Unusual abodes: The grain bin home

I’m a fan of unusual homes. From tiny homes to recycled homes, I’m fascinated by unconventional ways one can build houses that save on construction costs and future utility bills.

Our own house plans are for plastered walls with straw bale infill, and we’re close to breaking ground. But when I picked up the latest issue of granola crunchy Mother Earth News, for a minute I considered scrapping our plans. To live in a grain bin.

You really have to click that last link and check out the photos to see how architects and builders are taking the big round structures pictured above and turning them into stunning homes. I had never heard of such a thing as a grain bin house, but I was intrigued.

Low Cost, Low Impact

You might be wondering, as any rational person would, what would possibly drive someone to turn a grain silo into a house. Turns out there are quite a few reasons grain bin inhabitants chose the structure. Consider the following features:

  1. Eco-friendly. Many builders buy used bins, and they can be recycled. Mother Earth News suggests finding used bins by placing an ad in farm magazines or on your local farm co-op bulletin board, through a local bin dealer or erector, or surprisingly, even on Craigslist and eBay.
  2. Low maintenance. Not fond of painting your house? That’s no longer a task on the to-do list with a grain bin house. The shiny metal will dull to gray, but you’ll never have to pick up a paintbrush.
  3. Cost effective. Bins cost $30 per square foot or less (not including slab or assembly costs). You can get smaller bins for an office or workshop for a few hundred dollars, or sometimes for free.
  4. Visual appeal. Mother Earth News interviewed Mark Clipsham, an architect from Iowa, who says, “…curved forms are used in either the most expensive and prestigious buildings or the most utilitarian and primitive ones. These forms have evolved out of use because of changes in available materials, labor costs and prevailing building methods. But why not use something utilitarian and affordable — a grain bin — to build what is otherwise in the realm of the expensive and exclusive?”

Bells and Whistles

Earl Stein’s 1,800-square foot grain bin home in Woodland, Utah, uses high-tech systems and solar heat gain to use less energy. The house, called Monte-Silo, was designed by Gigaplex Architects out of two linked corrugated metal grain silos, arranged to enjoy a view of the Provo River. The home features the following:

  • Rubber-covered concrete floors heated by sunlight that pours through the windows
  • Radiant heat in the floors (Stein says even with the indulgence, his heating bills are far below the average for houses of the same size in Utah.)
  • Heat retained with computer-controlled drapes
  • Propane-burning stove
  • Metal grating and guard rail of the second level deck provide shade in the great room during the summer

Another beautiful example of a high-end grain silo home is M. J. Gladstone’s 450-square-foot, octagonal living room and bedroom combo with and attached angular shed that holds the kitchen, dining area, home office, bathroom, and a closet. Both Gladstone’s and Stein’s homes cost about $200 per square foot.

A Simple, Owner-Built Home

On the other end of the spectrum is an owner-built grain bin home constructed with mostly locally sourced materials. A 3,000-bushel grain bin was converted into two one-room apartments with plenty of cost-saving features, such as the following:

  • Used grain bin with walls, a roof, and a concrete floor
  • Straw bale insulation
  • Double-paned glass windows and doors placed to maximize solar heat gain
  • Doors, windows, and straw bales purchased locally
  • Reclaimed wood from a nearby barn
  • 24-watt solar electric system

The owners chose a grain silo home because it could be inhabitable in about three months (before winter). In fact, the speed of assembly makes these structures ideal for emergency situations in areas hit by natural disaster. Final cost wasn’t listed for this home, but it’s fair to say it’s at the low end of costs for a grain bin home.

Grain bins aren’t just being converted into homes, either. People have made offices, workshops, playhouses, storage buildings, and guest apartments out of them. Considering expense, strength, and maintenance, they’re an ideal building material. Unusual? Most definitely. But when you start to think outside the box, they make a lot of sense, too.

What do you think about unconventional homes like these? Would you ever live in one? What about building a workshop or office out of a grain bin?

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There are 40 comments to "Unusual abodes: The grain bin home".

  1. De says 05 August 2010 at 04:38

    I was also intrigued by this article for the same reasons. However, the $200/sq ft seemed high to me for an “inexpensive” home, and also seemed expensive considering the bins themselves are only $30/sq ft?

    Very cool that you are building with straw bale, hope to hear more about that and other non-traditional ways to build a home!

