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The ‘barndominium’ rises in popularity as a housing choice

Matt and Brooke Wright and Matt’s parents, Pat and Bud Wright, said they knew they wanted to “put up a metal building with a house inside” they would share on their 14-acre property in Arcadia, Fla. “We didn’t know it was called a barndominium,” said Matt. (Eve Edelheit for The Washington Post)

Two years ago, Cathy McGinnis started researching designs for a unique home she and her husband, Todd, could construct on their 25-acre property in Marshville, N.C., upon their retirement.

What she found was a home that definitely stands out — one that’s sturdy, economical and linked to a growing network of people largely in rural areas who are excited about the lifestyle associated with owning this unique type of residential structure.

The couple built a barndominium, also known as a barndo.

Barndominiums are metal or hybrid metal-wood homes that look like barns or oversize garages with a residential-type roof, windows, doors and maybe a porch.

Usually they’re rectangular. Sometimes, multiple adjoining rectangles comprise a home, workshop, garage, barn, horse stalls or even airplane hangar.

The aesthetic is rustic, country and barn-style. The inside can be designed in any style by an architect or by the owners who typically are DIYers. Often it’s an open floor plan but any design is possible. Because steel beams frame the house and support its load, moving an interior wall during construction is easy if you change your mind, for example, about the size of a child’s bedroom.

“Build a home you don’t need to get away from,” McGinnis said. “My husband and I traveled a lot over the years so we wanted to create a retreat we can live in all the time. When our barndo was finished I chose neutral colors — black, white, gray — for the interior furnishings so that I could add pops of colors for the changing seasons and holidays. Now I’ve decorated for Christmas with green and red wreaths, flowers and ribbons.”

Among the barndo circle they’re beloved and seem to be going up everywhere. “Once you’re in the community you see them all the time,” said Morgan Roepke, who’s building a hybrid with her husband, Randie, on 10 acres in Fair Grove, Mo.

“They’re pretty popular coast-to-coast but prevalent in the country where people own land,” said Wesley Espinoza Sr., a building consultant with Worldwide Steel Buildings, a company that sells barndominium kits. “We’ve got customers ranging from blue-collar workers to doctors and attorneys.”

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According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), wood by far is the most commonly used framing material for houses. Last year, 91 percent of new houses were traditional wood-framed structures, 8 percent were framed in concrete and 1 percent in steel.

Nevertheless, NAHB says, the number of steel-framed houses rose from 3,000 in 2019 to 5,000 in 2020.

“We call it a group or a tribe,” said Michael Weinstein, referring to the lively, spirited community of owners across the country. He runs the website barndominiumlife.com under the pen name Don Howe, who initially set it up. The site offers information, news, photos, construction tips, builders, floor plans, personal stories and a shoulder to cry on when things don’t go right.

“The main reason people are choosing to go this steel route is cost,” said Lance Cayko, an architect whose firm F9 Productions in Longmont, Colo., is working on several commercial barndominium structures. “When starting out to research building one’s own home they’ll look at SIPs [structural insulated panel constructions], wood-stick construction and prefab steel. The latter is most cost-effective.”

“For sure, it’s more cost-effective than building a conventional house,” said Espinoza. “On average the cost of building a metal home ranges from $120 to $140 per square foot compared to $180 to $200 per square foot for a conventional home.”

Metal structures are also extra sturdy; they’re more energy-efficient than wood construction when filled with insulation; they’re fire-, wind- and hurricane-resistant; take less time to build; require less maintenance than a conventional home; are easier to repair; and can be customized without an architect.

Nevertheless, barndominiums are not affordable housing in the conventional sense of less-expensive housing for lower-income residents, said Cayko. They’re easier to afford and that cost savings may free up funds for finishes and furnishings.

Hiring a builder

Matt and Brooke Wright and Matt’s parents, Pat and Bud Wright, said they knew they wanted to “put up a metal building with a house inside” they would share on their 14-acre property in Arcadia, Fla.

“We didn’t know it was called a barndominium,” said Matt.

The younger Wrights, through their business ExtremeInstinct, teach survival in harsh conditions. Living in a metal home seemed like a natural extension of their life.

“Of course, we wanted a strong and reliable home. When we’re in survival mode we look for strong, reliable, safe in the outdoors. We have a lot of hurricanes down here. With a metal building you have a structure that’ll stand for 50 years practically without maintenance,” Matt said.

The Wrights selected Worldwide Steel Buildings to provide a barndominium kit for the assembly of their metal house. The company has a nine-step construction process for DIYers or contractors aimed at ensuring the building will meet the local International Building Code for wind and snow loads in the building’s location.

The Wrights designed their house frame — width, length and height and design elements such as porch, roof and the exterior metal siding shell — in corrugated gray ash metal with Alamo white trim — on Worldwide’s website using 3D Designer.

Worldwide engineers created the architectural drawings, engineer-stamped them and gave them to the Wrights, who took them to the county to get permitted.

