Self-Contained Living ~ Mi
Casa Su Caja
Global Nomadic Housing For Expatriates ~ Part One
by Colin Reedy
The one common experience of all humanity is
the challenge of problems.
-- R. Buckminster Fuller
A House To Roam The World A
few years ago, when facing a steep rent increase,
I surveyed the possibilities for new
housing. I’m a designer/artist and not
afraid to be creative when it comes to my living
and working space.I can find the hardware store
and build walls, basic cabinets, and figure
out electricity and plumbing without too many
code violations. I’d been practicing on
rented apartments and a warehouse space for
a few years, but I hate the idea of leaving
all my hard work behind me when I move.
first met Colin Reedy about 12 years ago. He had just
returned from studying design in Milan and I had just
returned from Rio de Janeiro. We found ourselves stuck
in Portland, Oregon, I as an owner and designer of
artist lofts, he as a struggling designer of furniture
who happened to end up living and working in one of
my lofts. It was apparent from the first moment I
saw Colin's designs that he was a maverick genius.
A lot of artists passed through those lofts over the
years. Some of them went on to a great deal of fame.
I can think of few whose work was as immediately exciting
as Colin's. Colin Reedy carries with him an enthusiasm
for creativity and for his work. He has had a good
deal of success, all of it deserved. He travels frequently
and has lived much of the past 20 years outside of
the United States. He first presented the idea of
a nomadic house to me several years ago. I've been
pestering him for the past two years to put the concept
into a written form for EscapeArtist.com Here's the
If renting is out, then what are the options? Buying
a house in my price range means a huge financial mortgage
payment situation and probably a major renovation
project. I don’t have the money, time, or interest
for this now. Besides, I am not sure I want to live
in one place long enough to make a house investment
worth it. I like to travel and seem to move often
as I search for my ultimate escape destination. The
last 12 years have seen me living in Chicago, San
Francisco, Rome, Milan, Amsterdam, Portland, and now
Seattle…and I’m hoping to land myself
in Australia or New Zealand in a couple years.
Mobile homes and recreational vehicles offer the portability
for travel (across land), but mobile homes often use
cheap materials and poor construction and still cost
many thousands of dollars. An RV is more “travel”
than “home” with so much of cost and maintenance
involving the engine and mechanical parts. Furthermore,
both mobile homes and RV’s usually come pre-designed
with little room for customization…and little
room in general.
What you start with
And for my needs, which involves some work
area to use tools, make a mess, and keep my stuff secure,
and RV wouldn’t be the choice.
So my criteria are: cheap ownership,
some measure of portability, security, and opportunity
for customization. Solution: a huge foot locker with
windows and a door…maybe on wheels! And then I
found thousands of just what I needed!!!!
Portland and Seattle are shipping ports and every day
I see huge boats loading and unloading giant metal containers.
These containers arrive and depart on train cars or
semi-trucks, easily hoisted and set in place with cranes
or forklifts. Shipping containers are a global standard
unit and come in sizes of 20, 24, 40, and 45 feet long
with 20 and 40 footers being the most common. Eight
feet high and 8.5 feet wide, they are sturdily built
to stack up 8 to10 units and connect at the corners
with a simple locking device. They can even be found
extra tall at 9.5 or 10 feet high. All containers have
wooden floors about 1.25 inches thick of plywood or
tongue and groove boards. The construction is generally
heavy gauge corrugated steel re-enforced at the four
corners and center of each long side with a vertical
support of steel square tube. And the doors could secure
a bank vault! Each of the double doors locks in place
with two floor to roof steel poles that twist into position
with lots of redundant mechanisms and locations for
four burly padlocks. Remember, these containers were
designed to survive stormy sea crossings and then be
handled and opened by clumsy drunk dock workers in any
part of the world.
