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.”
Note: We recently received this question from a follower of ours on Instagram. While this is NOT a Blackburn-designed barn, we felt that others might have similar problems, so we wanted to offer as much help as possible to this horse owner. Some of her photos are included in the post for clarity.
Q: Dear Blackburn: We recently built a backyard horse barn in western Massachusetts. The timber frame style building is a hybrid run-in shed/horse barn, attached to a track-paddock with sacrifice areas and pastures. The horses are turned out together 24/7 with run-ins, with option of separate stalls if needed for injury/weather. This summer, after one year, we found mold in a few areas of the barn. Since learning about Blackburn, we have been fans, and we seek insights on how to remedy our mold problem in a way that is safe for the horses and hay too.
The barn is 36’x36’ with a raised center aisle. The south 1/3 of the building is a run-in with a packed dirt floor covered by rubber mats and shavings. The remaining 2/3 has a concrete pad and includes 2 stalls – one used as a horse stall and the other used to store hay. The 11’ ceiling leads to a hayloft (most hay stored in a separate building) with an 18’x6’ cut-out in the middle of the floor, for both sunlight and ventilation. Hayloft windows/door on all sides and an open eave towards the top also offer ventilation. A frost wall surrounding the barn is approx. 1’-2’ above grade. Inside the barn, including the run-in and both stalls, the interior frost wall was covered with resin technology wood screwed directly into the concrete, primarily for safety reasons, to soften the impact if a horse kicks the wall/concrete. We recently found black (and some white) mold between the frost wall and the resin technology wood. We have removed the product and bleached the area, but how to proceed…
1- How can we safely cover the interior concrete frost wall within the horse areas (run-in, stalls, grooming aisle, hay stall) so that it has some “give” to prevent injury when a horse kicks it, but which won’t harbor or cause mold? We have considered covering the frost wall with rubber, or adding a vapor barrier and applying new product.
2- What do you recommend we do to the concrete floor and frost wall to store hay and avoid mold in the hay stall? There’s a 4” step down from the aisle (we realize that was a mistake since it traps moisture). We put a high-quality insulated mat in the horse stall, but the concrete floor is bare in the hay stall. We use the hay stall for hay now but want to have the option of keeping a horse in there in the future. (We’ve previously stored hay on a double layer of pallets, plus floor covered by tarp, but with that set-up plus the wood product on the frost wall, the mold grew.)
MA Blackburn Fan
A: Dear Fan: While I don’t know for sure what’s causing the mold in your barn, I feel the application of the wood product directly to the concrete frost wall without airspace behind it and near the floor where it is subject to moisture may be the primary problem. I would suggest removing the wood product material at the frost wall and gluing rubber mats directly to the concrete frost wall to provide protection from horses injuring their legs by kicking the wall. Provide an angle crib guard along the top edge to help prevent cribbing by horses.
I am not that familiar with the product you used, but I know it is an engineered wood product that has a wide range of uses.
The fact that the barn doubles as a stall and a run-in shed indicates that it generally remains open which is good as it allows air to circulate in and through the barn and reduces the health hazard that might be caused by the mold.
I found it odd to see diagonal framing in the walls between the post framing. I’m unsure why that was done (maybe to provide horizontal bracing for the timber frame) but because the lower portion of the wall appears to be covered with the wood product it is possible air spaces between the diagonal wood framing trap air in some of the smaller spaces. That could add to the moisture build up. How the barn is maintained (i.e. washing down of the aisle and stalls), is handled could also contribute to the moisture problem. It appears from your photos that most of the dark staining (mold growth) is along the low portion of the wall at the frost wall and that is probably more a problem of the wood product panels being directly attached to the frost wall than the diagonal framing.
Regarding the hay storage, you should always store hay off of bare concrete. Using wood pallets is a good way to allow air to circulate around and under the hay. Hay gives off heat as it cures and if not properly allowed to breath can actually ignite through spontaneous combustion and cause a fire. Having the barn largely open as a run in shed is helpful but at a minimum the hay should not be stored on the concrete floor. It should also be stored off the wall several inches to allow the air to circulate around it. Placing a tarp on the concrete floor as mentioned will not serve any constructive purpose in my opinion and could just trap moisture below it.
BTW, I didn’t see any drains in your stalls? How do you encourage water out of the stall where the slab is depressed 4 inches?
Incidentally, I noticed a door hook on one of the larger sliding doors at the run in portion of the barn. That’s a potential hazard. A horse could rub against the door jamb and the open hook could cause a significant injury. I’ve seen it happen and it can easily be prevented. Another type of latch should be used. There are lots of options out there.
