Building a Modern Home with Ben Uyeda | How To Home Podcast #013

Building a Modern Home with Ben Uyeda | HTH 013

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back to the How To Home Podcast. My name is Aaron Massey alongside Tracy
Pendergast as always, and our guest today who needs no introduction, he is a
youtube creator, author, a former architect or current architect, and has a
little bit of everything background, a big name in the maker space, Ben Uyeda is
to be here.
glad that you’re here. We have a ton of questions lined up and why don’t you,
for people who maybe aren’t familiar with your background, why don’t you tell
us a little bit about yourself and how you got into what it is that you do?
so started off in architecture. Actually on the academic side, I was a
professor at Cornell University and I taught some of their first classes on
sustainable design. So when I was studying architecture that became the thing
that I thought was the most interesting because, when I was a student, there
weren’t any classes on green building, sustainability. There was a little bit
on like solar, but you’d have to go to the engineering school to find it. So I
became really passionate about that and after leaving academia, started
architecture firm called ZeroEnergy Design. Loved it. We became, I think now
we’re listed consistently as one of like the five best sustainable design firms
in the country.
the problem I immediately faced with architecture is that the more successful
you get, the less accessible you get and architecture is a service and it’s
often a high end service. When I started looking like, “Huh, we’re doing
these like really great solar powered homes with like all these green bells and
whistles, but a lot of them were like $3 million vacation homes”. So the
technology was really progressive, but you couldn’t really make an argument
that you’re progressing any part of society that substantially. So that’s
actually what led me towards what I’m doing now, which is trying to figure out
how do I design without clients and at first started with a tech company called
FreeGreen, where we actually so we said, “Well, what we want to do is
figure out a way to not charge people for design” because the minute you
make it a service and it’s custom, it’s too high end. We were like we need like
an off the rack solution.
we just started giving away free blueprints for affordable, ecologically
conscious housing and we sold advertisement right into the drawing. So most
people don’t know like what brand of insulation is in their homes. They might
know like the countertop materials, they know, “Oh, it’s this kind of
courts or this kind of flooring or the appliances”. But the most expensive
parts of the home are often invisible and what we did was actually just spec
the brand names into the drawings that people would then download and give to
their contractors. So yeah, that was fun. Survived 2008 we raised like, we did
the whole tech route that this was like the sort of the second wave of dotcoms.
Raised a bunch of money, thought we were so smart, like, “Oh, we gave a PowerPoint
presentation, people are throwing money at us, like we’re geniuses”.
2008 happens and you realize, “Oh wait, we were just actually in a really
great position during a nice little bubble”. So sort of survived that and
sold the company in 2014 and then that’s where I started doing what I’m doing
now, which is thinking, “Well, even if you’re designing really affordable
houses to be built from scratch, it’s not that accessible still because the
financing for new construction is so different than buying an existing
home”. Bank see it is inherently more risky. So you could design a home
that could be built for like $200,000. I’m always careful when I say numbers
like that because in California people go, “That’s so cheap” and then
you would go, different part of the country and they’re like, “That’s
ridiculous”. I want to shift towards something that was even more
accessible than new home construction and particularly what we saw was that
even when we designed affordable homes, people had a hard time at the lower end
of the market securing financing.
that’s when I started saying, well you know what, the Internet is moving
towards video. I think people are only going to watch more video content and
perhaps that’s going to be the way that I sort of share design ideas and I’m
going to even go take a step down from whole buildings and actually just start
working on furniture projects and DIY projects around the house.
launched HomeMade Modern in 2014, is that around 2014?
hard to say cause you don’t really know what you’re doing-
never know, yeah. You put a video out and you’re like, “Ah, I don’t
does it become real?
that’s what people ask me, “How long you’ve been doing like the Mr. Fix it
thing?” I don’t know, four-ish, five years.
my whole life or the last few years-
between [crosstalk 00:04:31]
when did I start putting videos out? I don’t know. Go back and look.
got some questions lined up from listeners that have sent us messages on social
want to hear all about your background with HomeMade Modern and your new
shipping container project. You’ve recently built a shipping container home
here in the Joshua Tree Desert, which I really want to know how you decided to
do that. But before we dive into all those questions, we just want to encourage
you guys to get involved with the show. Please hit us up on our social media
and leave us messages, comments, questions for the show. We would love to hear
from you and we want to thank our founding sponsor of the show, which is
FilterBuy for making this series possible FilterBuy is an HVAC filter provider
and they ship everything to your door directly. You can sign up for a
subscription service. It’s super easy and you don’t ever have to remember to
change your filters, which is super helpful if you’re building a ship container
is great, we use them in our house and yeah, changing your air filter is like
one of those things that people really forget to do, but if you or people in
your family have allergies, it’s actually one of the more important sort of
healthy things that you can do that’s super easy.
first question I want to ask is you do a lot of your projects and your HomeMade
Modern stuff with minimal tools and like very limited materials, I would say.
What is it about your design aesthetic or what is it that drives you to make
stuff like that?
in the beginning it was looking at the underserved sort of DIY population. When
most people think of home improvement or DIY content, they think of a very
suburban context. When I was getting started, I was looking at the data showing
that people in my age demographic were moving more and more towards cities and
I’m like, “Well, if all this DIY content is sort of built around having
this big garage that you can work in and building a whole island in your
kitchen”, this is really frustrating for all the people that have bought
their first homes that probably even have greater value than a lot of these
suburban homes that we see on sort of the TV shows. But they’re doing it in a
lot less square footage and they don’t have a garage, they don’t have a home
depot or big box retailer like right around the corner.
where it sort of started was I was living in Boston at the time and I was
thinking, if it’s winter you have to figure out how to do these things so you
don’t have room for a table saw or a drill press or a joiner or these big
stationary desktop woodworking tools. But if you think about it, you can build
a lot with a circular saw, a drill and an orbital sander. With those three
tools, which could all fit in sort of a one foot by, two foot by one foot deep
box, which could just hide into a closet, you could build most of the furniture
for your house. So it sort of started by looking at that underserved market and
then from there I just really sort of enjoyed how that fostered in
accessibility. I started seeing people around, not just around the country but
even around the world sort of building the same stuff that I had, whereas when
you see this sort of woodworking projects, you really only see people in like
