There’s something special about building your own home, whether you build it traditionally or not. And, there are some major benefits of being part of the building process. For one, you can ensure it’s something that fits you and your lifestyle. Plus, you can feel a well-deserved sense of pride in the completed product. However, choosing to build a non-traditional or alternative home is a very different undertaking and definitely not for everyone.
With a tight budget, two kids, and a beautiful piece of land, we knew we wanted to build as much of our home ourselves, with some help from our family of course. We researched all kinds of different options from yurts to earth homes, shipping containers to tiny homes, etc. However, when it came down to it, we decided we needed something that felt more permanent than a yurt, less time-consuming to build than an earth home, and more spacious than a shipping container or tiny house. We also wanted something that felt very safe. Mind you, we don’t get a lot of storms where we live here in Northern Wisconsin, but I grew up in a state that has a tornado season, and have been scarred ever since!
We also knew we didn’t want a basement. Basements are great for storage and tucking away shelves of canned goods and root vegetables (and sheltering from tornados, ha). But, we had some bad experiences with basements in the past and just didn’t want to deal with the downside of them, i.e. the musty darkness.
After much deliberation and research, we decided to build a Quonset, a “hurricane-proof” house. Seeing as we’re about 700 miles from an ocean it’s a bit overboard. But overbuilding seems to run in my family, so why fight it? Plus, not having much of any construction experience, the idea of bolting together the base structure of our home was very appealing. Also, Quonsets aren’t completely unheard of in this area. We do come across them here and there, pointing them out to each other in an overly excited voice that I’m sure really means, “Hey, we’re not the only crazy people”. Though I admit, most people out here use them for barns, machine shops, or garages. Understandably, if you need a quick reliable shelter, you can’t beat just how fast they go up. Faster than a fast-food chain restaurant!
However, there are pros and cons to any build. Nothing is perfect, and for anyone considering building and living in a Quonset, I would like to share our homestead’s pros and cons. A lot of them we were unaware of when we undertook this beast. Literally, living in a Quonset is akin to living inside a whale. The large corrugated metal on the inside looks like a giant ribcage. I’ll let you judge whether that’s a pro or a con.
Pros of Living in an Alternative Home
Pro 1: Goes Up Fast
As I already mentioned, one of the reasons we chose to build a Quonset is the speed at which they go up. There’s also the lack of equipment. We put ours up with just a handful of people, some ropes, nerves of steel, and cordless drills. Having the main body of your home go up in just a day with a group of family and friends and a handful of tools is pretty amazing.
Pro 2: Cheap to Heat
Insulating it was tricky and more expensive since we went with sprayed closed-cell foam, but it makes for an incredibly tight house. No cold drafts in the winter! This also makes it easier and less expensive to heat. We heat almost exclusively with wood (approx 6 face cords per winter for an 1800 sq ft house). We have backup electric baseboards if needed (and required by our building codes). But we typically only use them if we go on vacation during the winter and don’t want our pipes to freeze.
Pro 3: Open Floor Plan
One of my favorite things about this house is the layout inside. This type of roofline lends well to an open living space. Our house isn’t huge, but it feels big because the main living space is open to the upstairs. The only enclosed spaces are the bedrooms and bathroom. You could do this with a traditionally built home too of course, but in a Quonset, the curve of the roof creates a different open space. It’s hard to explain. Feng shui?
Pro 4: Puts My Mind at Ease
The biggest and probably the weightiest pro for me is the feeling of safety in a storm. We’ve had high winds that have torn out trees and taken down power lines, but as long as my loved ones are in the house, I don’t worry. Ok, I may still worry a bit about the animals out in the barn, but I could always bring them in the house, right? Yes.
Cons of Living in an Alternative Home
Now for the cons. You may notice they outnumber the pros. But a good pro/con list is weighted. The pros above far outweigh the cons below. So do keep that in mind.
Con 1: Bolts… So Many Bolts!
I calculated it once, and we put in over 4,000 bolts to join all the metal arches together. Yes, we got it up in a day—up, yes… but not completely bolted down. That seemed endless and took weeks as we were doing this in our spare time while living an hour away. My advice: get family and friends to help. Then understand when they stop answering your calls.
Con 2: Rain
Rain on a tin roof may be soothing to you. Rain on a Quonset is like that, times a hundred. In a downpour, we can’t hear each other talk in the same room. We have lessened this slightly with a roof sealer (don’t quote me on this, but I think it’s called Duck Coat).
Con 3: Triple Check Your Math
My calculations were a little off and our upstairs loft is a bit shorter than we thought it would be. I’m 5’9” and I can only walk upright about four or so feet from the center of the roof till it dips too low and I have to crouch. It makes for careful furniture placement. This could’ve been avoided, but no matter what, with this type of roof, you will have to take into account the curve. We made use of it by putting a short wall on both sides upstairs and making that space behind the wall for storage.
Con 4: Where Curves Meet Straight Lines
Wherever the curve of the roof meets traditional building (i.e. the two flat end walls, squared rooms, etc.), it takes some creative building solutions and some extra time to make things work. We turned a lot of the curved sections of the interior walls into closets. That way we could square up the actual bedrooms and not have to put drywall on curved walls.
Con 5: Avalanche Soundtrack
We get a lot of snow where we live. Luckily, with the curve of the Quonset’s we don’t get much build-up of snow and ice. However, on occasion with the right mix of warmth and snow, it builds up enough to create a mix of icy build-up. When that melts enough to fall, it slides down the corrugated steel, which sounds like what I imagine it would be like to live inside a glacier that’s calving. It doesn’t hurt anything, but it’s exceptionally loud. And there’s no warning. I still jump when it happens. It takes a little getting used to, but I’m glad it’s not a regular occurrence.
So there you have it, our pros & cons of living in an alternative home, or a large whale, or a half a tin can, in the middle of the woods. There’s no place like home!