What happens when a traditional farm family who has done what they have done for decades chooses to fully embrace 21st century, alternative energy technology?
What happens is that life on the farm becomes anything but dull.
The above grain bin had been storing corn and soybeans for the small Illinois farm family that has owned it for more than fifty years. Always doing its’ job, always serving as a container that housed the contents of annual harvests for both themselves and neighboring farmers, this bin, because of its’ age and physical condition was in the process of being retired when I was presented with a design challenge.
The challenge as defined by the friendly, wise and caring Jungian schooled, family systems therapist, matriarch and retired public school science teacher who owns and operates this bin, three others just like it and the five acre farm the bins are located on, was to turn this decommissioned grain bin into a living quarters that would house the many travelers the owner felt would be attracted to the notion of living on an historic working farm absolutely filled with highly relevant local agricultural history while in turn being filled with conversations of future agricultural dreams.
As the conversations we had were of utilizing the bin to create memorable experiences, the experiences and dialogues we talked of creating were about why small family farms were on one hand going broke, while on the other, attempting to figure out why in fact they were. As the gist of our conversations were ultimately about reinventing a greater rural 21st century American agricultural and economic dynamic, this bin represented our mutual attempt, as visionary friends, from entirely different generations and backgrounds, to do so in quite a conscious and clear manner. In turn, as doing so represented each of our own separate needs to be recognized as both teachers and students of progressive architectural and environmental thought, the more compelling urgency of our collective compassion was to truly eliminate the social blocks that were preventing the larger rural American farm community from embracing some rather simple concepts of technologically enhanced, economic advancement.
While reinventing that dynamic most certainly centered on the realization that building a thought provoking, rural architectural, alternative living environment would compel those who stayed in that environment to think well outside of the box, the whole reinvented farm experience, that was actually experienced, would compel many of the “urban visitors” to this progressive rural environment to do the same with their own inner city environments once they left her farm. In turn, as this rural architectural farm experience would compel “city dwellers” to both “step back and slow down”, the “locals” would be equally compelled to “step forward and speed up”. Thus, the need to be aware of the whole dialogue of a purely organic and rural farm based economic conversation as that conversation was dispersed among rural farmers and potentially new urban farmers was paramount.
As many questions arose within our dialogue of creating this remarkable environment, perhaps the most important question was why an “eightysomething” year old rural female American science teacher and a “fiftysomething” urban male American architectural designer carried within their mutual hearts the same yearning to teach their collective vision of 21st century architectural cohabitation to those who found themselves drawn to what the two of us were building on this five acres of historic, middle Illinois corn and soybean farm land. Benchmarking this dialogue was the unmistakeable fact that while a huge percentage of the surrounding farmland was quite “corporate” in nature, meaning that the corn and soybeans grown within the region were headed to either global corporate food processors or high tech, multi-faceted industrial food byproduct corporations involved in the worldwide manufacturing of fibers and biofuels, and, the land these farms grew agricultural products on was also being leased to wind turbine companies charged with supplementing our nation’s electic utility infrastructure, the much larger fact was indeed the notion that really nobody within this region of Illinois was actually making a sustainable living. As the farmers were making an income off of either their corporate grown agricultural profit or their leased land, no one else in the surrounding farm community was making any type of sustainable living at all. Understanding all of this, and understanding as well that many other creative economic alternatives existed that went well beyond the boundaries of either national or multi-national corporate profit, the two of us set out to build the grain bin we both envisioned.
As the owner was known for her unique approach to teaching “hands on environmental science” all of her life and as I had the same approach to teaching and building hands on sustainable architecture, we soon became two peas in the same pod, or, in this case, the same grain bin. As designing architecture has at its earliest stage of development, the need to develop a set of design criteria, this project had a rather extensive list of interactive environmental design objectives. Hence, as our focus was on the design and construction of the grain bin, it did as well center on the reconstruction and alternative energy retrofitting of other out buildings located on this farm.How to heat certain areas of the large unheated horse barn by harnessing and directing the sun to specific areas of that barn was every bit as much a part of our dialogue as how to harness the waters that flowed from underground springs and to harness as well, the prevailing winds that blew constantly across the fields of corn and soybeans surrounding this farm. Then there was the converted chicken coop that was to be heated by the kernels of corn stored in the remaining three grain bins.