America and some European countries having access to those kinds of tools and
things like that.
really intimidating too, all of the steps in the process.
Well I think that when I first started watching some of your videos, I was
like, “This guy is like just building stuff in his loft or whenever”.
It’s like on the floor, it was loft like just running power tools, right. You
know, in his kitchen basically and I was like, “Okay, that’s cool”.
think early on I took a lot of cues from food media. So I think food media is
like way ahead of sort of design and making media because it’s just one degree
more accessible and more understandable. But if you talk to him, there’s so
many chefs that can make an amazing meal. They don’t need a sous vide machine,
they don’t need the giant kitchen aid mixer, they don’t need all this fancy
stuff. It’s really just looking into fridge, making the most of what they have
and that’s actually I think the way to making or cooking part of your
lifestyle, is making it less about the gadgetry, less about the expensive components
and just much more about understanding the interaction between the elements,
right? That’s why I love that Netflix show, the Salt Fat Acid Heat, cause they
really break it down where it’s not about recipes, it’s really about
understanding concepts. Once you do those, whether it’s cooking or design and
making, you can really just improv and make the most with whatever your
situation is.
are your favorite materials to work with if you had to kind of break it down?
it’s whatever I’m working on next or whatever is new, like I’ll always get
really excited about the experimental part. Like with a container house, I got
into welding a lot. It’s more efficient to invest into one area, get all those
tools out and then do a whole run a project within a similar vein until you
kind of get sick of it and then switch to something else. Trying to be well
rounded in the moment I think is hard and you lose some of those efficiencies.
But I would say if you look consistently over the last five years, it would
probably be plywood and concrete. Concrete because it’s one of the few
materials that’s really available worldwide. If you’re in Cuba or South America
or China or the US, you’ll see concrete and it’s relatively similar all the way
around. Whereas like hardwoods in particularly are so different. Different
countries have different access to them and a lot of countries don’t have
I think is interesting because even if everyone doesn’t have the same kind of
plywood globally, people are at least familiar with the concept of sheet goods
and it sort of lends itself to both things at the building and construction
scale and at the kind of furniture scale. So I’d say those two things just for
their sheer versatility would be like my main to go tools.
mean, you’ve done some incredible stuff with really those two things. One thing
that comes to mind for me, like the one project that like kind of blew my mind
was the spiral staircase that you did with the plywood.
was crazy. I mean, it’s just really just one material and you made an entire
spiral staircase out of like CNC components, which I mean, we’ll throw a link
to that in the show notes for anybody who hasn’t seen that. But that’s crazy
and then the other thing is your buckets dual, right?
was such a widely exposed, worldwide project. That is crazy because-
has buckets, everyone has concrete and most people can find a few sticks lying
around. I even saw one, I think it was in Alaska where they were making them
out of ice and they’re using it for ice fishing.
kind of cool. I mean-
that your most popular project to date?
interesting when people ask like popular, right? Because I have a ton of things
that have been viewed way more times and I think there’s a danger for people
that are in this sort of content business to think of views as popularity. But
that sort of ends into a race to the bottom because you look at a lot of the
content that gets a lot of views. It’s, there’s no redeeming nutritional
qualities to it whatsoever. So for me, yeah, the buckets tool is probably the
most popular in terms of the most amount of people around the world has sort of
built it. I’ve recently became fascinated with angle grinders cause there’s
such a weird tool. They’re kind of scary because they are a little bit
disk, it’s shooting sparks.
it’s a $40 tool that you can cut, sand, shape, carve and do all sorts of crazy
things with it. So it’s one of the least expensive tools that you can do the
most with and the part that I was sort of blown away discovering was how
straight you can cut plate steel with it. Like I always had this idea in my
head that if you want to make stuff out of steel you have to have torches and
gas tanks and all these things, but you really need like a $40 tool with an
abrasive wheel and you can cut incredibly straight lines through like eighth
inch thick steel and it’s because it doesn’t cut that fast, it makes it
actually easy to follow the line and be accurate. So that’s my new jam.
new jam is the angle grinder. Well, to that point you built something I thought
was just like so simplistic and kind of brilliant was your lounge chair.
that was really cool.
just like a bent piece of steel covered in some foam and leather, but so visually
appealing. I thought it was such a cool unique build.
We look at like high end boutique kind of furniture sometimes and we’ll be
like, “Okay that Lounge chair and that store window is $4,000. I bet you
we can build something a lot nicer for like $200”, because you know
leather is still expensive if you use that for upholstering and that becomes
the sort of premise. It’s this sort of like somewhat antagonistic kind of
walking around seeing something that’s been deemed to be unaccessible to most
people and just kind of wanting to show that, “Nope, you can really have
things as nice as you want them”. Some people will just have to work for
them and other people will have the capital just to pay for them.
a big trend obviously is like mid century modern. I see that a lot thrown
around and I’m always like, okay, well what do you … What’s the definition of
a modern piece of furniture? If you’re making a piece of furniture that’s
inspired by the 60s or the 50s and you’re making it currently in present day
and that’s modern or mid century modern, like I never know what’s a real modern
piece of furniture? What’s the definition of modern?
it’s … I’d have two answers. If I was in an academic setting it’d be totally
different than I’m in sort of a more populous setting. So typically modernism
is like a time period in design and architecture that was about sort of where
people were really figuring out how to aesthetically express the industrial
revolution. Like now that we have all these new means of manufacturing and
production that are efficient and are expanding our capabilities, how do we
express those individual language? That’s when they start saying, “Oh, we
don’t need ornamentation”. The houses aren’t made out of wood anymore.
They don’t need these like layering of things that allow the water to flow over
them. We can make the angles meet right up and make perfect precise boxes. So
that’s the sort of theory and context behind modernism.
it tends to mean now, it’s sort of a replacement for the word contemporary and
people I think associate with just being less decorative, which is fine. I
mean, any sort of popular conception of any word is going to be the one that
actually matters the most no matter what sort of academics complain about. I
think it’s just the acknowledgement that we don’t always need a lot of
embellishment. Now this sort of ironic part of this is that it’s often harder,
especially from like a craftsmanship standpoint to make something without
embellishment because embellishment often hides a lot of things, right? Like
it’s really hard to cook an egg perfectly, but if you put a lot of hot sauce
and all kinds of stuff over top, you really embellish and decorate it, you can
hide the lack of craftsmanship. Modernism tends to refer to things that are a
little bit more, that are less ornate and stuff like that and I think that
probably contemporary would be the better term to use, but since it doesn’t
