Stay in our Amazing CONEX Tiny Home

Back in 2011, I finished my tiny guest house, built out of two forty-foot CONEX shipping containers.  It’s a comfortable, fully functional house with one-bedroom + sleeping loft, a large kitchen, living area, full bath, laundry and extra storage.  I was pleased with the results.  You can read my original post, including my floor plan design and original photos at Build a Great House for under $10,000.

We used it mostly for convenience and for family and friends that would visit from time to time.  Over the years, I couldn’t resist making lots of improvements.  That, of course added cost, but it has been so worth it.

 

My latest improvements included:

  • A generous covered deck with deck chairs and a large gas barbecue that overlooks our little pond, filled with catfish, bass and croaking bullfrogs.
  • Covered parking for one vehicle in addition to the carport that handles four of ours.
  • French doors opening onto the covered deck
  • Newly Steel Framed Massive windows looking out into the woods and creek behind the house.  The house is so much more bright ant cheery.
  • Fresh, natural re-sawn pine wood paneling in the living / dining area.  Wood is so much more cozy than corrugated steel.
  • New Kitchen Cabinet faces
  • A kitchen bar, re-purposed from a big oak conference room table salvaged from my days at Baskin-Robbins corporate.
  • A new heat pump that cools and removes humidity in the summer and makes the place toasty warm in winter.  The original low cost insulation, added to the exterior under the wood siding, has been great.
  • A gas fireplace for some extra cozy when “the weather outside is frightful”.

A few months ago, we began offering the space for short-term rental on Airbnb.   The response has been amazing.  You can see the listing at Mountain Waterfall Cabin in Eco-Village

We also listed another one bedroom log cabin at Log Cabin on Miller’s Falls

The experience hosting and getting to know lots of great people has been fabulous.  Many of the improvements were prompted by suggestions from guests.  It’s still a work in progress.  Between guest visits, I can usually be found either making improvements to one of these two houses or making plans for the Village 2.0.  that I’m calling the “Enchanted” Village on Sewanee Creek, or Enchanted Village for short.  I’ll write more about that later.

So, if you are interested in seeing what it might be like to live in a tiny home or a container house built from Conex shipping containers, come stay with us in one of our comfortably small houses.  While here, I’ll be happy to give you a tour of the Village on Sewanee Creek.  You can meet some of our self-reliant Villagers and learn about rainwater catchment systems, off-grid solar, bee-keeping, gardening, the benefits of chickens (even harvest some fresh eggs for breakfast), Ham radio communications, raising mushrooms or foraging for edible woodland foods, the slower, more satisfying life-style we enjoy here and much more.

Wander over to the amphitheater and enjoy a cookout in the fire pit under the satellite dish gazebo.   If you are a singer/song-writer or musician, this is the perfect place for a songwriter’s retreat.  How about an awesome place in nature to perform for a few appreciative music-lovers.  Our amphitheater offers a great outdoor stage with a covered backstage.  You can book it for free (as long as Villagers are invited to enjoy your music).  I’ll take you on a tour of the surrounding area where you will meet the rangers at the Visitor’s center and arrange for a guided hike through one of our eight nearby state parks.

Take a short walk along the creek to the top of fifty-foot Miller’s falls.  Then follow the gentle trail to the bottom of the falls.  Go behind the falls and enjoy contemplating God’s wonders on the natural stone bench in the grotto.

If you enjoy the unique satisfaction of being creative and building things, I can always use an extra pair of hands in the wood and welding shop.  By the way, I’m looking forward to many more years building tree houses in the enchanted village and love to share creative ideas with others who are similarly motivated by the urge to create magical things.

Dream, Choose, Live: The Good Life

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live life deliberately.”

Henry David Thoreau

I think the first, most essential thing one must do to accomplish that is to build one’s own house as Thoreau did. He built from leftover scraps of an old shanty. We have many other choices.

 
The mere fact that when people come to the Village, they can’t buy a finished home means that every one of us shares that journey. The journey enriches each of us individually and collectively, as a community.  One’s home is the ultimate expression of self, one’s capacity to dream and do. Even if you hire a contractor and never lift a hammer, you will learn, mostly about yourself. So many choices, it can be overwhelming. In the process, you are forced to come to terms with your personal values. There is no faking it.

What is really important to me?

  • How big should my house be?
  • How much of my life, in the form of money that I have exchanged my time and effort for, should go into this house?
  • What portion should I allocate for other things that are important to me and my goals?
  • In my house, do I want to emphasize efficiency and low maintenance or esthetic beauty? What do those things mean to me? Can I have both?
  • Do I want my home to make a statement about me or is it enough that it satisfies just me?
  • If I am taking this journey with a spouse and children, how will we use this experience to bring us closer as we discover and satisfy what is uniquely us?
  • What can or should I do without to have the things I really want?
  • My home will be a refuge, but from what? From the noise of the city, or from the discomforts of nature?

