be very modern with a single-sloped roof, incorporate passive solar heating via southern facing windows at the top and the ability to vent the hot air out in the summer.

Several of my friends from came out to help and all of them got stuck in the pigsty of mud created by the septic tank crew.  So, instead of using the entire day to build, we spent that time getting vehicles unstuck, hauling material the 1/4 mile from the road to the back of the property via a 4-wheeler and trailer, and in the 100+ degree weather, sat around in the shade trying not to dehydrate.  We were able to get the floor frame finished partially and we called it a day.  Had we been able to utilize the entire day, we would have had the walls finished and windows framed.

We slaved away in the sun, getting as much done as we could, but it just wasn’t enough.  My girlfriend and I debated on living at the property part-time in order to finish the flooring and walls and after much discussion, I talked her into staying there for 90 days.  At the end of the 90 day experiment, we would see where we stood.  If it wasn’t habitable, insulated and ready for winter, we would return to the city and re-evaluate our plans.


That’s my cat, Persia.

This is what I would call home for 90 days.

It was actually quite cozy for the 90 days.  It was a pain to haul water from the nearby fire station, but it was bearable.  What was NOT bearable was the 84 mile round-trip drive to work every single day.

Moving our stuff into the temporary shed / cabin for the experiment.

Because I was still working on the solar energy portion of the experiment, we used a Honda EU2000 generator for power.  One of our friends loaned it to us and I must say, I’m very impressed with how quiet it was and how little fuel it used.  I eventually installed an air conditioner in the shed and could run it, plus lighting, fans and more for about 10-12 hours on 1.5 gallons of fuel.

The problem with the solar energy was that I had 70 watt panels but they were in 24 volt configuration.  My charge controller – which regulates the power received from the sun before it gets to the batteries – was only made for 12 volts and I didn’t want to spend the money on either a different panel or a new controller, so I wasted it on fuel instead.  Hindsight is 20/20, as they say.

UPDATE: I have since purchased a 2,800 watt whisper-quiet Yamaha generator for supplemental power and tool use.  Also, I sold the 24 volt panels to a friend.  I had originally purchased them only because I was able to buy them for 40% off.

With the extreme heat (113 degree heat index!), we’ve been working at night mostly. The concrete blocks look a bit wobbly, I know.  They’re actually very sturdy and are dug in quite deep. [Editor’s Note: That was a bad move.  An almost laughable idea.  The forms shifted, the floor joists bowed and twisted in the heat and eventually, became my un-doing.]

The cabin plans are 14′x24′ with 10′ 8″ ceilings.  It will have a moderately sloped roof and high windows spanning the top portion of the southern wall (passive solar heating for the winter).

Once this portion of the cabin is completed, it will house the bathroom and the kitchen, along with a small living area/eating nook/entry way.  An addition is being planned using a 20′ shipping container alongside the southern wall (the side you’re looking at below).  The container will house the bedroom and large closet, etc.

Well, after months of late nights working on the cabin project, we had completed all four walls, framed the door, several windows and the cabin looked amazing.  It was towering in height!  Twelve foot walls are quite heavy to get into place with only myself and a 105 lb. girl to help at 3am.  But, something had been nagging at me.  The floor seemed “off.”  I assumed it would settle once I got all of the walls and sheathing on – that maybe it would even itself out.  I had checked the square and level after finishing the floor and everything was within tolerances.  But the walls and baseplates were not square.  And they were not level.

The floor joists had warped in the sun over time, completely drying out.  We built the floor while the treated wood was still relatively green and wet with treating chemicals.  I placed extra supports, tried to tweak the corners posts – but it was too late.  The sides had dried and twisted with a severe sag in them (due to not having enough support posts).  I sat staring at the project for several nights, trying to figure out the easiest way to rectify the situation.  Replace the side boards/rim joists?  Continue trying to level the corners?  It was useless.

I took a sledgehammer and axe to the floor one night and destroyed the walls.  I left it in ruins, wondering how I could fix it; wondering what to do next.

Winter was approaching and so was my girlfriend’s sanity limit.  I reluctantly packed up the experiment and headed back to the city.  We went back to paying astronomical energy bills, water bills, sewer bills, trash collection and all of the wonderful fees, taxes and surcharges that go along with those.  I thought I was spending a lot of money making the long drive to work everyday from the property – but at least I was doing something.  Now, I’m giving away all of my paycheck to rising energy bills and paying rent at a place I have no interest or ownership in.

And to top it off, my cats do not like living in the city and indoors after having free roam at the property.  But, I did learn several things while living out there for 90 days.  I noticed what cycle the moon was in every night.  I appreciated the little noises in the middle of nowhere.  I began to appreciate how much light a full moon gives off and how refreshing a strong breeze could be at four in the morning.  I realized how much fuel we use in our vehicles and how much easier life could truly be if everyone owned their own couple of acres.  I realized that I would have to carefully plan my next step and that purchasing a water pump for the well is a priority.

In part 5, I finally receive my shipping container!  It’s in place and a lot has happened since the 90-day experiment, including a massive theft!  Stay tuned for Part 5 of Homesteading with a Shipping Container!

Shipping Container House – Unit 1
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