index as well on search engines, we’re going to go with modern.
I think for my generation, the mid century modern has the same appeal. It’s
like a TV show like Mad Men. It seems to be like a sort of, I don’t have direct
memories and experiences with that timeframe, so it seems rare. It seems fresh
and in a way and that’s what the 80s seems like the people that are a little
bit younger than me.
There’s that like nonexistent nostalgia. Like you’re nostalgic for a thing and
I see that all the time. Like you’re nostalgic for a thing you never lived.
is so interesting.
what do you encourage people to look for if they’re going to buy?
think to do it asymmetrically, I think is the best advice you can get. It’s
like if you’re going to buy clothes, don’t get everything from banana republic
like all the same thing and just look like the mannequin. Like, that’s lame.
Try to find like the cheapest basics that you’re satisfied with and then
splurge on something you’re going to keep for a long time. Like a really nice
jacket or coat and I think the same thing’s true with the home. Pick a couple
of things that you’re going to invest in that you’re going to keep forever.
What I don’t want to do is ever buy a cheap set of like a cheap knife set from
Target, right? No, you don’t want that. I’d much, rather than have eight
mediocre knives, I’d rather get the really good chef’s knife and use that for
everything and then add the paring knife. So I’m only adding things that I’m
going to keep for a really long time and they also get the joy of actually
using really good stuff and the price of those, the paring knife and the chef
knife is about commensurate with the eight piece set that are all garbage.
how I feel about tools too to a degree. Like, there’s a lot of tools you can
get have that base layer of tools and then splurge on that one tool that’s
really going to either make your job easier-
not going to buy it 16 times because you keep burning through it. You spend
that money kind of the one time and you can invest in it, but you can get a lot
done with very basic level tools.
You don’t need to be a completest for any one brand.
you don’t need to have Festool everything. You might have one Festool, like if
it makes your job easier, your life easier, but you don’t need a whole arsenal
of that.
and there’s so many examples of people with like fantastic style either for the
way they dress or their home where they’re using a lot of really inexpensive
stuff. I always tell people if they need like a glass tabletop, get it from
IKEA. IKEA produces glass at such scale, glasses, glasses, there are tempered
glasses just as good quality as Design Within Reach. Pick the pieces that you
want from there. Cabinets are another great example. Like, if you’re getting
sort of like lacquered cabinets, yes, the Poggenpohl ones are really nice, but
you can dress up some basic IKEA or Home Depot ones and just maybe customize
the hardware, upgrade the hinges yourself. There’s a lot of ways where you can
mix in the low end with a few high end things that are really important to you
to kind of stretch your budget more efficiently.
box is a box-
far as a cabinet goes, you can make new doors. It doesn’t … It’s not that
hard, honestly. Like it’s a relatively easy thing that you can learn how to do
with relatively simple tools if you want to. But a box, a cabinet box, it’s all
it is, it’s just four pieces of wood put together, up on the wall. So …
I think for a lot of those things, people need permission to do those things.
Well, they need to see somebody else do it first and that’s the beauty of why
you and I kind of do what we do, which is make videos and show people that
what’s possible, which is cool and it’s fun to hear you say, I think we align
very much the same in terms of the appreciation for other craftsmen who do
things. Ceramics is one of the huge things that I follow on Instagram as well
cause I’ve never done it. I would love to do some of it, but it’s just such an
interesting and unique world that is totally different and leather work even to
that point also and my wife is in the horses of questioning stuff. So some of
the stuff I see like in terms of the saddle makers and stuff, how the heck do
they even do that? Like it’s crazy.
I was getting started and posting all these videos and instructions for how to
build furniture, I had a few sort of high end furniture makers reach out to me
and being like, “You’re saturating the market and people aren’t going to
buy this stuff”. I’m like that’s not true at all and I think actually the
opposite’s the case is, the more I learned to cook, the more I like to go out
to eat. Cause-
have an appreciation.
You realize there’s just things that like I’m not going to go out and buy 30
different ingredients to make this dish. I don’t have that level of physical
dexterity or that skill. But in trying to do it at an amateur level, I’ve
realized how much separation there is between me and the pro. So I encourage
all the people that are specialists is actually, you want to encourage an
amateur participation in your thing. It’s not threatening, you’re actually
building a fan club who’s actually going to really understand you.
when someone leaves your channel, when someone’s visited the site or watch some
videos, what is your goal? Like, what do you want the takeaway to be? What do
you want people to learn?
depends on the scenario. So for a lot of the subscribers and followers are
design students or designers just getting started in their career. So the
overwhelming message I would want for them is that you can have a creative
career does not dependent on patronage and I think for whether it’s
architecture or film or something like that, these are creative professions,
but you need in the traditional practice of them, you need someone else to give
you capital to build the building or design the building for them or to fund a
movie or whatever this big project is and for those types of people, I want to
show that there’s a way to get your ideas directly to consumers without having
this sort of capitol bottleneck.
the actual people that are consuming design and looking for design solutions in
their homes, I think the main thing I want to show is that you can be more
forgiving and by sort of picking, so many people come to me go, “I don’t
want to like build it and then not like it or do those things” and a lot
of it isn’t because they don’t like what they make aesthetically. It’s because
they sort of think that everything has to be perfectly flat. A table doesn’t
have to be perfectly flat, it just needs your food not to roll off of it. A cup
needs to not tip over. If it’s not … If it’s good enough for that, it’s fine.
It’s perfect actually and it’ll look more handmade, which is actually what
people like.
why when people go into like a French cottages in the countryside, nothing
straight. That’s what looks good about it. That’s why it doesn’t look like a
computer rendering. Things can be incredible looking. They can be incredibly
aesthetic without that sort of maniacal self abuse of demanding that every cut
is perfect, every piece fits perfectly. No gaps in between the pieces,
everything perfectly flat, everything perfectly level. That’s not actually what
makes things look good at all.
you have just kind of completed shipping container home project build.
of all, what made you want to build a shipping container home in the middle of
the Joshua Tree desert?
Tree is a special place for me and my friends. We used to, we still have been
doing lately, although it’s funny, the one year I’m living out there is the one
year we didn’t do it. But we sort of had this tradition like the weekend before
thanksgiving, we’d all go climbing and rent like an Airbnb or go camping and
those sort of our mini reunion right before the holidays. It’s a fantastic
place. The climbing is really fun and it’s just visually like unlike any other
place. So I’ve always been sort of had a kinship for that part of the world. My
interest into shipping containers is actually a little bit antagonistic is when
I was last teaching architecture, I don’t know how many times students try to
bring shipping container projects into the classroom and they’d always say,