  2. Everyday Tips says 05 August 2010 at 04:41

    Well, I will say that the pictures make the homes much more appealing than I would have expected.

    I imagine to live in one of these homes, you would have to live in a rural area. (Would city laws allow for a grain-bin house? Don’t know.) However, it seems like it would be either really hot in the summer or cold in the winter.

    I guess a lower end home would be fairly inexpensive, but there are also a lot of ‘regular’ homes that are quite inexpensive now too. I understand the ‘green’ part of a grain-bin home, but I don’t think I would do it.

  3. Becky says 05 August 2010 at 05:16

    All these projects where people turn an existing object (grain bins, also boxcars are popular these days) into a home are intriguing. But keep in mind that the walls and roof are actually one of the cheaper and easier components of a home to build. You still have to pay for the foundation, electrical wiring, flooring, plumbing, doors & windows, kitchen fixtures, finish materials (including wallboard and paint), insulation, interior stairs, and the million other items that are installed inside the walls and under the roof. And in the country, don’t forget putting in your infrastructure; driveway, well, septic, connecting to the electrical grid, or if off-grid, solar panels, windmilll, batteries. None of these things are cheap.

    While you might save a few bucks on the walls and roof with this idea, on the long run, issues like fitting your doors and windows into a rounded wall, insulating a building that was not originally meant to be insulated, and so forth probably eats up any of the budget that you saved by not building your walls and roof from scratch.

    I think the greatest appeal of redoing these pre-fab structures is that they allow homebuilders to see/visualize the structure on their lot right away. It can be hard to define what your house should look like when you’re building from scratch. If a grain bin has already defined the footprint and facade for you, you have something to work with as you plan to fit your home into the landscape.

    The structures *are* neat looking, no question. But I’d caution anybody who expects using one to save them much money.

  4. [email protected] says 05 August 2010 at 05:18

    For a period of time, I was homeless and had to live in a corn crib and I have to say that doing so involuntarily is no fun. We didn’t do it to be eco-friendly, we did it because that’s what we had to do. There was no running water, electricity came from an extension cord from another building. Don’t even think about using a bathroom since there wasn’t one. Our water came from a pump outside.

    Having lived in a grain bin (not an upgraded, fancy $200 a square foot place), I’d rather not do it ever again.

  5. Coley says 05 August 2010 at 05:22

    I’m curious and intrigued about the reasons you intend to build with plaster walls insulated with straw. What are the typical R-factors for straw compared to fiberglass or other more common types? How does the cost compare? And why plaster? Won’t that be much more difficult than drywall to maintain, particularly after hanging or especially reloacting pictures and mirrors? What’s the attraction?

    As to the grain bins, I’m not really convinced that it’s either cost-effective or even all that green. The gentleman in the linked NY Times article apparently spent close to $200 per square foot (purely improvement costs, nothing for the land). As for any green credentials, all it’s really doing is substituting a metal cylinder for traditional wood framing. The rest of the house still requires, well, just about everything else that a typical new-construction house requires, only now many of the materials must be special-ordered and custom-made, which in the grand scheme of things is decidedly un-green (red, perhaps?). The scale economies and supply chain efficiencies perfected by, say, Ryland Homes, will ultimately mean that an individual new-construction house purchased from them will be far greener in the big picture, not to mention far more cost-effective.

    And of course, the greenest option of all is to buy an existing house, for which there is no shortage at present, and spend your time and resources on energy efficiency improvements.

  6. Jason says 05 August 2010 at 05:27

    I love the idea of these non-traditional homes. I also know someone who grew up in a geodesic dome house, and pointed out that there was no way to really hang a picture on the wall! I’d imagine a similar problem to exist when every wall is curved in your grain silo house!

    I would concur with Becky, though. Once you add in all the “stuff” beyond basic shelter, I’d expect construction costs to be on par with regular construction.

    Of course, with construction there is always a way to spend more money. You only need to watch a few seasons of “This Old House” to see that it’s really easy to make a million dollar barn and live in it.

  7. Becky says 05 August 2010 at 05:35

    De, how big was the $200/sq ft home? Smaller homes tend to be more expensive per square foot, because bathroom fixtures, kitchen fixtures, water heater, etc. are expensive and have basically the same cost regardless of the size home you’re putting them in. Spreading their cost out over a lesser square foot area increases the cost per square foot of a small home.

