12 March 2010

Montana: Grain Bin Remodeled into Living Quarters

Great Falls Tribune

John Thiebes takes a break inside the "caBin" he constructed from a grain bin on his farm near Carter, Montana   (PHOTO/SUZANNE WARING)

As John Thiebes made plans to construct living quarters on his farm near Carter he decided to think outside the box. In fact, his ultimate plan involved a perfect circle.

"Thinking I could remodel something, I looked around at the different farm buildings on the property," he said. "My mind kept coming back to the grain bins that were no longer being used."

After studying the bins and drawing up plans, Thiebes concluded that comfortable accommodations could be constructed in one of the bins to use when he spent time on his farm. He talked with a grain bin manufacturer, but the company wasn't much help. Manufacturers had no experience with putting doors and windows in a metal bin.

As Thiebes went forward, purchasing construction materials, bathroom and kitchen appliances, and heating and cooling units, he realized he was on his own. No one he knew had done anything like this.

The most challenging task was trying to make straight items such as bathtub and shower surrounds, kitchen cupboards, plasterboard, doors and windows fit into a curved structure. Thiebes found that if prefabricated windows were larger than two feet, they would extend too far out from the sides of the curved bin.

On the main level, he installed four small windows that were placed low so that he could see the wildlife while sitting down, and one window upstairs to let in natural light.

Despite complications, Thiebes and his sons pressed on when they had time during the summer of 2008. Figuring out the optimum gypsum wallboard size, they installed furring strips, insulation, the Sheetrock, and finally one-by-four-inch battens that covered the Sheetrock seams.

They laid the 18-foot diameter floating oak floor and then tackled the second floor loft, which is above the bathroom and kitchen area and provides the sons with sleeping quarters. It's accessed by a ladder at the side of the sitting area.

The biggest last-minute modification to the plan was in the bathroom remodeling. The electrical code wouldn't allow for the shower to be in the same room with the electrical box, so Thiebes installed a partition between the shower enclosure and the toilet area that contained the electrical box. Sliding closet-like doors shut off either or both sides of the bathroom from the sitting area.

Because Thiebes and his sons did the work themselves and looked for items that were on sale, construction costs were just more than $7,000, including the most expensive purchase, the $1,000 toilet.

To eliminate the need for a septic tank, Thiebes installed an electrical toilet that burns the waste much on the same principle as self-cleaning ovens.

The sitting area, defined with an area rug, is tastefully furnished with two cushioned, wicker chairs and a couch that can be made into a bed. A wood stove with a visible black stack that extends to the tin roof dominates the room. A television, music system and small air conditioner are built into the exterior wall. The paintings that adorn the sage-green walls were done by Thiebes, who has been an artist in his spare time since high school.

The kitchen area, with upper and lower cupboards on the curved wall, has all the amenities. The counter contains a sink with hot and cold running water and a two-burner range top. A microwave is built into the kitchen space, and a portable roaster oven has its own nook.

The 20-gallon hot water heater is hidden away under the sink, and an apartment-size refrigerator is built in under the counter. Furniture is arranged so that the table optically divides the kitchen from the sitting area. A rack overhead serves as storage for skillets, griddles and pans.

Gravity drains the gray water from the kitchen sink and the shower onto the grass and trees nearby. When no one is staying there, the hot water heater and all the pipes drain with ease because there are no traps in the plumbing.

Because the windows, looking out on the farm, are located toward the back side of the bin and the metal bin door covers the regular door when no one is at home, the structure looks like another grain bin in its row of bins to the passer-by. The deception becomes an advantage that lessens the chance of vandalism.

After a year, members of the Thiebes family are still excited about the creation. Usually only John Thiebes and one or two of his sons stay at the farm on an occasion. However, six of them were comfortable when they spent last Thanksgiving there, and last summer one of the Thiebes' sons stayed there all summer while he worked.

"I know this project could easily be replicated," Thiebes said. "Besides serving as living quarters on a distant place for a farmer, remodeled grain bins could also be modified to become living quarters for hired workers or guests."

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