As a child until the age of 3 or 4, I lived in Bethlehem, PA. I don’t have a lot of memories of it, but my dad tells the story of when he and my uncle built the deck on our house, and I, at age 3, stood outside with my arms crossed and pointed at things, giving direction. They thought it was hysterical. Dad always tells that story when people ask why I became an architect. If it was a job where, “you were going to stand around and tell someone how to building something, Matt was going to be good at it.”
Eventually, we moved to the Philadelphia suburbs and that’s where I lived until college. It looked like a generic suburban development in what had once been a farming area. There were a lot of kids my same age, and a big yard to play in. Behind our house was this old barn. I never made the connection until after I started working at Blackburn, but the farmer who owned it was friendly to the neighborhood kids, and we used to go exploring through that barn all the time. As we got to be teenagers and we built skateboarding ramps or hockey nets or whatever, he let us dig stuff out of the barn and use it. It was a beautiful old building because it was all mortise-and-tenon construction. There were no nails. I’m sure that was an early influence on my love for old timber structures. Good memories. For a few years, he kept retired racehorses, and they seemed to enjoy eating our garden over the fence.
How did Clemson happen?
I completed my undergraduate study in DC at Catholic University, graduating in May, 2010. Afterwards, I moved back to Philadelphia for about four months – the job market was tough – and worked part-time. In my spare time, I helped my friend Dan – who we’ll probably talk about when we get to family – renovate a house. It was a chance to apply some of what I had been learning in school. We made a mess; we probably did some things terribly wrong, but it was fun.
Then I came back to DC, worked for John for four years, and as I started to take on more responsibility I felt that it was time to get my Master’s degree because I was certain this was what I wanted to do. I looked for a school that was somewhere different and was certain that I would go to school in Chicago, until I visited Clemson and found it… unique. Perhaps because it was kind of rural. I had gotten used to city life, I think, and the small college town felt like a setting where I could focus academically. Also, Clemson offered two semesters off campus (I chose to visit Barcelona and Charleston), which were additional learning contexts; again, something different.
In addition to your Master’s degree, you met your fiancé at Clemson.
Jenny and I met the first day. At orientation, I met a few people in my program, one of whom was Jenny’s roommate. Jenny walked up beside me and we just clicked. I texted my friend Dan that day and kind of as a joke told him I’d fallen in love. Jenny and I have been together ever since, and will get married this summer. She grew up in Mississippi and comes across as a sweet, soft-spoken person, but when she gets wound up, watch out. We fit together well.
Let’s talk about how family plays such a big part in your life. You’re a very together person, so that must come from your upbringing.
Totally unbiased, my family is very special. I have two brothers, Mark and Shane, plus Dan, so that’s really three brothers. One sister, Megan. And now I have Jenny, and her family, joining mine. Family has always been a constant through my life. It’s not always been simple. As with all families, there’s some complexity to it, but my siblings and I are very close. Doesn’t mean we always agree; we certainly fought a lot growing up, but we are inseparable, and super weird, when do get together. When we’re around each other, we can be a bit overwhelming. Each of us is uniquely humorous and witty, and sometimes too clever for their own good. As for having it together, a lot of that is on my mom and dad. When I turned 14 I was told to find a job, so I started working in a restaurant. I give my mom and dad a ton of credit for pushing me. Early on I learned to balance friends, life and work. I’ve tried to maintain that ever since.
And the unique studio of Blackburn Architects fits your work life?
John has allowed me to take on a lot of responsibility. That’s huge, and particularly relevant to why I came back this past summer after finishing at Clemson. It’s tough to give an impression to someone in half an hour or an hour, but in job interviews I felt like other architecture firms didn’t get a full picture of who I was. They were just trying to fill a seat. Here, I’m encouraged to try things. I’ve been allowed to fail. Maybe not fail, but make some mistakes so that I can improve. It’s how I’m learning and growing professionally. John, and Ian, challenge the way I do things, and encourage me to defend my view. When there’s that level of mutual respect, you really feel motivated when you come into work each day.
