Today I got a call from a client who’s buying 120 acres in North Carolina and plans to build a new equestrian center. It’s been years since horses have been on the property. The pastures and paddocks are overgrown. The fences are in disrepair. The property has steeply sloped areas but the client wants a dressage ring. Drainage will be an issue. Together, we’ll figure out a way forward by starting with a Site Plan to map the future; completing the owner’s vision in budgeted stages over several years.
A site plan is completed by studying topography, wind and solar directions, neighborhood easements, height restrictions, zoning restrictions, soils and operational necessities (where are roads, pastures, barns, storage sheds, etc.), There are many benefits to putting together this “roadmap” for future use of the farm property. Consider that there are three major categories of costs when planning to bring horses onto your property: 1. Operational, 2. Environmental, and 3. Infrastructure. Proper planning will save you money in all three areas. Fewer roads, less fencing, better drainage all ensure that the whole farm, not just the horse barn but the entire collection of structures on the site, operates efficiently and safely.
Operational Considerations: First locate where you’ll put the horses – where is your turnout? Where will you store hay, equipment, or vehicles? Do you have access for manure pickup, large-truck deliveries, guests or visitors? Minimizing the number of steps necessary for your daily routine (turnout, stall mucking, etc.) will save labor time, which of course you know is money in the farm biz. Planning will also preserve space for paddocks.
Environmental Considerations: Figure out structure placement within your acreage. It’s important to properly orient any new buildings in the landscape. We design our barns to generate their own ventilation, placing them perpendicular to prevailing summer breezes. (One of many design considerations for maximizing light and ventilation, which is a subject I’ve written about often.) Additionally, placing structures where the land will drain easily makes good sense and will save you and your horses potentially hours of muddy misery or the cost of constantly replacing eroded footing.
Infrastructure Considerations: Fewer roads to maintain means fewer dollars spent.
Creating a master plan does not mean that every part of it needs be built at once. The plan may end up taking years to implement, but as each new structure or paddock is added, it isn’t done in the usual haphazard way. It will save you from asking, “You know, I could use a tractor shed somewhere?” Even those with very limited budgets should consider getting the advice of an expert at the planning stage, given the importance of the optimum farm layout.
Bringing in a professional to carefully plan a site doesn’t mean you need to commit to having a custom barn designed. Blackburn Architects’ guidance can help whether you’re purchasing a kit barn, designing a custom barn, or renovating existing structures. A site plan stands by itself as a service we greatly enjoy delivering to clients across the country.
I’ve always made it a point to use passive renewable design elements and sustainable materials in my equestrian designs. The motivation is designing for the health and safety of horses, so it’s not surprising that what’s recommended for creating human and eco-friendly structures is also recommended for equines.
Nowadays, Blackburn Architects’ team rarely encounters a client who isn’t enthusiastic about including sustainable design principles in their farm program. With green technologies evolving every day, there are more systems and product choices available to suit the unique demands of equine properties. The most prevalent elements include natural light and ventilation, recycled materials and regionally sensitive natural woods and products.
SUSTAINABLE BUILDING MATERIALS
We incorporate recycled and sustainable materials into the firm’s barn designs. We’ve used recycled rubber bricks and pavers for aisle flooring, and recycled rubber mats for stall floors, and occasionally, stall walls. Not only are these products more comfortable for the horses’ legs and knees, but they also provide a slip-resistant surface. As for building materials, we use everything from FSC (Forest Steward Council) certified lumber and recycled steel to fly ash concrete blocks and recycled wood.
However, we are always mindful of what some recycled material mixtures contain. Some products include substances (plastics, resins, binders, etc.) that could be toxic to horses through off-gassing or if they chew on the material. If you’re designing your own facility, be sure your builder is familiar with the materials ahead of time and is comfortable working with them. Occasionally, we’ve run into a situation where the builder is unfamiliar with a product recommendation and accidentally convinces an unaware owner to use a product that may exhibit these harmful qualities.
