Blackburn Architects has been renovating old barns for nearly 40 years. That means that many photos of our projects circulate on social media, Pinterest, Houzz and other sites. Questions are a natural outcome. So, what are some of our recommendations for creating a home out of an old barn? We thought we’d ask John Blackburn for his thoughts.
John, what kind of barns work or don’t work for renovation into a home, generally?
“There is no one kind or type barn that works best, though many people gravitate towards old 19th century timber-framed bank barns. But there are many types of other old barns and they can make for wonderful houses – grand interior spaces with a lot of historic character. So, the type of barn really depends on your aesthetic and functional needs as well as the location.
“Barn architecture was influenced by the history and culture of the people that settled a particular area. For example: 1. Dutch and German barns in the mid-Atlantic region, 2. Connected barns in New England, 3. Tobacco barns in the south, or 4. Dairy barns which can be found in almost any region of the US. The ethnicity of the settlers, geographic location, the type crops or animals raised or used in farming. All of these influenced the look, style and type barns that were constructed in an area. And, of course, available building materials (i.e. stone, heavy timber, etc.) had a huge impact.
“Another little known fact that influenced the type and style of American barns was the circulation of the Old Farmer’s Almanac and other early farm periodicals. These publications frequently included articles about different barn styles.
John, what to look for in barns to restore?
“There are a lot of factors to consider but the condition of the barn and the location are critical.
“The structural condition is one of the most important factors when considering transforming an old barn into a new use. I recommend a structural inspection of the entire building before engaging in any remodeling or adaptation. The structural damage could be obvious, i.e. missing, broken or rotted timbers, collapsing foundations or roofs, suitability of the structure to the load conditions of the new use, etc. Plumbness of the structure can give an indication of the structural soundness of the barn. Obviously a leaning barn is not a good sign, but also look at the ridge of the roof. Typically, a sagging ridge line indicates deterioration somewhere in the structure. Sagging ridge lines can be due to a sagging ridge beam, a rotting timber column on the ground floor or collapsing foundation wall or almost any structural framing member above it.
“You will need to investigate for insect infestation, both current and past. Powder post beetles can wreak havoc on the structure yet not be readily apparent to the novice homeowner.
John, what about the price of these transformations? Are they affordable?
“Price is always important, but even more so with a barn adaptation. The structural stabilization could easily represent half the cost of the renovation though it depends on the condition of the barn (frame, siding, foundation, etc.) and what the owner wants to do with it.
“Another consideration regarding cost is the presence of hazardous materials, i.e. lead based paint. Many old dairy barns were painted inside and out with lead based paint during the early to mid-part of the 20th century. It can be expensive to either remove or encapsulate. Another concern is asbestos shingles, often used on roofs and exterior walls of old barns, particularly dairy barns.
“The bottom line – go into a barn project with your eyes open. These conversions are not cheap, but they are enormously satisfying and hold their value well.
John, what are your thoughts on keeping the barn’s integrity as a farm building?
“What I hate to see more than anything short of tearing a barn down and “salvaging” the old timbers is inappropriate ‘glossing over.’ It’s about the worst end of life for an old barn (in my opinion). When someone tries to make a residential building from an old barn but doesn’t respect its history or its contribution to the visual environment, I feel this is a lost opportunity. For me, they are destroying the very characteristic that makes it attractive or romantic in the first place. Far too often people say they love old barns but when they try to change its use and end up destroying it. I would rather they leave the old barn for someone who appreciates the uniqueness of it and will give it new life.
John, what about “brightening” up the old interior by adding more glass?
“Sure, this can work in lots of ways. One is the installation of end wall windows as we did at River Farm but that’s not for everyone and is somewhat site specific.
Adding windows or sliding barn doors with glazed walls behind them is another way. Because barns were a farmer’s industrial building it changed with the times and methods of farming. Windows, sliding doors and additions were frequently added to modify farm structures to fit changing needs. If [adding glass] is done in an architectural or historical way that continues the farm barn aesthetic, I think it should be acceptable. But scale and size is important too.
“Another approach is possibly staining the old boards of the ceiling or walls with a semi-transparent stain. This provides some reflectance yet leaves the grain of the old wood in place. I’m against insulating a barn’s walls or the underside of the roof with drywall or some reclaimed old barn boards. The problem with that is you lose the appearance of the massive heavy timbers, the framework of the walls, the purlins, the joinery, etc. There is a better way. We use SIPS panels on the exterior walls and roof. These provide superior R value without destroying the rustic interior look. On the exterior, SIPS panels are secured to the timber frame and supported by a galvanized base angle. Once complete and detailed properly, the building can look exactly like the former barn. It works!