As a young architect, do you worry about the future of the profession?
Sadly, architects in the media are often portrayed as having a kind of elitism. It’s a shame, and not true to what I’ve found in the profession. I know that small interventions can happen at an affordable price that can do a lot for quality of life. On the positive side, there’s so much information available and so many things we can now do, that, coupled with the ambition of young architects, suggests an exciting future. Growing out of our educational backgrounds that expose us to some of the more complex social and cultural challenges of our world, young professionals are finding new ways to innovate. Sustainable practice models are one example. You can also start to look at what it means to build sustainably, beginning with our post-war, and even more recent, building stock and how you can repurpose these buildings to avoid throwing the material in a landfill. Simply using green materials in a new building misses the bigger picture. We aren’t there yet, but these societal challenges inspire me.
Sports buff? Leave us with one nugget of a passion for something that’s not architecture.
I’ll give you two. Sports are one, specifically soccer. Jenny and I have a friendly rivalry. We play on the same rec team, but we follow rival pro clubs. It makes the house kind of fun on matchdays. Locally, we’re big fans of DC United. It’s an experience to go be a part of a fan group at the games; you cheer and jump up and down and act ridiculous.
The other passion is cycling. I bike to work every day, rain or shine. It gets me going in the morning. After 20 minutes of riding through the city I’m awake and ready to go.
Lastly, let’s talk LEGO, because we must.
Yep, I still play with LEGOs. There’s a Lego model of one of our Greenbarns on my desk that I threw together one day. I would like to think that 12-year-old Matt would be proud that I haven’t lost the love for playful exploration that drives me.
Might seem unlikely, but the designers at Blackburn Architects care about pastures. We think about them a lot.
For instance, did you know that now’s the time to sample your pastures for soil fertility? Early spring and fall are the best times to take these samples, according to the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, which released the article, linked below, last week. The article recommends sampling the top four inches of the pasture, and dividing large pastures into “sub-pastures” for sampling based on the varying topography.
“I Recommend that any horse owner in the United States contact their local Soil Conservation District (SDC) for advice in their specific area,” said John Blackburn, Senior Principal at Blackburn Architects in Washington, DC. “SCD’s are one of the best services provided by the Federal Government to farmers and in most cases the services they provide are free. Some pay you for installing and pursuing Best Management Practices. By definition, Conservation Districts are “government entities that provide technical assistance and tools to manage and protect land and water resources in the United States. There are more than 3,000 in the United States. Depending on the state, they may also be known as soil and water conservation districts, soil conservation districts, resource conservation districts, or other similar names. Nationally and within each state, the districts are generally coordinated by non-governmental associations. District borders often coincide with county borders.”
From concerns such as pasture maintenance to siting roads and structures on a property, many people contact us who are unsure of when and how to begin working with an architect. Teaming with a property owner to master plan their site, either for the first time (no structures on a blank canvas) or “redefining” an existing property (which may not be planned for best use practices), is part of the first phase of work performed by Blackburn Architects. With an equestrian architect, you’re purchasing a service rather than a product. The architect is there to resolve the needs of the owner, from overall site planning, programming, phasing, and design to overseeing the entire construction to make sure the barn is built as intended.
Typical services we provide include:
- Pre-purchase planning. Prior to purchasing a farm, we work with clients to “test fit” the property against their program needs and to look for possible siting or property issues (wetlands, environmental restrictions, siting grading concerns, code issues, sufficient acreage, etc.)
- Site planning: can reduce infrastructure costs (fewer roads, less fencing, better drainage, etc.) and improve the site to function at its best for your needs.
- Programming: ensures that the whole farm (not just the horse barn but the entire collection of structures on the site, if applicable: residence, guest house, caretaker’s quarters, hay/bedding, vehicle storage, etc.) operates efficiently and safely.
- Code analysis: certainly the codes vary across states/municipalities. We’ve designed horse stables in counties with very specific codes and regulations and understand what to look for and how to work with the various officials to resolve issues. The architect can save you a lot of hassle!
