BILLINGS – When artist Kate Morris went looking for somebody to design her idea of converting a steel grain bin into a home, she picked a young architect who also happened to be a former student, Nick Pancheau.
Pancheau embraced the project enthusiastically, and his inspired design has received widespread acclaim.
Billings-based Collaborative Design Architects, where Pancheau is now a partner, took home top honors in the recent Montana American Institute of Architects awards ceremony for Morris’s grain bin house, which is near Great Falls. The home has become a tourist attraction, and has developed a devoted following online. A blog "sheknows" even identified the home as one of 10 houses capable of withstanding a zombie apocalypse.
Panchaeu credits the project’s success to the vision of Morris, a Billings-based artist who was his art teacher from kindergarten through eighth grade when he attended school in Lockwood.
“She had two fantastic things going on,” Pancheau said. “She had an existing grain bin on a beautiful site, and she said ‘I want a bridge from the sloping landscape into the house.’ That’s what opened up this realm of possibilities.”
Pancheau is a 2002 Billings Senior High graduate and received his master’s of architecture degree from Montana State University. The Honor Award is the highest level of achievement awarded at the recent AIA gathering.
Morris isn’t the first person to think about converting a grain bin into a home. Mother Earth News, a popular publication among rural denizens and back-to-the-land enthusiasts, occasionally publishes articles about converting grain bins into dwellings. Most plans show simple dividers erected within the bin’s cylindrical walls.
By contrast, Pancheau’s design involved fitting the dwelling’s main floor, 900 square feet of living space, within the bin, while cantilevering two large sections of living space outside the bin’s corrugated walls. A long narrow bridge enters the bin at the dwelling’s main floor, where it meets up with the main floor, an insulated box that rests on steel supports inside the bin. Unconditioned spaces are located above and below the living space.
“As an artist, Kate was trying to let us express all that could be expressed in this kind of setting,” Pancheau said. ”There’s an artfulness and a beauty to these agrarian structures. One way to approach it would be to put up some studs and put a lid on it inside and say you have a grain bin house. In this project we tried to explore the limits that could be done in this kind of setting. Obviously it’s in a beautiful area, and it’s a beautiful structure.”
Because the design called for piercing the sides of the steel bin to accommodate the living space, the architects had to sharpen their pencils to make it work. A grain bin is engineered to handle hoop stress – the force that results when tons of grain pushes out against the cylindrical structure. But things get complicated when large holes are cut in the side.
“Basically, you have a pop can, and whenever you cut a hole in it you need to run a piece of tube steel adjacent to the opening for reinforcement,” Pancheau said. Structural engineer Matt Krivonen developed a plan to make sure the walls were adequately reinforced, and the supports holding up the dwelling space were properly engineered.
Another distinguishing feature of the dwelling is what Pancheau referred to as reciprocal space, an unconditioned void that displays the bin’s interior walls. The bin’s interior wall is visible through a bank of windows on the living area.
“You can see the beauty of the inside of the grain bin, so you haven’t lost that connection,” said Jeff Canning, a principal at Collaborative Design. “That’s what some of the jurors noted: the beauty of knowing you’re living inside a grain bin.”
The house has received a lot of attention, and Collaborative Design Architects has fielded a number of inquiries from people who have expressed an interest in this type of architecture.
One misnomer about converting a grain bin into a house is that it’s a cheap way to build a home. Brian Johnson, a principal at Collaborative Design, said the higher cost of building discourages some people who ask about the home.
But the project has also led to other projects.
“Our motto is that we’re a proponent of eastern Montana architecture,” Pancheau said. “This project puts it in the forefront of people’s minds. They love what we did with the grain bin, and they think we understand Eastern Montana in a way they appreciate.”