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!
Let’s talk about dry lots. Essential on nearly every equine facility, dry lots vary widely in size, location and construction.
By nature, of course, horses are herd animals evolved to roam and graze on sparse prairies. We’ve introduced a complete change to the evolutionary process – incorporating diets of grain and lush pastures. The resultant problems are many, but our solution is simple. Limit the horses’ activities or diet as you give them access to open air and light.
Blackburn recommends dry lots on most, if not all, of the farms we design. Sadly, too many farms have unintentional dry lots because of inadequate pasture management.
Why create a healthy dry lot?
1. Control the horse’s diet.
2. Preserve paddocks thru rotation.
3. Control moisture and its effect on hooves.
Here are nine things to consider:
Location: Choose a place close to the barn for ease of access. Provide adequate sized gates for horses but also an occasional vehicle. Select a relatively flat location but one that drains well and isn’t too isolated so horses can socialize but generally remain separated.
Materials: The footing should be firm but not hard packed. It must be designed to drain well to allow moisture to either drain thru or away without causing erosion. Sandy soil is preferable but some sort of gravel that is easy on the feet or, even better, an engineered footing similar to your arena should work perfectly.
Size: The size can vary, but if you are creating the dry lot to limit the horses’ movement for health reasons, you may want it to be smaller than larger. We recommend multiple dry lots of varying sizes to accommodate many uses.
Fencing: It goes without saying that your fencing needs to be sturdy. See Activities below.
Shelters: Some form of shade shelter for fly & weather protection is preferred – by humans, but horses may never darken the interior.
Feeding: Various forms of slow feeders, salt blocks, etc. can be used. If you are restricting the horse’s diet, we recommend consulting with your vet about setting up a feeding regimen that can be incorporated into your use of the dry lot.
Activities: Spreading hay rations around the lot encourages movement; toys for activity or human interaction can be very helpful. We always recommend consulting with your veterinarian because no two horses are the same. You and your vet know what’s best for your horse.
Socialization: Locating the dry lot close to other horses reduces stress and is more emotionally relaxing.
Footing: The dry lot surface should provide a safe and comfortable footing for horses but it must also drain well. Therefore, we recommend that the upper surface/footing be 4 to 6 inches of footing material (stone dust, sand, engineered footing material as described above a drainage layer) or possibly 8 to 12 inches of pea gravel, allowing the foot to sink in without undue pressure on sensitive areas. The drainage layer can be 1/2 inch to 1 inch stones. You can add an interlocking grid within this layer to provide additional stability of the base layer and improve drainage.
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.
Fences are one of the most common discussion points among the Blackburn team and clients when we’re designing an equestrian facility. The options listed below are certainly not exhaustive but reflect what we commonly find in many of our projects.
Some options are better suited for pastures, while others are more appropriate for small stall turnouts. We’ve tried to identify a variety of approaches that meet the safety needs for horses, limit maintenance needs, and often fall within neighborhood guidelines.
1. Steel rail fencing is an option for stable turnouts. The material is available in a thinner profile so it isn’t as visually heavy and it can be painted black or another dark color so that it does not have the “ranch” appearance seen with galvanized steel pipe corrals. The up-front cost is higher but the material is durable and will have little-to-no maintenance needs.
2. Woodguard polymer coated wood fencing is treated wood with a non-toxic, non-chipping surface covering. The wood grain is still visible but the finish has some of the plastic texture of the polymer. This product allows for fencing to be constructed similar to a wood fence, with the rails attached to the face of the posts. The result is a stronger, safer fence. Woodguard has a 20-year warranty. The cost is similar to wood board fencing but the maintenance needs are less. While the manufacturers state that this product is resistant to cribbing, we would recommend that a hot-wire be provided at the top rail to discourage the horses from chewing. This material would be acceptable to use for both stall turnouts and paddocks. It offers the appearance of a traditional 3- or 4-board wood fence without the significant maintenance demands. https://www.wood-guard.com/horse-fencing/
3. High Tensile Polymer (HTP) comes in both rail and wire styles and is typically mounted on wood posts. The rail is typically 5” wide and from a distance will appear similar to wood board fencing. Because wire fencing has a lower visibility, we suggest using a thicker top board so that the horses can more easily identify the barrier. The HTP materials’ inherent flexibility makes these products durable and resistant to horses leaning on or running into the fence. Typically, these are more suited to large pastures or for perimeter fencing and less so for stall turnouts. The darker colors tend to exhibit a chalky appearance over time.
4. Rubber fencing is a durable, flexible, and low profile fencing material and is similar to the HTP fencing. We’ve not seen this product used as often and we understand that there’s a risk that the strings of the fabric (which is an internal support for the rubber) can become exposed and offer a hazard for horses to chew on. A hot-wire at the top of the fence may combat this risk.
