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.”
Q: I’m in the process of planning a barn in Missouri, and finances require an economical metal post-and-frame structure. I’ve studied Blackburn’s ventilation and lighting philosophies and will incorporate them as best I can.
My question is about orienting the barn. I plan to have a center aisle, with exterior Dutch doors in every stall. Each 12’x12’ stall will have an exit to the main 12’ aisle as well as to an outside run-in. The stalls will be used primarily during more extreme weather or when I need to confine a horse due to injury or illness, otherwise the horses will be outside. Overhangs on both sides of the barn will function as run-in shelters for the paddocks.
I know from your writings that the ideal orientation is perpendicular to the prevailing summer breeze. However, because Missouri’s cold winter winds are from the same direction, the horses on that side of the barn won’t have wind protection when in the run-in areas. I know that’s less of a problem for owners who keep their horses in stalls most of the time, so I’ve not been able to find an answer to this question. I will obviously allow them access to the stalls during the bitter cold weather we get, but for most of the winter all they need is some windbreak. How do I optimize winter protection without compromising ventilation?
Worried about Winter
A: Orientation is certainly very important when siting your barn. But because wind is always changing and its direction and velocity can be affected by terrain, other structures, and vegetation, the angle is not a hard and fast rule. It’s good to try and locate the barn perpendicular to the prevailing summer breeze but that also depends on the design of your barn. If you have lived on the farm a few years you may know the particular wind patterns for your property.
The design of the barn is as critical – if not more so – than the orientation. How and where you permit air to enter the barn (preferably along the low wall along the long side of the barn and at the eaves where the roof joins the side walls), and where it is allowed to exhaust are critical. In some areas, it may be necessary to provide some form of close-able dampers on the low wall vents to control the wind and temperature that can impact a horse that is in the stall but doesn’t have the flexibility to get away from it.
The environment within the barn should be within 8 to 10 degrees of the temperature on the outside. Your barn should ventilate vertically to reduce the horizontal movement of bacterial- and moisture-laden air.
We always say the best environment for the horse is outdoors where it can make its own choices about its environment and health. A naturally-kept horse should be able to get out of the hot sun and find shade or get out of a cold wind in a shelter or behind a wind block.
By turning your horses out most of the time you are certainly on the right track for happy, healthy animals.
Missouri’s winter weather isn’t so extreme that it prevents you from a center aisle barn with stalls on both sides. Orient your barn so that turnouts are on the windward side of the barn and leave the Dutch doors open so your horses can get inside away from the wind. For the turnouts on the cold windward side of the barn, blanket the horses. And keep their winter coats unclipped.
Since you’ve read “Healthy Stables by Design,” you know that Blackburn designs typically use the chimney effect and the Bernoulli principle to create natural ventilation. Our barns become passively designed machines that work to provide healthy conditions for the horses inside.
Good luck with your new barn!
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.
One of the design considerations in nearly every Blackburn equestrian project is ground surface materials to be used at the exterior of the barn. Hopefully, the information below will be helpful in planning for your barn.
First consideration is it to be porous vs. non porous?
Either will work in this application but you need to build in some sort of drainage system for both, either on the surface or below the surface.
1) Interlocking rubber brick pavers. The Blackburn Architects’ team opinion is that this is the best all-around flooring system for horses because of its durability and aesthetic options. It’s slip resistant and holds up to abuse and in a wide variety of environmental and weather conditions. It can be set loose on a porous or non-porous sub-base or glued down on a firm base like concrete.
2) Oil base chip and seal: Chip seal is a surface treatment used on light traffic roadways/driveways, some lead paths and other areas used for horse or farm traffic. We do not use it very often anymore due to some environmental concerns in some jurisdictions (it typically requires a base layer of asphalt and oil as a binder). Chip seal basically combines one or more layers of asphalt with one or more layer of aggregate. Oil is often used as a binder. Ground up recycled tires are sometimes used as an aggregate. It tends to be slip resistant though it may deteriorate in time. Its life time is typically 5 to 7 years before it needs re-surfacing.
