This morning a good question came in to me by e-mail. It was:

  1. Can you give me the ins and outs of purchasing a container home and having it built and buying land?
  2. Can you give me the ins and outs of purchasing a container home and having it built and buying land?
  3. How long is the time frame from beginning to end?
  4. What are the financial options or means we need in order to get started?
  5. Do different states allow and approve them?

This is actually a series of questions that I will do my best to answer. I can’t cover the financial options part, but I’ll try my best with the other questions.

My Pessimistic View

For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s a good idea to build your own container home. I don’t think these are suitable for the most part for single-family homes. In general, I won’t do single family container homes because of the many issues they present.

You need money to build the house.

Before You Start

First off you need money and land. I’ve had a lot of clients complain to me that they couldn’t get conventional financing, and had to self-fund their projects. I don’t know if that’s universally true, or just was in their cases. The money part of the equation is critical, and I can’t really give you any good advice on that part unfortunately.

Getting land to build on is another issue. You need to find a lot where they will let you build the house. You don’t want to run afoul of zoning laws and other ordinances. If you need any kind of approval from a home owner’s or property owner’s association, you probably won’t get it. This again is something I can’t provide much guidance on because permitting procedures, ordinances, and zoning varies so much around the country. If you have a reasonable source of funding, it probably would be a good idea to retain a local architect to help you find the right area where you can build your project, and then you have to find the right property for sale.

You will need an Architect and an Engineer to do the design.

The Design Phase

OK, so we’ve got the issue of land and funding worked out. The next step is design. For this you need an Architect. Unlicensed home designers design many residential projects. Many of these people are good, and often they have degrees in Architecture. However, it’s hard to get a license as an Architect. That said, I’m still of the opinion that you need to go with a licensed Architect, and if possible find one with experience in container design. You don’t want to be their OJT project, let them make their mistakes with someone else.

In addition to design, the Architect needs to provide Construction Administration services to help you build it right. If you were building a conventional house, you could pass on these services if you have the patience to deal with all the issues that come up, but on a container house, this isn’t a place to save a few dollars.

Unless the house is extremely simple, you’re going to need to get a Structural Engineer. The Architect will usually do this, and they may also engage an engineer to design the HVAC, electric, and plumbing, or an MEP (Mechanical/Electrical/Plumbing) engineer. It all depends on the complexity of the house and the permitting requirements where you are building it.

Now, when I get calls from home owners, a lot of the time they’ll get my price for Structural Engineering, and they will come back with “I talked to another engineer and they said they could do the same thing for half your price.”. I never know if this is true, or if they are simply using a made up negotiating point. My reaction is always the same – I tell them to go with that cheaper engineer and I hang up. Shopping by price is fine if you are buying a car and you know exactly what model you want. For services like Architecture and Engineering, you get what you pay for. It will cost you a lot in construction if you cut corners in design.

Permitting

Now you finished the design. The fun begins (and I mean that sarcastically). You get to find a contractor and get building permits. Let’s go through building permits first. Building permit procedures vary greatly from state to state, and will vary wildly inside each state. For example, here in Georgia in Atlanta permitting is difficult. However, in some of the rural counties it’s more of a formality. So, I’ll talk in generalities.

Technically, if you are modifying the containers off site, you need to do it at a facility that your state licensed to do modular buildings. This type of facility has to have an approved procedure for construction, and has to engage a third party to perform inspections during fabrication. Only once have I seen this enforced where it is only the container being modified and no internal construction is being done. Oh, I have to add the facility in addition to being certified by the State, must be certified by the International Code Council Evaluation Service (ICC-ESR) for container fabrication in most locations.

If you go with conventional construction type permitting, the local permit office usually will review your plans for conformance to Codes. You may encounter some real issues with the plan reviewers. While in most jurisdictions the plan reviewers that I’ve encountered have been very helpful, I’ve run into some real difficult ones too. This is one of the reasons you want a star team as far as your design is concerned.

Construction

Once you’ve got your permits, you’re ready for construction. You have to figure how you are going to modify the containers. If you think you are going to make it a DIY project, I probably won’t work with you (I have made one exception). Cutting the containers properly requires a plasma torch, and before you weld you have to grind away a thick layer of epoxy paint. Also, structural welding has to comply with AISC and AWS standards. The only difference between you and an AWS (American Welding Society) certified welder is he has years of experience, training, equipment, and know how. You probably don’t have any of that, so it’s not exactly something to attempt yourself.

It’s better for your fabricator to the container modifications in a shop. However I had a project that the plan reviewer insisted we had to do all container modifications on the site if we didn’t have an ICC approved fabricator. This would have been difficult without control of the environment, and moving the containers around during fabrication would be difficult. Also, you will need a lot of high dollar equipment on site.

Moving containers without a crane is difficult.

Once the your fabricator modifies the containers, you need to take them to the site. The foundations have to be in place. You have to lift the containers into place, which requires a crane. I actually have talked to people who insisted they didn’t need a crane, but you can’t just shove these things off of the back of a truck. So, no, you need a crane. Putting the containers in place is not easy. Again, it’s not a DIY project, I don’t care what the various websites say. I can find websites that say the Earth is flat, it’s not, and container houses are not a DIY project either.

After all the containers are in place, you have to put in the plumbing, mechanical, and electrical. The plumbing is especially difficult. Since you have to cut through a lot of steel, the mechanical and electrical isn’t easy either. Also, the containers will sometimes spring out of shape when the the fabricator removes the sides. It takes a bit of skill to make the floors work from container to container when that happens.

All in all it’s a very difficult process for a single family home. I generally don’t recommend it, but if you want to proceed this way, you need to do it with your eyes open to the hassles.

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