Monthly Archive: February 2014

Worst Basement Failure Ever

I was going through my photos this morning, and I found this one:

Basement Subwall Failure

This was the subwall in an apartment building.  The building was built back in the 70’s, and was built as part of a development of low income apartments.  If there is ever a case for proper building permitting procedures, these types of apartments in the Atlanta area make it.  In every one of these buildings it appears to me that there was almost no structural engineering, the foundations are often minimal or non-existent, the structure is all wood and all of the members are overspanned, there is no consideration for wind bracing, and as you see here, the subwalls are never strong enough.  I suspect all that was done for the design was a floor layout, some elevations, and that was it.

It also appears that there was no inspection in most of these because the errors in construction are often so extreme that even the most inexperienced building inspector should have caught them.  I always wonder how this worked.  I assume the that at the time the builder submitted the floor plans and elevations, fees were paid, and the permit was issued and that was that.  I suspect there was no inspection at all, or maybe just plumbing and electric.

In this one the subwall was not reinforced properly, the site wasn’t drained properly, and there was not a working underdrain system.  As it rained, water pressure built up against the outside wall and we had a catastrophic collapse.  Fortunately, no one was hurt.  Sad thing is, I have been in one building where a tenant was seriously injured in a failure  – while he was in bed the ceiling collapsed on him.  The ceiling was not nailed to the joists above, it was glued.  In time the glue deteriorated and the ceiling fell loose and seriously injured the person below.

View of Outside – Note the bracing.

The brick wall in in danger of collapse.  By this time the building was condemned and apartments cleared out.  It could have been much worse.  The repairs were done (by replacing the subwall with an engineered one) and the building put back in service.

Every time I go to the old low income apartment buildings I come back away irritated.  The shoddy construction is downright criminal, and shows a total lack of concern for the people that live in the buildings.  The structural problems are many, and in addition the bathrooms are never adequately designed to contain the moisture.  In every building of this type you will find rotted wood all around the bathrooms.  This is not only a danger for the structure, but presents a great place for mold to grow. Also, the windows are usually improperly flashed, so you will see moisture in the structure around the windows – again, causing structural issues and mold.

How was this allowed to happen?  Were the building officials corrupt?  Were they incompetent?  Were they racist (figuring it was primarily minorities that would live in these buildings and thus they didn’t care)?  Was the system itself too lax?  Most likely it was a combination of all.  The sad thing is it hurts people that have no other options in life.

By the way, every time I go to these buildings I talk to a lot of the people that live there.  They don’t seem like the stereo type “welfare recipient/drug dealer/thug” to me.  All of the ones I’ve talked to just seemed like regular people, the kind you’d be happy to have as a neighbor.  They have jobs, families, hopes and dreams.  They just are poor.  That makes it even more irritating to me.

Above all else, it shows how when people don’t do their jobs, it can seriously hurt other people.



So You Want To Build A Container House? Here Are Some Serious Issues You Have To Deal With

Cutting requires skill in handling a plasma torch.

I get a lot of calls and e-mails from people who want to build a container house, and unfortunately I come across as rude when I don’t mean to be.  A lot of times I am called when I am really busy, and the person tries to hold me on the phone.  This costs me a lot of money, which does lead to me being short to get the person off the phone.  Let me go ahead and put down the issues here, and that way I can be a little less short and come across not so rude:

1.  To build a container house you need these important items:  A competent Architect, a Structural Engineer, a competent contractor, and funding.  I will cover each one.

2.  I’ll start with the last because it is the most important, funding.  From my experience, banks generally won’t lend for a container building.  The reasons will be obvious as we go down the list.  Also, you need to figure about $150.00 a square foot, I don’t care what the other blogs say, I have been involved with building these things, just look at the pictures on my website.  A lot of the people that purport to build container houses have no photos, or photos they lifted from other websites (like MINE!).  Also, you need to set aside a good amount of money for architectural and engineering fees.  Oddly, people call me up and argue with me on this, and try to advance negotiate me and the architect down – that’s when I get irritated, and please don’t do that to me.

People from around the world have claimed to have built the houses below.  One guy even spoke to the news media in front of the houses like he was constructing them.  They were not built in China, and if you see them in a recording of a newscast, the guy appearing had nothing to do with building them.  None of the team involved ever was interviewed on television.  Glen Donaldson is the owner/builder, James Kirkpatrick the architect, and my company did the structural engineering.  Anybody else you see in the media featuring these houses was probably not involved in the construction or design:

These are the first two shipping container houses in Atlanta, the one on the left was the first. We performed the structural design of both.

3.  You need an Architect.  I mean a LICENSED Architect, not a home designer or unlicensed Architect.  It will be more expensive, but you will pay less during construction.  There is a lot to designing a building that a licensed Architect knows how to do, such as detailing windows, roofs, and doors.  There is space layout, egress, size of windows, finishes, all that stuff that an Architect is trained to deal with.  I can’t help you find an architect by the way.  I used to refer people that called me to Architects I know, but after endless meetings with the potential client, it always ended up the same way – the project disappeared, probably due to item #1.  This wasn’t a big problem during the Great Recession, but today meeting with you for a couple of hours on a project that probably won’t happen costs myself and the Architect money in work that isn’t done.  There are a few Architects that specialize in this type of work, you can use Google to find them.

