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The Silver Lining of the Recession: Lower Building Costs

It’s official. We’re in a recession and it is estimated to last longer than any since the Great Depression. Still, even a bleak economy can have a silver lining. If you have the resources, it could be a very favorable environment to build since the drop in oil prices paired with the recession has significantly altered building costs. As of December, the cost of steel is down 40 per cent from July—and when steel prices are down, everything else seems to follow suit.  

Recently, I received updated construction estimates for a horse barn and riding arena project that had been on hold due to the economic conditions. For this project, costs had dropped to 25% less than estimates provided only a few months earlier. That client has the resources and is moving forward with design and construction to take advantage of the market while they can.  There is speculation that we may be in for a period of inflation as we come out of the recession. This is another reason for those who can to prepare to move quickly before that occurs and impacts the cost of construction.

With a much-needed public works stimulus plan slated to begin once President Elect Barack Obama is sworn into office, it seems the building industry will get a boost in 12 to 18 months. In a sense, there’s now a small window of opportunity to take advantage of lower costs. Other clients are choosing to prepare design drawings and construction documents so they can be ready to quickly start construction at the lower prices as they feel more financially certain. With the housing market in decline, it seems all variables are on the way down from construction costs to mortgage rates—as low as 5.5% and the potential to lower to 4.5% if the government intercepts.

Another piece of good news is from a recent study by the U.S. Green Building Council reports that building green costs add an average of a 2.5% premium to the total budget—a figure much lower than the public may perceive. So not only is it cheaper to build now, one can do so with an eco-friendly approach without much added cost.

I know to some this may seem like overly optimistic reasoning, but the truth is, we’ve been here before. I can remember the last recession in the early 90s and how difficult it was to envision the future. Even though the outlook is still uncertain and the economic news grim, the recession has been in effect since last December—which can hopefully mean we may be on our way out of it sooner than we know.  It can’t get here soon enough if you ask me.

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A fire at Riverside Downs, a Thoroughbred training and boarding facility outside Henderson, Kentucky, left 27 horses dead on Thursday, November 20th.  While the cause or origin of the fire is undetermined, according to the Evansville Courier, arson is not suspected. I cannot help but wonder if it could have been prevented or the loss of life reduced or eliminated through design precautions and careful safety planning.

This is not the first fire at Riverside Downs, a former quarterhorse and harness track. In January, six horses died after a fire caused by a vending machine electrical cord. Among the deceased on Thursday was Kept Lady, a promising filly and recent winner at Churchill Downs that perished in the fire. According to the Associated Press, about 70 horses remain at the facility. My thoughts are with those who lost horses and the staff at Riverside Downs.


Often owners ask about designing sprinklers in barns or to frame the barn in steel to make it more “fireproof.” However, by the time the construction estimates come in, those seem to be the first items cut. Though both are credible for preventing fire, I like to design using preventive care so sprinklers or steel framing are not the only means of fire protection. (Incidentally, a steel frame building, if left unprotected, can collapse due to fire or heat from the fire before a heavy timber framed structure. But, as many of you know, the smoke from the fire kills long before the actual flames.)

Hopefully these suggestions can help you—and your horses—sleep a little better at night.


Hay is a huge fire hazard because of the dust it accumulates, especially when stored in a traditional hayloft setting. While I’ve designed barns with a full hayloft, I urge clients to consider a separate storage facility for hay and bedding or, at least, create a partial loft that does not span the barn’s entire length and isolate the storage area with fire walls. While fire walls may not be as effective as a fire rated partition (which is expensive), the fire wall can contain smoke and fire for enough time to alert help remove the horses. If neither option is possible, keep hay in a fire-rated enclosure.

If a hay loft is required, there are some precautions that can reduce the risk of fire, such as the choice of frame; an effective choice can reduce opportunities for bird nests and cobwebs, especially around lights, and provide natural light to reduce the need for electric lights.


In my ideal hay storage structure, a separate storage facility for hay and bedding is designed to generate vertical ventilation, similar to a well-designed barn. To do this, I take advantage of the storage structure’s large roof to capture solar energy, which heats the air inside the structure along with the heat from the curing hay. Air accumulates at the ceiling while cooler air flows at floor level, forming a vertical flow of air. Skylight vents release the warmer air and let cooler air inside. This constant flow of air supplies superior ventilation without the use of expensive or energy-burning equipment that can cause a spark or short.

Some horse owners stand behind their use of heaters in stalls, but I find it unnecessary and risky. Ideally, the inside of a barn should reflect a similar temperature to outside. After all, horses are born to survive in the wild, not confined in a stall. Because of their sensitive respiratory systems, a well-ventilated barn is a horse’s best defense.

