As we toil tirelessly moving ISBU projects forward, we’re getting buried under requests for information about many different types of Shipping Container structures. It IS Spring (in most parts of the United States) after all. Everyone and their brother-in-law (more on that later) are firing up welders and plasma cutters to start converting Corten boxes into Corten Castles!
So, I’m going to take this opportunity to address a question asked quite often recently about using shipping containers to form “temporary” storage buildings. Here we go:
Unless you live under a rock…
We all know that when it comes to ISBUs and Container Construction, you’re the man. You’ve become our “Corten Champion” for good reason. We know your dedication to “everyman” and it’s greatly appreciated.
I live on a farm property in Iowa. Outbuilding space is at a premium and I need a place to store hay temporarily. I mean that I need seasonal storage. The hay comes in and then it leaves to market. By early winter, it’s all gone. At this point the cover is no longer necessary.
Lots of people have suggested that I simply purchase and build one of those prefab steel buildings. You know the ones, the ones that look like Quonset huts. I guess they don’t understand what “temporary” means.
I already have a pair of 40′ Containers that house farm tools and provide a place for a secure workshop. They sit about 25′ from each other with dirt in between them.
I can weld and I can follow instructions. I don’t need a crayon drawing, I just need some inspiration.
So, I’m gonna venture out from my village full of idiots and ask the stupid question;
“If I offset a pair of 40′ ISBUs, how do I cheaply and effectively provide seasonal cover between them that is weather resistant?”
Help Me, Obiwan… all my friends are dopes.
The Hay Jedi
Okay, you piled so much praise on top of that question I can’t really ignore you. I was going to talk about world peace, space exploration and cold fusion, but… oh well. LOL!
First, the praise (while greatly appreciated) is really unwarranted. There are a number of ISBU specialists (okay…. maybe 8…. or 9) out there who recognize that ISBUs combined with “Sustainable Architecture” are the future of this nation. We realize that for this great nation to heal, we have to first have safe, affordable, energy efficient, environmentally responsible places for our families to sleep.
(Oops, that cost us two… 7 left!) LOL!
I suspect that there are those who among us who actually overthink structural solutions because it’s simpler to just “buy” a solution and modify it to serve their purpose. That’s a luxury that many of us don’t have.
(Yikes… there goes three more ISBU guys! Now we’re down to 4!)
Jedi, your question isn’t really “strange or even odd”. We live (by choice) in rural America. We’re actually lucky enough in life that we got to choose where we’d live and raise our families. It’s a great blessing to us and we wouldn’t trade where we live with anyone on the planet. That said;
We get asked this question all the time and we’ve even been faced with your “storage problem” ourselves. As working ranchers, we build shelter for horses and cattle all the time. As working ranchers we also grow hay. We bale in large and small squares and that hay either gets trucked or railed to the buyers. While it’s sitting, we want it protected from the elements.
Now you can either simply tarp it (like we do our round bales), or…
You can build a canopy out of galvanized pipe and tarps that runs between a pair of ISBUs to form a “tent” of sorts. Once you’ve seen the photos of the finished product, you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself. At least we did.
You can see how simple it is.
What you want is something that is easily erected and taken down (in a few days by a few guys), something that breaks down for easy storage (perhaps stored in the cavity of one of the ISBUs that supported it in the first place) and something that is durable and easily repaired if necessary. The reasons for the canopy are obvious. It has to provide protection from the sun, rain, wind and snow.
(We actually cheat and use the stacked hay as the “scaffolding” required to erect the canopy cover. It beats hanging off the end of a cherry picker or a forklift.)
The canopy has to be “idiot proof”. The reason for this is simple. At some point, your idiot brother-in-law is going to have to help you erect it and you want to insure his survival through the project.
(Oh stop it! I’m just saying what you’re thinking. Admit it. You love the big dork, you just feel like thrashing him or pushing him off a roof every once in a while! Huh? Okay, well maybe it’s just me.)
