Barn Renovation: 4 Things to Know Before You Start
The barn renovation movement is having a moment. “There’s an age-old romance with farm life and all of the heritage that goes along with it—old farmsteads and many generations of family that have lived there,” says Taylor Barnhill, an Appalachian Barn Alliance researcher in North Carolina. He usually sees two types of people tackling barn renovation: families who have been part of the rural-agricultural culture for several generations and tourists who visit and later become enamored with the landscape. Exact numbers are hard to pinpoint, but according to Barnhill, one thing’s for sure: People have been buying rural land in recent years, including unkempt barns desperate for some TLC.
Multigenerational families in particular are “beginning to wake up to the fact that all this richness, all the oral traditions and material culture, is disappearing,” Barnhill continues. “So folks who are from here are seeing their barns as much more valuable, and they want to save them for future generations and teach their children about them.” As for tourists turned property owners, “We welcome those people to come in and help us save these barns, but it’s from a less-informed perspective” both in terms of cultural comprehension and the practical skills required, he adds.
The excitement of DIY’ing a barn can be feverish, but it leads folks biting off more than they can chew as they figure out how to tackle a live-in barn renovation. Barnhill believes, it’s often better to hire a contractor familiar with such structures to help plan, conduct, and manage the restoration. “There’s a lot of subtle tricks but also major techniques to approach these barns so that you don’t do more damage than good,” Barnhill adds.
As you discuss renovation and construction plans with experts, consider implementing sustainable options to echo the rustic roots of the barn. The recent book, Remodelista: The Low-Impact Home by Margot Guralnick and Fan Winston with the editors of Remodelista (Artisan Books), offers plenty of ideas that will help retain the integrity of the barn and make it cozy at the same time. Consider wool batting as insulation for a sleeping loft or install energy-efficient radiant floor heating in the living space. Here are four more things to keep in mind if you’re thinking of purchasing a broken down barn to turn into your new home.
1. Energy efficiency: staying warm and saving on energy costs
Typically, barns are lofty spaces, meaning it’s hard to keep them consistently warm in colder months. Without smart planning before the renovation begins, you risk spending a fortune on energy bills once you move in and realize all the heat is above your head.
People often don’t think about the fact that a barn, even if it’s going to be used as a home, was designed with commercial needs in mind, according to Tim Franklin, the president of Franklin & Associates Design-Build, in Akron, Ohio, who has numerous barn renovations. “It’s a hybrid,” Franklin says. “The challenging part is, how do you efficiently heat and cool a structure like this?” Incorporating energy-efficient strategies can help reduce both costs and excess power or gas use. Franklin resolved this issue in a barn restoration and home conversion for Crystal Madrilejos and Andrew Towne by installing a radiant heat system, essentially funneling heat via pipes under the home’s floors. “The coolest part is when you walk around on the floor in the middle of winter with your bare feet or your socks and your feet are warm,” Franklin adds.
And typical insulation tactics might not work in a barn, too, if you’re trying to preserve details or allow the original wood beams to make a statement. For example, Madrilejos and Towne wanted to keep the original ceiling of a barn that was converted into a family property and soon realized that they couldn’t insulate their roof. The couple ended up having Franklin “essentially build a roof on top of the existing roof, using structural insulated panels,” Towne says. “So although our ceiling looks the way it always has, we have a considerable amount of insulation on the outside of it,” noting that the insulation adds around eight inches to the roof on the exterior.
Barnhill says that many people worry that if they make their barn energy-efficient, they’ll lose the building’s aesthetic. “They give up and say, ‘Well, I’ll just spend more money on heating it,’ and that’s a problem,” he says. “I encourage them at a minimum to install solar [panels] for power and a solar hot water heater and just do the best they can.”