A heated (or air conditioned), enclosed barn not only retains ammonia gases and pathogens that cause odor and disease, it creates conditions that require gas fired heaters and mechanical fans for circulation, each of which is a potential fire risk, not to mention expensive to maintain and operate. That’s why designing for ventilation is such an emphasis in my work.

Typically, if a barn is heated it is done for the sake of the staff, not the horses and should be confined to human areas only. This should be considered an added luxury, but if requested, a heated aisle floor is the safest method. A horse that is permitted to develop a winter coat can handle temperatures as low as zero degrees Fahrenheit. For lower temperatures, blankets can usually maintain warmth without being a fire hazard. 


I like to use fire walls and isolation doors to aid in the protection of fire or smoke generated by a fire. Though a fire rated fire separation may not be practical in most barns, you can create fire separations within the barn to isolate certain areas or uses from other areas of the barn especially the stalls.  


Always use UL-rated fixtures and properly installed electrical fixtures and fittings. All wiring should be in metal sheath conduit such as solid conduit or BX type cables, even in concealed areas because of mice and other small animals that inhabit barns. Consider explosion proof outlets and switches, and protect all lights with shatterproof lenses or wire cages. Set up a maintenance routine to clean all light fixtures periodically (for fire risk concerns but also for energy concerns, i.e. a dirty light is much less efficient that a clean one that is otherwise identical.


· Fire extinguishers throughout

· Fire retardant building materials (use heavy timber in lieu of light wood or truss framing when possible or affordable).

· Design Dutch doors where possible to the exterior, as they are better for ventilation and helpful for getting the horse—and people—out in case of emergency. Make sure the doors can be operated from interior and exterior.

· Separate living spaces (apartments) from barn where possible or at least placed behind fire separations.

· Separate farrier services when possible.

· Never store motorized equipment within the barn, but if you do, isolate it behind fire separations or separate areas.  (A barn burned in Northern Virginia a few years ago simply because someone cranked up a lawn mower that backfired, setting a nearby bale of hay on fire.)

· Install an effective fire alarm system (preferably one that is monitored by a 24-hour service) and plan an emergency evacuation route.



I worked with the Grosse Point Hunt Club years ago after they suffered a barn fire and lost over 20 horses, as I recall. I believe the fire was caused when a firecracker was thrown into the barn simply for mischief, resulting in a tragic loss of animal life and property. That was an older barn that had very little fire protection “designed” into it.

Regardless of how much protection you design into a barn, no system is perfect. Still, much can be done to protect older barns from fire and reduce the hazards. We often work with existing barns to modernize their operation and look, while doing everything we can to protect the health and safety of the horse—whether from fire, bad ventilation, or other unsafe conditions.

If you have any other recommendations to prevent fire, please let me know. As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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A Presidential Puppy and a New Model for Animal Shelters

Let’s talk about animal rescue, animal shelters and pet adoptions. Our president-elect, Barack Obama, is in the market for a dog for his family as part of the deal he struck with his daughters if they had to move to Washington, DC. While they are considering the choice between purchasing a dog from a breeder or adopting from an animal shelter, I thought I might take a moment to call your attention to an architectural design trend in animal sheltering that started in San Francisco in 1998. The idea was to change shelter design in order to improve conditions for sheltered animals and reduce the number of euthanized animals.  “No kill” shelters—shelters that make a guaranteed home a promise for all sheltered animals—is a fortunate trend in animal sheltering across the country.

Man's Best Friend

Most of us are familiar with traditional animal shelters that housed pets in depressing rows of metal cages, often stacked apartment-style. A trip to the shelter to adopt a pet involved a heartbreaking walk down a concrete corridor; enduring a din of incessant barking and the stifling odors of caged animals; viewing crowded, miserable dogs and cats with the certainty that many would face euthanasia because they wouldn’t find a home within the limited time allotted in the shelter. Many animal shelters throughout the country still operate under dismal conditions and the current economy is not likely to speed the rate of improvement.

The San Francisco SPCA, Maddie’s Pet Adoption Center, broke this mold in 1998 with the first, to my knowledge, progressive shelter design in the U.S., creating an environment that is comfortable and inviting for both its animal residents and human visitors. ARQ Architects took a creative approach, combining architectural design and an understanding of animal behavior to solve shelter problems such as noise, overcrowding, foul odors, insufficient natural lighting, and discontented and anxious animals. The result is a shelter that diminishes common behavioral problems among animals and increases comfort and wellbeing in the shelter. Contented animals bark less, show less stress, and react with less anxiety to potential adopters. 

