Hallelujah, the containers are on site!

I’d love to show you photos of all the angles of my new container house now it is on site, but the delightful thing is that most of it is hidden by the garden. Many of the pictures are of trees and shrubs with just a glimpse of container behind. You can see the whole house from the front where the view is, and it’s shown in the banner photo above.

Getting the containers into position while keeping a substantial garden intact was not a simple thing. I reckon I ended up with the best team in the business, both for the truck delivery and the crane. Adam’s team from Turner and Central Crane Services worked miracles to get the containers from the truck to the piers. Fifty tonne cranes don’t look that manoeuvrable but apparently they can turn tight corners quite well if they’re in the right hands, and this one inched it’s way off the driveway, down the little garden path, to a spot half way between the truck and the piers. I think I might be slightly oblivious to just how close we were to the maximum reach of the crane when it hefted the 6 tonne containers over the tree tops, but I’m happy to stay that way. Adam said not to worry they’d get it done, and they did.

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Setting up the crane in soggy ground near a garden retaining wall.
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The 50 tonne crane in position, with Adam from Turner and Central
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Crane in mid-lift. This gives an idea of how much garden everyone was working around!

Jodi Thompson from J & K Heavy Towing and Transport did some seriously talented driving to reverse the 12m containers down to the bottom of my driveway, with very little room to manoeuvre. A couple of other drivers had visited my site to give me a quote and said it wasn’t possible. Not only was there a blind reverse turn from a very narrow street involved but to add a bit more of a challenge there is a small garden right next to the road, directly opposite my driveway, which was right in the area where the truck needed to swing around. The garden now has large semi-trailer tread marks within 2mm of it, but is otherwise unscathed.

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The truck reversing into the driveway, neatly missing the neighbour’s garden bed by millimeters.
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The truck at the end of the driveway with a container being lifted.

We just had the wettest March since 1975 and then the rain didn’t realise it was April for a while so it kept on going. Delivery day followed the first good break in the weather but the ground was still soft and it’s a good thing we waited as long as we did – the crane only just got back out with the help of a few well-placed solid timber sleepers. I have a bit of landscaping to do to fill in the deep furrows it left in the driveway and path, but that’s a small price to pay.

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Lift off from the driveway – the truck pulled out to go and get the next container.
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A high lift over the trees.
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The first container going into place on the piers.

I am totally chuffed to finally have my house structure tucked away on site, and I can’t wait to get stuck into the rest of the build. I’m also pleased I chose this build method as anything else would have had much more impact on the lovely garden block.

The real fun is about to begin and I am now finally free from dodgy container fabrication companies.

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The first container in place, from behind showing the tree view through to the front.
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Container Number 3 going on top.
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A crane “dogman” with a fine sense of balance working on the roof of the first container.

If you read my last post, which was a frustrated vent about the performance of Port Shipping Containers, I have a relatively quick update for you. After some negotiation the Company Directors acknowledged they knew they were in breach of contract and didn’t care, they refused to release my containers until I paid in full. I offered several compromises including 10% payment after delivery (instead of the agreed 20% outlined in our contract), and a third party payment system where the final payment could be held independently until all parties were happy. Then I asked for payment by credit card, as that would give me a bit of protection via the visa charge back system if something was wrong. They said no to everything except payment by EFT, and decided to stay uncompromisingly unethical.

The company did a last quality check for me, where they picked up yet another mistake. We had actually picked this mistake up back in drawing stages and a correction had been identified then, but it was completely ignored during the build stage. They fixed it promptly this time, without arguing which was nice.

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The view from the garden path right near the containers. They can’t be seen at all from the street.
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The tree view from one side of the deck.

Then as a grand finale, as the one tarnish on an otherwise happy day of container delivery, Port had got the position of the bottom side rails wrong. This bit is rather important as the bottom side rails, along with the corner casts, are where the containers sit on the foundations. If they are not where they are supposed to be then the container might miss the foundations.

I checked the position measurements with Port when I was doing the foundations. Their measurements were way out, basically it looks like they didn’t check which type of bottom side rails the containers had and they gave me specs for the wrong type. So I now have a section where the side rail of one container is sitting only on an overhanging steel top plate not directly over a pier and it will have to be reinforced. The incompetence of their staff just never ends.

I am currently looking into whether it is worth the legal fees to try to recover some of my build costs from Port due to the extended delays, plus the cost of fixing the foundation. I’ll certainly be posting some reviews to give people fair warning – if anyone is looking for a container fabrication company I strongly recommend you look elsewhere and find a company capable of using a tape measure, reading the supplied specifications, and sticking to their own contract.

