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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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Site Visit in South Carolina: New Stalls

A few weeks ago, Cesar, one of our project managers, and I went to Meggett, South Carolina for a site visit. We planned our visit to review the ten recently completed stalls added to an existing ten-stall barn on the property. Soon, the barn will also have a larger tack room and lounge.  In the next phase of work, our design plans include adding a full-ridge skylight across the length of the barn to maximize natural light as well as improve ventilation.

Upon our visit, two things struck us: the humidity and the regal old oak trees with Spanish moss scattered across the property that provide ample and much-needed shade (and, of course, natural beauty and Southern charm).  Otherwise, the 63-acre property set in South Carolina’s Low Country is relatively flat with large and open grassy paddocks.

This project required expedited design and construction, since the client had to move her horses across the country before the end of the month and the stalls had to be ready before their arrival. This timeline left our team less than a month to undertake concept design to completion of construction.  And, thanks to the efforts of Jack Hart and Jimmy Thompson of Advanced Construction, Corbin, KY, who put in overtime and weekend hours, in conjunction with extremely fast turnaround by stall systems production at Lucas Equine, the stalls were installed quickly and efficiently.  Given the heat and humidity, this was no small feat.

The property also has an existing 1-story residence, garage with apartment, small outdoor arena, and several existing paddocks. Future design plans include the addition of a riding field, 4-stall foaling barn, pool with pool house, round pen, covered arena, and hay/bedding storage.

Here’s a video of the new stalls, now home to some very grateful horses.


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Building Green Wins by a Mile

While the nation struggles with rising fuel prices and worries collectively about alternative fuel sources, offshore drilling, and new nuclear plants, there is an obvious and effective way to reduce our energy problems with immediate impact—conservation.

One of the best steps you can take to conserve energy is to not use it and the best way to not use it is to plan efficiency into your farm, stables, and home. Writing last week in The New York Times, Bob Herbert called this route to energy independence, “The Winning Hand” in his editorial responding to the Joint Economic Committee hearing on using energy efficiency to solve the energy crisis. Conservation has been advocated for decades by Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, Senator Chuck Schumer and many, many others as a huge step toward energy independence and reversing the trend of global warming.

The enormous potential impact of energy conservation may lack the punch of newer technologies such as solar panels and wind farms and the quick fix associated with offshore or Arctic drilling. However, the cumulative savings in the reduction of the energy we use across the board from personal transportation choices to household conservation can be a tremendous offset to our national demand for oil. 

I’ve been building energy efficiency into farm plans and stable designs for decades. Energy efficient details include designing for ample natural lighting and harnessing the power of the sun and wind to create passive ventilation.

Moving beyond designs that facilitate the conservation of energy, stables and arenas present nearly perfect opportunities for harnessing solar energy on their expansive rooftops. Farms and ranches often have the right conditions to harness wind energy.

Generally located in rural or open areas, the size and shape of barns and arenas offer perfect opportunities for channeling and capturing existing wind currents to create natural ventilation. But even if these steps are beyond your budget, designs that reduce your farm’s demand for energy are available and affordable and will create energy savings into the future.

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