Upcycling a Shipping Container into a Fireworks Stand

November 12, 2009 - The purpose of this blog entry is to take you through the process of converting a shipping container into a fireworks stand - from concept to creation.  I have included a number of photos to help others who may want to use a container to build a Fireworks Stand, Concession, Storage Unit or similar structure understand the process. You will hear people refer to these steel boxes as cargo containers, intermodal freight containers, but, when they are "upcycled" in this fashion, the proper name is an ISBU or Intermodal Steel Building Unit.  One EXCELLENT source of information on the subject is the ISBU Organization,

University of Houston, College of Architecture faculty member Tom Diehl helped me to realize that a used cargo container could be turned into a very effective building structure. In 2005, Tom's 5th year architectural students visited our property and as part of a class project, they provided me with a number of very interesting concepts on how best to develop our four acres of land. 

The front of our property is on Sawdust Road, a very heavily traveled street. It is the first southern entrance to The Woodlands, a 28,000 acre master planned community less than a half-mile away.  It is a perfect spot for a retail establishment, but our deed does not allow for any permanent structures to be built on that part of the property.

Tom's students showed me illustrations and photos of a number of structures that had been built from cargo containers around the world. I was intrigued by the concept, but a little puzzled as to why these structures were not more common in this area (we are subject to hurricanes, floods, and other challenges from Mother Nature).

For several years we had been leasing the property to a Fireworks vendor. He would bring in an enclosed trailer just before the 4th of July and before New Years (the times when it is legal to sell fireworks in the state of Texas).  My vendor felt he could increase his sales if he could bring in two trailers. Instead, I suggested that I build a unit for him out of a cargo container.  Using old shipping containers for fireworks stands are common because they are relatively plentiful (the Port of Houston is one of the largest ports in the US). He agreed, and I began my quest to find a container, and retrofit it as a fireworks stand.

I had a friend who worked at the local office of American Container Trading (ACT) Company. He put me in touch with their sales manager in Los Angeles, CA.  The manager gave me a price, and suggested I go check out the units at Equipment Management Services (EMS) in Houston, TX, about 40 miles from our property. These were older units no longer suitable for use as Intermodal Shipping Containers and really were showing their age. Since we were going to put a metal facade on the outside, and paint it, the rust and other surface blemishes did not bother me (too much).

At the EMS storage yard I met with Kevin Smith, the General Manager, who gave me a wonderful education about shipping containers, and specifically, what to look for when buying one.  Of the 12 units ACT gave me to choose from, Kevin helped me select the best one, and gave me a price to deliver it to our property.

After we wired our payment to ACT, Kevin called to let me know my container was on its way.  The part of our property where we were planning to place the container was not level. We used several 18" x 18" concrete blocks to level and support each corner of the unit. Our challenge was to move the container 6-8 feet laterally. Because of a drainage ditch, the container would have to be dropped, and then manually moved into place. 

Moving a 6000 pound hi-cube container is a task that I had no idea how we would do.  Our tight budget did not allow for a crane, or any kind of heavy equipment, so we took a cue from the ancient Egyptians, and used rollers. Actually, I found a video on YouTube showing this guy moving several containers all by himself with just some 2" diameter pipes sandwiched between some 2" x 8" x 16' planks, He moved them a few inches at a time using a come-along. This set-up actually worked pretty well, but we used a big Ford F250 with a chain attached to the trailer hitch to pull the container into place.  

With the container set, we used the next few weeks (as time allowed) to prep the outside and inside for painting. We cut the side walls and front wall for the doors and framed them out.  My idea was to make doors that when opened would also serve as an overhead canopy.  Not such a good idea.  The doors were so heavy that the only way to open them was by designing and building a pulley system and using some heavy duty garage door springs on the roof (a nightmare!). We were also not able to fully waterproof the doors, and with every heavy downpour, we ended up with water inside the container (which does not mix well with fireworks or the people working the stand). 

Cutting 1/4" plate steel into pieces that were 8' x 10' in size resulted in sheets too heavy for two people to handle.  We had to cut the large plates into sheets smaller in size.  We used a Rose Oxy-Acetylene torch, which did a good job of cutting the steel, but there was a lot of clean up needed. We used a very powerful Makita heavy duty grinder with a 7-1/2" wheel for removing the slag and finishing the edges – gloves, ear and eye protection are necessary).
Adding the "skin" (Galvalume Steel) to the outside of the building was relatively easy, but doing it in the 103 degree Texas sun was no fun. Since the building was to be used for commercial purposes, we had to have the wiring done by a licensed electrician.  Steel conduit was also required for the wire, and we added a personnel door on the end of the container which is required on all fireworks stands.

The total cost for the container, shipping, steel framing, skin, paint, electrical, and labor was just under $10,000 or just under $32/square foot.

In late 2008, a strip center was built on the property adjacent to ours, and a fire lane was placed directly in front of our stand. Since the doors opened up into the fire lane, the fire inspector required us to change out the doors, and we did using standard 8’ rollup doors. The three doors and installation added another $1,000 to the project.
Our fireworks vendor has signed on for another season and the stand will help his customers bring in the new year with a bang.The container conversion project was a lot of work, but it was also alot of fun.


Category: Container Building,