Projects

The Oscar – Phoenix Arizona

The Oscar Under Construciton

The Oscar is a apartment complex in Phoenix, AZ that is built from 24 shipping containers.  It’s three stories high, and is a hybrid structure with CMU structures between the containers enclosing the bathrooms.  This allows easier installation of the plumbing.  We had to use helical piers in one portion of the foundation because of nearby buried tanks.  The Architect and Contractor was StarkJames in Phoenix, AZ.

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Research Project on Shipping Containers for Modular Buildings, Columbia University, NY

Recently, I completed a paper and a presentation at Columbia University for the use of shipping containers for modular buildings.  Here is my presentation that I prepared.  It’s about 45 minutes long, and covers the history of modular buildings briefly, the history of containerized shipping, and how shipping containers have been used for a faster and lower cost way of building.

The DC Container Apartment Building – Final Product

SeaUA  Housing  Travis Price Architects24

If I had to say what was the best project I have ever worked on as an engineer in the 33 years since I graduated from the University of Maryland, it has to be the shipping container apartment building on 3305 7th Street in Washington, DC.  It was a rather unusual project in how it started as far as I was concerned.  I was working on a job in New York, and I stopped in Washington, DC to visit my sister on my way home.  While I was at my sister’s house, I got a call from a DC area code on my cell phone, so I went ahead and answered it – normally I don’t answer my cell phone when I am visiting people, but this seemed a bit different.  The call was from Kelly Davies at Travis Price Architects.  She had a shipping container building project that had an investor, and a contractor.  Her firm was an established architecture firm in Washington, DC.  Was I interested?  Of course, and not only was I interested, I could meet with her that afternoon, since I just happened to be in the area.

We met in a conference room in the Acela Lounge in Union Station, and the meeting went very well.  Travis Price came in and joined us, and we came to a preliminary agreement.  A couple days later I had the contract and we began design.  Since DC is fairly easy to get to from here in Atlanta, I went up to work in their office a couple of times.  The design basically started in April, the house was permitted, and finished by October.  For this size and complexity of a project I have never seen it done this fast.  I’ve seen permitting take longer than this.  Of course it took some very fast reaction times.  One morning I was in Binghamton, NY waiting on the bus to New York City, and I got a frantic e-mail needing some sort of letter from me.  I wrote the thing in the waiting room of the bus station and sent it back before I got on the bus ( I really, really hate airports so I will do anything to avoid flying, even if it means riding a bus – which is actually kind of fun ).

What amazed me is the publicity we got.  The project got on page one of the Washington Post on the day the containers came in.  We were featured on news outlets all over DC and covered nationally.  Not all the reviews are positive for this project, which is expected.  Many are ignorant – like comparing shipping containers to house trailers.  Structurally  this building is very stout and I thin has a life span of about 200 years.  Others didn’t like the look, and aesthetics are a matter of personal taste.  Others felt it somehow was wrong to live in a box originally designed for shipping goods.  In such case, you don’t have to live there.

Anyway, here are pictures of the final product taken by a professional photographer:

View of House From 7th Street

Rear Bedroom With Balcony

My favorite part – the kitchen

The Building at Night

Bolting the Corners Together Was A Method I Used To Provide For More Capacity From the Columns

 

The Story Behind The DC Container House

Sometimes when you build a project the story behind it is interesting in itself.  Right now I am sitting in a camp chair on 7th Street in Washington, DC writing this post.  We’re putting up the second floor of this three story apartment building near Catholic University.  How did this happen?  It starts out with Matt Grace and Sean Joiner.  Both are Catholic University graduates; who began investing in real estate around the university.  They bought homes and rented out to students.  The house at this address was in pretty sad shape, so continuing to fix it was not a great idea.  It had cracked foundations and many other problems.

As luck would have it, Matt’s girlfriend, Kelly Davies, is an architect who works for Travis Price Architecture.  Travis is a well known architect in DC and he frequently lectures at Catholic University, and makes yearly trips to Ireland for various projects.  Matt met with Travis, and after some discussion the idea of shipping containers came up.  Kelly started the design work and began searching for a structural engineer that does shipping containers.  Kelly found me on the web, and gave me a call.  As luck would have it, I was visiting my sister in the DC area, so we met about an hour later.  This I believe was back in April.  I began my design work immediately.

This project, like most container projects required a lot of back and forth work between myself and the architect.  When I could work it in my schedule I went to Kelly’s office in Georgetown and worked there.  My first iteration was rather expensive, but I didn’t get “do we really have to do this?” (I hate that question)  Instead, I got – “what if we do this? ”  We developed a number of cost saving innovations in the process.

One of the days I was at Kelly’s office we were discussing who should be the contractor to do the container modifications.  The company Cube Box came up, and Kelly called them.  It turned out that one of their representatives was in Baltimore, and he came down to see us about an hour later.  They got the contract.

I had to get my license in Washington, DC which took about 6 weeks.  If I had been one day earlier with my paperwork, it would have been 2 weeks, but that’s how things work sometimes.  Still, the permit application went pretty smoothly.  There were minimal design comments, which we responded to immediately.  Matt walked the plans through the permitting office and got the permit last week.  We started yesterday and all the units should be up today.  The  project is to be completed by mid-August, and Kelly and Matt get married in September.

 

Shipping Container House in Washington DC

Setting First Container

Our latest project is  in Washington, DC at 3305 7th Street NE, near Catholic University.  It’s a four story building made from 18 containers, it will have 8 apartments.  The architect is Travis Price Architects and we are the structural engineers.  The project moved extremely fast, we started design in April 2014 and by the first week of August 2014 the structural part was just about complete.  The media attention has been extensive, here is a link to one of the local newscasts.  We also got front page treatment from the Washington Post.

