Skip to main content

Originally published October 5, 2012 at 8:01 PM | Page modified December 14, 2012 at 6:28 PM

  • Share:
  • Comments (0)
  • Print

Have roof, call it home

Unconventional structures can make happy digs for adventurous homeowners willing to invest creativity and elbow grease.

Chicago Tribune

Most Popular Comments
Hide / Show comments
No comments have been posted to this article.
Start the conversation >


Marcia Weber was working at a boarding school when she got laid off, losing her income and her living quarters. Her solution? Move into her vacation home. The catch? It’s a train caboose.

Since January 2009, Weber has lived in a 337-square-foot wooden caboose that sits on 30 feet of track in a rural northeast corner of Pennsylvania called Endless Mountains.

Weber and her former husband bought the caboose in 1976 for $6,000 after seeing an ad in The Wall Street Journal.

It wasn’t quite equipped for a permanent resident when Weber decided to call it home.

With no indoor plumbing, Weber relied on a bucket that she would trot out daily into the woods, so “washing my hair was always a special day,” laughs Weber, who has since attached a bathroom to the back.

“It’s fun,” said Weber, 67, who has outfitted her caboose with such comforts as a dishwasher, stacked washer and dryer, cable and Internet. “I’m always one who likes things that are unique.”

Unconventional structures can make happy digs for adventurous homeowners willing to invest creativity and elbow grease. Grain bins, missile silos and shipping containers have all found new life as residences of varying degrees of swank. In Sunset Beach, Calif., an 87-foot-tall water-tower-turned-luxury-home is for sale for $4.5 million.

On the lower end of the swank spectrum, Judy Parker saved money on building a new house by turning a 1924 barn being used as a cattle loafing shed into a 1,500-square-foot home, with a bed-and-breakfast in the hay loft.

An old rail runs across the ceiling, where a pulley would transport hay. Teeth marks can still be seen on the wooden posts where the livestock stalls used to be.

And then there are the lighthouse dwellers, a particularly passionate breed with a humble respect for the time-forgotten beacons.

For the past year, Bill Kitchen has been living at the Little River lighthouse in Cutler, Maine, the most northeastern lighthouse in the country, where the foghorn blares every 10 seconds.

Kitchen, 53, lives in the 2,000-square-foot keeper’s cottage beside the 44-foot-tall lighthouse. The uninsulated cottage had no heat when he moved in (now there’s a pellet stove), so he wore eight layers of clothing around the clock during winter.

He proposed the yearlong project to call attention to the value of lighthouses, encourage visitors and share the experience in hopes it inspires other people to live outside their comfort zone.

Not all re-purposed structures are old or even recycled.

In the farmlands outside of Dighton, Kan., grain growers Vance and Louise Ehmke built an office and guesthouse in a new grain silo after traditional structures seemed “boring and poorly built.”

The 2,400-square-foot round, steel silo, which stretches 42 feet in diameter and is 31 feet tall at its domed peak, has a loft look, with a steel staircase leading from the offices and kitchenette on the first floor to the two spacious bedrooms and bathroom on the second.

Old windmill tail fins and railroad artifacts serve as decoration. Outside, there’s an oak door, bench swing and wraparound deck.

The Ehmkes had the silo double-insulated with blown cellulose to make it livable. Double-paned narrow windows, no wider than two feet to fit the curve, allow natural light.

While the Ehmkes reside in a house nearby, their youngest son, Layton, lived in the grain silo for a year, enduring the whip of the wind and enjoying the drum of the rain against the steel.

“The roundness of it was great,” said Layton Ehmke, 31, who now works as a journalist in Chicago. “When I write I get up and walk around, so I would just walk in circles around the whole building.”