The folks in this video made some highly unusual choices in an environment most people would consider extreme. Yet, their home is a creative expression of who they are and how they choose to live.  And it is beautiful.

As you watch this video, notice the many trade-offs they made. I like to think “sacrifice” is what you give up to get something better.  A deliberate life is one of conscious choice. If one knows oneself and chooses well, a personal paradise is the reward. That personal paradise is within reach of us all, but we must choose.

For those who love nature and the joy of sharing with others, the Village on Sewanee Creek has all the necessary elements to build your dream with a little help from some friends.

Friday’s Community Project

Just getting around to recapping and thanking all those who helped out in Friday’s community project. We successfully framed the carport on our CONEX guest house. Two hours of good fellowship and work followed by delightful conversation over lunch. Everything went smoothly. The timber frame is up, plumb and square. Experience is a great teacher. Still a lot to do before the carport is finished, but we’re well on our way now. The 800 square foot steel roof will provide a platform for solar panel installation and shelter for four vehicles. The combined roof space of carport and guest house is about 1,460 square feet. That more than doubles my effective rainwater catchment area, increasing the margin of water self-sufficiency with our 7,500 gallon Storage tanks.

For newbies here, the Village has a rotating voluntary shared project tradition. Every week a different household chooses and organizes a project. The community pitches in to help. One incentive to give time and effort is the expectation of the same when your turn comes around. But, there are others. The opportunity to learn from others with different skills and the comeraderie that goes with good people working productively together toward a common goal are others.

Together, we have built a storage shed, raised bed gardens for Several families, temporary shelter for goats, planting, caring for and harvesting produce in the greenhouse, installing drip irrigation systems and many other gardening projects, electric fences and chicken coops worked on our guest house, framed the carport, cooked a pig in the ground Hawaiian style and much more.

I want to thank all who have participated so far and invite everyone else to join us. Tradition is Thursday 10 AM start time followed by lunch, but we’re flexible on days and times. Some need to leave to get back to their work after lunch, but there are often several who keep working long after that. All voluntary.

Kind of like the famous Amish barn raising tradition without having to be Amish.

Open Homes bring Nature and People inside

Having spent a good deal of my life in Japan, I appreciate ancient Japanese architecture that seeks to remove barriers between interior and exterior space. Sliding-wall doors open to manicured, moss-covered rock gardens where not only the sights but the sounds, smells and general ambiance of nature blend seamlessly with the living space. The Japanese, more than any other culture I know, have a deep love of nature.

In the Village, we are blessed with an abundance of nature at its best and most beautiful. Large flocks of wild turkey, does with their spotted fawn scamper by. Dense fog with a sense of mystery shrouds the deep mountain canyon views. Thundering waterfalls.  Majestic cliffs with sheer lookouts.  Lightning storms frequently rumble across the vista alternating with meteor showers on clear, deep black nights. Stunning displays of profound power inspire our deepest spiritual longings.

In western popular architecture, the closest we come to opening our homes is the covered porch. That’s one reason I require all homes in the Village to feature a large one.  To date, all five homes here have done a nice job of interpreting that feature and I look forward to the new ones coming on. Access to the porch on one lovely Village log home is through french doors on a 2-story wall of floor-to-ceiling windows.  It features a commanding view of Sewanee Gulf, a newly built pond, and a livestock pasture surrounded by a portable electric fence like the ones recommended by Joel Salatin.  Another Village home is of the newly popular tiny-home tradition.  A generous covered porch, featuring the same commanding view, at least doubles its sense of size and space. Jessica (name changed for privacy) absolutely LOVES her tiny house. The porch on another home, running along the long side of the house with huge road frontage, is particularly welcoming to passers-by.   My house has two large covered porches, one on the front that welcomes visitors and one on the back that sits comfortably over the creek with an outdoor dining area and space off the kitchen where my wife mills wheat and oats for her fresh, home-made bread.  None of these homes are ostentatious.  Each is practical, frugal and well-used.  Each is lovely, befitting the Village motto, “in harmony with nature and people”.

But I must admit that my favorite of all the porches here is my brother’s. Shear dimensions define it. Square, rather than linear, it is incorporated into the house on one side via sliding glass doors opening to the kitchen, a wall of windows to the living room on the other side and the front door on a 45 degree angle in between. Potted, fragrant herbs line the porch rails, conveniently facilitating a penchant for fresh, creative cooking. The porch thoughtfully sits above and hides three 2,500 gallon cisterns.  On the opposite side of the house, I recently helped build a chicken coop under the smaller porch.  The chickens are so pleased with it that I’m thinking I need to build another one on the back side of my house, further from the garden so the chickens won’t scratch it up and can run free as his do.