“Well, I saw online that it’s a really affordable way to build housing and
it could solve all these things because you just stack these, they’re cheap.
You just stack these blocks together and you have instant spaces and
one of the misunderstandings about buildings in general is that building structure
and enclosure is not hard. It’s the marrying of all the trades together to put
plumbing into those structures, to run electricity through them, to install
windows in a way that’s watertight, to insulate it in a way that’s not going to
get moldy but still going to stay warm. Those are the things. It’s not just
making big boxes. Making big boxes is really easy. So I wanted to do the
shipping container house one, I do like this that acts of industrial objects.
So I’m not against shipping container houses, but I feel like there’s a lot of
misinformation out there in the public sphere. The same way there is about sort
of 3D printed houses. So I said, “Well what better way rather than railing
against it like a grumpy old person is just show here’s how you would actually
do it and let people sort of make decisions for themselves”.
thing that I want to highlight in this process is this sort of regulation
intensive process of building a home in California. California has some very
serious sort of housing issues and a lot of them are coming from regulation.
It’s very well intentioned and that I appreciate the values behind it but is
universally applied in a clumsy way that makes construction really expensive
and rather than again saying this political party smart and this one stupid, I
said, here’s just what goes into building a house. So I thought it’d be like
one, it was be a fun challenge to build cause I’ve never built a house starting
with the cladding and roofing first and then build inside of it. Then two, I
thought it’d be a really interesting way to create a different longer form type
of video series where I really explore novel construction ideas in depth.
you’re looking at a set of plans or something and you’re building it with all
that in mind. With you and with the shipping container, you’re having to modify
everything. You’re modifying this existing steel structure and based on my
experience from building things, anytime you modify things it slows it way
down. You have to change everything because you have to custom do this, custom
do that, change things. Whereas in a traditional building thing it’s like,
“Oh this is where this is going to go, this is where this is going to
go” and you just build it around it. So I could see that that would just
take a lot of time to do that.
People don’t think of home construction as this like high tech endeavor because
it involves like two by fours and like concrete and gypsum board. Like these
are very seemingly primitive materials. So there’s no, it doesn’t seem like
it’s just like top down intelligent system, but what it does have is like
thousands and thousands of iterations of evolution to slowly improve how all
these components come together. It’s the biggest mistake architects make is
that they think traditional construction methods are stupid and inelegant and
beneath them when actually this, not that any one person invented them as like
an act of genius, but each little component, because it’s such a competitive
market by being a home builder or a real estate developer is incredibly
competitive and they’re always searching that advantage so they’re thoroughly
testing new things, integrating them, the things that sort of work and make
things more efficient, survive and keep going.
the traditional methods of building a home are really smartly layered so that
you can keep adding the next system. When you start with the exterior cladding,
that means that even for running electrical or plumbing, it’s like, “Oh,
it takes a lot longer to drill a hole through steel, right, than it does
through wood”.
if you have to run something through the sort of the flooring structure of a
shipping container, if you’re doing and there’s joist or beams every 16 inches,
it’s one thing to drill holes through sort of wood joist every 16 inches. I
mean, that takes 20 seconds per hole. When you’re doing it through steel, it
might take 15 minutes.
you got to go, “Oh, I have, we have 20 more”. So one person spent all
day doing something that in the traditional house would take half an hour. So
there’s a lot of things like that, that compound and in developed countries
like America, labor is often a bigger expense component than …
you may think that you’re getting this great deal, cause I spent $5,000 to get
my siding, my roofing, and it’s already preassembled. But if that cost you
another 200 hours of labor, you didn’t save any money.
where do you see the future of home building going? All these fun ideas are
being experimented with. Do you see a big shift happening?
see a lot of small shifts. So people always ask me about like, “Oh, this
tiny home movement”. I’m like, “Well, how much movement is there?”
There’s a lot of media interest, but are they making up 1% of new home builds?
I would be skeptical of that and would you really want to live in a house that
small? Now in general, I think a lot of existing homes are way too big and I
think we do the same thing is that we overreact to something that’s equally
impractical. So most homes have a lot of space that we don’t really need.
Right? Like and I know that the average square foot for single family homes
has, I think gone down somewhat since like 2005, 2006. So I think smaller homes
is nice. I think the other trend that I’m sort of seeing is people wanting
homes that feel more like really cool loft or apartment, sort of like the
intersection between sort of a urban living patterns and suburban living patterns.
I think those are kind of the broad things that are happening on mass. But I
always try to look at like what’s actually being built cause that tells a much
better story of trends. I think open floor plans in general are sort of
becoming more and more seen as like a norm. The ideas of domesticity are more
casual than they used to be. I think there is an interest, a greater interest
in building performance and a thermal comfort and then the other thing that I
think is the most interesting, the way people are thinking about smart home
stuff and control systems.
I was starting my architecture firm, there was companies like Lutron, which
would sell you like a lighting system for like a ridiculous amount of money-
their control board that-
joke that it would be cheaper to hire a butler, name him Lutron and tell him to
which lights to turn on and pay him $30,000 or $40,000 a year rather than pay
$80,000 for this system that basically creates interchangeability between your
light switches. But what’s so cool now is now they have like WiFi systems at
Home Depot to do the exact same thing that are like 30 bucks each.
that’s what we just installed in our home. I was telling Aaron.
That kind of stuff is really exciting, but even still there’s still like a
level of complication and that needs to be sort of worked out. It’s not, it’s
like easier than it used to be, but it’s not like it’s easy as using an iPad.
So I think those are the areas that I think will be exciting and we’re seeing
consumers that sort of are both either really interested in technology because
they’re kind of like gadget people or just so sick of dealing with all these
things that people are telling them are smart, that are just making their life
more difficult and just say, “You know what, I want the luddite house, I
want something that’s like, it has a new car in it. But otherwise than that it
looks like something that like the amish would live in”.
It seems like based on a lot of your answers that you do a lot of research
before diving into something and kind of look at trends and statistics and kind
of think very-
academic, of course.
and I’m wondering with your furniture design or with pieces you build, are you
inspired in that direction? Are you ever just wake up and say, “I do feel
like building this thing” and just start working?
it’s funny. I actually don’t like analytics, but I value them. So like when I
