Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

Jennifer Sansosti and Trevor Seip with their container home in its early stages. Schreiber photo

By Laurie Schreiber

"Welcome to our little homestead on the hill!" Trevor Seip exclaims upon the arrival of a visitor who has navigated a half-mile dirt road to get there.

The drive up the wooded slope to see Seip and his wife, Jennifer Sansosti, is a bit of a push, but well worth it. This off-the-grid homestead, on 63 acres, has all the signs of cheerful industry. There's the couple themselves, brimming with energy and ideas. Then there are all kinds of traditional and innovative projects in the works. They've built up the soil for five garden beds, three of them using the Hugelkultur raised-bed technique (making mounds with wood covered with soil). About a quarter of their vegetables, fresh and canned, come from the garden now. They make blackberry, blueberry and raspberry jam from their wild bushes.

"We want this to be a permaculture, self-sustaining food garden," Seip says of the work in progress.

Nearby, they had a 13-foot-deep irrigation pond dug from a natural wet spot. A 4-inch pipe, buried several feet down, runs more than 100 feet downhill where it terminates out the side of the bank. This has been providing water for the gardens, but they plan to go another step: They retooled an old wind turbine motor to work as a water turbine and will build a small well house over the pipe exit, mount a nozzle and the turbine, and experiment with micro-hydro-electric power.

Salvaged windows have been repurposed as a greenhouse; Seip is experimenting with yakisugi, the Japanese method of charring the wood to make it resistant to degradation. Five-hundred-watt, 24-volt Schüco solar panels make it possible to run lights, computers, a freezer and other electrical appliances. Heat is provided by a woodstove, and they run their 1982 Mercedes on vegetable oil. Running water setups have been gravity-fed from a rain catchment tank, with an upgrade in the works to install a small pump to assist flow.

The container home in progress, the couple’s car, which uses biofuel, and Seip’s military cargo truck, which played an essential role in hauling the containers up the slope. Sansosti photo

Miles the beagle makes an appearance, and chickens wander around a coop that incorporates a greenhouse on one side, making it warm in winter and encouraging egg production year-round, which accommodates all of the couple's egg use.

"This is my favorite one," Sansosti says, picking up a copper-hued hen named Tootsie. That's because the bird is a survivor: Her feet froze one winter, but now she's getting around and laying eggs.

Cargotecture

Then there's the couple's core project: construction of a house using two shipping containers, a type of architecture – called "cargotecture" – that is gaining currency in Maine and can be seen to a greater extent elsewhere in the world.

"It's a freestanding, windproof and watertight box that's modular, fireproof, universally transportable and pest-resistant," Seip says. "You can't find another type of shelter that you feel safer in. A storm will be blasting up here. You step in and shut the door, and you feel that solid, monolithic security."

Cargotecture is a growing architectural trend for creating efficient, modular space. According to the architectural website
archdaily.com, benefits include strength, durability, availability and cost.

"The abundance and relative cheapness (some sell for as little as $900) of these containers during the last decade comes from the deficit in manufactured goods coming from North America," archdaily.com says. "These manufactured goods come to North America, from Asia and Europe, in containers that often have to be shipped back empty at a considerable expense. Therefore, new applications are sought for the used containers that have reached their final destination."

Inhabitat.com, a blog on sustainable architecture, cites numerous cargotecture examples around the world, such as a container village in Beijing and a three-stack commercial space in San Francisco.

This rendering of the exterior shows one container, the living room, on the right, with the sliding patio door. The second container, the kitchen/dining area, with woodstove, adjoins to the rear. Timber-frame extensions expand the living area. Illustration courtesy of Sansosti and Seip
The floor plan shows the two containers, central and offset from each other, with timber-framed extensions and a deck. Illustration courtesy of Sansosti and Seip

A Self-Reliance Measure

Sansosti and Seip are united in their no-nonsense approach to life and their quest for self-reliance. After graduating from college, they realized they were destined either for "the 9-to-5 rat race" or for something else that they hadn't quite figured out. They cruised through a few jobs, lived in a rental, and began to think about how to live a simpler, less-expensive lifestyle. Their lives changed when they read Helen and Scott Nearing's "The Good Life," the story of how the city couple began a self-sustainable homestead.

