When our client called us to ask if we could turn a 21-foot-diameter grain silo she’d just purchased into an artist studio and potting shed, we nearly squealed with excitement. Because upcycling a silo: How cool is that?
The Challenge: Turning a Round, Metal Shell into a Livable Workspace
Grain silos are corrugated, galvanized steel structures, built vertically in hoop-like sections and bolted together along their seams, and providing minimal protection from the elements (waterproofing) for storing grain. Their walls are round, where most building supplies — including windows and doors — are intended for flat-walled, rectangular constructions. Silos have no insulation, very little ventilation, and no floor. (They’re bolted down onto concrete pads.)
So when our client asked if we could repurpose one she’d recently purchased into an artist studio/potting shed with plumbing, lighting, and HVAC capabilities, we were more than intrigued — we were excited to take on the challenge. We worked with the silo company to schedule delivery before excavating and creating the building’s concrete foundation. Then we coordinated with the silo company to have the shell built, observing and taking notes during its construction to prepare ourselves for taking it from a simple farm structure to something magical.
Our remodeling goals:
- Construct a comfortable, beautiful, fully-finished building from a bare metal shell
- Align the interior design with the main home’s industrial minimalist style
- Maintain the building’s structural integrity and visual interest
- Design a clean, organized, inspiring place in which to create art
The Solution: Steel Beams, Wood Framing, and Geometry
Framing up the walls, ceiling, and openings for structural integrity and construction flexibility
Although grain bins (sometimes called grain silos) are sturdy enough to stabilize the internal pressure of stored grain against their corrugated steel walls, they aren’t equipped for more human-focused needs — such as doors, windows, ceilings, and utilities. As renovation experts, we frequently build designs from the inside out, working within the constraints of an existing building, but those structures generally have more…well…structure. So, to protect the silo’s architectural integrity, we knew we’d need to reinforce any openings we cut for the new doors and windows. We worked with welders to create steel frames for the new doors and carpenters to construct wood casings for the windows. In addition to cutting an opening for a single-wide front door, we added a larger opening in the back of the shell for a French door and cut holes for two high windows in front to let in natural light.
We knew we’d also want to use more traditional interior materials to create the walls and ceiling, so we built wood framework inside the metal shell to strengthen the overall construction and make it easier to hang sheetrock. However, the wood framing against the metal shell also posed a condensation risk that could result in mold. We knew we’d need to insulate the new building, and foam insulation seemed the obvious choice. We worked with one of our partners to evaluate different types of blown-in foam before selecting one that would work with the odd mix of structural materials while keeping the silo comfortable in Indiana’s hot, humid summers and cold winters.
The entire effort required a lot of math to ensure the proper fit of each element to ensure the building would be waterproof and that all the doors and windows would operate smoothly. But geometry is a renovator’s friend, so we broke out the calculators and got to work.
Once we had the structural elements in place, we were ready to lay in the functional elements our client wanted.
Installing functional elements for comfort and creativity
Our client wanted her art studio to be usable year-round, so we ran power from the main house and installed a separate electrical panel and hot water heater for the studio/potting shed. Heating and cooling would be managed by a mini-split over the sink area. A sleek, chrome ceiling fan over the center of the building helps circulate air.
We used two layers of 1/4″ sheetrock on the walls and ceiling, which was easier to bend and fit into place on the curved walls. Our client also wanted a work area for potting plants and storing art supplies, so to make the cabinets and countertop feel built-in, we extended a kind of bridge wall across the curve to create a flat area against which to install them. We did the same on the opposite wall with a custom-build cork-board for displaying art.
To help with clean-up, we not only installed a utility sink but also a floor drain to wash away potting soil or other spills.
Both the single-wide front door in front and the French doors in back are glass-paned to let in light, assisted by two high windows on either side of the front door. Spotlights on the center cross-beams focus light on the counter area and on a table in the center of the room.
Adding design details for beauty and personality
Bright yellow trim and accents throughout the room add personality and vibrancy inside the studio. The dark wood crossbeams and decorative starburst chandelier tie in the main house’s modern, industrial vibe and infuse the stark, open space with a punch of style. Our client selected simple, manufactured cabinetry with clean lines to keep the area looking neat and clean, and we installed open shelving above the countertops for displaying interesting objects and pottery.
On the studio’s exterior, we built sturdy awnings for shedding rain over each of the doors and installed cool carriage lanterns for outside lighting. Even the caulking around the windows and doors became an attractive visual feature, beautifully filling the gaps between the wood frames and corrugated steel shell as it seals out the weather.
Our client’s landscapers built a privacy fence and deck around the back of the silo, creating a sitting area with a garden as the view from the French doors. The studio’s front door looks out onto a geometric planting and stone walking path that leads to the main home. The overall effect is one of a retreat nestled into the property.
No room for do-overs: plan the work and work the plan…carefully
For a project like this one, there are no blueprints or standards to follow, which means we’re limited only by our imagination. It also means planning is critical to the build’s success. The curves and angles of this construction required methodical calculations, and the uniqueness of the raw structure meant careful selection of both construction and finish materials. We proceeded slowly and thoughtfully, concentrating tightly on our due diligence in the rough-in. The steel shell was unforgiving — once we started cutting, there was absolutely no room for error.
We’re fortunate that we can rely on our talented team of partners to make sure every piece came together solidly and attractively. Listening carefully to our clients’ vision for the space and helping her see the possibilities made bringing this build to life not only a fun challenge but a joy.