Living in Quonset Hut Houses
Jun 07, 2023
Read this five-year retrospective on what it's like living in a Quonset hut home in the American midwest and decide if you’d give Quonset hut houses a try.
Nontraditional housing wasn't necessarily something I was interested in when my husband and I were working on plans for building our new home. However, between our circumstances, our budget, and being open to something different, we ended up with a home that definitely fits in the nontraditional category.
While we were researching our options, a few factors dictated our final decision. For one, we wanted to do a lot of the building ourselves. We knew we’d save money with sweat equity, but we had limited building experience, so whatever we chose had to be something we could either learn or figure out. Second, we didn't want a basement, as we had endured all kinds of basement issues in the past with other homes. However, I had grown up in Kansas, a state that comes with its own tornado season, so I wanted something that felt safe in a bad storm. Even though northern Wisconsin doesn't see a lot of tornados, we do still have the occasional high winds and big thunderstorms. The final factor was our budget. While doing a lot of the work ourselves helped, we still had to be able to afford to put in a driveway, bring electricity up from the road, put in a well, and hire a plumber and an electrician.
We looked into traditional stick-built homes, yurt kits, pole barns, steel containers, and various tiny home options. Without a basement, a lot of those options didn't feel safe enough, and some of them, once we had priced them out, were outside our budget. Other factors arose that were out of our control, specifically building permits and bank stipulations. Every state is different, and permits can also vary by county. We had to put in a holding tank for our septic instead of a mound system. The bank, since we were going to have a traditional mortgage, required things like hardwall (aka no yurt) and traditional plumbing (even though we had a composting toilet).
Luckily, before we threw in the towel, we came across steel Quonset hut houses! Quonset hut houses are a lightweight prefabricated structure of corrugated galvanized steel. Before living in one, the only Quonset I’d ever seen was at the airport. They’re typically used for airplane hangars, probably because their structure doesn't require interior wall supports.
Not only was the Quonset in our price range, but also we could construct the main structure in a day without any fancy machinery. We did need a special foundation that was built specifically for this type of structure, as most of the weight of our steel arches sit on the north and south sides of it. But once the foundation was cured, our small crew of family and friends helped raise all 20 arches in the span of about 10 hours.
While any type of housing is going to come with various benefits and disadvantages, ours are about as unique as our building. One benefit is that you probably can't find a home that will go up faster. While we put ours up in a day, that didn't entail screwing in all of its nearly 5,000 bolts, nor did it include building the two traditionally built front and back walls. We did enough to raise the arches on the first day and then spent our free time screwing in the rest of the bolts over multiple weekends. We then spent about five months finishing the interior, again mostly over long weekends, as we had jobs, kids, and newly acquired farm animals to care for.
Another major benefit of Quonset hut houses is that they require little maintenance. If we had chosen to do steel front and back walls, there really wouldn't be any regular maintenance. No need to touch up paint, reshingle a roof, or even clean out gutters. And the biggest benefit for me: Quonsets can withstand hurricanes, so my fear of tornadoes was thoroughly squashed!
On the flip side are the disadvantages. Probably the biggest drawback of living in a Quonset hut home is rain. If you’ve ever been in a building with a tin roof while it's raining, or if you’ve ever listened to a sound-maker that has "rain on a tin roof" as an option, you may think rain on a steel roof would have a similar gentle, soothing sound. You’d be wrong. Even with thick insulation, in a hard rainstorm, we can barely hear each other talking just 5 feet away from one another. If we’re watching TV, the sound is turned up to the max, and we still have to use closed captioning. In winter, however, that's not an issue; occasionally, ice will build up a little, which then gives the snow something to cling to, and when the conditions are just right, it starts to melt. I liken this melting to what it must sound like to be on the inside of an avalanche. It still catches me off guard.
Some other considerations are unique to this building type and the curve of the ceiling. It's not impossible to insulate, but I highly recommend closed-cell foam (hard-foam insulation). This will form a nice barrier, doesn't require any added structure, and fills any potential leaks where you might not have tightened a bolt perfectly. It also may take some out-of-the-box thinking if you want to then cover this insulation. Ours is painted with a fire-retardant spray and then regular white paint. Eventually, we may do something different, but for now, that meets our local building codes.
The final consideration is the interior layout. To keep the building's structural integrity, we could only put in two skylights. These pull in extra light but don't count as windows when it comes to bedrooms. Most building codes require every bedroom to have accessible windows in case of fires. That meant all of our bedrooms had to be on an end (flat) wall so we could install traditional windows. We put one bedroom upstairs and two downstairs, all on the east side of our home so morning sun would fill our bedrooms with natural light. In the evening, the sun is on the west side of our home, filling our living room and kitchen with light. The only room without natural light is our downstairs bathroom.
While this type of home isn't for everyone, after living in a Quonset hut home for five years, I’d choose it again. I enjoy its unique, simple, and open structure. We kept that open theme on the interior, walling off only the bedrooms and the bathroom. The upstairs living room and office overlook a larger living room downstairs, with our woodstove at center stage. The kitchen is also open, with tons of light coming in our front wall of windows. Even with the loud rain and the occasional scary "avalanche" noise in winter, we enjoy our Quonset's cozy charm, minimal maintenance, and safety from summer storms. We even enjoy the stark contrast between big steel arches and the wooden porch with fields of wildflowers and raspberry bushes in the background. Our Quonset hut is form and function at its best.
Kristin Grant lives with her family in northern Wisconsin, where she raises Nigerian Dwarf goats, which provide milk for her soap business, Wild Groves Farmstead. To learn more about her farm and Quonset home, visit Wild Groves Farmstead.