The advantages of rubber, HTP or any type strap fencing is the posts can be set further apart which is useful when its highly visible and you want to minimize the number of posts. The fencing is flexible and resists breaking when a limb or tree falls on it therefore it’s a good material for perimeter fencing large acreage and where it encounters wooded areas. This is safer if/when a horse runs into the fence; especially a problem on larger paddocks when horses can get some speed and not be able to slow down.
5. HDPE is a post and board fencing material. It’s stronger than PVC and performs better in all weather conditions, but the primary issue is in the assembly of the fence. The rails are set between posts, instead of fastened to the face, and can pop out if the fence is not secured properly. Its requires more frequent posts which tends to look busy and it’s difficult to bend or angle corners because of the assembly method. The Blackburn team isn’t particularly fond of this material because it can look clunky and isn’t the safest option. http://www.amberwayequine.com/products/hdpe-fencing-2/
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.
OK, so I have to once again spread the word about Blackburn Greenbarns®, our pre-designed line of sustainable barns. We just issued a press release, which you can check out here. We are really excited to share these new barns with you in a “ready-to-construct” format. We really feel that all equestrians (and their horses too, of course) deserve to have sustainable barn options that are easy to modify, protect the health and safety of your horses, and are ready to construct quickly and efficiently (with the help of a licensed professional, of course).
We are sending out virtual invitations to all our friends, clients old and new, and family to take a look at our new website this Thursday when it will be complete. However, please feel free to visit the site before then at www.blackburngreenbarns.com. We hope you’ll like it and we hope to hear from you if you have any feedback, questions, or interest.
In recognition of Earth Day, my firm announced a new division in design called Blackburn greenbarns. Starting with four ready-to-build horse-barn designs, we hope these barns are an affordable alternative to custom design. Of course, as the name implies, all the designs are green–in three ways: through passive design solutions, green materials and finishes, and additional design services to implement green systems such as solar panels.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about greenbarns and our new Web site at www.blackburngreenbarns.com. Please visit it and let us know what you think!
Wikipedia describes Green washing, combining the concepts of “Green” and “Whitewashing,” as the misleading practices of a company that creates the appearance of a positive environmental impact with its products or services. Green sheen is another term for the same attempt to mislead consumers.
The true greening of American business is a positive trend in which a company reassesses its practices and effects changes that have a true positive impact on the environment or at least a less destructive impact than previous practices. Selling your product or service as if it were green is a scam. NPR did a story several months ago on the practice and listed the “six sins of greenwashing,” including hidden tradeoffs, vague claims, and out and out lying.
When it comes to planning and building your equestrian facilities—stables and arenas primarily—Blackburn Architects has been designing with true-blue green elements for 25 years. Here is a list of sustainable elements that you can incorporate into your facility planning without any worry that you’ve been subjected to greenwashing.
- First, evaluate existing farm buildings for adaptive reuse opportunities. Don’t assume that old barns must be torn down. It is always greener to reuse than it is to destroy and discard. (Born Again, Washington Post Magazine)
- If a building is too damaged structurally to preserve, consider re-using as many materials as possible. Better to re-use old wood in your project than to send it off to the local landfill. (Second Chances, Green Builder Magazine)
- Look for local materials for your project. If there is local wood or stone that can be incorporated into your design, you are saving the energy required to transport materials and this can be a significant environmental savings. Local materials also help your design fit the landscape naturally, as if it belongs on the site.
- Search out opportunities to use recycled materials and renewable resources. For example, numerous flooring products are available now that are made from recycled tires, including Pavesafe. When choosing lumber, make certain that you are selecting species that are renewable and not stressed—harvesting redwood, teak, mahogany, and many other types of wood creates severe environmental costs. Buyer beware though: so called green products may be where you’re most likely to run into vague product descriptions and flat out lies. Two independent companies, EcoLogo and Green Seal attempt to provide an easy way of discerning whether a product is eco-friendly. Look for those labels.
- Plan your stables with the forces of nature working for you, placing structures within your site to use the sun and prevailing winds. (Potential Energy, Western Horseman Magazine)
- Passive lighting can save power, reduce fire risk, and improve the health status of your animals.
- Passive ventilation creates the healthiest possible indoor environment for your horses without the use of electricity.
While no one can be all green all the time (take it from Kermit, it isn’t easy being green), every REAL step is a step in the right direction. Just don’t let yourself be sold on a faux-green product. Remember the early years of the organic food movement—no regulation resulted in false and misleading claims and high-ticket prices adding insult to injury. It took a long time for consumer protection laws to catch up with false claims.