“Of course, electric lighting works too. Other than possibly hanging an ornamental fixture, I typically recommend carefully placing a spot or some sort of theatrical type lighting on top of beams in specific areas. This will create minimal visual obstruction but can be trained down to a particular area, upward to reflect light off a ceiling, or across the space to an opposite wall. Where and how you run the electrical conduits and placement of junction boxes requires careful thought. I recommend not leaving that decision up to the electrician whose aesthetic sensitivity may not agree with the design goals. The same is true of HVAC systems. A lot of thought needs to go into the type and location of HVAC systems and how ventilation and air movement within a large space can be comfortably distributed.”
How can you can be proactive in the design of your farm and your barn to protect your horse from the threat of barn fires? What can you do to minimize the damage and loss of buildings and most importantly your horse and human life?
Prevent, Contain, Suppress
Prevention is your best protection and your first line of defense. There are any number of reasons why barn fires occur. Many are outside your control but there are steps you can take to prevent a fire from getting started. Never overlook important management practices – organize, clean and prepare.
1) Keep a clean barn/farm (dust, cobwebs, bird nests, debris).
2) Keep aisle ways clear.
3) Keep your barn neatly organized.
4) Develop a fire safety plan and practice it.
5) And, of course, NO SMOKING!
Site planning is a critical component of farm fire prevention.
We recommend a separation of buildings and hazardous functions/materials from the barn.
Generally, we use a rule of thumb of 30’ to 50’ and sometimes 100’ depending on the terrain, building codes and building materials used. Hay / bedding, equipment and other flammable materials should be stored separately from the barn and isolated if possible within masonry fire resistant structures.
Manure storage is a critical concern and can be a flammable substance if not stored properly. It should be isolated separately.
Egress from the barn for people and horses. In case of a barn fire, the barn should open into a contained area so horses can be let loose quickly yet contained. We recommend locating at least one good size paddock near the barn that can receive a number of horses at one time. If possible, provide perimeter fencing around your farm to contain horses that may get loose and out on a roadway. Consider access to the farm and buildings for the fire trucks (we recommend a 12’ to 14’ access road minimum) with adequate support and clearance for the trucks and other emergency vehicles. Provide adequate clearance under trees, power lines and over farm bridges. Make sure you have adequate turn-around space for the emergency vehicles.
A suitable water source is critical. Provide either an on-site storage ponds, water tanks (above or below ground) and your water supply. If it’s from a well or municipal source consider the GPM flow, water pressure. You may also want to have a generator on the farm that can serve pumps if the power service should fail. And remember, fighting a fire will produce a great deal of water and that will turn into mud. So consider surface drainage for added safety around the barn.
Building layout is critical for preventing barn fires. Blackburn always designs wide center aisles. Keep them free of clutter. A shed row provides a safer layout for escaping a burning barn but they are not suitable in all locations.
Design your barn with no dead end aisles. Provide at least two exits for people and horses. We recommend openings of 1½ to 2½ the width of your horse (from stall and barn).
Consider the swing of doors – the direction of swing as well as latches used. We recommend sliding doors in the main aisle and hinged doors from stall to turnout stalls connected to the barn. The pin latch is far safer than the typical throw bolt latch. The pen latch is simpler in design (fewer moving parts and no springs and much faster to release.
The designers at Blackburn Architects make disaster prevention a priority through careful site planning and building design following THREE BASIC DESIGN PRINCIPLES:
1. BUILDING SYSTEMS/MATERIALS/FINISHES
The building materials and finishes are as critical as the barn layout. You should check your local building codes. (A good reference is the NFPA 150, 2019 edition). Though barns in many jurisdictions may be considered agricultural structures and not required to comply to building codes, we recommend you consult the NFPA code and adhere to it where possible.
There are four types of framing materials used in construction of equestrian facilities: light wood, timber, steel, masonry.
Light wood is the most common and lowest cost, but has the lowest resistance to fire. Timber frame is much safer. It will stand longer without collapse than light wood frame. Steel frame is flame resistant and can provide excellent protection. However, it is commonly used with light wood framing and other flammable finish materials that reduce its effectiveness in preventing or protecting from fire.
