Pat Raia’s recent article about the California barn fire blamed on exploding manure raises legitimate concerns about the dangers of improper waste management. Standing piles of manure contain rapidly reproducing bacteria and methane gas build up (as the internal temperature rises you might see smoke rising off the mounds!). The impending “explosion” could ignite any combustible material in proximity to it and you could be left with a devastating mess similar to the California barn fire.
Manure storage in the barn is a fairly rare occurrence in my experience and I agree with the recommendation that it should be stored outside and away from the barn. Not only to reduce the catastrophic events that could be caused by spontaneous combustion, but also to prevent flies, mosquitoes, and odors (not to mention the unnecessary risk to the safety of the horses from outside service vehicles and haulers tending to it). I find that most people store their manure in a dumpster or muck pit. As an alternative, I recommend and frequently specify a composting system close to the barn. A composting system like O2Compost is great and can be designed to accommodate large to small horse barn operations.
They’re also compact, customizable and can quell the influx of flies and mosquitoes. The heat created by the decomposing manure “cooks” it until it is reduced to a manageable amount. It can then be used in more productive ways such as providing fertilizer for the farm and paddocks (the cooking process has killed the harmful bacteria by this stage) and preventing weeds. Always be cautious, though, when handling or transporting waste materials so as to avoid mixing with other combustibles. This could increase your risk for fire as well. Most farms do separate them because the hauler typically objects to combining other trash with manure.
Spontaneous combustion is not limited to manure, however. Hay is a serious factor where barn fires are concerned, in my opinion. It is all too frequently stored in improperly ventilated barn lofts where it can easily ignite. Unfortunately, many owners house their horses alongside hay storage and have no idea how potentially deadly it can be. They think it won’t happen to them. With daily convenience in mind, I usually design a ventilated, isolated area to accommodate only a week’s worth of hay storage at a time. Generally, hay should not be amassed in lofts, but whenever it is stored there it should only be in small quantities. Special precautions need to be taken such as installing alarm systems and reducing exposure to electric lighting and equipment. I recommend natural lighting through a skylight or clerestory windows. I strongly encourage installing a sprinkler system in the barn. I know it’s expensive but think of it this way, “ can you afford to lose your barn, your horses, and everything else in there?” It may be worth the investment considering what’s at stake.
I want to thank Pat Raia for writing the article, as it will, hopefully, raise our collective consciousness to the presence of latent hazards around the barn.Whenever designing for horses, my goal is to find every way possible to make the barn (and the entire farm for that matter!) a safe and healthy home for them and their handlers.
John Blackburn, AIA, Senior Principal at Blackburn Architects, P.C. and author of Healthy Stables By Design has over 35 years of experience in the practice of architecture. He is responsible for the overall firm management. His award-winning designs include a full range of project types and services, from programming, existing facility evaluation, and master planning to new construction, adaptive reuse, and historic preservation. Please contact him here
After reading Stable Management’s recent article “Environment is Important in Planning Your Equine Facility,” I thought the topic would be perfect for this latest series of Barn Design Tips and Thoughts. You can find Stable Management’s article here (http://stablemanagement.com/article-archive/stable-management/environment-is-important-in-planning-your-equine-facility/) if you are interested.
The article is absolutely correct, “Environment is important.” Since you cannot change the environment, selecting the proper property and layout of your farm is critical to its success. The farm has to respect the land and environment in which it is placed. Sometimes people attempt to change the land to suit the farm they desire. That process is generally extremely costly and some spend more money manipulating the land than they do building the structures, fencing, etc.
A successful horse farm needs to respect three concerns: the demands of the site, the goals of the owner, and the needs of the horse. At Blackburn, we believe the needs of the horse remain paramount throughout the planning and design process. For over 30 years and in more than 30 states, I have seen an incredible range of properties and locations on which a horse-owner wants to “build” a farm. Most properties can be adapted in some way, but at what expense? One time, I had a conversation with a thoroughbred owner in which he had to decide between spending $100k to solve a site issue his way or accepting a lower cost alternative that could save him enough money to invest in a new foal. Like many equestrians faced with a similar choice, he chose the latter. This is one of the reasons why having an equestrian architect or planner evaluate a site before purchase may be extremely helpful and cost-effective.
In order to make the most of your land and stable, planning is necessary. The most important and critical step is to develop a master plan. This is where most of our projects start. A proper master plan will analyze the site to determine the property’s unique features, pitfalls, proper conditions, seasonal changes, etc. etc.
There are literally thousands of things to consider and they are not all the same for any two projects. As I have described it in terms of farm managers, you can get a hundred farm managers in a room and you will get at least 101 different opinions on how to run or operate a farm. The same is true for the site. Oftentimes, we present several site plan options to clients so they can see the benefits and negatives of different building placements. It may require an experienced equine planner, designer/architect, or landscape designer/architect to see the differences or to see “the forest for the trees.” For that reason, it is almost impossible for me to give general tips about site planning as each site differs. One generally applicable tip is locating the long axis of the barn perpendicular to the prevailing summer breeze for good ventilation. The key is determining the direction of the prevailing summer breeze. I recommend starting with local airport wind data, but following that with a site analysis to observe site obstructions that can modify the pattern. Every site has it’s own microclimate and it is important to gain an understanding of it before you design the overall site plan.