4.  The contractor is the next issue.  As I said in an earlier post, Bob the Builder is not the one to call.  For the houses here in Atlanta, the owner built them for himself.  He contracted directly with container yards to do the modifications, and he directly contracted the subs.  It took a lot of work on his part, and you may have to do the same.  The problem is if you intend on doing it that way, it may be hard to find a good Architect or Structural Engineer, because you will end up taking up a lot of their time.  OR, you will need to budget in your fees for the time you will need to take up from the Engineer and Architect.

The problems I have had with individuals that have called me is that they have little knowledge of construction and unrealistic expectations.  In every case, they were totally unprepared for the cost of the project, and had no real source of funding.  They usually had no knowledge of how a project is designed and built.  I have had ones that wanted to use junk they found lying around to build the buildings, one sent me pictures of some old beams he found and bought, another wanted to use some old light poles he scrounged up.  You can’t do that.  I’ve had people convinced they could build the houses completely for free.  Others have argued with me why it was so expensive to pay me – it was “only a few hours work”.  It took me 35 years of experience and more education than I care to talk about to get to that couple of hours work.  I also get people that call me that know more than I do – they don’t need an Architect, they can do that, they don’t need a contractor, they can do that, and I am certainly wrong with the cost of construction.  One caller went so far to tell me not only those items, but my website was no good and he could fix it for me.

Cutting requires skill in handling a plasma torch.


Working with the crane requires specialized skills too.

So, if you want to build a container house, lets sum it up.  First you need to make sure you have the money to do it.  You may need to get private investors or use your own money.  Please don’t expect myself or an Architect to come with you to meet potential investors.  Preparing your presentation is something you have to do.  You need to find a good licensed Architect.  Expect to pay him or her for Construction Admin services. Find a contractor, early.  This isn’t something you can bid.  Then get your Structural Engineer.  The Structural Engineer and contractor need to be involved in the design process from the beginning to make sure the Architect prepares a practical design.  Expect the permit process to be long and drawn out because you don’t have conventional construction.  You may have significant resistance from the neighbors, and this could kill you depending on the zoning in your location or the permit process.  Some areas require approval by different community boards, and this could sink you.

If you can handle all of the above, you can probably do it.  Again, don’t expect it to be easy.  I hope I didn’t come across as rude or snippy here, it wasn’t my intention, and hopefully this answers a lot of questions.


No, You Can’t Bury Containers!

I get asked over and over again if you can bury shipping containers.  Fortunately, most people accept my answer, which is simply – no.  In fact, just the other day an architect I work for sent me a question about whether a container could be buried.  I answered, “no, it will crush like a beer can.”  He wrote me back – “thank you George” and that that was it.  I guess that since I am a licensed Professional Engineer with 35 or so years experience in construction, plus going through graduate studies in Columbia University in structural engineering convinced him that I know what I’m talking about.

Unfortunately, not all people are like that.  One one site I was quoted about this matter, and the answer came back from some fool that said,  “hey, they stack them like 30 high on ships, so they can be buried”.   Well, do your math.  A container is 9 1/2′ tall.  If you stack them like 30 high, that comes out to be 285 feet high.  That’s a 28 story building.  Have you EVER seen a 28 story high merchant ship?  A slight wind from the side would roll the thing over.  OK, let’s look at how incredibly strong containers are – for STACKING!  You can stand on top of a can of beer can and it will probably hold your weight (provided you aren’t too heavy).  Lay the beer can on its side and stand on it.  If you are stupid enough to do this experiment, do it in your living room on the carpet right after your mom cleaned it.  Because if you are this stupid you probably don’t have a job and you live in your mom’s basement.

Shipping containers have very little strength from the side.  They have 0.07″ thick steel on the side which is about 2 mm thick (that is the metric system for you out there that remain convinced you can bury these things).  That thin steel can take a bit of a beating from the random forklift hit, or someone hitting it with a hammer.  However, the pressure of soil at 9 feet deep is about 315 lbs/sf.  That’s a bit high for 2 mm of steel.

Now, one idiot called me and wanted to know if he could bury a container.  I told him no, its sides are too thin.  He said “but it’s made of Cor-Ten steel”.  Look, Cor-Ten steel is not a magical substance.  It is steel that is chemically formulated to not scale when it rusts.  The rust then provides a coating that protects the underlying steel, making it great for bridges and outside structures since you can save on painting them.  It isn’t any stronger than any other steel.

Every now and then I get an e-mail with a link to a You Tube video where they bury a container.  There usually is little commentary in the e-mail, I guess the sender figures I will watch the video and have a reaction like this:


Well, I don’t.  There are all kinds of You Tube videos.  So what?  I.  They need to do a video of that container three or four years from now when its sides have crushed in.

The next one I get is – “Well, what if I encase it in concrete?”  Yes, that is an excellent idea.  It will work.  Here’s another idea – why not just make a concrete vault and save the hassle of the shipping container?  Here in Georgia there are wall contractors that have metal forms that piece together and you can form a wall, pour it, and reuse the forms for another wall.  You could hire one of these contractors and save the hassle of entombing a container.  Unless you really, really like shipping containers.

I also get asked, “can’t I reinforce the container?”  Yes, with a lot of steel. Or, you can pour a concrete vault.  OR you can even build a vault from reinforced masonry.  Both are probably a lot cheaper and easier than reinforcing a container.  Also, neither will rust through. Cor-Ten steel is rust resistant, but I don’t know how well it will do in a buried environment, especially if you have corrosive type soils.

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