Electrical systems must be dust proof, rodent proof. Protect all light fixtures with cage or shatterproof lens. Remove or repair any frayed or damaged wiring. Do not use residential extension cords and do not overload circuits. Do not use household box fans. Heating systems within the barn should be kept to a minimum. Remember the barn is for horses, not humans.
Do not use portable space heaters and in warm rooms provide for installation of permanent heating equipment.
Lightning protection is another area of concern. Lightning rods are relatively inexpensive and should be installed on all barns if not all farm structures. Provide proper grounding devices and protection for all electrical equipment. You can install a warning system or rely on your phone weather app to alert you when lightning is near.
The second design principal is containment or compartmentalization. Compartmentalization uses firewalls and fire separations to contain the spread of fire and smoke. Insist that your builder close up all openings around beams, ducts, etc. Also, close up or limit attic or horizontal spaces thru use of fire curtains within those areas.
Your barn should insure proper ventilation for the health of your horse but you should be able to limit ventilation where necessary. The standard ventilation guideline is 1 sf per 100 sf of floor area in barn area or 1 sf for every 30 to 50 sf floor area in hay/bedding area.
Another design consideration to consider is to break up barns into smaller structures. A 24- stall barn is most efficient for a horse operation, but if possible it’s better to create smaller barns or provide fire and smoke separations within the barn layout. This level of planning will provide a better level of protection thru isolation.
The third design principal is suppression / detection. Early warning devices can be very effective, but they can be difficult in barn environments due to the dust and moisture. Always provide fire extinguishers throughout the barn and make sure they are inspected annually, they are the right type (A, B or C and we recommend having all three).
We also recommend including three types of detector devices; smoke, heat and flame. Each may be appropriate depending on the barn environment. For example, smoke detectors can be set off by dust and moisture. In those areas, you may want to consider another type, such as the laser light beam. Blackburn has used laser light beams in select areas, but they need to include some sort of delay mechanism so birds and other elements that can break the beam do not trigger an alarm. Consult with a fire detector manufacturer for the proper type and installation.
A smoke detector is your best line of defense, but a fire sprinkler is the best method you can install in your barn to suppress a fire. They come as either a dry or wet pipe system. The dry system is most common in barns that are subject to freezing temperatures. A wet pipe system is usually a lower cost but has limited use in unheated barns in sub-freezing areas.
Something to consider in a barn that may have nice finishes that could be subject to damage if the sprinkler system were set off by accident is the pre-action system. The Pre-action system is one that employs an automatic warning system that activates before the sprinkler system activates to protect from accidental discharge and protects damage to interior finishes
Finally, we strongly recommend that you consult with your local fire department regarding your fire protection plan and get your design approved.
They’re rustic, lofty, and tug at the hearts of people searching for a simpler way of life. Supported by a sturdy skeleton of timber and a base of stone nestled into the land, the appeal of living in a barn is seemingly timeless. These structures effortlessly fit into the landscape, whether in Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Europe.
For many years now, we at Blackburn Architects have watched the popularity of using these simple structures grow in popularity for secondary uses. There are tens of thousands of articles and project profiles about converting old barns into residences, guest houses, schools, breweries and wedding venues. We love the “reuse, reduce, recycle” of these historic structures rather than demolishing them (sending the material to a landfill) and building a bigger footprint in their place.
There’s even a How to Guide (aptly titled, How to Take One Old Barn and Call it Home) from the team 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. 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. The challenge is often finding a way to adapt it to a new use without loosing the character of the old barn but also doing it in a way that is sympathetic to its original function. When all is said and done, it needs to still look like a barn.
Our conversion of an old barn in Ohio into a guesthouse/party barn has been wildly popular on Pinterest and Houzz. The conversion of the bank barn into a spacious new home involved stabilizing the dilapidated structure and picking it up (literally) to move to a different location on the site. Our goal was to salvage the beauty of the barn and retain its character and charm. We reused lumber where possible and play with a mix of traditional details and modern amenities.
You can find photos of the project here: http://blackburnarch.com/projects/ohio-party-barn/In the meantime, how about some inspiration for your own conversion project? Here’s just a sample of what we’ve found lately. If you stumble upon a great adaptive reuse project (whether it’s a barn, an old warehouse, a church), let us know. We always relish these challenges.
Since our previous post about Barn Doors was such a hit and we had some questions about stall door design, I am going to share some of my tips and opinions about stall doors today. At the end, you can look at photos of stall doors in some of the stables we have designed.