To make the most of your property, I highly advise hiring someone with experience. Sometimes this is where people have issues. Without considering all the influences of land and environment, they purchase a prefab or select a design/build solution. With many of these companies, their sole interest is selling a product, not a service. It is not very different from selecting a trainer for your horse. If you want to be a top dressage rider, selecting a general all-around trainer can only get you so close to your goal. Instead, you need someone with experience in high-level dressage. Someone that is able to understand your horse, you, and your goals. Similarly, what the owner of a horse property needs is the service of an experienced hand, the talents of a trained eye, and the concern for the long term success of the farm.
A few weeks ago, I was approached by a potential client who had selected a prefab barn/arena structure. Throughout the process, the prime concern was the cost and speed of erection. The supplier offered to adjust the size of her building components to fit the building pad, but didn’t look any further. When the owner complained that the barn stuck out like a sore thumb, the prefab manufacturer added a series of small cupolas that were not functional and out of proportion. Unfortunately, in these situations it is often the health of the horses that suffer. They are the ones that miss out on the prevailing summer breezes that your pre-fab structure never gets because barn placement wasn’t considered. It is the horses that have to live in a stall that smells and contains high levels of ammonia gas, since draining and the importance of natural light in reducing gas production was not a priority. They do not have the benefit of clerestory light entering or the light from a Dutch door removing bacteria from the air, since your pre-fab barn may lack Dutch-doors and abundant sky-lights. Of course none of these are extreme life-threatening problems and not every pre-fab structure or kit of parts is horribly designed (although there are definitely some out there). Yet, when you take a horse out of its comfort zone- the wild- it’s your obligation to create an environment that protects its health and safety. A poorly designed barn can be worse than no barn at all.
The last line of the article stating “Environment is Important in Planning Your Equine Facility” is absolutely correct. “Understanding what you want to develop, and planning for the success of that horse facility, will go a long way in making the project go faster and easier,” and if I might add, cost less and be a better long-term investment.
If you are interested in how stable design can make a healthy environment for horses, please consider checking out my new book Healthy Stables by Design. After practicing as an equestrian architect and concerning myself with ways to make stables safer and healthier for their inhabitants in all kinds of environments, I thought it was finally time to share some of my principles. In my book, you can start to understand these concepts as I explain them through large-scale pictures and drawings.
Attached are articles about something that we see all too often – another barn fire. I probably read somewhere between 10 and 20 articles every year about these tragedies. In virtually every one, there is no specific origin given for the fire or “it’s under investigation.” However, any person who has been around barns is aware of the probable answer. Usually, some electrical condition (light fixtures, heater, faulty fan, etc) ignites a flammable material such as hay, bedding, cobwebs, etc.
In the article about a tragic barn fire in Georgia that took the lives of 35 horses, it does not mention the origin of the fire but states, “The stable was filled with hay and wood chips for the horses’ bedding…. And those running the stable kept fans blowing on the horses to keep them cool through the summer night.”
Once again the issue comes down to ventilation, the use of fans, and the probable culprit of faulty wiring.
Please excuse me if I preach once again about the importance of “natural” ventilation, which in my opinion is the most critical aspect of barn design in relation to the health and safety of the animals. “Natural” lighting is also important, but when designed effectively, both work together to ventilate the barn. I am not familiar with the barn that burned or the conditions that may have caused the fire, but the article states that the fans blowing in the barn increased the intensity of the fire.
For thirty years, we have designed barns that incorporate the chimney effect and the Bernoulli principle to ventilate barns naturally. (Click here for explanation and to learn more). Neither of these will eliminate the use of fans entirely in a barn, but they will greatly reduce the need for electric fans (and electric lights as well). Reducing the need, will reduce the use and consequently extend the life (they won’t wear out as quickly) of the fans or lights. Ultimately, this will also reduce energy cost for the barn. Many farms use the cheap residential box fan for ventilation over extended periods of time. Not only are they cheaply made (I have seen them selling for as little as $10), but they are not designed to withstand the environmental abuse they can receive in the barn. Dust, dirt, hay, and/or bedding particles can clog the fans, easily creating potential for fire. In addition, the humidity can cause the fans to rust and deteriorate more rapidly. The less fans, lights, and other mechanical systems are needed, the safer the farm will be.
Although, these methods do not eliminate the possibility of one of these horrific events, they decrease the likelihood. Something that will make most, if not all, horse owners’ sleep a little more soundly at night. A well-designed barn needs to consider the heath and safety of the horse at every turn. Remember your barn does not have to cost you an arm and a leg, but neither should your barn cost you your horse.
Check out my new book, Healthy Stables by Design, at www.healthystablesbydesign.com. Not only does it discuss ventilation practices, but it will also feature other ways to make a stable safe and healthy for horses.
Times Free Press – www.timesfreepress.com/news/2013/jun/23/stable-fire-shocks-neighbors/
I wanted to share an oldie but goodie – an article I wrote originally for Western Horseman Magazine about designing for natural ventilation within your barn. This stuff is the bread and butter of our design, in that no matter where a barn is located, or what a client’s budget may be, healthy and natural ventilation within the stables is our priority. Read the article, Breath of Fresh Air, and let me know what you think.