3) Rubber mats (loose laid or glued): This is a good material but should be laid or glued to a concrete or popcorn asphalt base. The mats need a solid base in order to hold in place or remain level over time. Rubber mats can present an aesthetic issue but functionally work well.
4) Stone dust or brick dust: A good material to use but requires maintenance to retain a clean and orderly look. It’s slip resistant and drains relatively well. Not good for plowing conditions unless it is re-spread at the end of the winter season.
5) Popcorn asphalt: An excellent material because it’s slip resistant and drains well. Its problem is its aesthetic appearance. It should be laid over a layer of crushed gravel so the surface water can drain through the asphalt and away. The advantage of the popcorn asphalt is it has the ability to reseal itself in warm weather if the ground freezes and heaves. It can also be used as a base layer under rubber mats or rubber bricks.
6) Concrete (custom colored and/or textured) or concrete pavers: Not a very horse-friendly material to use. It can be scored to give it texture, tinted to give it color and in some cases a brick pattern, but it is nevertheless a very unforgiving material. Horses shoes can slip on it and spook a horse especially when crossing from one material to another. However, this material is great when installed under the interlocking rubber brick or rubber mats.
7) Poured in place non slip surface material: This is a good material (a number of different types and manufacturers available) that can be slip resistant, cushioned to protect from a fall and can be used outdoors. It is often used on playgrounds. Blackburn Architects uses it most often in foaling stalls where a seamless continuous surface is desired.
8) Grass ground cover: Not recommended due to its maintenance needs especially when under cover.
9) Grid mats: Can work if the owner wants to use stone or brick dust or some other type of light screenings but requires periodic maintenance.
10) Brick or stone: Not highly recommended as it is less slip resistant though it can look great, especially if brick dust is used elsewhere such as the driveway in a chip and seal application.
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.
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.”
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.
We recently wrote about muck pits and dealing with manure at horse facilities and received comments about stabling time; some saying that shorter times in stalls are better for horses. We completely agree. The longer a horse is stabled indoors, the more likely it is that the animal will be standing in urine-soaked bedding for at least part of the day. And we all know ammonia causes problems.
We want the air inside our barns to be as clean as the air outside the barn. Blackburn Architects’ designs stress aerodynamic ventilation, strategic natural light, and passive solar heating and cooling in our equestrian facilities.
When John Blackburn was beginning to design horse facilities more than 30 years ago, he found combining regionally-appropriate architectural elements with aerodynamic airflow principles created pleasing, healthy spaces for equines and their caregivers. Even early on in his career, heading into his barns was refreshing. “In August,” he has said, “in the dead of summer, when there was no wind – your hair would lift” from the natural ventilation created by the proper placement of the barn on a site, and the use of two engineering principles, which Blackburn Architects has employed in every design then and since:
1. The Bernoulli Principle – As air blows across a surface, e.g. a bird’s wing, it creates lift. Barn placement on a site is critical. If possible, a barn should capture the prevailing summer breezes (for horses you’re always more concerned with cooling rather than warming).
Inside the barn, air needs to move up and out. Blackburn frequently specifies ridge line vents in our designs. The vertical ventilation rids the barn of odors, pathogens and infectious bacteria that could otherwise be transported from horse to horse.
Even in cold climates like Montana, Blackburn Architects designs for maximum ventilation in the winter. “A horse gives off a tremendous amount of humidity; a lot of bacteria and in a contained area – like a stall – that’s an incubator for disease. I don’t care how cold it is where you live, you want to ventilate your barn year-round,” explained John Blackburn.
2. The Chimney Effect – Maximizing natural light in a barn creates a healthy environment by helping to “sterilize” the spaces. For example, as the sun moves across the sky and a band of light travels through a stall – perhaps through the upper portion of an exterior Dutch door left open – it helps to dry and evaporate urine. Blackburn Architects’ spaces have a lot of windows, and skylights. Vented skylights glazed with a translucent polycarbonate panel running the length of the barn are hallmarks of our barns. The light source provides a low cost, shatter-proof feature that diffuses the light, thus eliminating harsh shadows, which could cause horses to spook. “My barns are designed to function throughout the day without the use of artificial lighting, except in enclosed rooms such as bathroom/laundry,” John Blackburn explained.
