Coffee in a Box?

Box O'Joe

Did you know they serve coffee in a box now? No, not the cardboard kind. We’re talking metal boxes. Yes, shipping containers! Why else would I be writing about it here. You see, Illy, Starbucks, la boîte cafe, and a few others have all experimented with concept stores made from the adorable metal box. The press has written a few stories of them over the last few years, in cased you missed them, these are some of my favorites: here, here, and here. Starbucks seems to be expanding their endeavor to look at redefining the drive-thru coffee shack – a uniquely Seattle thing. I say shack, as most of them look like they would fall over. Not these stores. They not only look solidly-anchored to the landscape, they actually have landscaping, rather than a sea of pavement. It’s an object in the landscape. A thing to be experiencedfrom the outside – mostly by car.

Did you know that over 90% of Starbucks customers take their drinks to go? So, why not have a few stores that eliminate the indoor seating and acknowledge that fact? Less is more. On this particular wet Saturday, there were a great deal of cars lined up just before lunch. Personally, I like getting out of the car, and often find the service is faster and enjoy interacting with people directly rather than through a talking menu board. For people like me, they have two standard and one accessible parking space, paired with a walk up window. I wasn’t allowed to take interior pictures, so use your imagination that there were four hard-working baristas in that 160 SF space.

The store seems mysterious, and appears to hold some secrets inside – like what’s going on upstairs? It seems to be an open air sculpture without an interior function. Although I can totally imagine that as an employee break patio. The map on the front is a nice touch, to show you where you are in this part of the city. The upper container has a silhouette of the very recognizable Ballard railroad bridge which I also visited this weekend, just West of the Chittenden Locks.

It’s just so cute. It even comes with matching bike rack and benches. I especially like two things about the mission behind these: the design team decided to use containers that have actually travelled a few trips. They’ve got the scars to prove it. Their reason for choosing this is straightforward: use less virgin materials, and keep the containers out of the waste stream. They say it better than I can, here (click to enlarge):

I like that my camera lens got wet at the end of the shoot. Adds authenticity. I’ll have to return at night, as I suspect that upper box lights up, like the Tukwilla store in the article referenced above.

Iterative fun

A bit more fun on my iPad with FormIt, a free Autodesk app. This took about forty five minutes – averaging 3 minutes each. I cheated a bit using the array tool to get started. I’m getting quite good at it. Anything yellow is new material, versus gray being the re-mixed parts of the shipping container. Growing fond of the ‘low-rider’ in the front row. I imagine it on hydraulics to tilt up at a slight pitch revealing the entrance. I might even do another 15 studies this evening.



Want to experiment? Below is a link to the files, which you can open in FormIt on an iPad, Android tablet or using the Beta online version. Or, you can open the automagically converted Revit (.RVT) or ACIS (.SAT) files from the Autodesk 360 cloud service.

FormIt – Iterative Fun design files – 1.6mb

An Early Plan Concept

While I still have a few details to work out, here’s a possible plan for my project. Some of my friends and colleagues have been bugging me to show something. So, here’s a little sneak peek. It started with a quick sketch, which I’ve had in my head for a while.


Take a shipping container and unbox it by unfolding, opening and pulling out the heavy duty can opener.


Then fill in the resulting space with wood, steel and glass.


There will likely be a loft above the bathroom, and I have yet to settle on a roof configuration. This plan may change a bit, or a lot, however I would very much enjoy your feedback and comments.

Before I forget, I wanted to leave you with this last bit of advice:

Plan, but don’t plan too much. Don’t be afraid to fail fast and often. Dive in and do it. You might be surprised what you can accomplish when the fear of failure is overcome. Own the process. Don’t let it own you. Then, appreciate your accomplishments.

This past weekend I spent time with a few folks from the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry as well as some tech folks at a ‘hackathon‘. I’ll write up my impressions on my other blog – Paradigm shift, if you care to hear about it. Hanging on the walls in the Facebook headquarters was this:


Tiny House Typologies

imageI’m going to explore the different layouts often found on the many tiny house websites out there and try to explain why none of them suit me. I’ve hand-sketched them from memory as simple diagrams, to protect the identities of each.

First, let’s just get one thing out of the way. I’m a designer, and it’s in my nature to want to create something new. This in no way is to say that the options available out there aren’t valuable.