    This is one reason why new houses have gotten so big over the last few decades. Additional bedrooms and larger rooms & closets are inexpensive to add, and thus decrease the cost *per square foot* of a new house. Of course, they increase the absolute cost of heating, cooling, and maintaining said house. But when you’re initially buying, a bigger house can “feel” like the better deal because of that lower cost per square foot.

  8. Meg says 05 August 2010 at 05:35

    April, I love hearing about your house plans. Hope to hear a lot more about it as things progress! My husband and I have a dream of building our own some day.

  9. Mark D says 05 August 2010 at 05:44

    Wow April this stuff is amazing. I can’t believe that people have done this sort of stuff! Makes me wonder what other things we can convert into homes.

  10. Daedala says 05 August 2010 at 06:10

    Size matters not. The article says that the homes built at $200/sqf were 1800 and 1000 sqf. (Keep in mind the little one’s owner apparently didn’t have to pay for the land at all — there’s a life lease situation there.) And $200/sqf is higher than average for regular homes in ANY state, though I admit I couldn’t easily find numbers for the top of the housing boom.

    What’s the cost of constructing one of these for the people who are doing it for frugality?

  11. HollyP says 05 August 2010 at 06:25

    Very interesting idea, and certainly picturesque. As a contractor’s daughter, I’m actually interested in how these would work out relative to the building code, and how they’d hold up under extreme weather. (For example, isn’t the midwest prone to tornadoes?) If I were investing $200/sf into a new home, I’d want to be certain they were constructed to be disaster-proof (depending on what disasters my area was prone to.)

  12. April Dykman says 05 August 2010 at 06:43

    @Coley–Check out the link in the article to answer some of your questions about straw bale. Basically, R-factors are much higher, and cost depends on how fancy you get with your home. Owner-builders can do it pretty cheap, hiring a contractor will be more expensive, similar to a regular house.

  13. trb says 05 August 2010 at 06:47

    I grew up on the farm, and remember blazing hot days scooping grain out of the bottom of these things wearing aerators. Without proper insulation, they’d be miserable for temperature, and noisy and dusty. But these photos are beautiful, so I believe that a transformation is possible.

    @HollyP, no worries about strength. Silos hold in tons and tons of grain, and are well fastened to a foundation, making them just as tough as the articles note. Much more secure than your stick-framed house in a tornado, and much more durable in the face of rain, snow, solar exposure, etc. Nearly indestructable.

  14. Jacq @ Single Mom Rich Mom says 05 August 2010 at 06:59

    My dad lived in a granary when he was getting started in farming 60+ years ago. Definitely not on the scale of these! More like Steven #4’s corn crib, only without any electricity. Not so romantic, but granaries do stay relatively cool in the heat of summer due to the reflective qualities of the metal.

    My main concern about any kind of alternative housing is the resale potential, which I think would be very difficult. It’s not an issue if you want to stay put forever, but what if you do?

  15. TosaJen says 05 August 2010 at 07:06

    I love reading about these kinds of projects, especially pertaining to “not so big” houses.

    However, being a privacy-hoarding introvert, I wouldn’t want something that was obviously so different and such a statement. I want the conventional-looking, but smallish and extremely efficient and convenient house. With a view. 🙂

  16. Adam says 05 August 2010 at 07:39

    Well, my parents have 3 empty grain bins in their yard in Iowa, so I guess that leaves me options for a “guest house” if I ever hit rock bottom. 🙂

  17. Tyler Karaszewski says 05 August 2010 at 08:30

    These sorts of things are interesting (just like the similar shipping-container homes that others have built), but I just can’t see them being for me. I don’t think they’re very pretty, and if I’m going to drop several hundred thousand dollars on land (I’m not kidding: http://www.redfin.com/CA/Santa-Cruz/121-English-Dr-95065/home/18910747 ), then I don’t want to skimp at the end on the house to save a few bucks. Also, around here, a grain-bin home would look extra strange, since no one grows grain and they’re not a common feature of the landscape. I’d need to get one shipped in from the midwest or something.

    Sure, there are advantages to these homes, but there are other methods of construction that share those advantages, while looking nicer. (And allowing your house to fade and look tarnished is hardly an advantage over painting it — If you don’t care if it looks old and faded, then you can simply skip painting it.)