Overall, apart from what is hopefully the very last stuff up by Port containers, it was a very fine day and a great outcome.

Container home companies – a polite and friendly review, considering..

I was going to title this post, “Container Home Companies – Zombies and Shonksters” but I figured that might have legal implications so I didn’t.

Firstly, I am still waiting on the engineering, but once that is done I will then have my Construction Certificate issued. The reason this last step has taken so long is that I had hoped the engineering would be done by the company that builds my house. Instead, after crazy delays and encounters with crazy people, I have given up on that and I figure engineering is engineering and whoever builds it will have to follow the engineer’s specs for steelwork, so I’m getting it done as a standalone. That way I can finish off the paperwork required by council.

I will now share my experience to date with container home companies.
In a few cases, it has not been pleasant, in fact it’s been a comedy of errors which I am sure will be funny one day. Until then I might drink.

Please note, for any lawyers out there, this is just my personal experience and my personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the experience that other people will have. No children or animals were harmed in the making of this post but the experience is not fictional and does represent real characters. Some of the language is creative but you have to have a sense of humour about these things, or otherwise curl up into the foetal position and wait for numbness to arrive.

Some of the behaviour by these companies is just frustrating, like the silent treatment and not ever answering emails or phone calls. Some of the behaviour is more serious, like being intentionally misleading;  two cases of this behaviour were both followed by a wonderful karma-type twist of fate, with the companies going bust soon after. Other companies have been OK and just weren’t the right fit for my type of build, but might suit others.

I will start with the two bigguns, the ones that take your hopes, and your time and money, and dash them against the rocks with a gleeful and unapologetic lack of ethics.

Number 1 – Nova Deko Modular. They fibbed.

They are Number 1 in a you-wouldn’t-want-to-meet-them-in-a-dark-alley kind of way. This is the original company I had 6 months of phone meetings with, getting input from them on the structural stuff including their standard wall structure, what was possible and what wasn’t, and the standard inclusions they provided for internal fittings. My DA was then submitted based on their standard building specs.

I noticed during the design development stage that their prices were rapidly going up, and I was told they were phasing out of doing custom builds and mine would be one of the last. So I kept checking with them if they could still do my build, if the price would be the same etc, and I was reassured that it had all been recently checked with the factory and with the MD and they would stick to their commitment, at least with a very close price. I did a triple check on that before submitting my DA.

After my DA went in, the guy I had been dealing with, Matt Chernishov, left the company. Before he left, he said we needed to get my build into a final agreement, which I heartily agreed with. The agreement was not in place before Matt left, although until the very day he left he assured me it was close, and copying in the factory manager and the MD he said of the MD  “You’re in good hands, Jim is a good man and will honour the original pricing the best he can.” Days after Matt left, Jim and the factory manager said they had no intention of building my house. They don’t do custom builds. No apology, no concern.

Soon after, the company closed its offices in Australia – they still operate overseas and you’ll find their website easily enough. If you want a simple build that is not a custom one then perhaps they are worth a try, but the lack of accountability and transparency within the company would bother me. If something goes wrong you might need an Italian friend to help sort it out. I have one of those but he’s not local unfortunately.

Jokes aside (memo to lawyers, that Sicilian threat idea was a joke) – a little honesty a little earlier would have saved me a lot of stress and time. Marks to Nova Deko Modular for customer service, zero.

As an aside, for anyone looking for a Mafia style threat I found this surprising website offering an online service  www.onlyinitaly.com/mafialetters

Marlon Brando the Godfather
Knowing someone like this might help in dealing with some of these companies. (Pic from here)

Number 2 – Rubix Modular. They asked me to fly to QLD, then fibbed.

I only found these guys recently, it looked like they’d had lots of positive media coverage and seemed reasonably solid, although none of these companies have been operating for very long given container house building is pretty new in Australia. I couldn’t find many negative reviews at the time, just one and that’s not bad these days. They used to sell Nova Deko Modular builds, but had troubles with them (which I related to) so they were doing their own home models nowadays.

It took a while to get an answer to my initial inquiry, but after one phone call finally got through they were keen and helpful. A few written quotes later and it was clear they hadn’t quite got their heads around my BAL FZ custom build, and suggested I go up to QLD and sit down with them to sort out the details (at my own cost of course). I booked flights for Tuesday last week, hired a car and day tripped up there and had a good meeting with a team of four of them including builders and Joshua Fisk the MD. It all seemed pretty positive. They had to go and check out a couple of details, said they would get the engineering sorted ASAP, and were keen to do the build. They showed me around the factory where some basic builds using insulated panels were under way, and it was good to see the size of two containers joined together.