BUILDING FOR CLIMATE
It’s important that building materials make sense for both the design and the climate. In more northern locations, we try to design with timber that will provide more insulation for the structure. In the south, a masonry-style building helps keep the structure cool and is more resistant to humidity and insect infestation. While bamboo is an excellent renewable resource option, it’s not often locally sourced and can be costly to ship. Douglas fir and southern yellow pine are the typical go-to lumber products for our firm. They are quality assured, sustainably harvested, and regionally sensitive. When combined with low VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) finishes and paints, these materials make for sturdy, sustainable buildings that do not sacrifice quality or aesthetics.
Conserving water is imperative to any agricultural property, and there are many top-to-bottom green approaches to consider. It’s crucial to intercept and collect storm water before it becomes ruinous run-off that can affect ground water and nearby ponds and streams. We frequently use porous or “popcorn” asphalt for interior and sometimes exterior floor covering. It’s “self-healing” and aids in water drainage.
Since many horse farms around the country face changing weather extremes (torrential rain and drought come to mind), rainwater collection systems are vital for alleviating the resultant water issues. Roofs can be designed to route storm water into cisterns. The harvested water can then be channeled into irrigation systems for fields, paddocks, arenas and pastures, or collected for controlled distribution to prevent muddy conditions.
ACTIVE RENEWABLE SYSTEMS
In addition to passive systems, I highly recommend including active renewable systems in the design of any horse farm. The beauty of equine and agricultural properties is that they often feature characteristics that compliment these systems. Large swaths of land can facilitate geothermal power systems or wind-powered generators and other equipment. Roofs with large surface areas are common features of many agricultural buildings and make perfect platforms for solar panel systems.
One of the firm’s current projects is an extremely energy efficient property in Missouri. While targeting net-zero energy use, we’ve included a geothermal heating system and solar panels that power infrared heaters in the wash stalls.
Green technologies have come a long way and today’s solar panel systems offer more choices for collecting and storing energy. If designed properly and in the right location, it is often possible to fully rely on the solar panels for all your energy needs. Including these systems in conjunction with natural light and ventilation could conceivably eliminate outside energy dependency for your equine buildings. Over time, solar panels will pay for themselves in savings. Check with your local and state government about tax incentives for incorporating green energy saving systems into your property.
FRESH AIR AND NATURAL LIGHT
Accomplished with steep sun-heated roofs and vented skylights, the combined effects of the Bernoulli Principle (an equation of vertical lift championed by Dutch-Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli) and the chimney effect (air pulled in low and vented up high) circulate fresh air throughout the structure while flooding the space with natural light. This method provides the optimal environment for horses because it turns the typically static barn into a machine while imitating the equine’s natural environment. The process significantly cuts down on the cost and operation of electric lighting and fans and the health and safety risks they can create.
One of the challenges we sometimes encounter with clients is convincing them to include active systems in their design programs. This is usually due to upfront costs. The price impact can be minimized by smart design decisions. Knowing ahead of time what green options are available and which ones you’d like to incorporate will inform your budget early on and, if need be, help you plan the property with future installations in mind.
THE BENEFITS OF COMPOSTING
Composting is another great passive renewable option. We strongly encourage all our clients to include a composting system in their design program. Composting helps manage muck and removes harmful bacteria and other organisms to create natural fertilizer for paddocks. It also helps keep organic material that could produce harmful uncontrolled run-off out of landfills.
Sustainable barn design is about what’s healthiest and safest for your horses. Remember, horses were never meant to be inside. But if they’re going to be, then it’s important to create an environment as close as possible to what they would encounter in nature, using materials and techniques that at the same time don’t harm the very environment they come from.
I thought I’d take a minute and explain Blackburn Architects’ process for designing a new equestrian facility and overseeing its construction. While not carved in stone, for planning purposes, can easily become a two-year process.
The first step is usually a visit by me or another Blackburn architect. The initial meeting is our first chance to meet, walk the site, look at any existing buildings and discuss the project goals. I’m a firm believer in “a picture is worth a thousand words” but “being there is worth a thousand pictures” Following this, we’ll send a proposal for service, which outlines the process and fees.
Once a contract signed, we get to work immediately.