In their 20s, when friends were spending earnings on parties and vacations, Seip and Sansosti banked their savings in anticipation of buying property outright, no mortgage.

"We like to say, ‘Panic now, avoid the rush,'" Seip says. "We already had the money saved up by the time we were 27."

They also began researching alternative architecture methods such as earth-sheltered structures, cave homes, super-adobe dome houses, and straw bale and cob homes, in addition to container homes. They settled on containers because of their immense strength, mobility, stackability and structural integrity that makes them impervious to leaks, rodents and fire. They would be able to start building a home before having to decide where to purchase land, because they could simply load their house on a truck and take it with them. And they loved the aesthetic balance of industrial steel with natural earth.

In 2009, they bought two 20-foot containers located in New Jersey through eBay and experimented with fitting them out with interiors on a Pennsylvania farm belonging to Seip's family.

"When we first started building these, we had no knowledge how to do it," says Seip. "We just jumped right into it and started to teach ourselves." The two created
TheArkHaus.com, which they believe is one of the oldest cargotecture websites, as a repository of ideas, then began using the site to document their project. These days, notes Seip, "It's amazing how much information is out there. People are interested in this and are looking for alternatives to conventional stick-framing and other building methods."

Now in their early 30s, Sansosti, originally from New York City, is "an artist extraordinaire" and web guru, as her husband proudly says, and Seip is a carpenter who enjoys doing special projects. (Since coming to Maine, Sansosti has become logistics coordinator for the Common Ground Country Fair; has been crafting jewelry from birch bark sustainably harvested from their woods, selling her jewelry, accessories and paintings in local stores and on Etsy; and is active with the community-driven nonprofit Bald Mountain Community Center – Sansosti and Seip are two of the founding members – designing the webpage and promotional flyers, lettering signs and hosting homesteading, sushi-making and drawing classes.)

With savings in hand, the couple set out to find property. Maine was not the obvious choice. They looked everywhere – Pennsylvania, Vermont, Tennessee, Missouri, Georgia, New Mexico, North Carolina, even central and South America. They thought they'd end up in the South, where it would be warm year-round.

Tight Fit Welding joined the two containers where the two sides were removed to create a large common space. Sansosti photo

The Move to Maine

In 2010, they took a trip to Maine, where Seip grew up, and found themselves irresistibly drawn to its natural resources, small towns, sparse population, independent businesses and artisans, helpful people, and the state's long tradition of homesteading, self-sufficiency and environmental stewardship. Plus, land was still affordable. They looked at properties to buy. The first one they visited turned out to be the one they bought, on the wooded outskirts of Ellsworth.

"I knew this was the place," says Seip. "There were a lot of little things we were hoping for, and this had it all."

They were clear about their requirements. They wanted a driveway or some kind of access already in place so that they could deliver the containers right off the truck. A building site with good southern exposure was paramount, and they needed room for a garden. A spring or spring-fed stream was on the list. And, of course, there could be no building restrictions that would preclude a container house and the lifestyle they envisioned. The parcel has the added benefits of abutting hundreds of acres of forest with no development plans in sight, and of being just outside a 7,000-acre land trust.

They finalized the purchase and made the move in early April of 2011, hiring a trucker to haul their containers – and running into problems on day one of their arrival. It was "mud season," and the road to their half-mile driveway was posted with a weight limit that prohibited the massive flatbed. Obtaining a special permit from city hall to allow the delivery at 4 a.m. the following morning, when the road was frozen, they arrived at the driveway to find a foot of snow so densely packed along its length that it resisted plowing efforts. Stowing the containers at the base of the drive, they camped there for almost a month until the snow cleared enough for Seip to chain the containers, one at a time, to his Vietnam-era "Deuce and a Half" cargo truck and haul them up.

Constructing a Home

Then it was construction time. Doing the work themselves, they installed a floating concrete slab reinforced with rebar and mesh, sometimes called an "Alaskan slab." The two 20- by 8-foot containers were set next to each other width-wise, but offset to kick up the 320-square-foot floor plan a bit. The container knuckles are welded onto plates and fastened with bolts to the slab, which prevents shifting and acts as a ground if the containers are struck by lightning.