2. Dealing with unexpected—and unrelenting—pests
Actively used barns are designed and maintained to withstand the elements. But after years of disuse, these structures essentially become part of the environment—meaning you might find yourself with new roommates in the form of bats, pigeons, chipmunks, mice, groundhogs, and spiders. Or even flies and ladybugs, as Madrilejos and Towne have discovered every summer since moving into their barn. A friend had warned the couple before they moved in that even after tightly wrapping his own barn, he had “an unbelievable amount of flies” crawling out of the woodwork for years. Madrilejos says they’ve since experienced a summertime swarm of flies and ladybugs. The couple hangs up flypaper to keep the numbers down. “It's gotten better and better,” she says. “I think in the first couple years, it’s [about] getting acclimated to being in a house, and these pests are like, ‘Well, this is where we would lay our eggs’ or whatever, but I feel like every year, it’s less and less.”
And like any home, some pests will be more detrimental to the barn than others, such as powder beetles, carpenter ants, and termites. “Every barn that we’ve worked on—and every barn that I know of—has had to be treated by a pest control company at least a couple of times a year, because those can create real damage,” Franklin says. “The pigeons don’t come back; the groundhogs don’t come back; the mice don’t come back. That’s not an issue. But those three insects are a real problem for barns.”
3. Balancing modernity with historical touches
More likely than not, the bare minimum for home comfort has changed since your barn was built, and not just because its inhabitants won’t be expected to eat out of a trough. But when you’re looking to renovate any property to become a home, you’re not going to settle for a few basic upgrades. You’ll want a modern makeover.
But balancing contemporary changes with preserving everything you love about the rustic barn will require much forethought to make sure that you don’t go too far in either direction. Part of that planning involves considering how each future change will impact both the function and aesthetic of the home as a whole once completed. Identifying historical details that are must-preserves—like carvings around a doorway, original floorings or even old equipment—should be done before any renovation begins to ensure those pieces aren’t lost or damaged in the process.
“We try to recycle as much as we can, being mindful and respectful of the planet and not just wasting materials,” Franklin says. But “a barn beam, you don’t find that at your local Home Depot, that’s unique. So try to save it and use it creatively again in the project.”
When it comes to bringing in new pieces, seriously consider scale. “One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is using windows and doors that are not in scale with the barn” and are better suited for a standard home’s proportions, Franklin says. “They look very undersized and people don’t typically think about that.” Scale also factors in to the types of lights you’ll select, as a lofty space might require dramatic, larger fixtures that won’t be swallowed up by the open air. Look for pieces that meld both rustic and modern, like the Ochre Drifter chandelier, an oval made with solid oak and adorned with leather and brass detail.
“It’s almost like every decision becomes a can of worms,” Madrilejos says. “With lighting, for example, we don’t have ceilings in the main room,” but a soaring space with different dining, cooking, and lounging spots. The question became, “Are we gonna have just a mess of crazy lights everywhere? What is that going to look like?”
4. Structural issues
Any structure that hasn’t been actively maintained is going to be a potential candidate for water damage and structure issues—and barns are no exception.
Many barns “aren’t even on a foundation,” Franklin explains. “Think of the beams that are sitting on the dirt, year after year, that are getting water on them over and over again, and they rot.” Adding a foundation under an existing barn will require an excavator who “better be real, real experienced,” Franklin adds. If they aren’t, they “can knock the barn beam down and hurt the structure.” If there is a foundation, Barnhill says, it often isn’t stable. And jacking up a barn is a delicate dance, because jacking up one corner could result in the whole barn shifting and coming apart. “A barn that’s been sitting on the same spot for 150 years becomes an organic artifact on the landscape,” he says, explaining that the locks, boards and other organic materials settle overtime. “In some cases, they almost become part of the soil as well as the ecosystem of insects and animals.”
So what can a homeowner yearning to renovate their barn do themselves? “A homeowner can install drywall, paint the interiors, put down tile, put down wood flooring or refinish wood flooring to a certain degree, and all that’s challenging enough,” Franklin says. “But when you’re talking about a major structure and trying not to make it fall down or damage it, this is not for the amateur.”
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest
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