    Every time I suggest buying land and building a house on it to my wife, she retorts by saying that the lowest-impact home is one that’s already built. Even the most eco-freindly home creates a much bigger environmental impact than another home that already exists and therefore has a sunk environmental cost. It’s just like buying used instead of new — the longer a lifespan you can get from an object, the lower its environmental impact is.

    I think partly though, she just knows the way I can get involved in projects, and is afraid she’d barely see me for the entire timespan of any construction we did.

  18. Ely says 05 August 2010 at 08:32

    I once stayed in a hotel that was built in an old Quaker Oats silo. It was really nice, and the roundness was kind of fun. It just looked like silos from a distance.

    I love unusual homes. I’ve seen the tiny homes before, and homes made in shipping containers, homes in caves, homes dug in the ground, “earth sheltered” homes with living sod roofs. Many of them are very cool, but currently they are a niche market and so very expensive, unless you build it yourself. I particularly like the ones that use the earth for natural heating and cooling. I would love to build one into an otherwise useless hillside and live cheaply semi-underground. (with a few skylights of course! 😀 )

  19. Josh says 05 August 2010 at 08:35

    April — Have you seen the documentary “Home Movie?”


    If you’re a fan of unusual homes (and people), you’ve got to check it out. Not only are the 5 houses they profile interesting, but the people behind them are even more compelling. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry.

    It’s a doc made by the same folks who did “American Movie,” a true classic for the ages.

  20. babysteps says 05 August 2010 at 08:40

    I’m a big fan of adaptive re-use and/or using local materials. Full disclosure: currently live in a regular stick-built in 1919 moved c1980 home. Downsizing soon!

    Just yesterday there was an NPR bit on micro-homes in Japan http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128953596 – most mentioned were architect-intense (so likely high cost psf), but most seem to be under 500sf so total cost…well, design seems to be more the focus than cost, but fun to look at, and a few other “tiny home” links to previous articles.

  21. Kevin M says 05 August 2010 at 08:50

    I could see living in a shipping container or earth sheltered home if the cost was right. Our house cost about $90/sqft for a regular stick built. If I could get the land and something built for half that cost it would be tempting. However, it seems like these types of things will be a niche until building codes change.

    Have you had any experience with this April or are you contracting out your house?

  22. Jaime says 05 August 2010 at 09:14

    I love unusual houses with unique architecture, but I currently live in a very standard duplex. 😉

    I do think resale is an issue since not everyone wants such a unique home and sometimes they come with unique issues as well (like curved exterior walls you can’t hang pictures on easily). And associated costs for repairs down the road can be higher if the architecture is so extreme that a plumber or electrician has to go to extra lengths to access your systems.

    Even so, someday I hope to have something fairly unique though maybe not a grain silo. 😉

  23. Budgeting in the Fun Stuff says 05 August 2010 at 09:31

    $200 per square foot is 3 times what we paid for our actual house…I wouldn’t consider that inexpensive unless you live on the coasts.

    Pretty though. 🙂

  24. mike says 05 August 2010 at 09:42

    I think unique homes (mansions, tiny homes, silo homes, etc) are wonderful things to view as a spectator. But I’m more of a traditionalist for my own living space. Reasons:

    1. My current 1300 sq ft cottage style house is perfect for my family of four’s needs.
    2. Resale value on traditional homes is easier to guestimate.
    3. Not having to worry about whether my house meets building codes or has any unusual tax issues is easier for me to deal with.
    4. The idea of people always, all the time, non-stop, saying “Wow, your house is so different” doesn’t appeal to me.
    5. And as many people have made reference to, $200/sqft doesn’t seem all that much of a good deal.

  25. Shari says 05 August 2010 at 10:38

    I love unique homes. I live in a boring cookie-cutter ranch home. It suits our needs but to me is kind of blah. Someday I would really like to own a home with character, and I have often thought downsizing would be nice also. (less to clean, and not able to gather as much JUNK with less space). I really like these ideas. Converted barns can be lovely, although they are larger.

  26. Becky says 05 August 2010 at 11:29

    HollyP and trb,

    No, grain bins do not hold up well to strong winds. I’m a meteorologist who has had to do storm surveys in the past, and damaged grain bins are pretty much the lowest common denominator of damage, next to blown-over trees. Pictures at this link (http://www.crh.noaa.gov/news/display_cmsstory.php?wfo=gid&storyid=53668&source=2, see bottom) show grain silos that were completely blown off their foundation by an EF-1 tornado, which translates to wind speeds of 80-100 mph. Those speeds can be produced by simply a strong thunderstorm.

