Scale by any Measure

What comes to mind when you think about the word ‘scale’? Close your eyes for a moment. Think about it.

Are you back yet? OK, good. Here’s some images that show my progression of understanding the many meanings of this word.

images-1Train Crossing the CrossingTrain Crossing the Crossingleadingwholetbalance-scaleWeighing-Scales-1 17188Train Crossing the Crossing20140130-080444.jpgimages

This last image is a Tumbleweed Tiny House and represents the inspiration for my journey. Jay Shaffer, who is the original founder of Tumbleweed and who built and lived in one 16 years ago, thank you for shaking off convention, sharing your enthusiasm and popularizing this movement.

As a designer trained in the field of architecture, I now come to think of scale as something no longer associated with the physical world. It’s just pixels on screen, whether related to pinching on a multi-touch screen, or with the representational nature of a view that can be squeezed on to the sheet of paper necessary to convey 2D orthographic projection of a 3-dimensional computer model to lines, arcs and circles for the sake of interpreting those elements as information to be constructed in the real world. Whew. I need to catch my breath… Scale is so abstract, especially when working in a BIM (Building Information Modeling) environment such as Revit, that it becomes easy to forget how accuracy can be taken for granted.

You see, as part of my adventure into tiny house design and building, I purchased a toy. Yes, a scale-model of a shipping container. Still, I should have realized this is, in fact a toy. Should have done my research. I was just too giddy when ordering online and later opening the box, that I failed to verify the dimensions. Looking at it, something didn’t seem right.

Container 20'

This is supposed to represent an 8×20 (2438mm x 6096mm) shipping container. It’s at G, often referred to as LGB, scale — 1:22.5 (shown on my mid-2008 Macbook Pro for reference).

The fact that I could open the doors, got me wanting to crawl into this little future dollhouse, or place on my greyhound’s snoot. I started imagining 3D printed furniture, and a little paper cutout of Modular Man. Then something happened. I reached for a scale, the triangular kind, and low and behold it was wrong. Very wrong. It measured 103mm width x 298mm length x 115mm height (4 1/16″ x 11 3/4″ x 4 1/2″). Height can be ignored for this excercise.

So, my new ‘scale model’ was proportionally off.

I later learned that manufacturers create items that are called G and these items can range from 1:20 to as small as 1:32, although they all use the same track. OK. That, I can live with. Why would this model have been so good looking, detailed, yet not the proper length? It even is called a “Container 20′ ” on the box. It’s actually 2318mm x 6705mm (7′-7″ x 22′-0″). Granted, even the 8×20 designation is a nominal dimension… and we’ll save that for another day.

So, I have a new plan. This actually works out well. I originally intended to use the same scale for my contruction drawings and the scale model – 1:22,5 (I threw the comma in for all my European readers). PIKO, an otherwise high-quality model train manufacturer, let me down this time.

LGB makes a model of a shipping container that claims to be accurate, from the engineering scaled drawings. Their’s is at 1:20… both slightly larger, and as I also disovered is a scale I can create views of in Revit. Revit didn’t like the odd decimal ratio. So, I think I will invest in the better model, or at lest 3d print my Revit model (as it will be cheaper) and continue my sketches, in metric, from here on. Don’t worry America, I’ll still show (feet and inches) next to all my measurements on scale drawings.

How Tiny is that House?

Tardis TetrisI’ve had great support since launch of the site yesterday. Thank you all for your encouragement, kind words and questions. I’ll try to answer a common one in this post.

What size is a shipping container anyway? Well, that is a complicated answer, as there are many variations in the dimensions one can find. Let’s just stick with the standard sizes. I use that word standard carefully as these are, in fact, ISO Standards. That’s important so the stack neatly on cargo ships, truck trailers and rail cars for their long journey across sea and land. The two lengths measured on the exterior are 20 feet and 40 feet. they both come in 8 feet wide and 8 1/2 feet tall. There are special variations, named High-Cube (HC) – most commonly found on the 40 foot long units which are 1 foot taller.

As I’ve been researching, and furiously sketching (more on that later in the week), the standard lengths seem to be the easiest to acquire in the United States. In the UK, there seems to be a good number of 24, 30, 44, even 56 foot long shipping containers. Although most suppliers will customize the unit for a price, splicing together bits to make what you want. 10 feet? Umm… even I have my limits.

As I plan to pull this behind a pickup truck, the 20 seems the right length. One hundred and sixty square feet. Essentially the whole thing will be a custom cabinet, with lots of little compartments and fold out furnishings. Yes, 8×20 is nearly the size of a parking space typically found anywhere, except Seattle. Many things can fit in parking spaces besides a big SUV. Take, for instance these images.


You must think I am totally off my rocker. Maybe I am.

I admit, that does seem awefully small. I will likely seek ways of extending that footprint when in the parked position. More on that in a future post. If I can eek out 200 square feet, then it will truly be ‘bigger on the inside’. If I’m really lucky, it will be blue – and I’ll be seeking a custom trailer license plate.

{Photos above: Containart Pavilion by Shigeru Ban, 2008 – Architectural installation, built with 150 shipping containers and recyclable paper tubes (Tetris, photo by Sanctu on Flickr  Collage of some examples of the 2013 Park(ing) Day events  from}

UnBoxing an Idea


This has been a long-time coming. I’ve thought about unconventional housing since I was 8 years old, sketching earth-bermed homes and frequently wondering what it might be like to live in a Hobbit hole. I guess that’s why I wanted to study architecture. And here we are now, about to embark on a long and hopefully survivable journey that I expect will be rewarding and fulfilling. This is my attempt at jumping into the maker movement in a big way. I plan to build a 20 foot container home on wheels.

Why am I doing this?

In the last few years, the ‘tiny house’ movement, and especially the ‘tiny house on wheels’ concept has grown in appeal. I know I’m not alone in this. The community of tiny house enthusiasts, builders and regional meet-ups is hard to avoid once you start looking. It’s not just in my region either. There are tiny homes all over the earth, in just about every continent. The overall phenomenon of tiny and mobility combined has caused me to think a bit more about challenging myself to take on a project. As I started researching the possibilities, I began to find that there was something about the shipping container as a system which lends itself to a less-restrictive palette than the traditional stick-built models that are so popular at the moment. The box doesn’t need to remain in it’s original form. They’re very sturdy, and also very pliable.

I feel a deep need to reduce my impact on the earth, with less stuff. If I am to experience a new freedom of living anywhere, and unshackling myself from the idea of a ‘dream home mortgage’, what better way to build a home than to start with one of over 700,000 unused shipping containers just waiting for a new purpose? These things are already weather-tight and extremely durable.

Ideas, shared

Now, I must actually design this thing before too long. My client is very fussy, and there may be some difficult battles ahead. I’ll share the messy process of design and research as I progress. Not the first to go down this road, there’s some fantastic work out there with all budgets by the likes of the cleverly named LOT-EK, HyBrid, and ShelterKraft Werks, I have yet to see other container homes on wheels. I’ll share precedent studies, sketches and study models. Hopefully, this blog can become a mechanism of reaching out to the community to refine my ideas from all of you. I want to get these ideas out there, and I welcome your feedback and support.

– Sean