Structurally I am using the containers to do most of the work, there is very little extra structural steel added.  The biggest hassle was to provide the wind bracing in the basement, I have some massive foundations.  Here’s a couple of pictures:

To lift over neighboring homes and trees, a very large crane was required.

Placing Shipping Containers

 

Here we are setting the first level containers. Note the wrecking bar is being used to pry these into place.

Here is a photo where the container is being lifted into place. If you go through the web, there are more than a few sites that claim a container house is a great DIY project – I hope this shows why that is a bad idea. This takes professionals.

 

Cutting bolt holes with the plasma torch.

The balconies are being fabricated using structural steel and the containers themselves.

The interior is taking shape.

All three levels are up.

 

 

 

University Lofts Cold Formed Steel Project, Binghamton, NY

Cold Formed Steel Structure

View of ground floor framing.

The University Lofts in Binghamton, NY is a cold formed steel framed building 6 stories high.  The project consists of a replacement for a six story section of an old department store that burnt down, and a two story addition on top of the rear of the existing building.  The main thing about the structure is it is completely cold formed steel.  The sections are all custom roll formed on a Howick Machine, and the trusses and wall panels are pre-fabricated in Winchester, VA and trucked up to New York.  The roll forming and prefabrication was being done by Vanguard Steel and we did the structural engineering.

What I like about this system is the freedom I have as a designer.  Look at this truss:

Pre-fabricated Cold Formed Truss

Pre-fabricated Cold Formed Truss

The web is cut automatically by the forming machine, and if you look at the crimping in the flanges of the top and bottom chords, that is done too as part of the roll forming.  Even the holes for the screws are cut by the Howick machine.

Here’s some photos of the process:

Assembling the Wall Panels

Assembling the Wall Panels

Fabrication of Panels and Trusses Are Done Indoors

Fabrication of Panels and Trusses Are Done Indoors

The System Is Assembled On Site

The System Is Assembled On Site

The easiest way to explain this is to show this video:

Since everything is custom cut directly from the shop drawings by the machine, there is much less labor, and very little waste.  It allows very fast construction.  I like the system because it fabricates directly from the shop drawings to the machine, which provides more assurance that my design is being followed.  I don’t have to worry about all the members being put in the right place, the connections being done correctly, or the right size members being used.

In addition, the trusses like the ones I designed would be next to impossible to do with standard cold formed steel construction – to cut out the flanges and lips in the top and bottom chords and cut the webbing would be horribly time consuming for labor and time.  Yet, this type of truss is phenomenally strong and allows us to make long spans and carry heavy loads.  Using this system they are exceedingly easy to fabricate.

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George

Why Don’t We Do Shipping Container Houses For Individuals?

I get e-mails all the time from people that want to build their own shipping container houses.  Some of them are actually quite belligerent as to why we won’t work for individual homeowners in designing these.  Some plead with us to make an exception, others ask for us to point them to a builder that they can go to that we will work with.  Let me explain our reasoning, and hopefully clear up some confusion.

First, we have done work for individuals in the past, and it didn’t work out well.  In most cases they had unrealistic ideas as to what this type of construction would cost.  If you are building a container house by yourself, I don’t care what the many other websites tell you, it will cost you about $150.00 a square foot.  Now, somebody will reply to this pointing out they “know a guy” that built a house for couple hundred dollars.  I’m not talking about a hermit living in a box in the woods.  I’m talking about a permitted legal house .  I’ve challenged people to come up with a specific house that has been permitted and follows all applicable codes that costs less – I need specifics.  If I get one of these, I will happily post about it here on the website.

Second, if you’ve ever built your own house you know what a pain in the neck that it is.  Shipping containers are not conventional.  Cutting them requires a skilled hand with a plasma torch or diamond saw.  Welding them requires a lot of tedious grinding to get rid of the epoxy paint, and a skilled hand at welding.  When you cut the sides off, the containers spring out of shape.  They have to be lifted by a crane.  This is more commercial type work, not residential.  I don’t care if you’ve built a wonderful wet bar in your basement, it’s not a DIY project. I know there are websites out there that say that they can be built as a DIY project, but there are also websites out there that say the moon landing was faked, and that the US Government has an Alien breeding program where aliens are cross bred with humans. Look, I worked for the Government, and we were too incompetent to fake a moon landing, and you would have better luck mating my parrot with my dog than a human with a species from another solar system.  You also would find building your own container house only marginally easier that mating the parrot with the dog, and would have better luck faking the moon landing.

Third is the liability.  “Liability” is often used as an excuse for poor service, but in this case it is real.  If you contract with us to design a house for you, and you run into all kind of problems as you find it’s sprung out of shape, you can’t get the floors to match up, you have problems stacking the containers, and the details have to be changed, you may get very angry instead of realizing you waded in over your head.  That’s how lawsuits begin.  It’s just not worth the risk for us.

If you really want a container home, you need to find a builder that is capable of doing commercial type steel work.  You also need a licensed architect.  From there, feel free to have them contact me for the structural design.  Understand you will pay a premium for the house – on the order of $150 a square foot, or more depending on where you live.

George

Movie Studio

This project involved the conversion of a large warehouse to a movie studio.  It had large expanses, but the owner wanted more clear space for the floor, so two columns were removed.  This was a rather difficult undertaking, we explored a few different ideas, and the best idea in terms of construction and cost was to erect large beams under the existing girder trusses to provide the support.  Here’s photos of what we did:

Beam in place

The column has been removed and the beam is ready to erect

Temporary Support

Close up view of the temporary support we designed.

Lifting the beam into place

Lifting the beam into place.

Larger Foundations

We also had to provide much larger foundations

Beam in place
The beams and new columns are in place. The remaining tasks are to install blocking, lateral bracing, and remove the temporary supports.

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