For basic stall design, I always advocate for the door to be placed in the middle of the stall front. This allows both corners to be open for hanging buckets or placing feed. It also creates less of a blind spot than if placed in the corner. In general, you want your stall door to slide to the left. If you have a horse in your right hand, this leaves your left hand free to open the door. Once in the stall, you are able to easily close the door with your free hand. This is just one example of efficient and safe design, as the handler does not have to change hands or be thrown off balance by moving doors.
When designing your own barn, owners must choose between swinging and sliding stall doors. I always recommend sliding stall doors, for both safety and efficiency. As mentioned briefly last time, swinging doors present safety concerns for two reasons. First, if left unlatched, wind can easily blow the door open and the action or resultant noise can spook and cause injury for the horse. Second, a sliding door enables you to leave the door open/closed and allows you to see immediately if the door is open from farther away. This also saves the time of opening and shutting the door every time the horse goes out. In a barn with many horses that are going in and out throughout the day, sliding is simply more efficient.
For latching, I always recommend pin latches. I have found these to be the best option, as they do not extrude from the stall door. Keep in mind if you use yoke gates, one needs to put the pin latch half way between the yoke gate and the floor at a minimum. Otherwise, you can have the issue of a clever horse letting itself out.
People have asked what material I advise for doors; in general, I recommend a steel frame door. If you want the look of wood, then you can insert a wood panel in a steel frame. I generally prefer doors to have an open top and bottom, as achieved by either bars or mesh. This enables both ventilation and visibility. Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Mesh, while stronger, can collect dust on the horizontal bars. (Make sure to always face the horizontal side of the mesh out, so smaller horses can’t climb up it). On the other hand, vertical bars, if not placed with a 2 inch or less spacing, can allow horses to get their hooves stuck and injured. Some people also dislike the aesthetics of the bars. All in all, this is a personal preference. The choice can be all bars, all mesh, or a combination of both (which is usually mesh below for strength and bars above for visibility). Incidentally, a bedding guard across the bottom of the stall door is a nice, simple feature that helps keep the bedding from falling through the lower panel of the door.
Many times, I recommend yoke gate doors, as this allows the horse to see its surroundings and communicate with fellow animals (especially if both side walls are solid). However, these types of gates are best if used with aisles that are 14’ or wider. Otherwise, you get issues when some horses do not appreciate the ‘communication’ that is happening in front of their stall. Always buy some filler panels for the yoke gates, as not every horse can be social. In general, I would recommend having enough filler panels for half your total stalls. This way there are always some on hand.
The yoke gate also fulfills a utilitarian function. In lieu of a hay access door or the action required to open the stall door to go into the stall, one can easily place a flake of hay in the stall, provided you feed hay from the floor. Yoke gates are very comforting to the owner as well. We all know how nice it is to look down an aisle and see our horses looking out of their stall. The same is true on exterior stall doors and/or windows. However, yoke gates are not for everyone and in the end it’s a matter of personal preference. I prefer the removable yolk gate panels, instead of the ones that hinge and hang down, because they leave the stall front cleaner and less cluttered. Also, there is less noise created when the door is opened and shut, or when an impatient horse decides to kick the door. There are other variations on the design of yoke gates that I will cover in perhaps another article later.
Finally, I always recommend Dutch doors to the outside. These are a major way to increase and control ventilation into your barn and take care of the health of your horse. The two leaves provide you options for full opening or half opening depending on the weather conditions. By opening the doors, you can reduce the ammonia gas and the odor that comes with it. The ventilation moves the gas up and out through vertical ventilation. At the same time, the sunlight that enters the stall is able to remove bacteria from the air and stall, while reducing the production of ammonia gas (which requires dark, damp locations).
I also advocate for a double door system, meaning you have the solid Dutch door on the outside with an interior door (a steel door of bars, mesh, or a combination of both). In this case, as it is being used mainly for emergency, the interior door can be either swinging or sliding. Swinging is good because nothing protrudes from the door (such as floor guides or rollers). However, it can be problematic if you are trying to release a frenzied horse as the door opens into the stall. Many of you have surely seen Dutch doors being used where the top is open and the bottom is left closed, with no second door in sight. This does not take full advantage of the door! Yes, some sort of webbing could be placed across the door, but that does not inhibit a very determined horse. This is why I advocate for double doors.