“A horse is designed to live outside in the wild. If it wants to get out of the sun, it’ll run under a tree. If it wants to get out of the wind, it’ll run behind a hill. This natural, healthy way of living is what we strive to create with our barns so that our athletic partners have the best chance of long, healthy lives – indoors or out.”
If you want to learn more, Penn State Extension has a very informative article: https://extension.psu.edu/horse-stable-ventilation.
In this on-going series, John Blackburn offers insight into component parts of equestrian facilities. With more than 35 years’ experience in the design of horse barns, he’s seen his share of good, bad and worse. In this installment, he gives advice on stall flooring. Still as applicable as ever, we’re reposting Sushil Dulai Wenholz’ article from The Horse, Sept 1, 2001 (added a few updates, too).
By Sushil Dulai Wenholz
You give a lot of thought to your horse’s health and happiness. You groom him until he gleams, swaddle him in boots and blankets, carefully monitor his diet, and expend considerable effort and expense making sure he’s comfortably bedded. But have you thought about what lies beneath that soft bed? In essence, the stall floor is the box spring beneath your horse’s mattress, and it’s every bit as important as what goes on top–perhaps more so.
No matter how nice the bedding, a poorly constructed floor can lead to respiratory troubles from ammonia gases, thrush from trapped moisture, achy joints from uneven or too-hard surfaces, and injury from slippery or abrasive materials. In addition, a poor floor can mean wasted bedding and extra labor for you.
A good stall floor starts with a good construction plan. John Blackburn, senior principal of Blackburn Architects, a 34-year-old firm that has designed more than 400+ barns in 35 states; and Peter Gibbs, Extension Horse Specialist at Texas A&M University, outline the steps involved in building a floor that will keep you and your horse happy, whether you’re revamping an existing stall or building a brand new barn from scratch.
Starting From Scratch
1. Pick the location. If you’re building a barn, you have the luxury of choosing the best site. Look for an area that’s dry or at least easy to drain. Avoid steep slopes, areas that are consistently wet, and locations that are subject to water runoff during heavy rains or snow melt. In terms of soil, you’re basically stuck with whatever is normal for your region. But if you have it, soil that packs tightly is ideal, says Blackburn, because it will provide a tough surface that isn’t too hard or abrasive.
2. Dig to the base. Whether you’re starting from scratch or redoing an existing stall, you need to dig down to a well-draining layer of soil. This will give urine and other moisture a path to drain away from your horse. Expect to excavate at least one foot deep over the entire stall, says Blackburn. You might have to go deeper, depending on local soil conditions.
3. Level the ground. You should level out that base layer to help make sure the surfaces above it are level. A nice, even plane puts less stress on your horse’s legs than an uneven floor.
4. Compact the base and fill. Even if the floor starts out flat, Gibbs explains that extended use can create a holey or uneven surface, especially with dirt or stone-dust flooring. To form a firm foundation that can withstand daily wear and tear for extended periods, compact the floor. You can use a hand roller, a motorized, hand-held compactor or “settler,” or some other heavy pounding tool to do the job.
First, compact the layer you’ve uncovered and leveled. Then begin adding layers of dirt or stone dust. “The important thing is to install the flooring in layers and tamp it at each layer,” says Blackburn. He recommends using three-inch layers for dirt or one- to two-inch layers for stone dust. Compact each layer “until you think it can take the abuse of hooves kicking at it,” he adds, noting that there isn’t a standard measure to go by.
To ensure good drainage away from the building, add layers until your floor’s surface is 12 to 18 inches above the natural grade around the barn, says Blackburn. “You want to get the moisture to drain through the flooring and away from the stall and barn,” he explains. In addition, this protects the floor from high water levels outside that might otherwise easily flood the stall.
Now you’re ready to add the floor itself. Next you’ll find basic installation information for several common types of flooring.
Adding the Flooring
Dirt–If you plan to have a dirt floor, and local soil drains exceptionally well, you’re done. Most soils, however, drain moderately well at best, so you’ll probably want to help it along. One option is to grade the top layer of dirt slightly (no more than three degrees), so that moisture runs off to exit the barn or stall through an outlet in the corner (or through the stall door to the aisle).
