In case you missed it… Studio Appalachia is a collaborative, project-based graduate design studio between Clemson’s school of architecture and its department of landscape architecture. The Studio is directed by associate professors Dan Harding and Paul Russell. Studio Appalachia targets issues such as: accessibility to natural resources, sustainable building strategies, and approaches to long term visioning and planning.
I was asked to participate in this year’s studio because it involved horse facilities, specifically re-envisioning the Clemson University Equine Center (CUEC). With aging facilities that are well-used and well-loved, I knew it would be fascinating to see how these talented students created a fresh program for the facility. The teams of architecture and equine business students (a new twist for the studio) have spent the last several weeks immersed in detailing the site and facility requirements, learning about design issues unique to equines.
Teams consisting of three to four students conducted rigorous research, made several site visits, interviewed user groups, studied topography, considered land, sun, wind, circulation paths and traffic flow to create detailed and well considered Master Plan Studies and Field Reports.
Referencing the evolving formal and material contexts of Southern Appalachia, the four teams stated as goals to “improve circulation, establish organization, and enhance the (existing) ecology of the historic Clemson farm. To them, as one team eloquently stated, the CUEC is more than a farm; it is an institution that showcases the prestige of the university, and embodies the history, strength, and energy that the equine program was founded on.
The preliminary master plan schemes presented earlier in October were successful in developing goals and considerations for further study. The studio presents preliminary concept designs later this week and I’m looking forward to the big reveal.
As a kid in Tennessee, I grew up around horses, though I had no interest in properly riding them. That I left to my twin sister, who kept her Tennessee Walker named Dixie in a neighbor’s barn. For me, playing in the barn’s loft for days on end in the summer was much more appealing.
I left Tennessee for Clemson University (B.A. Architecture, 1969), where I developed an interest in designing buildings inspired by context, environment, and function: I became a student of the philosophy that “form follows function.” There was no doubt in my mind that I had left horses and the barn behind. After all, I never aspired to be an equestrian architect. I was a student of urban design. Ironically, over 25 years later, I earn a living designing equestrian facilities across the country. That is because a single interview changed my life.
Following graduate school (Washington University in St. Louis, M.A. in Urban Design, 1973), I relocated to Washington, D.C. in pursuit of its urban and robust economy as a place to possibly support a future architectural practice. My former colleague, Robbie Smith, and I began “moonlighting” on small side projects together and decided to create our own firm. As young architects, we’d happily take any project we could get our hands on. So, when Robbie received a phone call from a friend in the summer of 1983 about a fairly large potential horse project in Upperville, Virginia, we jumped. Forget that we had never designed a horse farm, or, for that matter, any other building of size of significance on our own. We had nothing to lose.
Preparation began for the big interview. We learned that the owner, Robert H. Smith (no relation to my partner, Robbie Smith), selected the renowned landscape architect Morgan Wheelock of Boston to plan the farm. Together, the owner and Wheelock sought an architect to design the farm structures to fit within the well-known Upperville and Middleburg, Virginia context.
Typically, during an interview you review your firm’s portfolio of completed projects with the potential client. This was not an option for Robbie and me — we’d have to approach this interview differently. Since Robbie was from Middleburg, he was familiar with the area’s building types. He spent a few days photographing various buildings in the area — forms, materials, and shapes — that represented Middleburg or Upperville in any way. Barns were certainly photographed, but we also considered residences, commercial structures, and other miscellaneous structures relevant. With plenty of images to inspire us, we selected a number of key examples. Many of these buildings were perhaps a hundred years old and probably weren’t designed by an architect. However, we felt they strongly represented the area. We took the photographs and projected the slides on the wall of our small office, traced over them, and transferred the images to illustration boards to serve as our “portfolio” presentation.
I’m not aware of what the other interviewing firms presented, but ours did not include a single building we designed or were designed by any architect, for that matter. Our presentation documented the context of the area in a series of hand-drawn sketches — but, at least, if the owner’s farm were to “fit” into the context, these were the shapes, forms, materials, and scale they should have.
We were hired immediately. Suddenly, we found ourselves with seven buildings to design with no staff in an unfurnished office space in a third-floor walkup in Georgetown — and we weren’t about to complain. We were embarking on a project that would change our lives.
