EcoBox Systems


One of the beauties of shipping containers is that they provide the strength of steel, the convenience of a large portable room, but none of the sacrifices made with normal portable or modular buildings. They are not flimsy, their walls cannot be kicked down or out, and they are watertight. In addition they are manufactured globally to very strict ISO standards- so that each container is designed to be within millimeters of every other container of its type in the world. A typical 40-foot high cube container (as used for the standard EcoBox) has a cargo capacity of about 30 tons - 60,000 lbs! Their capacity is so high, in fact, that most United States roads will not permit full-capacity containers to be driven on them. Shipping containers are designed to be placed on cargo ships in stacks of 9 - so that the bottom unit is carrying itself plus an additional half million pounds. 

This tremendous strength, capacity, and uniformity lends itself to some unique uses and characteristics. Inter-unit compatibility allows design for one to effectively apply to others. The strength allows building with little or no additional structural reenforcement, even for multi-level structures. Corner points are uniformly aligned above, below and adjacent to others.


A- Full Capacity System with Batteries (off-grid)
B- Fully Capacity System w/o batteries (grid-tied)
C- Partial Capacity System w/o batteries (grid-tied)
D- No PV (full grid use)

Photovoltaic (PV) panels generate grid-independent, clean energy in the form of low-voltage direct current (DC) electricity. These panels are combined into a larger system, and then connected to batteries, chargers and inverters which make the power available thruout the day at a voltage, and in alternating current (AC) as found in most households. These systems allow the location to operate with fully-functional electric power even if the main grid is not functional, or if the location is not connected to the grid at all. A typical system will include roof-mounted solar panels, normal electrical boxes and cables, a charge controller to charge and condition the batteries, the batteries, and an inverter to convert the power to AC. The system is sized to accomodate the needs of the residents, and where possible serves a combination of locations- so as to better optimize and level the use of power across multiple sites, and increase redundancy. If grid power is readily available, or generator power is appropriate, the PV system can connect with these power sources to create a tied system that incorporates the low-cost of traditional grid power with the carbon-free energy generation of solar panels.

To the resident, the use of solar is almost entirely transparent - outlets are standard, appliances are all similar to what one would find in a normal office or home. A monitoring system demonstrates to residents power consumption, system production and battery status. Given the location of the project, panel positions and angles are optimized to get the best overall system results across each day and thru all seasons.


Appliances are all efficient, reducing typical electrical consumption - which serves the dual purpose of reducing the size requirements for the PV system and the overall consumption. Appliances can be customized, added or deleted based on client requirements. For example, dishwashers may not be standard for installs, and removing them reduces the electrical needs of the kitchen, but does not typically reduce water consumption. Line drying clothes is optimal, but gas dryers are optional if the client requires them.


While solar power can be harnessed to generate electricity, solar energy is most pronounced when generating heat for a variety of purposes. In this system, solar thermal energy heats up water, which serves multiple purposes- to heat living space during cooler times, and to be used for washing clothes, dishes, and for showers/baths, and even for preheating water for cooking. Heated water is stored in insulated tanks which retain the heat even after the sun has set.

Solar thermal energy can also be harnessed to heat forced air, which can also be routed to quickly heat living spaces, dry clothes, and even dehydrate or warm food.


Water from rain starts out essentially pure- free of any kind of contaiminants. While some pollution may find its way into the rain as it descends, this is generally not an issue in rural areas. The structured roofs are designed to direct all water falling on their surface to a central collection chamber, which is pre-filtered of basic particulate, like sticks, leaves, or other material that may have found its way on to the roof. In areas with no high foliage, this is even less of an issue.

The pre-screened water is stored in a manner that prevents bacterial growth by preventing any sunlight from reaching the water, and that keeps the water cool for use in cooking, cleaning, and washing. A simple guage shows water levels to residents, and allows them to monitor and regulate their consumpton. As with electric power, this off-grid design can be grid-tied if there is a ready supply of incoming water. This reduces the need for that incoming water, while reducing the need to rely solely on rainwater, which will vary from season to season and year to year.

All roofs within a community - including utility buildings and community areas - will capture rainwater, and distribute it to storage facilities where it can be used by the community, further reducing reliance on outside water sources. At all stages water is kept in a clean environment in the dark- preventing any bacterial or other organic growth. As rainwater is fundamentally clean, most stored rainwater can be quite clean. Depending on needs, it can then be run thru additional filters ranging widely in quality, and if desired, thru an ultraviolet treatment unit that will kill any existing pathogens. 


A water storage tower will provide sufficient head to the water suppy to provide reasonable water pressure into all locations. An additional small pressure unit similar to what's installed in millions of wells worldwide will boost pressure as needed for adequate and desired flow. Each unit or combination of units (cluster) will have a smaller retainer tank for rainwater, which can in turn be pumped back to the central water tower. This establishes a distributed system, maximizing capacity for all units and minimizing loss from vacant or underutilized units. Basic filtration systems and storage mechanisms will assure clean water flows thru the system, and additional site-specific filtration can render smaller volumes into potable water by the strictest international standards.