Knowing something fits with your lifestyle, your values, and appeals to your senses, is what makes a house a home. “Commodity, firmness and delight”, words said by Vitruvius over 2,000 years ago were then, and are still today, the foundations of what makes good design and good architecture. The combination and weighting of these and the aspects of each differ for many people.

Of the varied floor plans of tiny houses on wheels available and examples of built work from the last ten to fifteen years, I think I can organize these into varying typologies. These are in no particular order.


Type #1
With this plan, you’ve got a good deal of flexibility. I’ve seen these often with a full-width front porch, shown hatched. The living and kitchen are a shared zone, which may be a problem for some who like watching television and relaxing on a couch. What’s gained by this configuration is a whole extra room, as compared with option #3 (arguably the original of the tiny house on wheels layout). This room could be used for a twin bed, a den for that TV watching, or possibly an office.

Like many of these houses, there’s a loft that can comfortably fit a queen-size mattress above the bathroom and smaller bedroom/den. This arrangement of spaces could even allow additional storage above the kitchen or front porch.


Type #2
Version two has large space in the middle, flanked on each end by the bathroom and kitchen. This arrangement provides the largest possible open space, while at the same time dictates that the largest windows are on the sides. What I don’t particularly care for in this layout is the necessity to enter directly into the living space. Within the confines of the box, there’s no journey or transition, no sense of discovery. This could be mitigated by a temporary porch, although when entering in the middle of such a large space, you can see everything the home has to offer. This also means there’s no room for separate contemplation, other than the bathroom.

If views are important, the orientation of the home must be considered carefully, ensuring there is enough maneuvering space to position the home on the site. This may not be possible when using the home as a proper RV in a park. In the RV park configuration, you would be looking only at your neighbors.

A loft is possible while sacrificing part of the potential for a high-ceiling living space. I’ve noticed a few that have accomplished this in clever ways, some even with the loft on sliding rails over the bathroom – which when pulled back, make for showering in a light-filled tall space very pleasant. Just make sure if someone is in the bed, they don’t mind going on a little magic carpet ride.


Type #3
Business in the Front, Party in the Back – or perhaps a better name would be the plain studio apartment model. In this plan, regardless of where the entrance is, the kitchen, bath and storage are aligned along a common corridor in a galley style configuration. This is very efficient, and allows a loft above, while leaving the majority of the main level for a large open area.

I would say this is very appealing, as the open area can serve as a multi-purpose space for living, sleeping, eating and work. If I were to expect living alone, this fit the bill. However, this model requires a lot of negotiation with a partner or spouse. Like type 2, this layout makes it a challenge for two adults to be doing separate activities.


This type is often associated with a deck over wheels configuration, similar to what I’m planning.  The entrance is on the long side, again directly bringing you into the living room, flanked by the kitchen and bath, and the bedroom. This is another very efficient layout, as it eliminates any corridors. To save even more space, one model I’ve seen with this configuration introduces the wet bath concept and a shared sink with the kitchen.

For my tastes, entering into the living room in a way that your seating area looks back at the front door feels off. It’s probably bad feng shui, if you’re into that – which I consider to contain wise principles, even without necessarily understanding the spiritual thought behind them.

Breaking from the pack
What I’d very much like to do, and have explored several versions of, is to break free of the boundaries of the box. Unfolding panels, pop-outs and pop-ups could be some of the strategies for making the spaces better suited programmatically to my needs. For instance, a room could expand as needed for a given activity such as dining, versus a desk for a laptop. Rooms could combine for larger gatherings, or furniture could transform from a banquette or couch to become a guest bed. Many of these ideas have been used in the RV and boat design for decades.

Someone once said that there are no new ideas. Someone’s already thought of everything. While that often seems true, and there’s plenty to be learned from studying other’s work, I don’t think we’ve even begun to examine this typology in any real depth. I want to discover and implement the ideas that are most exhilarating and tickle my funny bone. There’s going to be many other ways of synthesizing these ideas into a new way of thinking about the house and tiny living.

Every time I bring up this project of mine in front of a group, there’s always a large number of people that have never heard of the tiny house movement. We have a long way to go. I want to engage as many people as possible, to help generate more ideas. Perhaps it might make sense to create a design competition. That could help raise awareness within the design community, and be a way to get to my goal of a living laboratory with this project when finally built. I’m really looking forward to that day.

{image top, Etruscan Temple types, from around the 1st century, B.C. by Francis Brenders at | other images drawn (crudely) by sdb.}