- Budget Development and Cost Control/Scheduling: I like to develop a budget as early in the process as possible and revisit it periodically during the project. My job is to determine if the owner’s programmatic needs and budget fit the site, and if the design aesthetic suits their personal design goals. We can also plan to develop the barn or various structures in phases, if applicable.
- Conceptual Design: Here we develop the character and massing of the structure(s) and prepare a preliminary floor plan and elevations to illustrate our ideas. At Blackburn, this is the final phase of what we call Master Plan Services (site plan, written program, conceptual design, and preliminary construction development). From here, we move on to more detailed design work.
- Schematic Design: After we complete a master plan that works well for the owner, we begin to prepare detailed drawings to give you an idea of the layout and general appearance of the barn (and possibly other buildings). We’ll talk about finishes, materials, stalls, tack rooms, etc. For a lot of people, this phase of design is the fun part!
- Design Development and Construction Drawings: Here we’ll really start to nail down the final design and specify the materials, stall systems, finishes, and other details and prepare construction drawings that instruct the contractor how to build the barn.
- Bidding and Construction Administration: Because construction drawings are open to interpretation, it’s important that the architect works with the contractor to oversee that the project is carried out according to the design intent. We’re the owner’s rep to make sure that construction is done well and done right.
Each step in the process leads to a healthy, safe, and functional facility. As architects, we want to study how you operate and design a barn that feels inviting and personal (because it is). No barn or farm operates exactly alike as each owner or barn/farm manager operates his/her facility in a particular fashion. While designing a barn from scratch is not realistic for everyone, if you are choosing between a design/build firm and an equestrian architect, we would strongly advise that you approach both for more information and weigh out your options carefully. It could save you your horse.
As always, we invite your questions and comments.
They’re rustic, lofty, and awe-inspiring. Supported by a sturdy skeleton of timber and a base of stone nestled into the land, its appeal is seemingly timeless. The structure effortlessly fits into its landscape, whether in Pennsylvania, Ohio, or across the ocean in the United Kingdom. The bank barn. A simple beauty of which I can’t get enough. (Not to mention dairy barns, vaulted barrel barns, Dutch barns, prairie barns….)
Maybe it’s the news I seek, but I feel as if there’s an influx of articles and project profiles about converting old barns into residences, guest houses, schools, theatres — even a basketball court/recreational wonderland. Bring it on, I say. Converting an old building to a new use never gets old to an architect like me.
There’s even a How to Guide (aptly titled, How to Take One Old Barn and Call it Home) from the team who can seemingly fix anything and everything: the experts at This Old House. Converting an old barn into a new home isn’t a task for the faint of heart, but big things can yield even bigger rewards, I like to think. The article touches on common issues you’ll face: structural (is it safe? how’s the foundation?), is it energy-efficient (you can bet it’s not — yet!) and water sealed (again — no way, no how), the pluses and minuses of such a large, open space, and more.
At Blackburn, we’re working to revive a metal pole barn currently used as a recreational lodge in North Carolina. While the barn isn’t centuries old, like many of the bank barns I admire, it’s an interesting challenge for my staff and me. The owner would like to expand the barn’s use so that it may host business events and entertainment functions. Our goal is to respect the barn’s form and the local context, while providing a renewed aesthetic and use. Design plans include replacing the metal cladding with a painted wood or composite siding to provide a more traditional look. We’ll also incorporate more natural light into the barn through an enclosed glass entrance, which will in turn make the space feel more inviting. The floor will be lowered to increase the space’s capacity and the hayloft area will become a conference center for up to 80 people. Heavy timber framing with steel plate connections will add to the rustic yet finished interior.
I’ll post updates about the project as the work progresses. In the meantime, how about some inspiration for your own conversion project? Here’s just a sample of what I’ve found lately. If you stumble upon a great adaptive reuse project (whether it’s a barn, an old warehouse, a church), I hope you’ll share it here. I can’t seem to get enough.
Inhabitat: Beautiful Bank Barn Conversion (OK, a shameless plug for a Blackburn project)