Temperate climates need very little insulation, as the extremes of heat and cold are well within reasonable comfortable living temperatures. However, the sun has the capacity to heat up surfaces beyond what would be comfortable- this is mitigated by including minor insulation, using light-colored paints to minimize heat absorption, and with roofing panels that deflect the majority of the sun away from the walls. This shading is supplemented by fast-growing indigenous vines and plants which grow up trellises places around the perimiter of the structure. These act as an additional insulative layer while increasing the natural aesthetic appeal of each structural element, while the root system aids in nature water processing, compost usage, and overall ecosystem health.


The interior walls of EcoBox-based systems can be customized to suit a variety of climates and client needs. When sanded and painted, even the standard metal corrugations can be aesthetically pleasing, and lend themselves to easy decoration and design with basic elements of fabric, art, and even basic paneling. Rare-earth magnets provide an easy, flexible, no-pentration method of hanging any lightweight material, while heavier items are easily affixed to or hung from upper cross-beams. At it's base level, and EcoBox minimizes the loss of interior space due to interior finishing while providing a blank slate for other elements of interior design, wall placement, furniture, and built-in living components like cabinetry, flexible living/workspaces, and relaxation areas.

In addition to basic panelling, interior spaces are elluminated by window and door penetrations, lighting, and other interior design elements customized for and by each resident, and with sufficient flexibility as to allow easy modifications, upgrades, and variations.


The primary exterior modification is surface finishing and painting with a light direct-to-metal (DTM) paint, which will provide years of trouble-free coverage, and resist the natural heating caused by solar thermal radiation. The roof, comprised of a secondary set of metal panels which serve to deflect solar radiation from the roof and shade portions of the exterior walls while simultaneously routing rainwater to a central collection pipe. The roof panels are modular, connect with each other, and are connected with minimal penetrations to the main structure, which itself is already weathertight - leading to fully weatherproof system.


The roof components are seamlessly integrated to provide multiple functions. Primarily, they shelter the understructure of each building from the sun and its thermal energy, so that ambient temperatures are not overcome by the thermal heat of the sun shining on structural walls. The roof connects each unit to those adjacent to it (in combination units) and extends past the normal structural boundaries of each unit- which increases shaded area for longer portions of the day, and leads to a larger surface area for catching rainwater. 

By sloping the roofs from all ends of the structure gently towards one focal point (the water collection point), these roofs lend a sensible aesthetic to the structures and break up the rectangular outlines of the base structures with pleasing angular patterns. Made of readily available materials, which are either naturally light in color or reflective, strong, and affordable, the roofs create a cohesive connection between multiple units 


The existing floor of a standard shipping container is comprised of marine-grade plywood panels of 1.25" thick, attached by countersunk screws at about 11-inch intervals to steel cross-members. These floors were designed to withstand the rigors of cross-pacific voyages, every possible climate, and the wear and tear of countless forklifts, pallets, vehicles and boxes. As such the can be sanded and finished to create a nice natural aesthetic. There are a variety of additional options, ranging from tile, which is often made locally and creates consistency with local designs, to carpet, hardwood flooring, and even industrial matting (like you'd find in professional garages). 

In extreme climates, the floor can cover improved and enhanced insulation, and for multi-level structures, the floor provides engineered support without any additional reinforcement, but can also be penetrated for ladders, stairs, or ductwork. Regardless of the clients' chosen covering, the underlying base wood floor is durable, pest- resistant, and extremely strong. Since surplus cargo containers have usually been in service for over a decade, any off-gassing from chemical treatments to the wood (or any other components) will have already occurred, rending the environment odor and chemical free.


The design of shipping containers places the entire weight of the container (about 8000lbs for a 40' container) and it's cargo (up to about 30 tons) on only four points- its four corners. Additional fully loaded containers are stacked on the same four top corners up to nine high- so that the corner beams can support huge amounts of weight when placed directly above them. Between these corners on the long building axis there is a span of just under 40 feet (40' less the width of each cast steel corner block). This translates to a span of 39' that needs NO additional support for all standard applications. 

Foundations can be as strong and continuous as desired, but NEED only cover the four corners of about 300 cm2 each. Depending on the desired structure, the foundation could be a full concrete basement, but for the basic EcoBox, we recommend only a simple solid footing block on a packed level surface. Over time the level is checked, and simply adjusted with basic tools - leading to minimal disruption of the ground area. In fact, it is even possible to design a structural support system that will allow the placement of units on hills, cliffs or in shallow water, or any combination of these. 