    These “houses” do look fun, but I wouldn’t establish one anywhere severe weather is frequent.

  27. eddy says 05 August 2010 at 12:33

    I don’t know about other areas, but in the mountains of eastern California, you can’t get a building permit without professionally engineered plans, and whenever you mention non-standard designs to an engineer, they get dollar signs in their eyes.

  28. Kathryn says 05 August 2010 at 12:46

    I LOVE stories like this–I’m fascinated by the vision and ingenuity involved in repurposing non-residential structures for use as comfortable homes. However, I have to agree that it’s far greener to buy an existing home, as long as you’re not planning to do extensive renovations with new materials.

    @Coley: Plaster is generally considered a “green” material because it’s often made entirely of natural substances, and it’s more durable and better-insulating than sheetrock. Having lived in homes with plaster walls, I can also say that hanging/relocating pictures requires a little extra care but really isn’t a big deal.

  29. Janette says 05 August 2010 at 13:07

    The thought of a tiny house next to our huge barn is appealing. Grain elevator- not so much!

  30. Peggy says 05 August 2010 at 14:03

    Interesting article, but not the place I’d want to live. I don’t like metal objects if I can have wood. (even prefer eating w/chopsticks and a wooden spoon rather than using metal!).

    The pics of the inside make it look cramped. If anyone has read the “Cat Who” series of books by Lilian Jackson Braun, you’ll know that Jim was able to change an old apple barn into his home only after inheriting a considerable fortune.

    Interesting/unique, but the glare must be fierce on a sunny day. Anyone who won’t reveal cost details either got an incredible bargain or is too embarrassed by the high cost they paid. I’m sure the cost is beyond the means of most frugalists.

  31. Kate says 05 August 2010 at 16:00

    I lived in a standard shipping container while posted in Afghanistan… it was actually quite comfortable.

  32. nyx says 05 August 2010 at 18:38

    my bf and I are thinking of getting a shipping container and using it as a home, I did my research and there are some nice homes that are built of shipping containers. Actually you can make them as nice as you want.

    They don’t have to look ugly, it all depends how much work and money you want to put into them, but let me just say they’re cheaper than the houses on the market. I’ll be honest I don’t want to work 15-30 years to pay off a mortgage. Neither does he.

    That’s why we’re looking for alternatives. Thanks for posting this. Its nice to see that GRS posted this, I do appreciate it. Why should anyone tie themselves to 30 year mortgage slavery? That’s what we want to avoid.


  33. bon says 05 August 2010 at 18:42

    I feel like I’ve heard a lot about grain bins and serious mold problems – maybe this is the exception and not the rule (I’m a city dweller) but I would do a lot of professional research before considering a used grain bin. Just google ” grain bin mold” and you will see lots of results.

  34. KJ says 06 August 2010 at 15:09

    April and other admirers of unusual homes: have you seen Home Movie (2001)? I cannot recommend it highly enough.

  35. Victor says 07 August 2010 at 07:54

    Great to see so much interest in repurposing existing resources, I am a huge fan of the shipping container home concept like this.


    I would agree with previous commentors when they make the point that there are both advantages and disadvantages of all building methods be they traditional, alternative or experimental – be sure to do your due diligence before committing to a project it is easy to get caught up in the positive “hype” for a solution without considering the challenges.

  36. Tim says 10 August 2010 at 05:19

    Having researched many types of structures…I have settled on a monolithic dome.


    BTW…I have nothing to do with the company except as an admirer.


  37. burnshead says 15 August 2010 at 07:50

    Fascinating. But having grown up in the Midwest, I know that the grain bins are always the first things to go in a tornado. 🙂

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  39. Martin Van Dyk says 13 November 2012 at 18:35

    Who erects grain bin homes in Ontario Canada?

    They seem to be most efficient in heating and wild weather. Current homes seem to be resisting sails in the wind willing to fall down.

    Who can help me in Ontario?

  40. aztec container says 09 April 2013 at 09:43

    I agree with this blog. Actually, I’m a big fan of UNUSUAL homes too. And one that I adore are houses made from shipping containers.

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