was finding, looking for land to build my Boston apartment building, I was
like, “God, analytics are so important, but I really, like I really don’t
ever want to open Microsoft Office like ever again in my life”. Like, I
just think it’s, I don’t know, somewhere between like Microsoft Office and
using like a porter potty where they’re both I feel like it just like extract a
little bit of your soul if you’re a creative person. But I still understand
that they’re like, it’s really important to have insight in what you’re doing
and not just going on hunches. So what I would always try to do is to, what do
I think is like the most interesting company that is doing a really good job of
that and how do I be like analytical parasite on the back of them?
Whole Foods at the time was just so smart about figuring out which neighborhoods
were on the rise and so I would just had like every Google alert set for
anytime there was like even the hint that the new Whole Foods was coming into
any area and then whenever I do one of those, I immediately look for empty
multifamily pieces of property that were within like half a mile of that. It’s
not me crunching the numbers and building up the spreadsheet to identify the
neighborhood this on the uptick. But it’s me sort of saying, “Here’s the
people that are really good at it. I’ll just watch what they do. They’re going
to do a better job than I’m going to do it on my own sort of amateur thing and
I’ll piggyback along that”. That’s kind of how I’ll do that.
design stuff or like furniture projects, I’ll often look for things that I can
misappropriate from like one area to another. So from architecture I’ve been on
a lot of construction sites and will see like sort of industrial scale I-beams
and I remember being in like a steel yard cause we were working on some sort of
details for a big building we were doing in Boston and I was thinking,
“Ah, some of these high beams are like kind of the right size for a bench
or a coffee table and I kind of thought they’re going to be more rusty and
gnarly. But some of them are like pretty smooth and the mill scale isn’t bad on
them”. So I talked to the guy, “Mike, how would you finish this if
you didn’t want to paint it?” He’s like, “Oh, I just rub like paste
wax in it”. I’m like, “All right, well I’ll take that eight foot
section”. He’s like, “Well that’s too heavy”. I’m like,
“Okay, I’ll take a five foot section of this”. Mike’s like,
“Aah, cut it with a band saw”.
I ended up building and it’s in my Boston house, my coffee table out of just a
single piece of I-beam and so the inspiration was just sort of misappropriated
from one sort of level or scale of making big industrial buildings to the home
and then I carved it up with that $40 angle grinder. So it was a really fun
project. You only need a $40 tool and that’s it. The steel was pretty
inexpensive relative to how massive it was and it’s like one of those pieces
that people always really like. That’s like indestructible coffee table, like-
conversation piece.
you can put your feet on it. You can … We’ve used it actually as a mini anvil
for hammering out a few things flat. It’s great for when you want to punch
holes in leather and so it tends to just be a sort of looking at to where
there’s value in things that aren’t directly within this sort of traditional
practice of what I’m doing, in this case furniture building and just looking at
the things that are right next to it that could be misappropriated and brought
over. So like, where are people doing research and adding value into something
without the intention of it ever being a furniture and then how do I pull from
that? I think it’s where I get most of the ideas.
we’ve got a bunch of questions in from some of our listeners and fans and stuff
[crosstalk 00:34:18]. Yeah, your mom sent in a laundry list of questions. First
one was why don’t you call her more often? But yeah, if you don’t mind, we’ll
just dive into a couple of social media questions.
long did it take to cut all of the plywood pieces for the spiral stair project?
it was done with a CNC machine, so it’s not and you only have to set up the
file once and then it just repeat. So it’s the same cut made over and over and
over again. So it was probably about 30 hours of CNC time, which is a lot, but
you can load up and you can double stack the material. So it’s cutting out two
layers of plywood at a time. So for each of those hours of machine time, you
only need about five to 10 minutes of human interface to do it and we were
doing it on a hobby size machine. If we were doing it, we did one the X-Carve
by Inventables, which is $1,200 entry level machine. If you do it on a big
industrial machine, it really wouldn’t take that long at all.
question came in from Steven on Instagram asking, “Are there any
differences in insulating a shipping container home compared to a traditional
and no. The only part that’s really different is if you have to insulate in
between the floor beams, right? So, even within wood construction, there’s
thermal conductivity between the structural members. So a two by four in a
normal house, wood isn’t that conductive of heat as energy as say steel is, but
it still is more conductive than the insulation. So that if you do a thermal
scan of any building, you can actually see the sort of predator style
see style-
the style like heating, you’ll see the studs are. Now with a shipping container
house because the floor joists are steel that’s exaggerated even more. So what
we did was we insulated in between those steel beams, but that installation
honestly isn’t doing that much. It’s just creating a little bit, it’s reducing
the air infiltration just through volume. But we did continuous insulation
above the existing plywood on the floor of the shipping container and then we
did insulation on top from the metal in. The good news is, in a place like
Joshua Tree, even though people think of it as really extreme, the temperature
difference between inside and outside isn’t that great, right? You want it to
be about 68 to 70 degrees inside and it might be 105 degrees outside. It’s like
a 30 degree difference, whereas in like Boston and at my house there, I want 68
degrees inside of it might be negative 10 outside and so in Boston we did a 14
inch wall cavity with a double studs with a whole bunch of cellulose and a
little bit of closed cell spray foam insulation against it.
question is never about how to insulate the building, the question is how to
insulate for that structural type within that particular climate.
type of child were you? Were you building things or taking things apart when
you were young?
was. I don’t know if that was from any inherent individual characteristic, but
I think one of the … Some of the … I actually think it came mostly from
books even though my parents did give me and my brother tools from a pretty
early age. I think it was seeing the sort of social value and the sort of the
way that making can lead to adventures. So if you read books like Swiss Family
Robinson or Robinson Crusoe, or to a lesser degree, a Huckleberry Finn,
fabricating things and building things was not just a means of survival and
sustenance, like the way it is a little house on the prairie. It was actually
like a means for creating opportunities for yourself, right? If you want to
have an adventure, traveling away from home at an age is not appropriate at
all, like build a raft and go down to river.
was those kind of narratives that made the sort of physical part of making seem
grand and adventurous rather than tedious and laborious. So I don’t think it’s
really about sort of telling your kids and giving them tools. I think it’s like
about fostering that connection between freedom and personal responsibility and
having their own little moments away where they can be like little, where they
have autonomy through their sort of own physical acts. I think that’s the part
that tends to get kids wanting to invest more and get better at it.
I was always an obnoxious LEGO collection.
It’s like, why do kids like riding bikes? It’s not because they actually love the
physical exhilaration of going at 15 miles an hour. It’s because it’s their
first means of transportation where they feel a little bit of autonomy.