You could also make a “leach hole,” or simple drain, inside the stall. To do this, dig a hole about three feet in diameter and deep enough to reach that bottom, well-draining layer of soil at the base you created. Then fill the hole with varying sizes of rock (or alternating layers of sand and gravel), starting with large gravel chunks at the bottom and working toward stone dust at the top. Tamp into place and cover with dirt to even out the floor.
Stone Dust–Blackburn believes that stone dust (also known as crusher run, screenings, or quarter-inch minus) makes a better floor than dirt, “because it can compact well and still permits drainage.” However, he does recommend adding a subsurface drainage system to enhance flow-through. To do this, lay filter fabric over the floor, top it with a layer of crushed gravel, then add three to five inches of stone dust. As you did with the base, compact the stone dust after each one- to two-inch layer. When you’re done, water the floor, tamp it down tight again, and let it settle overnight. Fill in any holes or depressions the next day.
Another idea is to install a drainpipe under the stone dust floor. “I feel that this helps drain the moisture away from the stall area and allows you to flush the stall with moisture to cleanse the flooring,” explains Blackburn. “Otherwise, it could drain into the dirt and stone and stay there, providing odor and a breeding ground for bacteria.”
To lay pipe, first dig a swale–a sloped ditch about one foot deep. Lay perforated pipe into the swale (you want a piece long enough to provide drainage away from the building, notes Blackburn). Cover the pipe with filter fabric, then fill the swale with crushed gravel. Now add and compact your stone dust as stated previously.
Plastic Grid–Plastic grid flooring comes in many variations, but the basic idea is the same for all floors: To provide a 100% permeable floor plus a level, stable, durable surface. Installation instructions vary by manufacturer; however, most recommend laying the grid over a well-draining subsurface (such as stone dust) so that moisture not absorbed by bedding will drain away. Usually, the holes in the grid (which create the excellent drainage) are filled with stone dust.
Rubber Mats–As with grid systems, rubber mats (and similarly, rubber pavers, which look like rubber bricks) vary in design, thickness, texture, etc., from one manufacturer to the next. Likewise for installation instructions, although most want you to measure stalls so that mats fit snugly against each other and the walls. Unlike grids, however, mats and pavers are meant to trap moisture above the surface, where it can be absorbed by bedding. Moisture can seep through the seams (or possibly the rubber itself). So, flooring experts recommend that you lay mats over a well-draining subsurface, such as one of the crushed stone systems mentioned earlier, or over relatively nonporous materials such as concrete and asphalt that can be easily disinfected.
Asphalt–You can lay an asphalt floor yourself, if you’re willing to find a supplier, rent equipment, and learn the proper way to apply, rake, and settle it. However, it can be a tricky process. As Blackburn notes, “The right mix of asphalt is important. It should be raked as it’s installed, then hand rolled. I would imagine that hiring a professional would be advisable.”
He also suggests that you grade asphalt floors with a crown of one-eighth inch per foot in order to sustain drainage. “With a flat surface, the urine puddles and leaves the horse standing in dampness, potentially causing all kinds of hoof issues,” he explains. The slope will also facilitate drainage when the stall is washed or disinfected. Blackburn recommends the use of aggregate, or “popcorn,” asphalt, which offers a non-slip texture. And he strongly urges the use of rubber mats or rubber pavers to cushion this relatively rough surface.
Concrete–Many people are comfortable mixing and pouring their own concrete–an easier process than laying asphalt. For larger projects, you might want to hire outside assistance. Although moisture can seep through concrete over time, this footing is not as porous as stone dust. So, Blackburn recommends grading it at a rate of one-eight inch to one-quarter inch per foot to allow for drainage. Concrete should be cushioned with rubber mats or pavers, he adds, to reduce the risk of injury and musculoskeletal stresses that this hard flooring could cause.
A Note on Cost
Before you begin stall floor construction, you should create a budget for the project. However, as Blackburn notes, “The cost of different options can vary dramatically based on the number of stalls, location, and the material used,” as well as the specific suppliers, consultants, and equipment rental agencies with which you might deal.