I hope this is helpful.
Whether for a horse barn or riding arena, there are a lot of things to consider in the slope of the roof.
Curious about recommended roof pitches in a riding arena? Senior architects John Blackburn and Ian Kelly advise that “a 4:12 pitch is pretty much our recommended minimum on any horse structure. We prefer steeper roofs for a natural chimney effect. However, unless you live in a cold climate where there is a lot of snow, we wouldn’t advise going taller than 6:12.”
The numbers indicating a 4:12 roof pitch mean the roof rises 4 inches in height for every 12 inches, as measured horizontally from the edge of the roof to the centerline.
Okay, so for barns our rule of thumb is as steep as you can make it. The steeper roof allows the Bernoulli principle and chimney effect to work more efficiently and effectively. But there are other considerations in designing the slope of a barn or arena roof.
For arenas, steeper the roof = the taller the building. This impacts the look or mass of the arena on the property which can be negative. It can stick out like a sore thumb or look like an airplane hangar in your backyard.
Because we depend less on natural ventilation in indoor arenas than in barns, we can get away with lower slope roofs. However, we don’t recommend lower than 4:12 if at all possible. We realize some HOAs and neighborhoods have severe height restrictions and the wider the arena, the more difficult it is to comply without “flattening” the roof. At Winter Farm in Peoa, Utah, we designed a low roof to stay within an imposed limit. In some areas, arenas may be considered agricultural buildings and therefore exempt from height limits. But that rule isn’t consistent across state lines or jurisdictions. For example, in one jurisdiction we were permitted a covered arena as a “sun shelter” and avoided building height limitations entirely.
Because arena walls at the perimeter are usually 16’ tall (need head clearance for horse and rider on interior below the structural frame), when the roof is a low slope, the roof becomes less visible as you get closer to the building and the building can look like a huge box.
You can make a huge box look great but that may require a lot more money and you typically want the arena to be in the background. The barn and the farm are the main focus and not that big ugly box on your farm.
One way we reduce the impact of the arena size is by pushing it into grade where we can, using the land contours and landscaping where possible, and placing it behind the barn and other structures to reduce the scale of the building.
Probably the best average height for a barn is 6:12 to 7:12. The reason is it is more difficult for a roofer to walk on a steeper roof without some sort of support. Thus the installation time increases dramatically as will the cost if it is built with a steeper roof.
One of the down sides for low slope roofs in snow climates is snow loading. A steeper slope can be designed to shed snow pack better than a low slope but the downside for that is the avalanche effect. When it melts it can fall fast, be loud and block doorways… a subject for another blog post!
Fire protection in an equestrian facility is always a concern of the highest priority. Because we’re often asked, we thought we’d offer information here on the fire suppression details the Blackburn design team has included in some of our latest projects.
At a new barn under construction in Indiana, we’ve specified a Dry Pipe System by Fire Tech, LLC. http://www.firetechstl.com/systems-preaction.php. We could have specified a “preaction sprinkler system,” but chose the dry pipe system because of the dangers of freezing pipes in the cold weather climate of the Midwestern United States.
To quote Fire Tech’s description, “A Preaction Sprinkler System is a system which employs automatic and closed-type sprinkler heads connected to a piping system that contains air (either pressurized or non-pressurized), with a supplemental system of detection serving the same area as the sprinklers. The systems are typically used in applications where the accidental discharge of water would be catastrophic to the usage of occupancy.
“Preaction Sprinkler Systems are similar to Dry Pipe Systems in that the water is kept from entering the piping valve, in the case a preaction valve. This valve is held closed electrically, only being released by the activation of the detection system (heat or smoke detectors mainly) when an electrical signal is sent to the releasing solenoid valve. The water then fills the pipe, ready for the activation of the sprinkler heads. Preaction systems can be arranged to be activated by only one detection device type, or many.”
In Indiana, our architects specifically called for a dry pipe system because of the potential for freezing temperatures, but also in case “one of the children kicks a soccer ball and takes out a sprinkler head” (the client’s words). With a dry pipe system, the sprinklers won’t go off unless they also sense smoke or fire (depending on the detector type). A false alarm could flood and ruin the barn’s expensive finishes. And using recessed/concealed pop up heads is a good idea where you can.