one’s from Ethan Carter designs on Instagram. We touched on a little bit, but
maybe you can speak to one specific thing. Besides permits, what was the
biggest challenge or surprise that you ran into when building the shipping
container home and how’d you overcome it?
think it was just not having clear answers for the other workers about how to
do things. Yeah. They’d be like, “Well, can we drill a hole through
here?” And I’m like, “I guess so” and they were like, “How
do you want us to flash?” Here’s like a great example, right? Normally
when you’re flashing a roof, the roof isn’t already there first.
So if you, wherever you have sort of drains, you need to have a pipe that vents
out the roof. Roof of the shipping container is the roof of the shipping
container. So when we put the pipe up through it, we have to flash it and
normally you’d want that flashing to tuck under the roofing and [inaudible
00:39:23]. But in this case we have to-
it on top.
have to set it on top. So it’s just like we had to find a more flexible type of
mastic sort of adhesive and then we had to figure out a type of like sort of
tar or rubberized or vulcanized rubberized coating to go over it that would be
compatible with the expansion and contraction of the steel, which is more than
like shingles on a roof. So, because these pieces are sort of monolithic, the
roof is all one piece, which is incredibly rare. I mean, some commercial
buildings have roofing membranes, but they’re not tacked down all the way so if
they shrink or expand under the sun, it’s not a big deal there’s room to move.
With steel, it’s much more unpredictable what it’s going to do.
it was trying to sort of just research and make those types of decisions that
just aren’t typical and even though the people I was working with have way more
construction experience than me, they only have experience as non-conceptual,
which means they sort of following specific practices. So when you switch a few
variables, sometimes they’re a little bit out of their depths. So it was trying
to take my conceptual understanding of design and buildings and marry it with
their sort of wealth of hands on experience and trying to find that right
answer in between.
getting a lot of like, at that point you’re reliant on the substance, whatever
that substance is for your waterproofing instead of in a traditional roof if
you’re flashing, there’s like some kind of usually a physical barrier of some
kind of metallic or something else.
and that brings up to actually the most difficult part, which is holding my
temper in the comment sections of these videos, because people love to just
say, “Well, that won’t work”, but they’re in Florida and they’re
right, but they’re wrong. They’re right because I wouldn’t build the same way
in Florida the same way I would here. The same way I wouldn’t wear the same
clothing in Alaska as I would in Orlando. So it’s funny when people aren’t …
They have their right relative to their own limited context and then they think
that they got it, right? You made a mistake and you’re like, “Well, you
know, it rains like four days a year here. So I think we’re good”.
is the most affordable place to get shipping containers?
again, it depends on where you’re at. In California, if you build a house, I
think it’s actually any building, it doesn’t just have to be a house. But if
you built out of shipping containers, they have to be what’s called a one trip
condition container, which means that it … It basically means that it came
probably with cargo from most likely China over to the US and then you bought
it and the reason why they insist on that is it was actually two reasons. One
is that containers before 2017 often use LEED paint and then they passed a
regulation 2017 that sort of eliminated that. There still might be some zinc in
the paint and zinc poisoning is also something, but it’s not. It meets the sort
of, I can’t remember the agency’s standard for acceptable levels though about
other things. So when it comes to like buying containers, you can go on to
craigslist and find a 40 foot container for like maybe like 500, 800 bucks. If
you’re buying them the one trip condition, that same containers could be more
like 3,500 to 5,000 depending on if you get a high bay or stuff.
the cheapest place to get a one trip containers in Southern California is
called like a and it’s just because of volume. They’re
like the biggest, so they’re the cheapest and they also can set up delivery and
they can also get you really cool specialty containers. When you’re on a
desert, you kind of get these breaking bad kind of vibes. You’ll see someone
like ride by on an ATV and across your property, kind of look around and you’re
like, “Dude, like get out of here” and then you’ll see on the video
surveillance cameras night they’re coming back and kind of poking around. So we
got to store all the tools and stuff we bought one of those containers that
opens on the sides. So like the broad side of it, it’s a 20 foot container and
it opens all the way up in the side and that was awesome for like storing all
the tools. So has like the high bay ones, which have
extra tall containers, they have the normal containers and they have all the
specialty ones in between.
have a house on a hill. I thought about digging out of the thing, it slide in a
container in there and making my little bunk or you know.
my doomsday bunker.
a little elevator from my or hidden contraption doored going down beneath my
house. I’ve thought about it, don’t act like I haven’t thought about it yet.
would be very doable and if you did it kind of underground, you had saw some of
the ground would keep regulating the temperature.
tempt me with a good time. I make content for living. It sounds like a good
a couple of skylights in or get some of those like the solar tubes to flex some
some natural light down. I’ll put a painting on the wall, make it look like a
window. Boom.
So there’s obviously a lot of information about you floating around there,
about your skills in the projects you’ve done. But we want to know some more
personal questions about Ben.
we want to get to know Ben a little bit.
do you mind answering some quick questions?
won’t answer all of them maybe, but-
you can say pass.
no. Yes, I don’t mind.
of all, does your tattoo means something?
I actually use it for measuring. I had the idea about four or five years ago
and I was like, “Well, I’m always kind of using my hands or the distance
between my pinky and my elbow to kind of approximate things or I think all of
us had probably like walked off how many steps something has to try to get a
sense of how big a space is. There’s so many times when I’ve been up on a
ladder and I needed to know how needed to measure something and didn’t have a
ruler or anything handy. So I thought it’d be really cool if I just tattooed,
transformed my arm into a ruler. At first I thought of doing a very basic one
where I’d just put a mark like every inch or just like a normal ruler. But then
I was thinking that’s a lot of marks where you don’t need all of them.
really just need the single inch increments, like one inch or five inches or
seven inches and then I just need something to do fractions. So I made these
bands, which are half an inch, a quarter inch and an eighth of an inch thick
and then in between different spaces between these different lines, I can do all
those single inch increments.
job would you be terrible at?
jobs I’d be terrible are the ones that require more Microsoft Office and less
Adobe creative suite. There’s some sort of scale in there somewhere, I’m like
better at these ones, worse at these ones.
your favorite piece of clothing?
like Vance. They’re like my go-to shop shoes. They’re inexpensive and they feel
disposable, but there’s still like relatively comfortable for sanding or
standing for long periods of time. I don’t feel bad if I get paint on them or
anything like that. The other thing that I always sort of noticed when I was
traveling in Japan, is there are kind of construction work ware versus in the
US. So in the US, everything’s like heavy, bulky and protective. Over there
everything is like they’re got like in between scrubs and a Ninja outfit and
