Life in a silo house

As the owner and operator of Port City Brewing Company, Bill Butcher is certainly familiar with silos, since he uses one at his business in Alexandria, Virginia.

But when his designer pitched the concept of a silo as a major component of a vacation dream home he was designing for Butcher and his wife, Karen, the couple said not so fast.

“We had an ongoing dialogue with [the designer] on design decisions,” says Bill. “And for the most part, they come up with great ideas. But when he suggested the silo we said, ‘Hmm, not sure.'”

Their designer, Mark Turner of Green Spur, a design-build firm based in Falls Church, Virginia, said the initial skepticism didn’t deter him.

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“We’ve always been intrigued by silos,” says Turner. “So when you have a client who runs a beer factory with a silo on the side of the building, it’s a pretty easy sell.”

On the 89 acres the Butchers own along the Rappahannock River in Marshall, Va., sits Turner’s vision: a simple, rectangular home with a front porch. It’s sheltered by a standing seam metal roof, and clad with board and batten sheathing painted green.

The main section of the home’s downstairs has a living room, dining room and kitchen combination. Upstairs includes a kids’ room with bunk beds, a guest room, the master bath, guest bath, kids’ bath and a kids’ sleeping loft.

The silo that houses the master bedroom upstairs and a den downstairs sits on one end and is connected to the main section of the house via a stepped-down entranceway. The transitional space works as a mudroom that includes a powder room and laundry room.

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The silo itself came from Brock Grain Systems, which works out of several locations in the Midwest. A crew of silo erectors assembled it on site in about six hours. “They do the roof first, jack up the roof using what looks kind of like car jacks, add a four-foot section, then jack that up and add another section till it’s done,” says Turner.

The den on the ground level of the silo is illuminated with natural light from the windows. On the second level, the windows are combined with an overhead custom fixture lit by LEDs. Minimal closet space is tucked behind the headboard of the bed. Walking through the space elicits a peaceful feeling, like strolling into a cathedral but with an added quirkiness factor raised by thoughts of grain storage.

“It may not look like it, but there’s actually quite a bit of storage space in the house,” says Karen Butcher, 49, a lawyer with Morgan Lewis, an international law firm with an office in Washington.

The Butchers’ land is about a 90-minute ride from Washington. It’s south of Front Royal and west of Warrenton. The parcel extends to a peak overlooking the river, and early in the construction phase, the land itself revealed what would be the biggest challenge on the job.

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“We hit a lot of rock trying to get the footers in,” says Turner. “That was a challenge along with the distance to the site. It was hard getting our guys out there and the subs [subcontractors] out there.”

The Butchers bought the 89 acres at the end of a dead-end road near Marshall when the real estate market was booming in the past decade. The deal included an interim house that they planned to use and then resell once they finished building their dream vacation house. But their plans soon changed.

“Sometimes life gets in the way,” says Bill. “We went ahead, hired an architect, had plans made in 2008 just before the market crashed. We had two little kids at the time and decided to put the whole thing on hold for awhile.”

In 2013, the Butchers saw a newspaper article about a house built by Turner. The designer grew up on a ranch in Wyoming and has a taste for rustic buildings inspired by barns and farmhouses.

“I like architecture that pulls on the heartstrings of nostalgia,” Turner says.

The Butchers pushed aside the house plans they already had, and according to Turner, they told him to “do something cool.”

And what could be cooler than sleeping in a silo?

Opposite the silo, the open-plan living area is lit by south-facing windows flanking the fireplace and providing a source of natural light for the mostly white kitchen.

“Mark is very good at spending the money in the right places,” says Bill, 49. “The kitchen cabinets are from Ikea.” Money was invested in the honed, black granite countertops, floors are whitewashed oak, and the appliances are GE. A central island and a walk-in pantry provide plenty of storage.

Three windows that face the woods are hinged and can be swung open when the weather cooperates, bringing the outside in with the assistance of a counterweight-and-pulley system that the Green Spur crew invented on site.

Beyond the kitchen lies an outdoor firepit and beyond that, a unique outbuilding the family has dubbed “The Overlook.” “It’s a place to hang out. There’s a great feeling of seclusion out there,” says Bill.

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Although the Butchers’ project took a few unusual turns along the road to completion, they are not exactly trailblazers.

Anne Michael Green, a real estate broker with Marshall Real Estate, says the practice of buying second homes out in what’s being called Virginia wine country “has been going on for decades.” Green, who covers a wide range of nearby properties extending to the communities in the Plains, Delaplane and Middleburg, adds, “We also have people living here and commuting into Washington.”

She sells land to people who want to build from the ground up and talks about plots from three to 10 acres priced from $98,000 to $310,000, depending on the location, that are currently available. “We’ve been known as a destination for a long time,” says Green. “Naturally it fell off in the downturn, but it seems to be picking back up again.”

As to the question of reselling a second home, especially an unusual-looking second home, Green says: “Any property owner needs to think about an exit strategy. We’ve been forced to sell some unique homes out here and they typically have a longer selling cycle – that’s just common.”

Green has seen the Butchers’ place, and even though it’s not a typical design, she doesn’t think the look would keep it from changing hands. “I think they did a good job making it look close to a farmhouse, and it’s a very clean look. I don’t think it would be difficult to resell that house.”

“We didn’t feel like we were creating a highly personalized space; it’s not like it doesn’t fit in the neighborhood,” Karen says.

The house was built quickly in an eight-month production cycle using structural insulated panels to speed things up and to create a tight building envelope.

Construction costs, not counting the land, were about $450,000. The Butchers sold their interim home down the street on New Year’s Eve for $355,000. The house was unveiled for the Butchers’ extended family at Thanksgiving to mostly positive reviews.

“The word ‘unique’ was used a lot,” Karen says.