They did act; within two days they had obtained a quote for my engineering and promised a full quote for the build by Friday. The next week (ie a few days ago), there were no answers to my phone calls and emails and I found a google review from this last week showing they are going into receivership and had to be out of the premises by last Friday. They would have known that was coming, but invited me up to QLD to lie to me in person anyway.

Seriously, how do these people sleep at night?
Or is that when they normally come out to feed?

I had a lucky escape, by the recent google reviews popping up now there are some people who have lost money or are stuck with dodgy containers that leak in the rain.

Number 3 – Price and Speed Containers. Please leave a message at the tone…

This one started out hopeful, just like all the rest when I stop and think about it. It turns out that all the movies are right and hope is a powerful thing. Mix it with some eternal optimism, some stubbornness, and a basically trusting nature and belief that most people don’t lie all the time, and the damn stuff can keep you going on, and on, and on.

This company is Sydney-based and they do container modifications. Mostly pop-ups like cafes and bars plus some temporary single-unit housing stuff, but they had a design on their website that was very similar to my house with the 3 x forty foot container layout and they had done it as a pop-up bar. So I thought it was worth asking what that model would cost and if they could modify it to build mine.

I thought they might just do the containers themselves, for me to then organise the internal fit-out but on inquiry staff member Joe Caruana said they can do internal walls and insulation, electricals, plumbing etc. His replies were fast, generally within 24 hours and quite helpful including discussions on cladding, transport and installation of the build, and getting the engineering done. Until I sent him my plans that is; then I received one more email saying thanks and they’d get back to me with a full quote, then all communications ceased. I left quite a few phone messages and emails over a few weeks, the last ones just asking for confirmation they were no longer interested in my build. No response.

Obviously they are no longer interested but apparently don’t have enough courtesy for a simple call, text or email to let me know. I guess if you’re not interested in the first place ignoring an email isn’t so bad, a few of us are probably guilty of that, but to be in mid-discussion and suddenly disappear is bit weird… maybe something happened and the night feeders above got Joe or something.

This lot could be worth a go if you want container modifications only. They could be perfectly nice people, who just need to work on their communication skills.

Number 4 – Container Build Group. Preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse

This is also a company that has done a lot of single-unit temporary housing and general container modifications, and is now getting into finished container houses. They have a bunch of multiple-module house designs on their website, some of which look pretty good. Overall their sales person was helpful and I’ve been in touch with them twice now, last year as a general inquiry and just recently to see if they could do my build now that Rubix Modular has proven to be a waste of time.

The main issue here is the cost. I sent my plans through, they said they remembered the design from last time and within an hour or so sent me a brief four line quote for a very large sum of money, not including the BAL FZ extras of cladding, decking, roof or even the internal stairs. It did include the 6mm toughened glass double glazing. At a per square meter cost the quote was around $2300/m, which is on the luxury-finish side of a traditional house build (if you believe that stairs between floors are beyond a luxury item and are actually a pure indulgence that doesn’t belong in the main costing).

They use insulated panels for the inside walls, which are based on colour bond steel so to hang a picture you’d need a rivet gun, and to attach something like a TV you’d need to know where you want to put it (forever) so they can insert a wall stud. They said the standard flooring included in their builds was laminate, not hardwood, and not gold plating.

Why anyone would pay that sort of money and be restricted by the dimensions of a container home I have no idea.

On further discussion, they said several things:

  • That building with containers was not actually cheaper, that the advantage was structural soundness compared to other methods. They can stack 9 high and last for decades at sea, so they are much stronger that other build methods.
    I’m not preparing for a zombie apocalypse so would be happy with a building that complies with BCA, I believe they tend to stand up OK for quite some time. It seems a bit crazy to build with containers based on that rationale alone, unless you’re in an earthquake zone or something. In my opinion the main attraction of this build method is that the structure is already there, in theory making it cheaper to build.
  • They make their money out of the internal fit-out. No kidding. I asked would they sit down and discuss different internal options to save on the budget? They said if I agreed to that price they would be happy to discuss it more. Huh?
  • Would they be interested in just doing the container modifications not the internal fit-out? No not really, they want a good finish inside that is done to their own specs for the photos, to help them build up a good reputation. I’m not quite sure how steel panel internal walls and plastic floors fit with that, but each to their own.
  • They did eventually say if I sent through all my other quotes they might try to come close, or I could make an offer and wait and see. They were very interested in who else was quoting and how much. Given they didn’t even give me an itemised quote to work from (so that I’m not quite sure what I get for that large amount of money),  I’m a bit reluctant to give them all that information on the competition as it doesn’t seem fair.
    They also said they do a lot of single-unit basic stuff, and at the other end of the scale they have some very big multiple-module jobs on with 11 containers or more, but nothing much in between and no factory space at the moment. They said it’s possible the builder over quoted me because he’s not really interested, and from my experience he wouldn’t be the first to do that.
Zombie apocalypse
Zombie Apocalypse. If you have a container house, it might well be the only thing still standing. But it will cost you. (Pic from here)