The timeline usually looks something like this:
• 6 to 10 weeks for Feasibility Study, Site Assessment and Master Plan
• 1 to 2 months for Schematic Design
• 2 to 4 months for Design Development and Construction Drawings
• 1 to 2 months for Permitting
• 12 to 16 months for Construction
At Blackburn Architects, equestrian design starts with the horse and ends with a building that fits the horse, the owner, and the surrounding environment like a glove. It’s as simple and beautiful as that.
Let’s explain the steps in greater detail:
Feasibility Study / Site Assessment / Master Plan
The goal of the Feasibility Study is to determine, as early in the process as possible, whether the intended project fits the owner’s program, the site, and the budget.
We assess any existing building(s) and the site. We take measurements to determine if an in-place structure will work for the goals of the project. We study the land until we come to a clear understanding of wind and solar direction, soils, changes in elevation – all natural and architectural characteristics that guide placement and design of any new buildings. Central to the success of the project, this “Master Plan” addresses all these things and more, providing a road map for the success of all future phases of our work.
The site analysis also includes a review of applicable zoning and easements for the property; we determine what (if any) limitations or restrictions may apply at the property. Land disturbance allowances? Height restrictions? Set-backs?
In tandem with the site evaluation (as soon as we have a contract), we send the client a unique Blackburn Architects questionnaire that we’ve developed over the years. Answers are collected and inform the design; starting off the process with clear direction from the client. It is extensive and though it covers about 25 pages, once it is completed it “paints” a picture of exactly how you would like your farm to operate. The efficiency of the operation is critical and can have a huge impact on your operating cost and maintenance budget.
Moving seamlessly from the master planning phase (often there is a fuzzy line here where one ends and another starts), we start schematic design. In this step, we help our clients visualize the project design with a variety of techniques using both computer and hand renderings to illustrate the scale and the relationship of the project elements. Ideas, concepts, goals take form at this stage.
Once we’ve worked up outline specifications for the work, we can begin to get a rough idea of the costs. At this point we will either develop a rough estimate based on our 35 years experience with over 300 farm projects, consult with a professional cost estimator or a builder who is familiar with the building type in your location.
Design Development and Construction Documents
Once we have the site layout, design, and budget, drawings and other documents give serious form to interior and exterior finishes, and firmly establish the size, character, and details of the project. These documents will be used by our professional consultants to design the electrical, gas, and other utilities. When these systems are defined, and we have a basic finish schedule and budget, we’re ready to file for the permit and start construct of the building.
Bidding and Construction Administration
With the construction documents complete, we can help clients select a contracting company through a “bidding” process for the work, or we can work with a client’s pre-selected Construction Manager. We work side-by-side with our clients to ensure that the best and most informed decisions are made during this process.
While in my experience this process typically lasts about 18 to 24 months, a lot of this depends on factors that are outside of either our control or our clients. The time of year and weather, for instance, can greatly influence how fast construction progresses, especially in colder climates. Pastures have a growing season, and they need at least a year (maybe two) to establish.
Designing and constructing a custom facility is a very subjective process, which is guided by all kinds of factors including the complexity and size of the structures, the time of year, the strictness of zoning regulations and neighborhood associations, state environmental regulations, and so on. But rather than let these things hold you back, I say, “Jump In” or give us a call to discuss how the process can work for you. When you slide open the doors to your dream facility and see the happy heads of your horses looking over the stall doors, all the time and effort will vanish. At least that’s been my privileged experience over all these years.
Q: We’re renovating our fireplace, and want to incorporate the exposed fireplace flue shown in your German bank barn renovation. Where do you get the pipe for it?
Dear Barn Enthusiast,
Congrats on your barn conversion! We love breathing new life into these wonderful structures. To answer your question about the flue we used, It’s a galvanized steel flue, 12”-14” in diameter, and came in about 4 foot sections. It should be pretty easy to find. Stainless steel is another good recommendation and look. Galvanized is a little less expensive, but a little more rustic.
Hope that helps! Good luck with your project.
