Part of me is very traditional, and another part is totally eccentric. In my quest for the perfect house, I find myself looking at the offbeat. This week, I spent a couple of days researching grain bins or silos that have outlived their usefulness on the farm.
Normally, grain silos have a 50-year lifespan. If not for the stresses of loading and unloading grain, they would last much longer. Farmers let them sit in the field once they have replaced them, but I’m sure they’d love to see them moved! This is when you can literally think outside the box.
Round homes are not unusual. They are common in many cultures as teepees, yurts and holy buildings. Combine circular with corrugated steel, and you might be seen as odd. On the other hand, it would be vernacular in a highly agricultural area.
Grain bins are made of steel, which is one of the most environmentally friendly building materials you can use. It is not mined or manufactured. Old steel is recycled into new steel over and over, so it embodies very little energy.
Bins and silos are durable. They probably have a 100-year lifespan as a home, which gets less use than a farm building. They resist the elements, including storms, hurricanes and earthquakes. They are insect, rodent and fire proof. They come with walls, a roof and a door, essentially making them inexpensive pref-fab frames.
Anything that is recycled and durable is light on the earth. A grain bin is also an inexpensive housing option, which is attractive to people wanting to live frugally and simply.
Buying and building
You can find a used bin on craigslist or ebay. If you live in an agricultural area, ask around at the local farms. Get the word out! You can dismantle it to ship it to your location, or if you’re lucky, maybe the farmer will deliver it.
You can buy new from a farm equipment supply company, and either put it together or get it delivered already assembled. They come in sizes from 18’ to 36’ in diameter, one or two stories high.
Bins have concrete floors, silos do not, and that will determine your foundation. Window and door openings can be cut from the steel. You may want to hire an engineer to find out what can be removed before the structural integrity is compromised.
There are several ways to insulate a grain bin. A 6” thickness of spray foam (the no-VOC type) can be applies to the interior walls. Framed walls can be built inside and insulated with batts or blown-in fiberglass. One smaller bin can be placed inside a larger one, and the space between filled with the insulation of your choice. The interior wall can be lined with a layer of insulation, vapor barrier and strawbales. You can also insulate and stucco the outside, but I like the look of the corrugated steel, which mellows to a matte patina after several years.
Porches and entryways can be added. Several units can be connected with breezeways. Go off-grid with a composting toilet, solar pv, water catchment, and passive solar heating and cooling. Use salvaged materials for an even lower carbon footprint.
Not just a home
Because grain bins are small, inexpensive, easy to ship, and quick to put up, they can be used as temporary disaster housing. Consider one as an office, guesthouse, studio or workshop, vacation cabin, or root cellar, putting it below ground. A cluster of them can be a unique bed & breakfast, a camp or retreat, or homeless housing.
I can picture my piece of land with two one-story bins connected via a greenhouse breezeway. One is 27’ in diameter for the main living area, and the other is 18’ for sleeping and storage. I’d erect another 18 footer as a detached studio. I guess that would make me more eccentric than traditional, you think? Either way, it would be fun to live in a unique compound of round buildings!