In a well-designed shelter, human visitors feel greater ease and a sense of optimism and community as well. As a result, adoption rates increase.  When adoption rates go up, euthanasia rates are reduced. Blackburn Architects teamed with ARQ Architects recently in a proposal for a new shelter in Washington, DC, bringing together their expertise and innovation in animal sheltering with our long history of designing for health and safety in the equestrian world. The new shelter for the Washington Humane Society is also planned to be environmentally friendly aiming for LEED certification. (See my previous Blog topic on building green.)

The point is in the power of design to create environments that achieve specific goals. For non-designers, it isn’t always easy to see the underlying power of architectural design beyond the aesthetics or style of a structure. Just as the design of a particular chair can be maddeningly uncomfortable or the opposite, good for your back and comfortable; buildings can achieve specific social objectives by design. In the case of animal shelters, a progressively designed facility can be a boon not only for animal welfare but for the local community as well.

Back to Mr. Obama and his future dog, it is my impression that there is a social trend toward animal rescue as a source of pets and away from breeders and puppy mills. In my area, adopting a dog or cat from a shelter gives the owner bragging-rights. Do you see this trend in your own area? Has your local animal shelter made progressive design changes? Please let me know. I’d love to hear from you about your local experience.

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Maryland State Referendum on Slot Machines: What do you think?

Are slot machines the only way to help the horse racing business in Maryland and other states? I’m interested in hearing what equestrian bloggers think about this hotly debated topic as I work through my own thoughts.

As most of you know, the Maryland state referendum on slot machines passed easily allowing the introduction of 15,000 slot machines at five locations throughout the state. According to Maryland’s racing commission, the horse racing and breeding industry in Maryland accounts for over 9,000 jobs and has a $600-million economic impact on the state.  But to those of us who love horses and feel a sentimental attachment to the great history of thoroughbred breeding and racing — at least 250 years in Maryland — keeping the sport alive and healthy means much more. It’s a matter of the heart.

Conventional thinking is that the Maryland horse racing and breeding industry would continue to suffer losses to adjacent states (West Virginia, Delaware, and Pennsylvania) where slots have already been introduced. Many in the industry have worried that Maryland’s Pimlico Racetrack might lose the Preakness, the second jewel in the Triple Crown after nearly 140 years of horseracing history in Maryland without the infusion of cash and interest that slot machines would produce at the track.

For the voting public, the slot machine referendum represents a way to raise revenue for a cash-strapped education system without raising taxes — a minimum of 48.5% of the total slot machine profits will go to education funding — and as state budgets everywhere are suffering, having a steady flow of cash for education is no small thing, especially with estimates as high as $600 million in new revenues.

Slot Machine

The advantage for horse racing and breeding is in the portion of slot machine revenue that will be funneled into racetrack purses and breeding awards. For Maryland, this will mean a major shot in the arm—by most estimates, $100 million a year distributed among thoroughbred and standardbred interests, as well as racetrack improvements.

I’m all for increasing purses so horse owners will be more interested in entering their better horses and therefore keep the quality of the sport high. But I’m not sure that slots actually bring more people to the track and bring more interest to racing. It is likely to change the land use patterns at the track as the pressure to develop increases. At Charles Town in West Virginia (as well as other locations), the track is cutting back on horse stables on site partly due to this pressure to develop, turning traditional racetracks into “racinos” with increasing amounts of real estate turning over to casinos and hotels—not at all the traditional horse racing experience.

When I have been to the track it has been to watch the horses and to bet a little to make it more interesting—but it’s the allure of the horses that draws me in: an afternoon enjoying and studying the racing forms to understand the subtle differences among the horses; taking a small risk to increase the excitement of the actual race. When horse racing stood alongside boxing and baseball as the only major spectator sports, the racetrack was crowded and finding revenue was not an issue. Today with competition from dozens of other spectator sports we need to find creative ways to bring people back to the sport, especially young audiences.


One commentator I read suggested developing an Internet campaign that speaks the language of younger audiences to create the excitement and buzz that gets the attention of a new generation of potential racing fans. In the end, this is what is needed: a fan base that supports the sport. A cash injection is important but what we really need is to convey the drama, the beauty, and the excitement of the sport of horse racing and introduce a new generation to an afternoon at the track. The Triple Crown never fails to draw huge crowds. That enthusiasm should spread to the rest of the year and then racing enthusiasts would provide the support the industry needs.

We need creativity and innovation. What are your ideas? What do you think about slots and racetracks? Please comment and let’s talk about it.