“Worldwide delivered the components — metal panels for the side-and-end walls, girts, purlins, anchor bolts, roof — on a semi [truck]. We rented a forklift to unload and got started,” said Matt.

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They hired contractors to lay the foundation, install plumbing and electricity, and spray foam insulation. “Everything else we put into the house ourselves. We went through three commercial nail guns and probably hammered 10,000 nails,” said Brooke.

“It was surprising how you could get pieces of a house on a truck but once you start to put it together, holey moley,” said Matt.

Worldwide Steel’s primary design feature is the open web metal trusses, which are the structural elements that form the roof support.

That structure gave the house an 18-foot-high vaulted ceiling.

They put in two lofts — 12 feet wide by 20 feet long — one on each side of the house overlooking the open kitchen, dining and living room. A gigantic seven-foot-wide custom fan from the Original Windmill Ceiling Fan Company in Texas takes center stage. “You walk in and say, ‘Wow,’ ” said Matt.

They moved in in June. Neighbors say they’re coming over during the next hurricane.

DIY — designing it yourself

The McGinnises designed their all-steel framed barndominium and self-contracted construction. Sketching on graph paper and using AutoCAD software, Cathy designed the interior layout. She determined the exterior and interior dimensions, porch size, window and door placement, and where plumbing and electrical fixtures should be installed.

The couple hired Lone Star Metal Buildings of Mount Airy, N.C., to provide engineer-stamped drawings for construction of the shell. They moved into their home in April 2020 and run a farm with chicken and sheep.

“I did lots of advance legwork to be sure we’d get permitting,” she said. “I called our county planning office several times to ask, ‘What do you want to see in order to pass inspection?’ Then we made sure our contractors did exactly that. We passed every inspection.”

The Roepkes and their four children — Evelyn, 6, ; Amelia, 4, ; Zachariah, 3; and Ezekiel, 2, are “very much DIY people,” Morgan Roepke said.

The idea of a barndominium started as a way to build a house for a fraction of the cost of a conventional home.

They found a local metal fabricator, Hostetlers Sales & Construction of Buffalo, Mo., that builds commercial metal buildings and was trying to move into residential construction. The Roepkes hired them to engineer the building’s trusses, erect the structure and do the exterior work — siding, roof and porches.

They worked with a drafter to execute floor plan drawings. The drafter gave the drawings to the construction company whose engineers stamped them for permitting. The construction company customized the metal frame structure according to the drawing plan specifications.

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A contractor laid a slab foundation and Hostetlers installed metal beams every 12 feet with wood beams in between.

“When I talk to my co-workers about living in a barndo some say, ‘I never heard of them. That’s weird.’ Others say, ‘I’ve always dreamed of living in one. That’s awesome,’ ” Morgan said.

“Building a home is a massive project,” she wrote on the barndominiumlife.com website in October. “There are a million moving parts all trying to work together seamlessly. Things will be on backorder, material costs will change, and drafts and plans will be inconsistent at times. That is the nature of the beast.”

Holly and Jared Angel’s barndominium is a hybrid with steel trusses, steel I-beams and wood framing in between on 70 acres in Springfield, Mo. A three-car garage is attached to the living space and they plan to build a shop for Jared’s fishing boat, utility terrain vehicle and farm equipment.

“Eventually we’ll also add a greenhouse for our 20-year-old daughter who’s studying agriculture and plant science,” said Holly.

She drew floor plans on graph paper and included room measurements; took the plans to an engineering and drafting company to be stamped for permitting; and gave those plans to Hostetlers, the same company the Roepkes used.

Hostetlers put up the exterior and interior framing. The Angels will self-contract and DIY the remainder of work.

“Sometimes I have to remind myself this isn’t a race,” Holly wrote in mid-November on her Instagram page. “This is our home & everyone has a different journey to get to the end result. It takes time and hard work.”

They hope to move in at the end of this month.

And unfortunately, traumatic setbacks can occur.

Sarah Beth and Josh Knepp were well on their way building an all-metal barndo on their 18 acres in Jackson, Tenn., last July.

“A good portion of our metal frame was up,” she said. “Then a 60-miles-per-hour thunderstorm came along and the house fell. It was ironic because steel buildings are supposed to be exceptionally strong.”

After the shock and an analysis, an engineer told them the building hadn’t been braced properly. They cut ties with the construction company and are trying to recover costs through their insurance company.

The Knepps hired a local general contractor to frame and rebuild the house in wood instead of steel because of increases in steel prices. They will keep the metal siding from Quicken Steel they’d originally selected to maintain the barndominium they always had in mind; and they’ll use the original architect-drawn plans.

“My women friends on Instagram enabled me to get through our setback. They sent advice and uplifting spiritual messages that helped me figure out our next steps,” Sarah Beth said. “We struck gold when we found each other. We bonded on Instagram over building barn houses and that has turned into deep friendships.”

The Knepps’ detached garage is complete and the house foundation was laid early this month.

Haisten Willis contributed to this report.

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