At it's most basic level, a foundation can be simply 4 small piers made of some solid material which is either immobile, or that can be leveled as needed over time. This provides these structures with substantial usable space and minimal impact on the earth below. 


The existing exterior of the standard containers is strong, patterned, and weather and rust-resistant. It can be painted any color desired, though colors should be chosen based on existing norms and the desire for heat retention/reflection. Clients may wish to cover the exterior surface with a variety of options. The most reasonable is to use surplus materials and modify them to create a pleasant and appealing design. For example, surplus wood pallets can be disassembled and their boards reused or rearranged to provide a natural exterior planked finish. The same boards could be lapped to create a form of siding. Additional options include flags, canvas, surplus sails, or for a very green look and feel, indigenous vines that will grow up to cover the exterior partially or entirely as the owner wishes. 

A holistic view of design leads to the integration of the roof, walls, and systems like rainwater drainage or solar panels in a way that is pleasing to residents and visitors alike, while not compromising on efficiency or practicality. Our basic designs seek not to change existing structural designs but to create entirely new structures. These structures should make use of obvious and available resources, whether from nature's bounty or man's excess.


Exterior walkways should adhere to the basic premise of light-imprint, using readily available excess or indigenous materials. These can include pallet panels, components derived from the structural changes of the containers (each window and door provides a similarly-sized metal panel), and readily-available surplus materials. Things like crushed rock, filled tires, and surplus pallets can form a base upon which walkways and lounge and work areas can be constructed. As with the siding, final materials are at the client's discretion.


In addition to how water is collected, it must also be handled after use. By using a low or no-flush toilet, black water (water used in toilets) is reduced to a minimum, and that which is produced is processed as part of the solid human waste system. The remaining used water, which may include some soaps and organics (known as "greywater") goes thru several processes, starting with basic particle filtration, and then into storage tanks where they sit and thru organic processes are cleaned of material that is harmful to the environment. 

At the outlet, the water flows into gardens and natural foliage, providing sustenance to the area without burdening a septic or sewage system. Excess rainwater (that cannot be caught and stored) also flows thru this system. Organic waste should be composted, but naturally some organic waste, primarily from the kitchen, will flow thru a greywater system. Its decomposition to become part of the ecosystem is entirely natural. 


Trash is inevitable in human environments, particularly with our dependence on packaging of goods. Ideally, incoming products would have minimal or reusable packaging; the reusable materials are reused, and the additional packaging is recycled. Those materials that cannot be recycled thru normal channels should be placed into consideration for alternate uses; for example, plastic bottles serve multiple purposes once cleaned, ranging from food storage to mini planters. Newprint can become part of a composting plan or vermiculture system.

Obvious recycled materials like aluminum and plastics would go to a central recycling center, which should also accommodate other materials like batteries, scrap metal, cardboard and paper. Finally, material that cannot be repurposed, reused, recycled, or consumed will need to be transported to a government-approved waste management facility for proper disposal. (Note that high-efficiency self-powered incinerators may be appropriate in some environments).

All food waste should be directly composted into a closed unit outside  - this material will naturally decompose into fertile, rich soil, even if left untended. Eventually this material will lose much of its volume, and can fertilize the garden, or simply be allowed to become part of the soil. 

Human waste provides some unique challenges- it is entirely organic and provides plants with critical nutrition, but in raw form is repulsive to most people and can carry organic pathogens. An ideal system avoids contaminating wastewater, groundwater, or surrounding areas while taking advantage of the organic richness of human waste. There are a variety of composting toilets that range from liquid free, power free standalone systems to powered, low-flush systems that transfer the waste as a normal flush toilet would, but instead of transferring the waste to a septic or sewage system it instead moves it to a specially-designed  composting chamber. Over time this reduces the waste by over 90%, killing existing bacteria, and forming a rich garden-ready humus. 

Finally, and where possible, bathrooms should have urinals, which route to a different area. Urine is rich in phosphates and nitrates, which are beneficial to plants but not to the composting process. When combined with greywater, liquid human waste adds necessary nutrients to greenery.


EcoBox climate controls must vary dramatically based on the specific installation. Temperate climates need less insulation, and may not need any heating or cooling. Northern climes may need little cooling, but a good deal more heating. For tropical climates, the largest challenge will be cooling when the sun is heating up surfaces. As described in the roofing section, the system design should prevent a good deal of sun from hitting the dwelling itself. In addition, the electrical power system may provide sufficient energy for a high-efficiency small air conditioning unit. Natural ventilation will be optimal when the exterior temperature is pleasant- aided by opening windows and doors on opposing sides of the structure, leading to cross ventilation.

High-efficiency ceiling fans can also serve to move air around, and provide a cooling affect to residents. Where necessary, a solar thermal heat box may use the sun's natural radiated heat to heat internal spaces, even when the outside temperature is uncomfortably cool.

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