Now for some examples! Many of our projects have used Lucas Equine Stall Systems. They are well made and they can custom design the stall system to fit virtually any owner’s needs or aesthetic desires. Keep scrolling down to see some pictures of stall doors in stables we have designed.
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/
Blackburn Architects was retained to adapt this building from its original use as a candy factory into a center for the arts. The primary design goal was to preserve the character of the building’s exterior two-tone brickwork and interior heavy-timber wood columns and beams while maximizing space for the new arts uses. The first floor contains an open gallery for exhibitions and demonstration activities. Second floor classrooms provide space for arts education. A 175-seat performance space on the third floor accommodates repertory and community theater productions, and the basement contains space for production and storage of theatrical props and scenery.
Client City of Manassas
Program adaption of a historic structure into an arts center
This summer, Equestrian Quarterly has published an article discussing the elements of well-designed barns. The article features several equestrian architects, including John Blackburn. Check out the article to hear John’s thoughts on what make a well-planned facility, as well as to see a few photos from our assorted projects. There is even mention of John’s new book, Healthy Stables by Design, that will be coming out this fall.
Click here to access the article “Let There Be Light”.
On Saturday April 27th, Ian Kelly and I attended the Grand Opening of the Woodstock Equestrian Park in Beallsville, MD. Ian was the project manager for Blackburn Architects who was the lead designer for the renovated facility. It was a fantastic day with perfect weather for the event. The ceremonies included the dedication of the recently completed outdoor riding ring, beginner novice cross country course, and the stabilization and restoration of the historic Brewer Farm.
Blackburn Architects helped design the layout of the park and directed the restoration of the four historic structures. The Grand Opening event included a ribbon cutting ceremony, jumping demonstration by Bascule Farm, a polo match featuring the Capitol Polo Club, a demonstration of the new cross country course by the Seneca Valley Pony Club, and a presentation of the Maryland Horse Industry Board’s April Touch of Class award to Tracey Morgan. I’ve posted some photos below of the highlights from the event.
For additional information please see:
Facebook links of participants:
I’ll admit to a senior moment, perhaps, as it just dawned on me that I failed to update the blog with final photos of our conversion of an old barn in Ohio into a guesthouse/party barn. My project manager and I enjoyed working with Ed Wurm at Classic Homes and all those involved with this conversion of a German-style barn, which involved stabilizing the dilapidated structure and picking it up (literally) to move to a different location on the site. And that was just getting started. You can view photos of the evolution of the project here, here, here, and here, but suffice it to say, it was a major transformation.
Along with the clients, our goal was to salvage the beauty of the barn and retain its character and charm. We reused lumber where possible and play with a mix of traditional details and modern amenities. And I have to say, I imagine there’s nothing more cozy than gathering around the huge fireplace, flickering with orange and red, with a drink in hand and a backdrop of the night sky. That might be a moment even an old guy like me couldn’t forget.
I’m excited to share photos of the progress at Starbright Farm in Grass Valley, California because it’s one of our first Greenbarns to enter the construction phase. Greenbarns is a line of pre-designed barns that my firm offers as an alternative to full-scale custom design.
How It Works: We can customize the Greenbarn model of your choice (there’s four to choose from) as we’ve done for this client, but the Greenbarns method reduces the overall architectural design fees because we’re not starting from scratch. You simply choose a Greenbarns model (this project uses The Hickory design), and either build it as specified, or ask us to make a few changes to make it your own.
I like to think of a Greenbarn as a leaner and greener version of a Blackburn custom horse barn in that we offer a package of top-quality materials and finishes, replete with Lucas Equine stall systems and value engineered, eco-friendly materials. In other words, a high quality, durable, and well designed barn with the details you need. Full disclosure: Greenbarns aren’t really more green than our custom designs, because we prioritize natural lighting and ventilation in all we do, but leaner and greener sure is fun to say.
At Starbright Farm (tentative name – always a tough decision for the owners to settle on the best farm name!), the owners decided to combine two Greenbarns Hickory models. The first barn is under construction, with the second to occur during a later phase. The plan calls for the two barns, which each house five stalls along with wash/groom stalls and tack/office space, to be arranged around a courtyard with views to the west and surrounding paddocks. There’s also two run-in sheds (almost complete) and a composting system designed by the team at O2 Compost. The owners and their daughters plan to use the stables and their new 100×200 outdoor arena for both pleasure riding and hunter/jumper training with the local pony club.
I look forward to seeing this project in its completion and hope it will be a big hit with the local pony club and, of course, the owners and their family.