Stacee Lynn Bell seems more at home on the side porch than anywhere inside the rural Montgomery County home she shares with her husband and two dogs.
It’s their “barndominium,” the newest alternative housing craze that follows the much-hyped tiny houses, container homes and treehouse rooms that have captured the imagination of Americans looking for something more interesting than four walls and a roof.
At 56, Bell is entering a new and unexpected phase of her life as “the barndo lady,” who in a matter of months has parlayed a few comments on social media into a business — the Barndominium Co. — all during the coronavirus pandemic.
Midyear she was asked to design barndo floor plans for others, and by July her business was operational. By the end of 2020, she had 12 employees with plans to add more in February, and in the meantime, she has designed nearly 150 barndominiums for construction all across the country.
“My barndos have flair and style. When I’m done, you’ll never look at a metal building the same way again,” said Bell, a Louisiana native who has lived in the Houston area for more than two decades. “We take a metal building and make it look good.”
Bell and her husband, Oliver — 60 and a former Army airborne ranger and Army Reserves major who now owns a crisis consulting firm, Oliver Bell Inc. — lived in Houston’s Westchase area and wanted a cabin in the country. Looking for affordable options for their 14 acres on the edge of the Sam Houston National Forest, she stumbled onto “barndominiums.”
A military family, Oliver Bell and the couple’s two grown daughters are all West Point graduates, and their daughters — Alexi and Annette — and son-in-law are all serving in the Army now. Even their dogs — German shepherds named General Scott and General Patton — are a nod to their patriotism.
They’re the natural evolution of what people used to call “shouses” — shops with living space. People have built them to store everything from RVs and tractors to farm animals. They can be workshops, too, and they have the equivalent of a small apartment with a full bathroom, Stacee said.
Though Stacee has no formal design training, she started sketching ideas for how she would want her own metal barndo to look. The Bells started visiting their property on weekends to clear brush and prepare for construction, but the more they visited, the more they wanted to live there full time — in a bigger barndo.
With Stacee operating as general contractor, they started with a workshop with a 725-square-foot apartment and lived in it while they planned and built the 5,200-square-foot home they live in now.
Once a foundation is poured, the shell of a barndo can go up in a week or two, and then the electrical, plumbing and interior finishes continue.
“You don’t find women, let alone Black women, in this industry,” Stacee said. “You’ll find men who have been doing this. I bring a feminine touch to it — I make metal buildings look good.”
Her plans for barndos such as her shop/apartment combination cost $1,200 and up and $75,000 to $150,000 to finish, depending on size and height.
Plans for a full home in the 3,000-square-foot range cost $3,200 to $3,500.
The advantages are lower construction costs at about $150 per square foot. They’re energy efficient, and the interior is completely flexible because the load-bearing walls are all exterior in one-story barndos. (Two-story barndos require some internal support walls.) Also, banks are starting to see their value and are willing to finance them, the Bells said.
The Bells’ home was designed for a casual, outdoorsy lifestyle, including a side porch that has everything you need except a bathroom: a full outdoor kitchen that includes a built-in pizza oven, a 12-foot island clad in Texas limestone, and a fireplace with a living room and dining area.
“This is our favorite room in the house,” Stacee said of the covered side porch. “Sometimes we’ll sit out here and Oliver will be grilling — he does 99 percent of the cooking — and I’ll have music on or we’ll be watching a game or something, and we’ll ask ourselves, ‘Why did we ever build a house?’”
Their main living area indoors is a cavernous space with 25-foot ceilings, and you get to that side porch through an automated glass garage door that rolls up for the ultimate indoor-outdoor floor plan. Inside, you’ll find a large living area, dining area and a kitchen with a 20-foot island with a stainless-steel counter.
The kitchen was designed around a massive antique hutch, which replaces cabinets for dishes and serving pieces.
Stacee understands the difference between a splurge and a save, and loves to note every cost-saving measure or resale-store find. For example, a pot rack in the pantry is really an old ladder she found at Round Top. Blinds in the primary bathroom are made from inexpensive stenciled burlap bags she found on Etsy.com, and the kitchen island’s cabinet doors were replaced with cafe-length curtains that she changes out with the season.
She used black-and-white print tile — from Home Depot — in the pantry and two bathrooms and then found peel-and-stick wallpaper in a similar pattern. Rather than spend $2,200 to apply tile to the risers on the stairs to the second floor, she used the wallpaper, which cost just $170.
A first-floor flex room that Stacee was using as her offices has been adapted to a six-person work station for her employees. Upstairs, there’s an oversized multipurpose room and a bedroom with a full bath.
The multipurpose room has plenty of seating, a big-screen TV and a fridge so it’s easily a home theater. But it also has daybeds — two fulls and two queens — built into the angle of the roof, so it can be a bunkhouse.
The Bells’ daughters have used it for that, and Stacee had several girlfriends over once and they all stayed up there, too.
“We use every room every day. I think that’s what people are looking for now — how to make the best use of their space, whether it’s the kitchen, living room or any other room,” said Oliver, who’s planning to step away from some of his crisis-management business to help Stacee fully launch the Barndominium Co.
They’re working hard to keep up with the demand for barndo plans, the voracious appetite of social media and the e-commerce site Stacee plans to launch with links to favorite products by vendors she uses.
There is likely to be a home-goods collection, too, with home accessories designed by Stacee for people who love the rustic barndo lifestyle.