My brother’s main porch is large enough to accommodate a major gaggle of Villagers and other friends for dinner or a group project like making sauerkraut or building bee hives (both recent community projects).  This evening, he will host the monthly Village potluck on his porch. All friends are invited. RSVP requested. Thank you, brother, for designing, building and sharing your lovely porch.

For more ideas on a trend towards home architecture that welcomes nature and people inside and blurs the barriers, here is an interesting article.  I’ll try to post some local photos later on.

Build a great house for under $10,000

I was needing to build a guest house. Inexpensive, but strong, well insulated, attractive and off-grid ready.  There is a series of YouTube videos featuring Bob Vila building houses with Steel Shipping Containers, sometimes called CONEX boxes.  When finished, they make attractive houses, indistinguishable from others in the tract.  But the cost per square foot is about on par with standard construction at $150 to $200 per square foot.  Other than the appeal to save-the-earth recyclers, I have a hard time seeing the point.  There has to be a better way.

Done, for less than one tenth the cost.

A little over a  year ago, I bought two CONEX boxes to build a guest house.  They cost $2k each, delivered in rural Tennessee from Atlanta.
I put them on six steel reinforced concrete piers next to the main house.   I purchased good quality used double pane windows and doors from a local salvage place for about three bars of a song.  It was handy to already have plenty of dry storage with the containers already in place.  The old saying “time is money” turns out applies not only to the cost of labor and capital, but to one’s ability to buy materials at a discount.  A dry, secure place to store materials while you take the time necessary to buy frugally and build is an important feature of CONEX boxes that saves lots of money.  Over months, that dry storage was put to good use to accumulate inexpensive surplus or used components like sinks, toilets, cabinets, counters, carpet, tile and a wood burning stove from CraigsList, eBay and other local salvage sources.

Immediately on delivery, the boxes are dry and secure.  But they aren’t insulated and that’s a big deal on a house.  Without it, these steel boxes become ice boxes in winter and ovens in summer.  We are fortunate to live in an area where Tyson has forced the closure of all the older chicken houses.  That’s good in several ways.  First, the toxic stench is gone.  Second, the neighboring chicken farmers are no longer subject to Tyson’s vassal labor conditions.  Third, the chicken houses are slowly being disassembled and sold for scrap metal and the 1 to 2 inch thick foam insulation panels are often discarded.  I acquired two kinds of insulation for less than a song (about the chorus of Yankee Doodle Dixie), almost nothing.  The spun glass type went over the container tops and under the low-pitch steel roof.   Because each container is built to handle the weight of ten or fifteen more containers stacked on it, each loaded with tons of cargo in hurricane force winds on a tossing ocean, there’s no worry about having a higher pitched roof to carry a snow load, especially in mild southern winters.

With a plasma cutter, a friend cut holes in the sides of the CONEX for doors and windows and a gaping hole between them to open up a large space for a living area.   It was a fairly simple task to frame the holes with standard 2X4’s and install doors and windows.  Using standard framing and drywall, it was easy to add interior walls for a storage room, bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, living/dining area and laundry room.  Needing more space in the main house, the laundry was immediately moved into the end of one of the CONEX boxes, installing plumbing and electrical in the process.  A huge chest freezer was added.   In short order, parts of the new house were functional even before it was insulated. The thick marine plywood floors could be easily drilled for plumbing.  Used cabinets and the electrical panel (also bought used) were easily mounted to the steel walls in the new laundry room and hooked up by a licensed electrician.

Then I installed more vertical studs on the exterior walls, screwing them flat, directly to the steel walls from the inside.  The two-inch depth of the studs is perfect to frame the 2 inch thick insulation panels.  Next, I ripped some treated deck boards and screwed them horizontally into the vertically oriented studs. I nestled another 1 inch layer of insulation panels between the deck boards and on top of the 2 inch ones.  That makes three inches of solid foam insulation on the walls, almost what you would have in a commercial walk-in freezer.   With the insulation in place the difference was immediately gratifying.  The space, while not yet aesthetically pleasing, was comfortable and livable.  People interested in sustainable housing often speak of the relative advantages of insulation vs. thermal mass.  With the container house, you get both!  By putting the insulation on the outside, tons of steel are on the interior where the mass absorbs, retains and radiates heat or cold from AC, wood burning stove or other heating system.  This thermal mass helps keep interior temperatures relatively even.  Meanwhile, the insulation on the exterior keeps the extreme temperatures outside.  Another benefit of putting the insulation on the outside is that it doesn’t eat up precious interior space.  Finally, top off the insulation with exterior siding, and Wa-La, it’s beginning to look pretty nice.  Eventually, as time permits, I am thinking of cladding the exterior with cord-wood harvested from the property to give it a rustic feel.