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
So many social media formats, so little time… did you know that my firm, Blackburn Architects, has a Facebook page? We post photos of projects throughout the design process, let you know what we’re working on at the office, and share information about equestrian architecture as well as happenings in the world of horses. It’s a nice format for things we’d like to share while keeping it short and sweet (unlike a certain blogger here). So, if you haven’t “LIKED” our page yet, I hope you will! I promise it will keep you informed and, like my blog, invite you to use the page to ask questions and share your own stories.
In other self-promotional news (sorry, must be that kind of day), The Chronicle Real Estate Supplement for Winter 2012 features the Blackburn-designed facilities at Sheik Island Farm in Dade City, Florida. The luxury farm, which covers over 300 acres just outside of Ocala, is officially on the market. If you’re interested, the website also offers a virtual tour of the farm. When we designed the farm back in the late ’90s/early ’00s, the farm was used as a training and show facility for hunter/jumpers and polo ponies. The tree-filled, picturesque property has two barns: a 16-stall barn for hunter/jumpers and a 10-stall barn for polo ponies. Other amenities include an outdoor riding arena, a stick and ball field, a service storage building, and an office/caretaker’s residence. The barns are designed with deep overhangs and continuous ridge venting to keep horses cool during steamy Florida summers.
This is probably the last set of photos I’ll share of Beechwood Stables in Massachusetts before we have a professional photographer shoot the project in its completion. (When the weather is a bit nicer so the buildings aren’t covered in snow!) I’m really pleased with how it’s turned out and hope our client feels the same. I’d also like to thank Marcus Gleysteen Architects, whom we teamed with; the builder, Kenneth Vona Construction, whose professionalism and craftsmanship is top-notch, as well as the team at Lucas Equine Equipment for their fabulous stall systems as usual. Beechwood Stables has a lot of high-end finishes and details that certainly shine though with this project. However, the truly important aspects of our design is what matter the most and remain true regardless of budget: protecting the health and safety of the riders and the horses who will soon inhabit the barn.
Thanks to the gracious owner and everyone involved in the design and construction of Beechwood Stables. A few details are provided in the caption each photo.
Hello, all! I’m thinking about writing up a few posts about common questions/concerns/etc. from clients (or those debating whether to hire an architect) that I frequently encounter when designing equestrian facilities. I’d like to welcome any and all questions, from the general —How does the architectural process work? –to the specific– Should I build a concrete block barn or a wood frame?
With that being said, if you ever are boggled by bad stable design or poorly planned layouts, I’d be interested in your thoughts as to why the design did not work and how it might be improved. I often find myself critiquing other designs — and I’m not just talking about the aesthetics, but how function and operation so often fall apart due to a poorly conceptualized site plan or design. Not to mention the details overlooked that could be hazardous to your horse and you. But I guess that’s another topic for another day.
I hope to hear from you soon as your comments and ideas really help drive the content of this blog. Incidentally, we’re 10 days into the new year and it’s practically 60 degrees Fahrenheit in DC — kind of bizarre and I’m wondering if this mild winter will bring an earlier-than-usual construction season? Well, an architect can hope!
I wanted to share a few more photos of the construction progress at Beechwood Stables in Massachusetts, a project we worked on in association with Marcus Gleysteen Architects. We expect to punch out the project (a final walk through of the project where we review everything) very soon.
On fifty gently sloping acres south of Charlotte, North Carolina, Ketchen Place Farm is a family-owned, female-run farm that breeds thoroughbred and warmblood sport horses. Blackburn Architects provided architectural services for the construction of a 20-stall barn and a not-yet-built, separate four-bay garage with a two-bedroom, two-bath residence above. The master plan includes redesign and improvement of roads, fencing, paddocks, a run-in shed, and a well-defined entrance to the facility. The shed-row style barn, which includes a studio apartment above for the observation of foals, wraps around three sides of a courtyard that doubles as a small sand training paddock. The project was featured in the Spring 201o issue of Architecture DC Magazine.
Program 20-stall barn with groom’s studio, four-bay garage with residence, redesign of roads, fencing, paddocks, shed, and facility entrance