Where was I? Oh yeah…
Your “canopy frame” is going to be constructed out of galvanized pipe that you can find at any big box store (like Home Depot or Lowes).
Remember that it’s not necessarily the OD (outside diameter) of the pipe that implies strength. It’s the WALL THICKNESS of the pipe (the pipe material thickness) that determines how strong that pipe will be when used as structure. You want that pipe wall to be as thick as possible. You’re using it to create rafters that will interconnect to form a big tent frame. We use 11 gauge pipe for the risers and at least 13 gauge pipe for the rafters. Yes, it will be more expensive to construct. But built of high quality components, it will perform well and last for decades.
The connector fittings that you’ll require to construct your galvanized pipe frame will come from the same place. We’re not going to use anything exotic or “special order”. Using “off-the-shelf” parts insures success and easy replacement if you need extras. You’ll need the typical L fittings, T fittings, 3 ways and 4 way fittings.
The only thing that you’ll want to “special order” will be the twistlocks that we’re going to use to take advantage of the mounting points already engineered into your containers.
Yes. You said you could weld. We’re going to make you prove it. We’re going to affix the canopy to the shipping containers using the twistlock cavities built into them. The reason for this are twofold;
(a) You have a perfectly good mounting point already sitting there waiting for you, and
(b) There are some people out there that actually drill mounting holes into the container to affix the canopy to. We think this counter-productive as you’re then perforating a previously weather resistant structure.
What WE did was to use a pair of fabricated 40′ steel channels (you could even use angle iron) to create a bottom plate for our “tent runs”. (We used scrap steel so the only fabrication we required is to weld similar segments together to establish your “run”.) We modified and then welded twistlocks to the bottom of the channel at the appropriate mounting points for our containers to affix the frames firmly to the top of the container.
And yes, before you ask, we DID flash the connection point between the rails and the containers to further weatherize the structure.
This gives your canopy a “resting place” to nestle into. Here’s where I’m going with this;
We’re going to build a freestanding, weather-resistant canopy assembly that fits down into that created and secured rail on either side, using bolts (drilled through the canopy frame base) to secure it into the new shipping container channels.
We based the entire frame on 1 7/8″ OD galvanized pipe. Over trial and error, we’ve found that this pipe dimension is cost effective, works the best and proves itself to be the most durable over time. All of your connecting fittings will be sized to allow use of this pipe.
And once you build your frame, you have to cover it with something, right. Well, by now, you know us and the way we think. We reuse, repurpose and recycle everything that we possibly can. While there are those who applaud us for our “green environmental” status, I assure you that it’s just good design, common sense and reflective of the fact that we aren’t made out of money. We don’t know anyone else who is, either.
We used old billboard tarps that we got from a local advertising agency for scrap costs. They’re durable, cheap and easy to source. Overlapping them makes covering a large frame pretty simple. Using billboard tarps also makes canopy replacements easier if Mother Nature spanks you…
We’ve found that by using a multi-panel solution, you’re only replacing a damaged panel and not the entire top. You can replace a panel quickly and then repair the old damaged one when time allows.
FYI: Turn the tarps over so that the white surface faces up. That while surface will reflect sunlight and your hay (or your livestock) won’t care if Subway is having a “supersale” on Spicy Italian sandwiches. It might make YOU hungry, so we suggest that you simply refrain from staring up at that delicious, mountain sized sandwich if at all possible.
(I wonder if that qualifies as an endorsement of Subway Sandwiches? Maybe they’ll send me a fistful of coupons? LOL!)
Maybe you don’t LIKE Subway. Well, that’s just unAmerican and around here we have names for people like you, but… if you wanted to go “high tech” with your canopy cover you could use large multiple layer (4 layer) poly covers (12 mil at least) that were fabricated from Ripstop with UV treating and grommets every 12″ on the borders to allow for secure fastening to your canopy frame.
It seems like a lot of grommets but you’re going to want as many tie-down locations as possible. A cover like this will last for about 5 years at least – barring Mother Nature trying to bite you on your behind. There are other tarp materials that give longer lifespans and they’re priced accordingly.
