Container Living

Zak and I lived in our converted 20 ft. shipping container for two-and-a-half years, from May 2014 until October 2016, while planning and building our house. For the first eight months, we didn’t have our official building permit which meant we had to live off-the-grid without electricity or proper plumbing. The container still sits on our property and now houses my studio, which is where I’m writing most of this book. It is my box and oddly comforting. I like to recall the simplicity of our time spent living in it. Even though it was small for us at the time, it never felt cramped. Our routine stayed fairly consistent: we cooked almost every night, washed dishes, talked, read, or watched movies (which I downloaded to my computer at work where I had an internet connection). Sometimes we simply sat outside with the dogs and enjoyed the rustling of the towering trees swaying in the breeze. 

Our two containers weren’t too peculiar for Houston. Thanks to the city’s lack of zoning laws, it was not unusual to have a shipping container sitting on a property. In fact, within the immediate streets of our neighborhood, there were several containers, positioned like stoic relics of industry among the overgrown yards with vines slowly enveloping them. I don’t think we could have pulled this off in any other major U.S. city. We were surrounded by tall trees even though we were close to downtown; the odd, thin, rectangular shape of the property jutted far away from the street; and the fact that we didn’t have any nextdoor neighbors except for Jim, all made this adventure and experiment possible.

Any large commercial construction project usually has an air conditioned mobile home on site as the construction office; we just lived in ours. As we had engineers, surveyors, and similar kinds of people visit the property while building our house, nobody questioned the two shipping containers. If asked, we just said “storage” and that was that. Technically, shipping containers are considered a temporary structure by the city, unless they are connected to permanent utilities.

When we first moved to our property in May 2014, we didn’t even have a fence yet—our perimeter was still unsecured. Jim’s fence was on one side but we had yet to close in our remaining three sides which meant we had some curious night-time visitors during those first few weeks until everyone got used to us being there. I remember being outside one night at our water station, brushing my teeth in the low glow of our LED lantern, when I saw two eyes approaching. A dog’s eyes, presumably, since they reflected a green shimmer in the light. Since we had our dogs with us I did not immediately freak out, thinking that perhaps it was our black lab mix, Abbie, approximately the same height. I think I might have even called out her name, keeping myself calm since I really couldn’t see past 5 ft. in front of me. I only freaked out when the dog finally made it into the light and I realized it was definitely not Abbie. Thankfully, both of us were startled to find what we did and we left the scene without much further inquiry. Afterall, Zak and I had encroached on the dog’s territory with our strange metal contraption.At first, the container was a simple box with just a futon bed, dog bed, and side table in it. We slowly added a loft area above the bed for storage, some kitchen cabinets with a sink, a mini-fridge, a folding dining table with two chairs, a small wardrobe for our clothes, a full-length mirror, a rug, and an artwork by Texas artist Hills Snyder—a silhouette of Tinkerbell cut out of pink Plexiglass—to keep us company and our hopes afloat.

More than anything, our time in the container was just inconvenient. It was inconvenient to refill a generator. It was inconvenient to haul our own water. It was inconvenient to put on rain boots to use the bathroom. It was inconvenient to drive to a gym to take a shower. But we could deal with all those inconveniences, especially because we knew it would get better and would eventually end. We just didn’t know when. 

Electricity: Dealing with a heavy gas can and jumpstarting the generator by pulling a cord was challenging. Thankfully, Zak usually took care of this although I vividly remember coming home one time while he was out and having to start the generator myself. I probably could have waited but it ended up becoming a point of pride: How hard could this be? It was raining. I marched from my car through the mud in my rain boots, sinking in here and there. The generator was inside a wooden box, to keep it out of the rain and reduce the noise. I flipped the heavy box over, carried the generator (which was also heavy) into the bathhouse. I turned on the flashlight on my cell phone and positioned it on a table pointing at the ceiling to give me some ambient light. After positioning the funnel, I lifted the gas can (thankfully, it only had a gallon or so left so it wasn’t too heavy) and steadily started pouring in the gas. After replacing the gas cap, I tried to start the generator. Full disclosure: I had never even started a lawnmower or anything that starts by pulling a cord. So, I went to town yanking and pulling, trying different strategies—fast, slow, fast; fast then slow— the generator slowly sputtering, teasing me into thinking something was happening. It was still raining outside, I was wet and now sweaty and sticky, and just wanted to turn on the damn A/C and relax. After what seemed like forever, the engine finally turned over, steadily purring away. I was exhausted but elated that I had done it.

Water: Similarly to electricity, we also had a container system for water. We filled five-gallon bottles with water at the various drinking water stations around town. Since we didn’t have a bottle stand, we poured the water into a blue seven-gallon water jug with an “easy flow” spigot. From this we could easily (hence the easy flow) fill a one-gallon jug to keep inside to brush our teeth, wash dishes, cook, or fill our kettle to boil water. The blue easy flow jug also assisted in filling our five-gallon pressurized portable shower. We would boil one half-gallon of water and mix that with two to three gallons of cold water to have a warm shower. When the flexible water tank was filled and sealed, we stood it upright and used a foot pump to move air pressure into the tank. With enough pressure, we could then spray water out of an attached trigger-activated nozzle. The trick was to keep the pressure up as we used the water to wash. Also, it worked best in a crouching or seated position (despite the advertisements that show people standing while hosing themselves off after surfing all day) since the water didn’t have to get pumped quite as high. Each shower was a different experience. Sometimes it was colder or hotter than expected, and we might actually get all the soap washed off without having to refill; sometimes the rhythm of spraying, pumping, and washing was beautifully orchestrated to give us a simultaneous leg workout. We did have a bathtub (a plastic animal trough) in the bathhouse. We discovered we could sit as if in a bathtub, place the pressurized tank between our legs, and position the pump against the side walls of the tub for easy pumping. We tried to recycle most of the water back into rain barrels to water plants, especially after taking showers or washing our hands. Despite having to physically haul water onto our property, we still maintained the yard.

Sewer: For most of our time living in the container, we used a composting toilet system. We took extra caution researching various methods and decided on a simple one that uses pine chips to keep things dry and odors neutralized. We used two buckets: a five-gallon orange bucket that said “Let’s Do This” with a bucket-fitted toilet seat with lid (available at any camping store for about $6) and a small galvanized trash can that held the pine chips. The “Let’s Do This” bucket had a layer of pine chips on the bottom and, after using the toilet, we scooped some more pine chips on top. Once the bucket was full, we had to dump it out. We sectioned off a small area in the back of the property and dug a hole to put our waste. We regularly covered the area with a thick layer of dirt to speed up the decomposition process; eventually, we dug another hole and the process started all over. Why go through all this and not just pay for a portable outhouse? Privacy. In addition to paying $130 per month in rental fees (which can add up quickly), it also has to be positioned along the driveway to provide easy access for the clean out trucks. Since we were near the back of the property, it would have been quite the trek every time we had to use the bathroom. Not a big deal except when it’s late at night and we had to make our way through the darkness in our pajamas, not to mention if it’s raining. Instead, pine chips cost approximately $5 per month and were easily purchased at a local feed store.

All text from book “How to Build: a House, a Life, a Future”. Purchase at Atmen Press or through Amazon.