Initial investigations only made me more excited about
the possibility to create a living/working situation
based on shipping containers. Individually, I could
get a good used one for about $1500-1800. If I wanted
2 or 3, which seemed like a better scenario, the price
could drop as low as $1200-1300 each. These are Portland,
Oregon, prices and with the global abundance of containers,
I’m sure even greater deals can be found…Hong
Kong, Sydney, Rotterdam, Dakar? Prices don’t lower
much for size and I felt the 40 footers had the biggest
selection and design possibility. Another major is aluminum
or steel. A 40-foot steel container weighs about 9000
pounds empty, compared to 6800 for the same aluminum
container. Cutting and drilling aluminum is much easier
than steel, but welding it requires some skill and equipment
not as readily available as for steel. I’m assuming
I’ll be cutting windows, vents, and holes for
electricity and water so what material I choose makes
a difference. I have a little wire feed welder and can
get a cutting torch or (better) rent a plasma cutter
for $40-50 per day. Side note: a plasma cutter sounds
very scary high tech, but uses only air and electricity
to cleanly slice thru steel and even stainless steel
like butter. All you need is an air compressor. A truly
amazing tool, but it will NOT work on aluminum.
Shipping containers used on ocean going vessels must
be inspected and certified every so often because they
are stacked very high and subject to rigorous conditions.
Containers used on trains and trucks are never stacked
more than two high and do not require the same inspections.
Modifications such as windows, doors, vents and so forth
would not prevent a container from passing inspection
as long as it still could be stacked and locked in place.
However, steel braces may be required over large holes
such as windows or additional doors. So I could ship
my modular nomadic studio from Seattle to Sydney, no
What about delivery? If I purchased
a container from any of the few companies in the Portland
or Seattle area, they would deliver it by truck (anywhere
a truck can maneuver I guessed) in either metropolitan
area for $150. And a moving fee within the area would
be a similar rate. On-site maneuvering could require
a crane and reach upwards of a few hundred dollars.
Construction contractors often use shipping containers
as on-site offices or storage, so this situation is
But where would I put it? And what about electricity
and water and all the amenities a normal living situation
offers? Ok, here’s the creative part… I
saw this as a “phase” situation whereby
initially I would NOT reside in these containers. I
would need a place with electricity and water nearby
while I carried out the necessary modifications. A friend
offered a 60 by 100 foot empty lot for $300/month on
which I could conduct my efforts and reside later if
I chose. I could hook up to his electricity and water
as long as needed. Yes, I am back in the “rent”
situation, but at about 20-25% what I would be paying
otherwise. I felt like I had enough information to start
I searched for examples of prior efforts
to modify shipping containers for housing. The companies
that sold the containers sometimes made modifications
like windows or doors for the contractors to use at
construction sites, but nothing interesting.
I found images from Hong Kong where
people were living in containers set on huge metal frames
in an apartment-like arrangement. Not much had been
done to the containers except stairway access. The best
examples I found were not for shipping containers, but
from mid-century efforts at modular housing or “utopian”
mass housing. In the 1920’s and 30’s, the
German Bauhaus movement and the French architect Le
Corbusier proposed many of the first modern “apartment”
buildings with efficient floor plans to equitably house
But the American engineer/architect/futurist,
Buckminster Fuller (known best for his geodesic dome
designs) probably offered the best examples in his Dymaxion
House designs. Fuller proposed mass produced compact
housing designs that offered all the amenities of a
conventional dwelling. From him I found good inspiration
for the bathroom design and maybe more.
I imagine two or three containers configured
for living, studio, and workshop. Making use of the
outside areas would be as important as the inside areas.
Awnings, tarps, decks, balconies, or glass covered green
house areas could make the whole situation very comfortable.
I started to sketch ideas and I even built a small model
of the 60 x 100 foot site with three accurate scaled
wooden blocks to represent the containers.
- configurations that create courtyards
and outdoor work areas that maximize the space between
- stacking the containers on top of one another to create
covered areas, car parking, and terraces.
- Electricity options from local hook up to passive
and active solar.
- Water service for kitchen and bathrooms and rain collection
- Heating ideas for cold climates and venting circulation
for warmer climates.
Go to Part
Two of this article