what they want the stuff very form fitting. So no one knocks over anything and
no one’s scuffs anything. So they’re very protective of the environment as they
go through it. For someone that’s working in for a long time was working in
more of an apartment or an indoor setting, not in a concrete floor shop. I’ve
always liked Vance’s footwear because they’re not clunky. I’m not going to
accidentally kick and mar something with a giant construction boot.
skill would you like to master?
Working with clay. No, not so much like the potter’s wheel or anything like
that, but I think just getting a command of how to work with clay, how to fire
it and things like that. In particular, I think there’s a lot of ways where you
could take very basic level 3D printing, print really complex types of
geometry. The problem that people don’t like about 3D printing as to material
quality is very plasticky, but then use that to mold and shape the ceramics,
which you’d done fire into something that has an outstanding material quality.
about favorite TV show?
depends. I would say like my favorite show isn’t on TV. My favorite show is
primitive technologies which is a youtube channel and I think it’s the most
watch it.
it’s the most brilliant thing I think on video because it’s so an artificial,
but is yet so thoroughly captivating. There’s no voiceover, there’s no talking,
but it’s amazing how much you learn from it and it’s basically this guy walks
out into the woods and just starts building civilization and he’s kind of like
up to, I think like the crude iron age now, like smelting rocks and stuff like
that. So I think that is just like something I really appreciate. In general
though, I think like this is such a great age of like, there’s so many
interesting documentaries out there. Free Solo being the one that just won the
Academy award is just like such an incredible piece of filmmaking and amazing
story, suspenseful, really scary.
just insane. So I would say like documentaries and primitive technologies on
has impressed you the most with turning your design to something special?
always hesitant with my design because I think by the time someone turns it
into it, it’s their design. But one person I’ve really enjoyed watching over
the years is it’s an Instagram account called Concrete Geometric. So they took
some similar ideas for the things I was working on early with sort of like
concrete vases and decor projects and they turned into a whole business and now
they’re innovating with all kinds of really interesting colors that you
wouldn’t typically associate with concrete. So to see like that they took some
inspiration for what I was doing like four or five years ago and then this
evolution to where they’re making things that I have like no idea how they’re
formulating that and I’ve actually been talking to them about coming into their
workshop to learn from them. Those kinds of things are really fun. So yeah,
check out Concrete Geometric on Instagram.
is something that you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
write a comment on a comment section in youtube that they were thinking about
goes into another question.
was our next question.
think it’s about what you don’t do sometimes. I think there’s enough prompts out
there telling us to do more stuff. So I would say just say no more often.
the most annoying youtube comment that you get?
really salty ones I kind of enjoy cause I don’t mind the conflict of it and
I’ll sit back with a glass of wine at the end of the day and just be like,
“All right, which grammatically challenged individual am I just going to
roast from my own enjoyment for 15 minutes?” The things that only that
really upset me are people spreading misinformation and people, they often
don’t mean to do that, but they often do it in a form of exaggeration. So when
I was doing concrete like tables and stuff like that, people would say that’s
going to break. That wouldn’t hold, if you put any weight on that it would
break. What I really despise about that is they’re wrong, first of all and then
at first would do like videos to prove that they were wrong.
what I don’t like about it is if they asked, “How strong is that, could
that hold more than?” I don’t mind the skepticism. The skepticism is
valuable. The skepticism is where I see what they’re thinking and then can know
how to, “Oh, maybe next time I should build in a strength test into this
project”. So the skepticism and the criticism is important. The false
certainty is really destructive because someone else might be interested in
that project, which is totally viable and then they see that comment and it
creates doubt and then they go do something that would actually be a productive
and constructive thing. So again, I love the challenge. The challenge is good,
challenge people all the time about where they get their information, make them
cite their sources. But if you don’t actually know for sure, don’t act like you
most watched video is me building a concrete sink from three or four years ago
that I built and all like a bunch of the comments are like, “That’s never
going to work”. I’m like, “I’ve had the sink for four years. It’s
totally fine and is not-“.
are so wrong.
I occasionally I’ll go back in and respond to one. I’m like, “Four years
in now. Still holding strong”.
It’s when … Yeah, it’s that over stating of it. Again, I’m sure you wouldn’t
mind it people said, “Are you sure that that didn’t?” Like the
questioning is valuable.
I’ll always say, “Well, I’ll let you know when I get there and I’ll let
you know if it breaks. But until right now it’s working great”.
We need more people just admitting to things that they don’t know.
are you most looking forward to in the next 10 years?
don’t know. Like I don’t really think that far in advance. It’s funny, when I
was involved with my tech company, you have to make sort of projections to
investors like five years down the row and you’re just making it up. No one
really knows, but what’s crazy is that you then get sort of like held to those
standards which often can take something that starts as a really exciting idea
and turns it into like a daily nightmare. If I feel like I’m learning things,
meaning that there’s enough novelty in the tasks at hand where I’m gaining
skills, if I’m fortunate enough to not have a lot of financial duress so that
is something that can get an array of quality life. Then if it’s sort of this fun
and enjoyable in the sort of immediate, like kind of silly to think too much
beyond that.
thank you so much for answering all of our silly questions-
we appreciate it.
fun to learn a little bit more about you.
we can’t thank you enough for being here. We really appreciate it and I feel
like I could just listen to you talk for hours.
we have a weekly podcast too that I host with two other makers called the
Modern Maker Podcast where we just sort of talk shop on a weekly basis.
people who want to check out your shipping container, you’ve analyzed, you’re
presenting this entire process.
do people find that?
just go to youtube and search in the modern home project or if you put in my
name, you’ll be able to find it as well.
social media is your full name.
go to Ben Uyeda and try to ask him questions because he might not-
think I actually own that account too, I just forgot the password on it.
that’s convenient and then you also have HomeMade Modern?
people can find you there as well.
more than DIY furniture stuff.
of opportunities to find your stuff. I’m really looking forward to seeing the
rest of the shipping container project myself. I’ve been following along with
it and want to see the finished product and I would love to come out and check
it out in person these days.
encourage you guys to follow us on social media as well. You can find us on
Instagram @HowtoHome_guide, or you can always visit our website at Sign up for our email list so you never miss out on any of the
content and we want to thank our founding sponsor of the How to Home Podcast,
which is FilterBuy. We appreciate their support and we couldn’t do the show
without them.
Ben, thank you so much for being here. We really appreciate it, hope you had a
good time.
see you guys next time.