So if you want a single-module house, or have millions to spend on a massive build and don’t care about the per square meter cost but want something that would survive a zombie apocalypse on land or at sea, give them a go. Or maybe if factory space frees up later they might be interested, it could just be bad timing.

Number 5 – Cube Modular, the strong silent types

Based in Western Australia, I don’t have much info on these guys. To be fair to them it looks like they might only build their own designs and not do custom builds. I sent them an inquiry about a custom build, no response.

Others – oh please let there be others…

There are two more companies I am either in discussions with or about to contact again –  Container Domain Designs and Port Containers. I’ll keep you posted.

 

Feature image from here

What’s in a DA?

No, this hasn’t turned into a natural history blog; there is a picture of a woolly mammoth above because the thousand words that picture represents would also provide a fitting description of the DA process.

What’s in a DA? In my case, 33 documents. I feel like someone should hand me a black robe and mortarboard cap, along with a post-graduate degree and trumpet fanfare, for finally submitting the thing. The pile of documents was roughly the same size as the animal pictured above.

I now know why council buildings are so big, because even if you are submitting electronically you still have to hand over a printed hard copy, including drawings in A3 size. So there are thousands of very large piles of paper stored in there somewhere, entire herds of woolly mammoths. And that is just the residential applications, I can only imagine the size of a commercial application.

The DA Process

My DA might have been a little bit larger than usual, although I am not so sure on that. I was not all that shocked to find that when it came to working out if the house complied with the Building Code of Australia (BCA), there was no box to tick for “shipping container house” as a deemed to satisfy solution.

So, I had to present an Alternative Solution Report, and that accounted for a fair bit of paperwork. It included all the BCA compliance documents supplied by the container home builders – things like insulation, waterproofing, steel structure, windows and doors, electrics and plumbing. Then I had to provide a comparison of how the other building elements complied with the relevant clauses in the BCA, mainly around the additional BAL Flame Zone cladding and sub-floor.

I owe yet another thanks to my friendly neighbourhood architect Ross Young, who translated the process, gave lots of advice, and generously checked over the whole DA before I submitted it.

Legend has is that woolly mammoths were driven off cliffs like this as a hunting technique. Another hypothesis could be they found the cliffs strangely attractive after attempting to complete a DA...
Legend has it that woolly mammoths were driven off cliffs like this as a hunting technique. Another hypothesis could be they found the cliffs strangely attractive after attempting to complete a DA…

The other documents included a detailed Statement of Environmental Effects, which by itself came in at a stomping 16 pages. That one contains background information on the site and the development, then evaluates the planned development against both the Local Environmental Plan 1991, and the Blue Mountains Better Living Development Control Plan. It might sound a bit mad, and I could well be on the other side of sanity right now, but writing that was almost enjoyable as there’s been a fair bit of thought behind this build and keeping it green, including minimising site impacts to the surrounding Protected Area. It was chance to explain all that, and the reasons behind the build.

The Blue Mountains is a city within a World Heritage Area so although the whole DA process was truly torturous, I think having these guidelines in place is a very good thing. Although I have to admit that at first it was a bit confusing to have to compare across two different planning control documents, as they both have different content. Then there is the new draft LEP from 2013 which is not in place yet, which is slightly different again but apparently has to be ignored for now. Hopefully my DA demonstrates that my house will more than meet the objectives of all of these planning controls – the common alternative these days is a 5 bedroom, 3 bathroom brick MacMansion and it sure ain’t one of those!

It was in fact very satisfying to calculate that my development, including house, water tank and carport, will take up only 4% of the total block area. That includes the big patch of protected area in the east. The house will be in the other half of the block, which is the bit that allows development and already contains lots of landscaped cool climate gardens. The development will only take up 8% of that part. It really is a lovely little patch of Blue Mountains and I’m very happy about not completely stuffing it up to be able to live on it.