For instance, says Blackburn, “I have found that the cost of asphalt flooring can range widely from area to area. And some suppliers require that a large quantity be ordered of the type and mix you need before they will supply it at a reasonable price.” Therefore, it could actually be more expensive, per stall, to floor a smaller barn than a larger barn. It’s important to contact local companies for estimates before you start the job. (For mass-manufactured, nationally distributed products like most rubber mats and plastic grid systems, you can check pricing with the manufacturers, many of whom have web sites.)
As you start compiling price quotes and creating a budget, Blackburn cautions that you consider not just the initial expense of purchase and installation, but also long-term costs. A dirt floor might be virtually free to install except for labor, but could be expensive in terms of labor over the long run. Rubber mats might be pricey at the start, but could pay for themselves through longevity, ease of care, and reduced bedding.
Also consider the stall flooring material can greatly impact the amount of bedding you’ll need to use. For instance, a stall floor with interlocking rubber brick can cut your bedding in half which can save on barn operations, offsetting increased installation costs.
Additional options for flooring include adhered cushioned or foam filled. To conclude, all stall flooring has an impact on the comfort of your horse, the material cost of installation, bedding requirements and your ability to clean and sanitize the stalls.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sushil Dulai Wenholz
Sushil Dulai Wenholz is a free-lance writer based in Lakewood, Colo. Her work appears in a number of leading equine publications, and she has earned awards from the American Horse Publications and the Western Fairs Association.
1. Blackburn designs stalls of all sizes, but the most common is 12’x12’. 16’x16’ is often requested for larger horses, but with more space comes increased maintenance, a need for more bedding and a bigger area to clean. Larger stalls can, therefore add considerably to the cost of building a barn by:
a. Adding to the overall length and/or width of a barn.
b. Requiring roof framing to be increased from 2×10’s to 2×12’s or even greater.
c. Increasing the span of the framing lumber.
2. Partitions between stalls should be at least 8 feet high, but they don’t have to be solid from top to bottom. Barred or mesh portions on the top enhance ventilation. This also has the benefit of allowing horses to see their companions — and provides easy observation of the horses by their owners. The down side is the increased ventilation between stalls can increase the risk of bacterial infection between horses. For the same reason, doors that are open on top increase light and ventilation. Bars must not be more than 2 to 3 inches apart, and openings should not be more than 2 inches across to prevent hoof entrapment.
3. Steel mesh or bar fronts on stalls allow an owner to look down the aisle or into the stall as they walk down the aisle and see their horses. The mesh is good for ventilation, too. The drawback is that bedding can be kicked into the aisles, so we recommend adding bedding guards. Welded steel mesh is typically stronger than bars but the horizontals tend to collect dust and can add to barn maintenance.
4. Doors should be at least 4 feet wide. This is wide enough for a wheelbarrow to enter the space or for a horse and handler to exit or enter the stall. Sliding doors are preferred over swinging doors. If you must use swinging doors, remember to install them to swing outward. You’ll have a major problem if a horse goes down and the door swings to the inside. Additional safety reasons for outward swinging doors include:
a. Prevention of an unlatched door swinging open accidentally, or the wind catching it.
b. Added visibility of looking down an aisle and recognizing that a stall is open and empty. (Handlers need to leave stall doors open when the horse is turned out. This also makes it easier when bringing the horse back to the stall – you don’t have to open it.)
5. We recommend rounded edges in stalls and anywhere in the barn where horses have access. A casting rail (which can be a groove in the wall or a 2-by-4-inch rail bolted low to the wall), provides something for the horse to catch his foot on when rolling to avoid getting cast.
6. Provide for easy access to the stall for feed buckets without opening and closing the door. Place in one of the front corners adjacent to the aisle.
7. Automatic waterers have the advantage of offering constant fresh water, but be sure to buy a model that is easy to keep clean. If you don’t want automatic waterers, install water hydrants between every couple of stalls and provide for ample drainage for drips and overflows. Don’t forget to frost-proof them in climates where pipes are apt to freeze.