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Ketchen Place Farm: a Recently Completed Barn

We recently completed a project in Rock Hill, South Carolina that turned out particularly well. Ketchen Place Farm, a new 20-stall, shed-row style barn, which includes a studio apartment above for the observation of foals, wraps around three sides of a courtyard that, after landscaping is complete, will double as a small sand training paddock and area to show horses. The project uses simple materials of concrete block and wood—yet the result is clean, functional, and unique. It’s definitely the type of project that proves that having a strict budget shouldn’t limit the aesthetic or function. Future design plans include a separate 4-bay garage with a two-bedroom, two-bath residence above. In the meantime, we hope that their new barn is a happy home for the owner’s horses as well as the horses that they board.

Ketchen at Night

Stall view

View from the corner

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Washington International Horse Show

Every October, my staff and I look forward to attending the Washington International Horse Show at the Verizon Center in downtown Washington, D.C.  This year, the show—which runs October 21st through the 26th—is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The show features events like the $100,000 President’s Cup Grand Prix, free pony rides for kids, a saddlebred exhibition with Carson Kressley, and terrier races.

Not the greatest image, but dressage from 2007

Not the greatest image, but dressage from 2007

As an advocate of architectural vernacular, nothing seems so out of context as stabled horses on F and 6th Streets in downtown Washington outside the Verizon Center during the show. It’s right by the Metro exit, so people leave the station and are greeted by horses milling around on the busy street where cars and buses usually dominate. There are a lot of gawking pedestrians and excited kids, and it’s definitely a sight to see if you haven’t.

My staff and I are grateful to be able to hop on the Metro and arrive at the show a few minutes later. But I know a lot of attendees won’t be from the Washington area, so please know that we’d be happy to meet you at the show or suggest one of our favorite places to eat or visit between events. While the WIHS is celebrating its 50th anniversary, Blackburn Architects is celebrating our 25th, so please stop by and let us show you around our new studio a block from the Dupont Circle Metro stop.

Bloggers, have you attended the WIHS in the past? Are you planning to attend this year? How many of you have performed in the show or participate as a vendor?

[polldaddy poll=1072576]

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Economic Downturn Hurts Horses Too

With everyone focused on the economy and concern about eroding home values and savings at a peak, economic forecasts couldn’t be much bleaker.  Even so, I’d guess that Wall Street probably isn’t paying much attention to the trickle down effect on horses. Horse owners and horse rescue organizations all over the country can tell you though, there’s a lot to worry about.

Photo by David Webb

Photo by David Webb

With fuel and hay costs hitting record highs, many horse owners are finding it difficult to care for their animals. Horse rescue organizations across the country are faced with unprecedented pressure to care for surrendered and abandoned horses while simultaneously dealing with the same rising costs that force horses into their care. Worse still, both donations and adoptions are drying up as horse benefactors tighten their belts. Even previously adopted horses are returning to the shelters that found them new homes. National Geographic showcased the problem in a recent online article

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has two emergency funds set up to help non-profit equine welfare and rescue organizations, Equine Fund Grants and Emergency Hay Support Grants. Please consider making a donation, volunteering, or fostering a horse through a local equine rescue group or donating to one of the ASPCA grant programs. Sadly, equine welfare groups are predicting this problem to escalate dramatically.

Let us know how horses are doing in your area—much depends on local weather and economic conditions. Are you seeing hay prices soar? 

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One Last Note on HR 6598

Since my post on H.R. 6598, the Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act of 2008, I’ve received several comments from those of you in the equestrian community who express concern that the legislation is unrealistic and misguided. Recently, a colleague forwarded a very interesting article by Joe Scott for the St. Louis Dispatch on this very controversial topic. It seems that many feel the problem is rooted in romantic ideals that assert it’s best to protect the horses and save them from the throes of the slaughterhouse. It is argued that many of these horses invariably suffer a much worse fate: being shipped across U.S. borders in horrific conditions to meet even crueler deaths.

Many feel that if U.S. slaughterhouses were still open and regulated by the government to sanction humane killings, the equestrian community would suffer less economic distress. After all, under an operating U.S. slaughterhouse market, horse owners could receive compensation for horses they no longer use due to age, injury, or otherwise. But is that really the best we can do? It’s true that this law prevents owners from easily ridding themselves of horses they no longer deem fit for whatever reason. But, as many of you point out, where is the responsibility?