Okay, you get the jist of what we’re building. You’re going to build a freestanding cage out of that pipe to span your two existing containers. It will set on top of the “inner” top rails of the boxes in that new channel and provide you with one long continuous covered bay to put your hay, horses, disobedient children or unwanted relatives into.
I’m not telling you how to raise your kids or your relatives, but I can tell you that making good on the “Subway Solitary Confinement Module” threat at least once will get those dishes and the yardwork done a lot more often without an argument. Just saying…
I’m also not going to get into dimensions because I don’t know how much hay you’re actually storing, but I can tell you that you can get a pretty significant peak height (over 7/12 PITCH) if you think out your solution.
When we determined that we needed more “height”, we simply added containers on top of the pair we’d started with.
(I know, I know… it’s easy to do that when you’re the self-proclaimed “King of Containers”. But hey, it worked. And now my kids have a playhouse that even the elk and deer can’t get into!)
Plan on running rafters consisting of a “galvanized pipe rafter assembly” every 4′ on center. With additional pipe stringers placed between the segments (at least 2 per side) you can build a sturdy, long-lasting pipe canopy cage that will last for years and years. The closer those rafters are, the stronger your canopy will be. We like 4’OC. You can like anything you want. It’s a free country… for now. LOL!
One of the things that we did (that isn’t depicted in these photos) is that we added those “stringers” into the runs between the tent rafter assemblies to add more support to the canopy in case of a freak snowstorm or heavy rain. When observed without the canopy the framing looked like a gigantic “skeletal” roll cage. I told my kid that it was the start of my new “Transformer” barn. By the rolling of his eyes I could tell that he didn’t believe me. However, he DOES understand that if he doesn’t do his chores… LOL!
There are those who do NOT add stringers in between the rafters. The claim is that the snowload tends to create sagging of the tarp cover at the stringer points. Okay, that’s reasonable… but we prefer the inherent strength of the galvanized pipe tent cage assembly as described to the replacement of a damaged tarp panel. YMMV. Again, free country… so far. LOL!
The tarp is secured to the frame using ball bungees passed through the grommets and you’re going to need a lot of them. Figure on at least 150 (and I’d order more of them so I had plenty of spares over the life of the canopy). Note that if you’re using billboard tarps, you’re gonna be punching a lot of holes in the borders of those tarps and applying grommets.
I’ve found that this task is best accomplished by kids who don’t want to be grounded for the entire summer. Okay, it’s tough love, but I do need a tough tarp. I’m just hoping that the kids therapy bills don’t eat up the savings this build gained me in my annual ranching budget.
This canopy is a pretty easy solution and one that can literally be constructed by a family in their yard or service bay area. We’ve done these as “family projects” and even as “vo-tech colunteer projects”.
Before I close this I want you to know that there are sites where you can buy these canopy solutions, pre-packaged. If you’re not feeling particularly handy, you might google them.
A cursory search revealed HisCoShelters.com and I spoke with the company owner, Larry this AM. His canopy solution is efficient, pretty durable and cost effective. If you contact Larry’s company with your dimensions he’ll ship you the tarp cover (which comes in several thicknesses depending on your goals and objectives) and a big box full of the fittings you’ll use to build your frame. While his fitting are proprietary and designed specifically for this purpose, the provided drawing will give you all the galvanized pipe lengths (which you’ll source at your local hardware supplier).
Then it’s as simple as following the diagrams to erect your canopy.
He also has a downloadable book on his website that further defines the canopy building process and the products he provides. I highly recommend that you download this book and then use the information in it to help you design your solution.
Here’s his contact information;
It should also be noted that we have no affiliation with Larry or HisCoShelters.com and I receive no compensation for his participation/inclusion in this post.
So campers, there you have it. If you need a canopy to store hay or feed, a shelter for horses or livestock, a carport for your truck or tractor… this might just be the solution you’re looking for.
Until next time…