In turn, as certain energy based environmental questions were brought forward, these same questions had basic economic questions as well as broader community based educational questions attached to them. Can the sun, the water and the wind be harnessed and controlled in such a manner as to affect the positive financial and organic future of this historic family farm? If this could be done, what else could be done to enhance in quite an equally positive manner, the overall social dynamic of the community surrounding this farm?
Needless to say, our conversations were quite expansive in nature.
Having said this, let me get on with the description of the work that was done on this particular grain bin project.
Ode to the 21st Century Green American Organic Family Farmer
“Solar energy shines.
Wind energy moves.
Organic gardens embrace, organic architecture thrives.
Sustainable conversations are engaging.
Rural economic redevelopment becomes real….
…..and 21st century green barn dancers’
Have a tendency to rock and roll once again”.
THE GREATER DESIGN CHALLENGE PHILOSOPHY
Take an old grain bin that can no longer be certified as safe to store farm product and turn it into a home for certifiably crazy, new generation, self sustainable, rural organic farmers who happen to have green thumb friends who live in big cities.
ENGINEERING OBSTACLES TO OVERCOME
The bin itself was structurally sound. Having never been used for anything other than storing and drying grain, all the mechanicals were in perfect working order. Due to the fact that the concrete foundation was never engineered properly however, over the course of time, this foundation split and cracked and sagged.
The first thing to understand before we could begin the renovation was not why the concrete was poorly engineered but what was going on beneath the foundation that ultimately exposed the concrete to structural fatigue.
BENEATH THE EARTH BENEATH OUR FEET
As the land surrounding this bin was often marshy and spongy to walk on, why it was so became our focus.
Researching the geographical history of the land, we soon discovered that underground springs that had been draining the Illinois River Valley for centuries had served to undermine this foundation ever since the day it was constructed in the late 1940s. Once we traced the path of the underground rivers flowing beneath the concrete, we had a few choices.
The first choice was to abandon the project altogether. But, of course we did not do so because we were then as we remain now “organically nuts”.
The second choice was to look into just exactly how close one particular underground stream was to this grain bin, where it was actually surfacing and what could be done to redirect the water away from the bin’s foundation.
Once this was figured out, we proceeded to carve some 250’ of topsoil into a creek bed that led the water away from the foundation and into a two acre fenced pasture. Needless to say the horses who called this pasture home were quite happy slurping pure spring water once we did so whereas the land that held the bin began the process of drying out and re-stabilizing itself as the removed topsoil was relocated to form a series plant filled earth berms strategically placed around the bin.
With the water out of the way, we turned our attention to the concrete. Sewing it back together was simply a matter of drilling and placing rebar and wire mesh and in turn pouring a fiberglass reinforced concrete product over the existing round concrete slab.
GRAIN DRYER AND AIR TROUGH
As the original air trough that carried heat from the grain dryer to the grains stored in that bin was cast in concrete, we left the trough in place knowing that in doing so it would become an intake that would draw cool ground temperature air into the bin once the project was done.
Concrete structural issues solved led to steel and wood structural design issues. If someone was actually going to be living in the bin, how would the bin become warm and cozy and extraordinarily energy efficient without (except for a few well placed windows, a door and a deck) altering the exterior physical appearance of the bin?
INTERNAL WOOD FRAME ENVELOPE
I engineered a round wood framing system designed to allow continuous air flow between the round steel walls of the bin and this wood frame. In addition, I connected the air chamber existing between these two independent wall systems to the original cast concrete grain drying trough below and the top hatch that allowed grain to enter the bin in the first place. In doing so, managing a continuous current of air to move from season to season through the space between the steel walls and wood stud walls became the next design and engineering challenge.
VERTICAL AIR EXCHANGE SYSTEM
As essentially, what was created was a living and breathing organically balanced current of air that kept outside temperatures and humidity conditions from ever interfering with inside temperature and humidity conditions, a womb within a womb ventilated from underneath via the duct that once served to provide heat to dry grain and connected at the top to the hatch that was once opened to place the grain inside the bin were controlled by manually operated and fully adjustable air dampers that worked in every bit the same manner as the damper on a fireplace or wood stove.
HORIZONTAL AIR EXCHANGE SYSTEM
Once the vertical air exchange system was engineered and built, we set about the task of designing the horizontal air exchange system. Whereas air naturally rises towards a heat source vertically, in doing so, it does as well travel horizontally to get to that heat source. Knowing this, the strategic placement of windows and doors became crucial. Not only were these windows and doors crucial to letting in natural light, they were as well crucial in harnessing the prevailing winds that blew constantly across the farm fields at varying speeds and force around the bin.