Another critical reason Blackburn specified a dry pipe system is because of an issue with water demand; the Indiana farm doesn’t have sufficient well water on site to power the system. Because of this, our client connected to county water. Keep in mind that If you’re on a well, you’ll likely never have enough pressure to support a fire suppression system. The gallon per minute (gpm) for firefighting is higher than your average ground well can produce. This means you must store water on site in a tank or pond.
At Sheik Island, one of our projects in Florida, we stored water below ground. In California, at a private facility, we installed an above ground tank adequate to run the system as required by the local fire department. Additionally, we posted signage limiting the occupancy (should the owner decide to sponsor a large event in the arena). The clients obtain a special permit when larger events occur, and they hire the local fire department to have a truck on hand during the event.
At the Devine Ranch, in Aptos, California, and at the Moss residence, also in fire-prone California, we provided on-site storage tanks with backup generators to operate a pumping system.
Next up on the Blog: fire limiting design guidelines we build into our projects.
An apartment or condo in the barn isn’t the same thing as short-term accommodations. We’ll often design a “warm room” into our barns so clients can stay close in case there’s a sick horse or for foaling. Even though technology provides some good methods to provide warning or protection (alarms, cameras, etc.) there are times when you just need to be close to respond quickly.
Permanent living quarters, however, can be problematic:
1. If the residential component is too large, then the change of scale can overshadow the scale of the barn and you end up with a “tail wagging the dog” situation. Aesthetically the design looks awkward.
2. If the residence will house a family, you run the risk of injury to children, pets, or visitors and there’s an increased risk of fire caused by household activities.
3. If the apartment or condo is for the owner it’s easier to control but if it’s for a groom or an income rental it’s important to be prepared that lifestyle choices may clash with your own. For example, the tenant may be entertaining guests who may be unaware of the impact of their activities on the horses.
Because a barn usually has a lower cost per square foot (to design and build) than a residence, you may be able to save money by separating the two different uses and avoid building in the necessary fire and smoke separations. For example, the barn could be a simple pole barn and the residence constructed to a higher standard.
Another option is to build the apartment or residence as part of a service /storage structure or another farm building. Two examples of Blackburn Architects’ projects where we did this are Great Roads Farm in New Jersey and Kindle Hill Farm in Pennsylvania.
To conclude, without building in substantial fire/smoke separations when adding an apartment in the barn you increase your risk of disaster. Building codes in most areas require you to include a two-hour separation. It’s essential that you check these regulations before planning an apartment in your barn.
Furthermore, an apartment in a barn or connected to it can impact the farm by forcing a larger footprint for the barn, and this can impact service roads, lead paths to paddocks, land grading, etc. If the apt is added to the second “loft” floor unless it is designed properly it could negatively impact the introduction of natural light and ventilation (see Bernoulli principle and chimney effect).
Over the years, Blackburn has been asked what we think of adding stalls along the side of an indoor arena. Sounds like a good idea, right? Well, we strongly recommend against it. The problems are many.
1. Air Quality. Forced to breathe arena dust many hours of the day, stalled horses live in an environment that isn’t healthy. We recommend instead that the stall portion of the stables be connected in a separate but attached structure running perpendicular to the barn. Not only does this arrangement help isolate the arena dust from the barn, it allows the barn to sit independently. The structure can then catch the prevailing breeze which permits two scientific principles (Bernoulli principle and the chimney effect) to provide natural ventilation and light to the barn.
2. Fire Safety. We always recommend fire separations by providing sliding doors to isolate the barn from the arena in case of fire. These doors may or may not be rated fire separations. The decision is usually driven by cost, and we often provide an automatic rolling fire rated shutter to isolate the two separate areas – this at least reduces the risk of smoke moving between structures. (Quite often it’s the smoke that is more dangerous and faster moving than the actual fire.) The isolation by sliding doors also provides critical time to get horses out of barn. If the arena and barn share the same space, there is less opportunity to isolate fire or smoke from the stable area. Furthermore, when the stables are parallel and part of the arena, the structure is generally shared – raising the risk it could collapse and trap horses inside.
3. Cost, Scale and Building Height. When stalls are designed as part of an indoor arena, the design requires a wider structure (often steel due to the long spans) which is typically more expensive. When it’s a separate but attached structure, it can be framed in wood with smaller spans reducing the cost of the framing. If the stalls are part of the indoor arena, then the building becomes wider which also means a corresponding height increase. In many areas, the local zoning codes restrict building heights. We have found typical restrictions of 35 feet. It’s difficult to get any height in the barn or arena if you are trying to build a 100 x 200 ft arena with a row of stalls and aisle way. Also, from an aesthetic perspective, wider and taller building begin to get enormous and have the potential to look like an airplane hangar and overshadow the entire farm.