A trip to Dalton, Georgia, just across the Tennessee border was well worth it.  Dalton is the carpet and flooring capital of America.  I found a great deal on commercial quality carpet squares that stay in place without glue or tacking.  You can easily replace just the soiled or worn ones.  Granite tiles go under the wood stove and vinyl for the kitchen and bath.  I love the look of the corrugated steel walls.  Granted, they aren’t the smooth drywall look most people are accustomed to, but something a little different is nice.  So, keep the variation in the walls.  Simply paint them with some lively colors and accent the larger reinforcing members and doors with a contrasting color.  It wouldn’t be hard to overlay the steel walls with drywall or paneling, but if you enjoy a different look and like saving the time and money, paint works just fine.  I especially like the back-splash wall behind the kitchen sink.  Blending several vibrant colors, you can create a rainbow effect that gives life to the kitchen.  The deep corrugation in the steel is perfect for up or down lights that wash the wall and intensify the colors.  “Inexpensive”, “innovative” and “attractive”.

CONEX guest house kitchen

As you work with these big steel boxes, there are endless outlets for creative innovation to be discovered.  Once set on the level, you have already conquered the carpenter’s primary challenge – plumb, level and square.  After that, it’s just a matter of hanging stuff on them.  Rather than try to make the finished product look and act just like the surrounding cracker-box tract houses, it’s fun to  tease out the unique benefits of building with them.  From thermal mass/insulation qualities to the unique undulating aesthetics of corrugated walls, to very serious economic benefits, there is  a lot to be learned and achieved with steel shipping container construction.

This project is only the beginning.  The goal is to make this little house sustainable and off-grid with the same kinds of economic savings.   Use Solar PV (photo-voltaic), but spend $10k or less to do it.  Use hydro-electric from the 50′ waterfall nearby and wind.  Integrate and balance these complementary renewable power sources for both the house and transportation.  Use the battery pack on a golf cart to flexibly store and supply energy to the house, the cart and portable applications like running an electric chain saw or MIG welder somewhere out on the 750 acres that make up the Village.  Folks in the Village on Sewanee Creek are looking for the freedom that intelligent, frugal, debt-free design can afford.  We’re experimenting with these and other abundant lifestyle solutions.  Thankfully, we share and help one another in our common goals, so I don’t have to do it all myself.

If this appeals to you, contact me for more info or a tour here

More shots of the completed guest house are in my talk on sustainability at the University of the South.

Alternative Green Construction

The more I experiment with construction using steel shipping containers as the basic building block, the more excited I become.

We just took delivery on two more 40′ X 20′ high cube containers from Atlanta.  That makes five now.  The first one is now a community center outfitted with a kitchen, sound system, 22′ wide movie screen and back stage for our outdoor amphitheater.   The next two are being converted to a big workshop with about 20′ of space between them and a standard sloped roof above.  From day one it was functional as storage and it’s wired up for lighting and shop equipment now.  We plan to insulate and install log siding, so when finished, it will look like a rustic log cabin.

Cost?  Only $1,600 each ($2,000 delivered).  That’s $5.62 per square foot of ready to use, super strong, water tight space.  Think about it; You would pay more than that just for good quality flooring  materials – uninstalled.  Of course, it’s not a finished living space, but the day it’s delivered and set on four corner piers or even some railroad crossties, it’s functional.  There are lots of things I have to do to make it a finished living space.  But I’m finding that I can easily retrofit containers myself with some rudimentary welding skills and some inexpensive used windows and doors.  With a little ingenuity, I can even find angle iron for framing super cheap or free by using discarded bed frames.

Benefits?  Well, start with low cost space.  But there are plenty more:

  1. Low Cost:  as detailed above.  There are literally thousands of these things piling up at the ports because it’s cheaper to make new ones in China than to ship them back empty.
  2. The benefits to the environment of recycling  (less rusting junk in dumps, less energy expended to crush, melt and otherwise repurpose thousands of unused containers, Fewer resources used to harvest new materials (wood, steel, etc.)
  3. Structural Strength:  These things are built to withstand hurricane force winds on the high seas and marine-painted to handle saltwater air.
  4. Convenience:  Ready to use storage space that requires no footings or foundation for temporary use.  Easy to convert with rudimentary skills – at your leisure while they are being used for storage.

If you’re interested in seeing real examples of a great new way to build, call us for an appointment at the Village.  While you’re at it, check out the other sustainable projects;  things like

  • an off-grid rainwater collection system that supplies all our water needs.
  • Organic community gardens, orchards and greenhouse
  • Bio-Diesel driven Listeroid Generator
  • Wood Gasification system that powers generator engines with wood
  • Hydro-electric generator powered by the creek at our 50′ waterfall.

Then, take a hike through primeval forests to Sewanee Creek.  Spend a day and you will want to spend a lifetime in harmony with nature and people.