I’ve spent way too much of the last two weeks pulling the final DA documents together, herding cats to get some final documents in, not to mention those months of previous research, so now I have to catch up on a lot of life and work. Blissfully there is now a brief respite of 4 weeks while Council reviews the DA and then gets back to me with a list of more information that is required. I am hoping it will be a short list, or at least an easy one.

Faith in humankind(ness)

I rang around for a lot of quotes to get help with the final drawings, from architects and drafters. One of the reasons this whole process takes so long is that a lot of it is pretty subjective on, firstly, what exactly is needed, and secondly on the quality of information required. Responses from my quote inquiries ranged from one person telling me the drawings I had done myself were fine and could be submitted as they were, through to someone else saying the drawings were the very least of my problems and I needed to allow a massive budget for the whole DA and an expert to do it. I travelled the middle ground in the end.

Apart from the confusion caused by such a diverse range of responses, during the ring around for quotes I was really impressed with people being interested and offering free advice over the phone – on some of the finer points of DA compliance, and even new design options to consider. That included a visit with Mark Davis who specialises in sustainable design in the Blue Mountains, and his advice resulted in me flipping the whole building design to allow more north sun into the living area. People were generous with their time and advice, and that’s the sort of thing that gives you hope and helps you wrangle the mammoth.

Gold! Well, magnesium actually…

For those of you who have laboured through the last few torturous posts on wall structure and cladding options, it’s time to breathe easy, I have some good news.  A new solution has popped up. Popped up in the way that things pop up when you spend months dredging the internet for options, I guess it was more wrangled out of the cyberspace abyss.

I came across this option earlier but that was in the days when I thought spray foam insulation was the only option for containers, so I was ignoring a lot of the multi-layer external cladding options.

Builders out there are probably familiar with it, it’s magnesium oxide board – very green, almost carbon neutral, fire proof, rot resistant and termite proof. Now that is the personal profile I have been looking for in a cladding option, I could fall for this one. Oh and one more vital personality trait, because I am such a classy gal, it’s cheap!

Less than half the price of INEX weatherboard in fact, and it looks to be less fussy with the wall system you need behind it to meet BAL FZ compliance. Plus it’s manufactured in big sheets and would be much quicker to fit than individual weatherboards, so less costly in terms of labour. I discovered INEX does do a renderboard which would also be quicker to apply, but you have to then render it which would probably chew up any savings. This magic MgO board only needs a coat of paint. It complies with BAL FZ through the FRL option, of having flame resistance level of 30/30/30 or more – typically this stuff is at least 60/60/60 or more.

There are a bunch of different magnesium oxide (MgO) boards and structural insulated panels available, some with dubious qualities as they are all made in China. There appear to be two here that are certified to BCA standards and have sufficient details on bushfire qualities – MgOBoard and Modak. Modak also do a very cleverly designed gutter that removes the accumulation of leaf litter and so reduces bushfire risk.

Modak's clever leafless gutter design, which is also anti-bushfire.
Modak’s clever leafless gutter design, which is also anti-bushfire.

From the specs it looks like the board just needs to be fitted to an external wall with some decent insulation under it, no special plasterboard as part of the wall system. If there is no need for plasterboard then I might even be able to have some container steel showing on the inside of the house,  which would be great to expose the bones of the house.

Exposed container steel inside home.
A container home showing some exposed container steel for character (from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/558305685030848306/)

I did hear back from the container home builders and they are not real keen on the NASH wall system – they do builds at low cost by making them all the same, so a whole new system would not be easy or cheap for them. They suggested I get the wall system fitted once the containers are on site, but there are more layers and labour involved in that than just adding battens, insulation and cladding to the outside. And now that I know that insulation on the outside is actually a good thing, not a bad thing, together with the fact thinner walls in the inside will give me more space, the exterior cladding option is looking like the best for me.

For anyone out there creating more space with more containers, and who has the time and skills to add interior walls, NASH steel clad walls for BAL FZ could still be a good option – as of this month the standards have been adopted into the National Construction Code.

I am meeting with my bushfire assessor this week, to look at running with the MgO board and getting the final documents together for my DA. Whoop whoop!

There is still the small issue of the roof, but once the rooftop deck is on (which could be MgO or INEX) there is only a small amount of actual roof left (one container at 28 square meters) so it should not be a big deal to whack on something BAL FZ compliant. MgO do some roofing products as well. Or maybe I could have a split level rooftop deck and no roof…