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Inhabitable grain bins have their advantages

By Kelly HearnCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 17, 2005



BOZEMAN, MONT.

On the inside, it's a rustic yet stylish tea room, complete with vintage gas stove, stairs of rough-sawn fir, softly curving walls, and a bathroom with accent lighting. On the outside, it's all grain bin, a hulking mass of glistening steel much like you would find on many farms.

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So is this just a quirky experiment in farm architecture or the next wrinkle in environmentally friendly housing?

For some designers, grain-bin conversion may be the next wave in adaptive architecture, with promised applications ranging from homes to guest retreats to refugee shelters.

While the idea isn't all that new, a handful of proponents are pitching the structures as low-maintenance, easy-to-build, recyclable dwellings that can stand up to Mother Nature.

"The biggest challenge is it being round," says Raymee Haubrich, an architecture student who helped his boss, Neal Ganser, design and build the tea room, as well as a grain-bin workshop and a small church, all of which sit alongside the highway leading east out of Bozeman, Mont.

The tea room offers about 700 square feet of space, including a 200-square-foot loft, and cost about $80,000 to build, a figure Mr. Haubrich says will fall dramatically as the construction method is refined.

Simplicity is a core concept. After laying the concrete foundation and assembling the bin, the structure is "dried in," meaning the shell, the siding, and roof are done. There's no need for paint on the outside.

A crew could assemble a new bin in a day or two, he says. Completing the entire dwelling, however, could take up to several months, depending on weather and the complications of finishing curved surfaces.

Grain bins, made of galvanized steel, take years to fade to a dull gray. The life span for a working bin is about 50 years, due to the structural stress of loading and unloading grain, but a converted dwelling, Haubrich says, can last much longer.

Rob Ilves, a construction consultant, converted two grain bins into a hurricane-resistant home mounted on flood poles over Horseshoe Beach, Fla.

He says the bins are the ultimate in weather-resistant design. Their heavy steel doors stay put during storms and hinged metal panels quickly close to protect windows. Small eaves help decrease the lift on the roof.

Small fans, air conditioners, and stoves can keep bins comfortable in harsher climates. But, in his case, Mr. Ilves says even the smallest breezes entering from all different angles force hot air up and out a skylight.

Ease and speed of assembly, Ilves says, make bins good for emergency situations. "You could take one of these and go into the middle of Iraq in nothing flat," he says.

Another bin, in Ames, Iowa, has been converted into a kid's playhouse and storage facility. The architect, Mark Clipsham of Architecture by Synthesis, also in Ames, says he has been looking for "the ultimate building technology, and this is close."

He's currently seeking investors for a prototype design that can stay warm during Iowa's frigid winters. "One day I thought, wouldn't it be cool to have a vacuum seal, like a thermos," he says. "Use a double-bin wall, a double roof, and [insulation] foam of six inches, and you would have a complete thermal break."

One of Mr. Clipsham's ideas is to build several units in a ring configuration and put a roof over the entire space. "It could be a refugee camp, a church, meeting rooms, or a social compound."

What's more, he stresses, the bins could be quickly broken down and the urethane insulation burned off, making the structures "wonderfully recyclable" (if somewhat of a pollutant).

But will mainstream America embrace the conceptual curvatures of futuristic "bin parks" or "bin communities"?

Don't count on it, says Racheal Tafelski, a writer for Metal Home Digest. "Some people aren't willing to accept it because it's a little far out. I think you would find cultural barriers, especially in places like the Midwest."

But Clipsham says the bin's shape does have history to back up it's use as a potential dwelling. "Notice that many religious and utilitarian structures use round configurations," he says. "Round huts, tepees, wigwams, all have something circular as a basic unit. It's a vernacular form in a lot of different places, so it's recognizable to people."

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