4. Storm Water Issues. Finally, if your property is not flat, such a structure with a large footprint may require significant grading that can be expensive and create storm water issues. By breaking the barn and arena into two connected structures you can more easily work it into the natural slope of the land. Also, the isolation of the barn and arena permits opportunities to push the arena into the ground – helping to reduce the scale and height of the arena above finish grade. The entry to an observation area can be elevated above the arena floor (but entry level still at grade) for more easily viewing over the kick wall from a sitting position.
Blackburn has designed many arenas with this perpendicular arrangement. Rocana Farm, designed by us in 2002, is a great example of what we mean. Stalls at this hunter/jumper facility are attached to the enclosed arena with an elevated observation room, tack room, wash and grooming stalls.
What’s the safest way to incorporate glass in a horse barn? If you’ve been following our work, you already know that Blackburn Architects’ mission is to promote as much natural light and ventilation in horse structures as possible. Naturally, this means we add a lot of windows to our designs. In its safety recommendations for the stable, Rutgers NJ Agricultural Experiment Station cautions that “windows need to be inaccessible to horses and livestock, covered with bars or screening and made of safety glass.” (https://esc.rutgers.edu/fact_sheet/safety-recommendations-for-the-stable-barn-yard-and-horselivestock-structures/). So how do our architects protect the horses and still use a lot of glass in our designs?
1. Use Tempered & Laminated Glass
We recommend that all glass in a horse stable be tempered, including glass that’s laminated. Tempering and lamination do two separate but similar things to increase the safety of glass if/when it breaks: Tempering makes the glass break into small chunks as opposed to slivers and shards, while the lamination gives the glass a slightly greater resistance to breaking and keeps the glass in place when and if it breaks.
Laminated glass consists of a clear plastic laminate sandwiched by glass on both sides. Since horses have access to both sides of a glazing unit, ideally both sides should be laminated and tempered. If this approach is too costly for your budget, stick with everything being tempered and omit the lamination. Laminated glass does not always age as well as tempering. The laminate can shrink and pull in from the corners of the glass, and eventually become visible over time. We prefer tempering.
2. Minimum Thickness of Glass and Airspace
To arrive at the minimum thickness of glass, work backwards from the depth of the frame, minus about 1/4”. Each glass manufacturer determines what spacer sizes they offer. Understand that the more airspace you can allow the better, but each manufacturer works with a few different pre-set size spacers. Use the largest one that still allows the glazing unit to fit within the frame.
3. Special Considerations for Cold Climates
In cold climates, we specify glass with a high solar gain and low emissivity. In technical terms, the glass meets the following guidelines:
1. A Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC) around 0.55
2. A U-value of less than 0.33
3. A higher value Visible Transmission (VT)
4. Use double-paned glazing units with low-e gas that has a vacuum sealed gasket between the panes of glass. The pocket between panes of glass is filled with an insulation gas, most typically argon.
5. Consider using low emissive (low-e) glass panes (low-e prevents the transfer of heat from warm to cold). The low-e coating (typically a metallic oxide) should be on outside of the innermost pane of glass.
There are pros and cons that should be considered with each option 1-5 above. For instance, with #4, over time and if the gasket seal fails, you can begin to see condensation between the panes of glass. Whereas with #5, you may be able to see the coating from certain angles, especially if you are wearing polarized sunglasses. Since the advantages are a bit more obvious, and similar to one another (i.e. tempered vs laminated, and low-e gas vs low-e coated glass), here is a summary of some of the disadvantages to each option:
Tempered only – glass may still shatter (in harmless pieces) and fall to the ground.
Laminated only – laminate can discolor over time and shrink in from the corners of the glass.
Low-e gas filled glazing unit – if the gasket fails, condensation can form in between the glass.
Low-e coated glass – may be visible in certain light conditions, or when wearing polarized sunglasses. You can sometimes see this on automobile glass.
To summarize, a good starting place for adding glass to your barn begins with tempered glass, meeting the SHGC and U-values recommended above. A step beyond this is low-e coated glass, since with #4 (low-e gas) you can expect the gaskets to fail at some point, and the glazing unit will need to be replaced. If the coating of the low-e coated glass is too “visible,” then low-e gas may be the better option, with the expectation that you may need to replace some of them again in 10 to 20 years, if and when the gaskets fail.
