Silos in Architecture: Design & Structure

Instructor: Graig Delany

Graig teaches Architecture, Construction and Engineering Courses and has a Master of Architecture Degree

Put simply, a silo is a storage structure; anything stored in a silo is referred to as silage. What it looks like is largely dependent on what it holds and how it's unloaded. Efficiency is the name of the game with these structures.

Nebraska grain silo
Nebraska Grain Silo


The image most have of a silo is a tower silo or a grain elevator, which can be over 100 feet tall and can hold thousands of yards of silage. Silos come in many shapes and sizes, and can store everything from corn to coal. Although its origins can be traced back through Spanish (silo), Latin (sirum) and Greek (siros), the meaning consistently indicates subterranean storage. This makes sense: with limited technology, storing grain underground helps keep it at a constant temperature. This method was used by many different civilizations from Asia to Africa to the Americas, and is still widely used today!

Stave silo under construction
Stave Silo Under Construction

Why Use a Silo?

The purpose of a silo is to store materials so that they can be used later. Storing food for later use can become difficult at large scales: air flow and humidity have to be controlled and infestations must be monitored. Towers, bunkers and bags are the most common silos used today. The tower silo is the most iconic form and is commonly made of steel or concrete. Bunker silos are used in large operations and typically consist of concrete walls and a plastic covering tarp. Bag silos are inexpensive plastic tubes that are filled and sealed.

Silo bag
Silo Bag

Geometry of the Silo

A circle contains more internal area per circumference than other shapes. The benefit of using the least amount of material to enclose the greatest area is obvious: it saves material! A circular enclosure is also inherently strong. Under uniform loading and pressure the stress is carried around the structure and distributed safely. Extending the circle upwards offers the same benefits in a three-dimensional space.

Since storage is the main objective of a silo, the cylinder is a great choice! The cylindrical silo is designed to be strong in tension so that the load of silage pushing down and outwards won't cause structural deformations or instability. Steel silos are typically made of galvanized, corrugated sheet metal. The sheets of metal run longitudinally around the cylinder, with their pitch and depth adding strength to the cylinder.

Corrugated sheet metal
Corrugated sheet metal

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