Our client, Robert H. Smith, was a very successful developer in the Washington, D.C. area. While he had owned thoroughbred horses for several years, he stabled them at other farms or the track. Now he was ready to start a thoroughbred breeding operation, having acquired approximately 400 acres in Upperville, adjacent to the famous Rokeby Farm (owned by Paul Mellon) on one side and Route 50 on the other. Also included within the property were the grounds to the Upperville Horse Show, the oldest functioning horse show grounds in the United States.
Morgan Wheelock, the landscape architect, brought a background in designing horse farms to the project: with it, his theory that barn design, as well as the farm layout, should be driven by a paramount concern for the health and safety of the horse. The way the building is viewed and placed in the landscape, Wheelock believes, is as important as the design of the building itself. That’s because both the farm layout and the barn design impact the health and safety of the horse; concerns possibly even more apparent when operating a breeding facility for thoroughbreds.
Barns are often perceived as dark, dusty, and uninviting buildings. However, it’s also widely understood among equestrians that the best environment for a horse beyond the great outdoors is an environment that inspires just that. Wheelock bridged these inconsistencies with a design theory that focused on creating natural light and ventilation within the barn. It was a revelation. While the concepts Wheelock professed were simple, they worked — and beautifully — at our first barns at Heronwood Farm.
Navigating codes and permit issues can create confusion and headaches for clients who seek to build a horse barn in a state or municipality that lacks special classification for agricultural buildings. Several states, including Pennsylvania, offer building permit exemption if a horse barn can be classified as an agricultural building. This usually means that the barn is privately owned and used and is not a place of employment or residence. If a jurisdiction does not allow a horse barn to be classified as “agricultural,” the property and its buildings are subjected to rather excessive restrictions. (I should note that agricultural buildings still must meet the established zoning and building code requirements.) At Blackburn Architects, we run into excessive restrictions in many states and local jurisdictions if the equestrian facility cannot be classified as agricultural.
That’s why when I came across the following article about a horse farm owner in Pennsylvania, I knew I had to share it. Ron Samsel, the owner, simply wanted to build a private horse barn for his friends and family to enjoy. Instead, he entered a battle with his township that landed them both in court: all over a building permit. While Samsel eventually won the case– his horse barn was declared an agricultural enterprise and, therefore, a building permit was not required– he spent a large chunk of time and money fighting a battle against the township he felt was acting irrationally and irresponsibly.
The court ruling may set a precedent for similar cases or disputes, of which I’d guess there are many, in Pennsylvania and possibly even surrounding states. I am glad attention has been brought to this issue and can only hope for greater clarity and consistency in what has become a convoluted issue for many equestrians who seek to build a horse barn to call their own.
EXCERPT FROM PENNSYLVANIAN EQUESTRIAN
Considering this nightmare, Samsel says he can understand why individuals rarely seem to fight township rulings, even when the townships are clearly wrong. “The townships always win because they push the little guy out,” he says. Each time he won his case in court, the township was given 30 days to appeal the decision. Each time, the township waited until the 29th day to announce that they would appeal.
I want to share this video clip as well as an article by Clay Nelson of Sustainable Stables about the age-old, though presently uncommon, practice of using draft horses for farm labor. I’ve been able to get to know Clay and his work with Sustainable Stables, which promotes green equestrian practices, over the last year after he contacted my firm to discuss our own sustainable design practices. The attached YouTube clip shows an interview of timber harvester John Hartman, who speaks about his two draft horses, Stella and Dolly, and their work at Highfields Farm in Danbury, North Carolina.
Under Mr. Hartman’s direction, Stella and Dolly are helping with preparations by extracting trees for which the owners at Highfields Farm will eventually process onsite to become a future barn, small cabin, and run-in shed. Through the use of actual horsepower, the owners of Highfields Farm are able to supply their very local resources in a manner that maintains a small footprint and is also less destructive to its environment. For further details about the horses and their work at Highfields Farm, read Clay’s article here (which starts on page 6) from Holistic Horse Magazine. This practice once again reminds me that some of the greenest techniques are often the simplest and perhaps most overlooked.