A job interview is not exactly an expected set up for an art sale. So when Lauren Zucker (now Richards) came looking for a job at Blackburn Architects some years ago, she found one. One she didn’t accept because graduate school had a stronger pull.
But in a strange twist, John Blackburn liked the student artwork she showed in her portfolio so much he bought it. Two beautiful Lauren Zucker black oil bar on paper works hang in the Blackburn Architects’ offices in Washington, DC. The large 48’x60’ framed paintings are captivating for the brush strokes evoking the fevered jostling of racehorses leaving the starting gate. They are lovely paintings, and visitors to the office often comment on them.
She described her work this way:
The Race: Within the conﬁnes of 10 furlongs there are meta-corporeal aspects of the horse race never experienced by the spectator. I ﬁrst knew the horse race as an unfolded experience through the medium of literature. Drawn out in detail were the visceral relationships between horse and jockey, the operations/politics implicit in a racing farm, the strategies and traditions of breeding and training, the excitement of race day morning, and the cognizant thought behind every move during the course of the race. The race compresses into 2 minutes, the life experience of each racer- horse or jockey.
The Drawing: Through drawing, I looked to fold the life narrative of the racer into gesture. Then, as in the race, montage the narrative of different racers. I found inspiration for expressing this agony of entanglement in Picasso’s Guernica. The narrative gesture of war is apparently not unlike that of the horse race.
The process of these drawings was subtractive, many beginning as a coat of black oil bar. The slow drying time of oil bar and linseed oil allowed me the time to carve the horses’ bodies out the blackness. Portions of the drawing were reworked over and over again, conveying motion/time lapse through the multiplicity of elements, such as the doubling of the jockey’s hand in different positions.
There is a dichotomy in horse racing which at once evokes both nobility and grit which I found to exist even at the scale of the horse’s eye, loaded with both the noble courage and animalistic fear. And in the relationship of the fear in horse’s eye to the Jockey’s eye of focused determination. “
As time passed, though, Lauren’s identity was lost to Blackburn Architects. We could make out most of her signature in the lower right hand of the paintings, but was it Lauren Ziker, Zucker, Luker? What had become of the artist who made the art we live with every day? Was she still an artist? A practicing architect? We didn’t know. Finally, John was inspired to track Lauren down through a connection to a colleague who knew her and had kept in touch. And voila! Lauren is indeed still an artist, and an architect, and she was so excited we had tracked her down.
“I have such great memories of Blackburn Architects and of John. I remember being equally disappointed that the timing didn’t work out as the job would have merged my two greatest passions as a life-long horse lover / equestrian and architecture. I am still working in architecture and still enjoy painting and drawing.”
By John Blackburn
One of my favorite sayings regarding water on a farm is, “Certainly not possible in all cases, and not likely in many, but if at all possible, try to ensure the water that leaves your property is as clean as when it came onto the property.”
My experience designing equestrian facilities, a personal interest in issues of sustainability, and my volunteer work with the Equine Land Conservation Resource, have raised my consciousness around land use issues regarding water. How a property drains it, where to find it, how to store it, and so on.
Whether your property suffers from too much or too little, water is an essential requirement for running an equestrian facility and has a significant impact upon the welfare of your horses, the efficiency of your farm and the budget of your operation. Water plays a big part in most Blackburn Architects equestrian projects. I thought I’d address a few solutions we can offer when there’s too much coming onto your property (not your barn – that’s another issue for discussion).
It’s a problem that has come up recently at a farm in Texas, where clients face excessive stormwater runoff on their farm. When the rains started this spring, suddenly excess water poured onto their land from two different counties; displacing basically an entire neighborhood’s volume of stormwater runoff onto their farm.
The team at Blackburn Architects will address this issue by determining the sizes of storages (dams or tanks) and diversions needed. Among the solutions that we’ll apply to divert rainwater off pastures and away from buildings and high-traffic areas in the coming weeks and months are:
• Swales or Berms. Berms (elevated earth) and swales (shallow trenches) can act like gutters to redirect water away from areas that
get too much water. Planting grass, trees, and bushes will assist in stabilizing these natural water channels, so they don’t become victims of
flooding over time.
• Catch Basins. A catch basin is an underground “reservoir” which collects water and drains it appropriately. Catch basins can
greatly improve farm drainage issues, allowing rainwater to flow through underground pipes leading to a sewer system or holding tanks (where it
naturally disperse). They offer a good method for moving water away from structures and off property, especially if you have to cross roads. At
Wyndham Oaks, in Boyd, MD, a Blackburn designed a system that takes water off the pastures and away from the structures, placing it into a long swale
that runs between paddocks.