This montage shows the previous layout of the same two containers, at the couple’s site in Pennsylvania. Sansosti photos

Then they began overhauling the basic framework. Tight Fit Welding hauled up a generator to excise the steel panels from the adjoining walls, thus creating a large interior space. The firm also welded the two containers together and cut and welded the frameworks for doors and windows, including a sliding patio door.

Removing the panels doesn't lessen the structure's strength, says Seip.

"The strength is in the corners," he says. "Since a container is built for incredibly heavy loads stacked on top of it several boxes high, you could cut out large sections of the corrugated walls, and it is still way overbuilt in terms of strength for a residential building."

Proper insulation is key, the couple says. For four years in Pennsylvania, fiberglass bat insulation kept them cozy, until water damage and condensation issues began to surface. Now they've employed spray closed-cell expanding foam throughout the exterior walls (leaving a section of corrugated interior wall exposed with a few fresh coats of paint to achieve an industrial aesthetic) and ceiling, which they expect will mitigate condensation, provide a vapor barrier and accommodate conduits for utilities.

They left the original floors of the containers intact, sealed the surface with primer, insulated with hard foam, then built a subfloor system with three-quarter-inch tongue-and-groove plywood. They installed wood studs for the walls and floors. As of this writing, they were in the midst of installing wood panels (rather than sheetrock); plumbing and wiring; and installing conventional interior fittings such as cabinets and counters. A composting toilet minimizes plumbing requirements to a basic plan for removing gray water from the shower and sink. They expect the use of LED lighting will mean decades of never changing a bulb, while heating will be inexpensive due to passive solar gain, a woodstove, and free wood on their acreage. Eventually, they plan to build a steel butterfly roof over the entire foundation to collect rain and shelter the home; and, within the coming year, to expand off the containers by building a bathroom, bedroom and solarium mud room with traditional post-and-beam timber framing techniques, transforming the original footprint to 864 square feet.

The couple has addressed concerns about toxic chemicals found in shipping containers. According to archdaily.com and other architectural websites, containers are sprayed with coatings that make them durable for ocean transport but contain harmful chemicals such as chromate, phosphorus and lead-based paints. Wood floors that line most containers are infused with hazardous pesticides such as arsenic and chromium. To mitigate the problem, Seip and Sansosti followed practices suggested by online architectural sites, such as coating the containers with oil-based primer designed to seal odors and chemicals. Although they haven't seen the original paint chip or flake off, they encouraged their welders to use respirators.

The gardens in bloom in 2014. Sansosti photo
Tootsie, a survivor, is Sansosti’s favorite layer. Schreiber photo

Aside from welding, they've done the work themselves. The project, especially combined with the other sustainable initiatives integral to their homestead, has realized their dream of finding an affordable housing alternative that maintains a comfortable standard of living without having to increase their cost of living. While they bought their containers for $1,500 each, they reckon the average cost of a container today is $3,200 delivered. The conversion probably brought the tally to between $10,000 and $12,000, although that factors in salvaged materials they've repurposed, minimizing use of outside contractors, and investment of their time. The latter included time spent navigating a steep learning curve on construction basics; starting out, neither had a clue how to plumb, run wiring or build. They also saved by not having to pay rent while building their home; for the most part, they lived in the containers while they built them.

Sansosti and Seip say the investment is well worth it, not only from the standpoint of environmental sustainability but in an era of economic uncertainty, when living the suburban dream or an expensive city life is under threat by massive student debt, loss of employment, skyrocketing food, fuel and medical costs, and increasing dependence on complicated and expensive social systems.

Content in Maine

Maine has been a great choice for settling down, both say.

"In Maine, not a lot goes to waste," Seip says. "People are self-reliant and resourceful, and we've tried to mimic that and follow the pattern of success we see around us. I think Maine is leading the way in a lot of respects. When we first came to Ellsworth, members of our family said, ‘You'll never get permission to build this. You guys are crazy.' We went to city hall and talked with the zoning officer before we bought the property. We said, ‘We want to have a composting toilet, rain catchment, things like that. Can we do that?'  And they said, ‘That sounds awesome.'"

He adds, "It's a slow process. We wanted to figure things out on our own terms, in our own time."

About the author: Laurie Schreiber is a freelance writer living in Bass Harbor, Maine.

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