Practicing responsible breeding is essential as well as demanding standards of ownership. So please, write to your congressmen about the high prices of euthanasia and cremation services. Speak out against over-breeding. Donate to rescue facilities and support organizations like CANTER. This isn’t about whether or not the horse dies—but how it dies. If it cannot be retired or adopted, then humane euthanasia must occur. Please don’t accept the inhumane treatment and slaughtering of horses for human consumption. The animals that work so hard for us deserve better.

Thanks for all of your comments and insight. I realize this affects all of you in different ways and there is no easy solution.

Here’s a link from the Humane Society:

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Green-Washing: Stay Alert for Green Marketing Practices

Wikipedia describes Green washing, combining the concepts of “Green” and “Whitewashing,” as the misleading practices of a company that creates the appearance of a positive environmental impact with its products or services. Green sheen is another term for the same attempt to mislead consumers.

The true greening of American business is a positive trend in which a company reassesses its practices and effects changes that have a true positive impact on the environment or at least a less destructive impact than previous practices. Selling your product or service as if it were green is a scam. NPR did a story several months ago on the practice and listed the “six sins of greenwashing,” including hidden tradeoffs, vague claims, and out and out lying.

When it comes to planning and building your equestrian facilities—stables and arenas primarily—Blackburn Architects has been designing with true-blue green elements for 25 years. Here is a list of sustainable elements that you can incorporate into your facility planning without any worry that you’ve been subjected to greenwashing.


  • First, evaluate existing farm buildings for adaptive reuse opportunities. Don’t assume that old barns must be torn down. It is always greener to reuse than it is to destroy and discard. (Born Again, Washington Post Magazine
  • If a building is too damaged structurally to preserve, consider re-using as many materials as possible. Better to re-use old wood in your project than to send it off to the local landfill. (Second Chances, Green Builder Magazine)
  • Look for local materials for your project. If there is local wood or stone that can be incorporated into your design, you are saving the energy required to transport materials and this can be a significant environmental savings. Local materials also help your design fit the landscape naturally, as if it belongs on the site.
  • Search out opportunities to use recycled materials and renewable resources. For example, numerous flooring products are available now that are made from recycled tires, including Pavesafe. When choosing lumber, make certain that you are selecting species that are renewable and not stressed—harvesting redwood, teak, mahogany, and many other types of wood creates severe environmental costs. Buyer beware though: so called green products may be where you’re most likely to run into vague product descriptions and flat out lies.  Two independent companies, EcoLogo and Green Seal attempt to provide an easy way of discerning whether a product is eco-friendly. Look for those labels.
  • Passive lighting can save power, reduce fire risk, and improve the health status of your animals.
  • Passive ventilation creates the healthiest possible indoor environment for your horses without the use of electricity.


While no one can be all green all the time (take it from Kermit, it isn’t easy being green), every REAL step is a step in the right direction. Just don’t let yourself be sold on a faux-green product.  Remember the early years of the organic food movement—no regulation resulted in false and misleading claims and high-ticket prices adding insult to injury. It took a long time for consumer protection laws to catch up with false claims.


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Lighter than Ever

With energy prices increasing every day, it’s more important than ever to design your barn with intent to maximize its amount of natural light. Not only will careful design consideration reduce your dependence on electricity—saving money and energy—it fosters a healthy environment for you and your animals. I have several techniques that ensure I never take light lightly (excuse the pun).

One of the most effective ways of incorporating natural light into a barn’s design is through a continuous ridge skylight. Typically, this type of skylight runs the length of the barn, commonly down the center aisle, and results in ample natural light throughout the day. Most of my designs allow a barn to run without the use of electric lights during the day, with electric lights serving only as a backup during inclement weather and for nighttime use as needed. 

Other high placed windows, especially around the eaves of the barn, increase natural (and free) lighting even more. These higher placed windows allow the light to reach greater depths of the barn and reduce injury risk since they’re out of the reach of your horses. Still, the use of shatterproof glass is imperative.

For the electric lights you’ll inevitably have (but only occasionally use if the design is right), safety and the type of light are two primary concerns. For lighting in the aisles I tend to favor metal halide, which takes a moment to warm up and functions best in areas that are turned on/off infrequently. The higher up, the more effectively the lights can provide decent light. A three-way switch near end of the aisle can help you control what areas to light, which saves you from turning on lights in the entire barn unnecessarily.

Stall lighting generally uses one switch per stall with a light on each side to counter shadows, which is helpful when working on a horse. A shatterproof lens paired with cage protection is vital for the horses’ safety, and should never be overlooked. Typically, florescent lights are cheaper to operate and carry fewer fire risks than incandescent. While the light fixtures are more expensive—and ballasts may be needed to protect against cold weather—energy-efficient bulbs and fixtures will cut down costs and resource strain in the long run.



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