Show Notes

This week, we chat with the phenomenally talented, Ben Uyeda. We talk about his incredible undertaking of building a shipping container home in the middle of the Joshua Tree desert, his design process and some of his favorite materials to work with currently.


You can always call and leave your questions and comments on our voicemail!



  • Started out as a professor at Cornell University speaking about sustainable design.
  • Started a design firm called Zero Energy Design-
  • Started a tech company called Free Green where he gave away free blueprints with eco friendly housing, and sold advertising on the actual downloadable blueprints, and eventually sold it.
  • Launched where he started creating DIY projects.

Show Highlights:

  • Ben takes a lot of cues from food media. They don’t need a lot of fancy stuff or gadgets, just understanding the elements.
  • Plywood and concrete are two of Ben’s favorite materials. Concrete because it’s accessible worldwide, plywood because even if it’s not the same globally, people are at least familiar with sheet goods.
  • If you’re going to buy furniture try to find the cheapest basics and then splurge on the things you’re going to keep forever.
  • You can have a creative career that’s not dependent on patronage.
  • You can be more forgiving: Everything doesn’t have to be perfectly flat, people actually like things that look more homemade.
  • Tracy asked Ben about the future of architecture and he talked about the trends of smaller homes and more urban type living situations like lofts. Open floor plans becoming the norm, building performance, thermal comfort and smart homes are all trending.
  • Ben doesn’t like analytics but he values them. When looking for new property he searched areas where Whole Foods were popping up.

We Mentioned:

The Spiral Staircase Made With CNC–

The Bucket Stool

The Lounge Chair-

Ben’s Shipping Container Project:

  • Ben felt like there was a lot of misinformation about container construction, so he decided to just show the process and enjoy the fun challenge.
  • He wanted to show the regulation intensive process of building in California.
  • You might think a container is a great deal, but take into account the labor cost and how intensive each step can be.

Homemade Modern:

-Driven by the underserved DIY population of people who wanted to build things in a smaller space with minimal tools.

– You can build a ton of stuff with an orbital sander, circular saw and drill.


Q: How long did it take to cut all of the plywood for spiral staircase?

A: It was actually cut with a cnc machine ( , so about 30 hours of cnc time.

Q: Is there any difference in insulating a shipping container as opposed to a house?

A: Yes and no, the only part that’s really different is if you have to insulate between floor beams. Wood isn’t as conductive of heat as steel is. They insulated between steel beams and then continuous insulation above the plywood and from the metal in.

Q: Were you building things and taking things apart when you were young?

A: Ben loved the way that making could lead to adventure. He was inspired by Swiss Family Robinson and Huckleberry Finn.

Q: Besides permits what was the biggest challenge of building the shipping container?

A: Just not having clear answers for the workers on how to do things. They’d ask questions about how to do things and Ben had to research and figure things out as they moved forward. (And holding his temper in the comment section of the videos…)

Q: What’s the cheapest place to get a shipping container?

A: It depends on where you are. In CA they have to be a one trip condition container. In SoCal it’s

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