FOLLOWING THE PATH OF THE SEASONAL SUN AND BRACING FOR THE WIND
After analyzing air flow around the exterior of the bin, it was determined that one eastern facing first floor casement window opening to the south would not only allow the warming rays of early morning sun to enter the bin but in turn capture the prevailing breezes coming from the north. The same was done on the second floor with a western facing casement opening to the north. With these two windows in place, we had effectively harnessed not only the sun but the wind. As the wind that created prevailing breezes could also create wind gusts of more than 40 mph, the hinges that held these opening casement windows to their frames had to be re-engineered for strength as they also acted as air foils. In addition, we thought that it would be important to mount on the inside walls adjacent to these windows, “safe operating instructions” for those who would be staying in this bin.
As a window opened but just three inches could easily create an air current of 5 mph inside the bin and thus create a refreshing and peaceful night sleep, it could at times create a situation where bed sheets would not stay on the bed at all.
THE INTERIOR ARCHITECTURE OF AN ORGANIC GRAIN BIN
As this bin was but 16’ in circumference and 16’ tall, the question became, how would one build a living room, dining room, entry foyer (and mud room), kitchen, library, study, exercise room, bedroom suite, bathroom as well as integrating the various mechanical systems needed into this extraordinarily compact footprint and in doing so create a sense of artistic energy and movement inside the bin that was as invigorating as it was restful?
In turn, how would one heat the bin with solar energy, cool it with wind energy and sustain it on extremely cold winter days with a combination of the bio-fuels produced on this particular farm and the traditional fuel sources this farm had used in the past?
THE ART OF AN ORGANIC BIN
As the pictures below illustrate, all of what was defined as being crucial to the successful creation of the interior architecture of this bin was realized. Through a most remarkable artistic dialogue that flowed continuously throughout the entire creative process that went into renovating this bin, the efforts of many gifted artisans moved this project towards fulfillment.
Please consider the thoughts this particular artist, master carpenter and essayist has of these pictures.
“Alone on a windblown November night contemplating an eventual restful sleep beneath the covers, I sat at the writer’s desk adjacent to my bed with my diary and pen listening quite intensely to the howls of nature coming from outside but feeling nothing but absolute calm within the round walls of this grain bin, turned sanctuary. The heat from the wood stove below rising, the sense of that heat nurturing enabled me to listen only to the lessons of the howling wind and in doing so write tales only a wind walker could write. Within those tales, I drafted an architectural blueprint for the home of my own windy organic American dreams.”
If you look carefully at the pictures above, you will notice a wide variety of architectural details. As the first detail you might notice is that the bathtub of this bin is a horse trough, other details might escape you altogether. But if you pay attention to the caption above these photos, you will be able to understand that the bathroom adjacent to this bin is in fact, a full blown interior architectural bathing spa.
THE HORSE TROUGH TUB AND WHY
There are many ways for you to soak at your leisure in a bathtub that fully submerses your entire body in the warm waters you seek.
As conventional bathtubs are one of those ways, the bathtubs that have been installed in American homes for the past forty years barely enable one to become fully submersed. Unless you are five years old with a body frame less than four feet in height and forty pounds in weight, the chances of you being able to submerse your entire body in warm water is next to none.
One step above the conventional bathtub is the Jacuzzi tub. With its’ walls higher and water jets flowing and at a cost of a few thousand dollars, you can sit peacefully knowing that bubbling bathwater will soothe your tired body when and if you actually have the time to sit in the thing. While these things are most certainly nice, the moment you exit the tub and dry yourself off, you are immediately placed back into the high speed world that prevents you from experiencing that tub on a daily basis to begin with.
This author chooses to call this form of leisure as the “cart before the horse bathing syndrome”. If I hurry up and get home before anyone else, I can turn on the water jets of my tub Jacuzzi and in doing so find five seconds of bubbling bliss before the world attacks me or I attack the world once again. Not a whole lot of horse sense.
At any rate, horse troughs that come in varying sizes and dimensions are readily available for thousands of dollars less than trendy tubs and many times deeper, meaning that one can soak with or without air blown bubbles and be assured that your entire body is fully submersed in water. Adding custom built teak or redwood benches inside of these troughs only adds to the overall organic simplicity of one’s bathing experience while doing so.