• Retention Ponds. Retention ponds usually fill as a permanent pool of water, and they can also serve to temporarily detain excess
stormwater. When stormwater enters these ponds, it’s released over a period of a few days, as water levels slowly return to normal.
All these methods of moving excess water can be interconnected. Run-off entering a catch basin flows through a daylight drain to swales located between paddocks. Before it leaves the site, runoff goes into a retention pond, which allows it to evaporate or gradually seep back into the soil, and recycle.
With careful attention to design details, it is possible to retrofit your barn to be healthier for your horses. One important renovation to existing built structures is the addition of skylights and ridge vents to increase light and air flow.
Only a fortunate few horse owners design and build a barn from the ground up. Most buy a property with an existing barn. As the photos illustrate, Blackburn Architects’ client Kevin Plank, the CEO of Under Armour®, bought historic Sagamore Farm in Maryland, and undertook a significant renovation to add light and ventilation to the interior of his historic main barn.
Significant expenditures are not necessary, however. In this discussion, I’m offering simple recommendations for achieving healthier living space for horses starting with an existing barn.
For venting an existing barn roof, I suggest one of two options:
1) Add Dutch doors along the barn sides or
2) Add a vent along the bottom edge of the skylight (or ridge if that works best though I prefer the curb vent for better free air access).
Option 1: Add Dutch doors along the barn sides
This option provides good access for ventilation to each stall and a great method of controlling air flow. An owner has the option of leaving just the upper door open to reduce the flow or open both upper and lower doors to give maximum free area. (Of course, in order to open both doors for full access you’ll need to add an interior mesh panel to keep horse in the stall.) If Dutch doors aren’t possible or within the budget, then I recommend adding low wall vents to bring in air low to the floor (which is good for foals and to vent odors caused by ammonia gases near the floor). The vents should be dampered for air control and screened to keep rodents from getting into stalls.
Additionally, Dutch doors provide an abundance of natural light, which reduces the need for electric lighting in the barn and helps purify the stall flooring, reducing the creation of harmful ammonia gases.
Option 2: Add a vent along the bottom edge of the skylight (or ridge)
This option allows for vertical ventilation of the barn using the Bernoulli Principle and the chimney effect. Though the existing barn may not have the best angle for prevailing breezes or roof slope, it will help nevertheless. I also recommend vents at the top of the wall at the roof eave if they can be added. This permits year-round ventilation above the heads of the horses, but still ventilates the barn vertically using the techniques described above.
There are a variety of methods and materials that can be used to retrofit skylights into an existing roof. At Sagamore Farm, Blackburn Architects’ design replaced the existing shingles with a new metal roof (not necessary; Sagamore’s roof shingles were worn out and metal was chosen as a better long term material). In more typical circumstances where the existing shingles are salvageable, simply remove the shingles along the ridge and cut out the sheathing or sub roofing material, leaving only the roof rafters.
Continuous curbs should be built along the edge of the opening. Although a continuous skylight or curb is not necessary, I find it aesthetically and functionally preferable. A skylight can then be placed on top of the curbs spanning from one side of the aisle to the other. The curb can and should be vented. The size and amount of free area depends on the barn design, size and location. The skylight width does not have to span the full width of the aisle but somewhere between 8 to 12 feet should be adequate.
The skylight can be either glass (costly and should be safety glass) or some form of polycarbonate. Check your local building codes for requirements. I do not recommend clear glazing. Translucent glazing reduces the visibility of dirt and filters light, which better serves the barn interior. It’s best not to let a strong band of sunlight hit a stalled horse for a long period of time. I also recommend painting the interior of the roof and framing members a light color to improve reflectance.
If a continuous skylight is not possible, then individual roof skylights can be installed over the center aisle. However, if the skylights are not high on the roof and are not vented, they may not do much to increase the barn’s vertical ventilation.
If the barn has a loft it may be possible to remove it, leaving specific structural members spanning across the barn to hold the building together and to provide wind shear strength to the barn. If the loft is used for hay storage (which I don’t recommended for health and safety reasons), then it may be possible to remove a portion of the loft over the aisle leaving the loft in place over the stall for storage or the reverse of that (remove the loft over the stall but leave it in place over the aisle).
While these approaches to increasing light and ventilation in existing structures can work wonders, you should always contact a structural engineer before installation of skylights to determine if the barn can take the modifications needed of if some additional structural work needs to be done.