THE ART OF HIDING ALTERNATIVE ENERGY TECHNOLOGY
As you noticed the horse trough, you noticed the linen cabinet next to the horse trough and if you are really observant, you will have also noticed a wall mounted high efficiency, auxiliary propane fired space heater below the linen cabinet, whereas beyond your view is an electric powered hot water tank that sits behind this cabinet. As these two mechanical devices provide conventional heating sources to this room in extremely cold weather, both of them are offset by the fact that the floor beneath this bathroom serves as a passive solar heat sink that absorbs heat from the sun of the day only to reflect it back up and into the cushions of the day bed located on the south side of this bathroom.
CREATING HEALTHY INTERIOR HUMIDITY
As the walls of this bathroom have been designed with maximum heat and moisture retention in mind, taking a bath here, getting out of the tub only to soak in the sun blanketing the daybed you are lying upon is all and all, a quite remarkable and rejuvenating experience. Once you are done bathing, opening the air tight, hand crafted curved wooden bathroom door allows you to experience the dry radiant heat of the wood burning stove mixing with the moisture escaping from the air of the bathroom. This affect assures that the dry skin associated with traditional winter bathing is significantly diminished.
In the summertime, all systems designed to keep you warm in winter are shut down and the strategically placed window above the bathroom day bed opens. Working in unison with the other bin windows to assure constant cool and refreshing air movement, it does in turn bring you in direct contact with the horses grazing in the two acre fenced pasture being irrigated by the spring water that once flowed beneath the bin that you are now living in while bathing in a horse trough.
Would anyone like an organically grown and harvested carrot?
I am a piano player. I am as well a lover of all stringed musical instruments. As I have many friends who are as well, all of us have a tendency to view the lives we lead in musical notes. Whether we are professional (I’m not) or amateur (I’m even less) we none the less have the capacity to hear rhythm in every bit the same manner as we have the ability to see rhythm. When I was commissioned to design and build this bin, when I was asked to enter into an entirely round enclosure filled with decades of grain dust and cobwebs, I was in many ways lost as to how I would actually approach this particular challenge. As in any other shape of building one could go into a corner and analyze the masculine architectural shapes of linear architecture, within a round structure there are simply no linear reference points. In essence, a circular structure is constantly in motion. As it is, it is as well much more like a musical instrument than it is a structure. As playing a musical instrument allows one to move continuously through the circular rhythms , as a song or a symphony often ends on the very same note it began with, once I realized that I was building a musical instrument rather than building a home, both my architectural creativity and my industrial common sense merged.
In doing so, I was able to envision a second floor bedroom loft in the shape of a grand piano. As the loft had to be opened to the first floor to allow healthy air flow, it did as well have to conform to the circular shape of the bin. As an open floor plan was the prerequisite, the handrail and spindles of the loft had to be open as well. With the loft floor resembling the shape of a grand piano, the handrails and spindles took on the form of a stand up harp whereas the staircase and hand rail leading up to the loft took on the shape of a violin bow and string all of which were connected to the main trunk of the tree that connected the loft to the kitchen below.
As I have been designing organic architecture for almost four decades, it is my firm belief that what we as Americans today are facing and considering to be a huge problem really isn’t much of a problem at all. As this particular small family farm bin project began with a set of challenges all who were involved were convinced that they could overcome, we in fact did so and as a result of doing so the family who owns the farm now which is of course the same family that owned the farm seventy years ago is well placed to do what all rural farm families are supposed to do. As necessity remains the mother of invention, cooperative sharing of rural based green industrial invention remains the benchmark of rural family based farm communities.
Having said this, the design and construction of this one bin required the efforts of every single job title listed below.
Hydraulic Engineers specializing in dams and levees, water distribution networks, water collection networks, storm water management and sediment transport.
Structural concrete and steel fabrication engineers
Structural steel and wood framing engineers and carpenters
Back hoe operators
Dry waller’s and plasterer’s
Cabinet and door makers
Stained glass artisans
Painters and muralists’
Seamstresses and weavers
Cooks and bakers
Web Site Developers
County Building Officials
County Health Officials
Local furniture retailers
Custom furniture makers
Local organic farming advocacy groups
Local public education advocacy groups
Local nutritional healthcare experts
Local, regional and statewide political representatives….
….and anyone else who would be the least bit associated with turning an outdated grain bin into an expression of advanced 21st century rural American family farm economic, educational and industrial prosperity.
Thanks for your time and keep a smile.
Mike Patrick Dahlke
Please take the time to visit some of my other essays.