Home Sweet Barn--People Living in the Barn

Tack rooms, offices, and lounges are fairly common horse barn amenities. Less common are built-in living quarters for farm owners or employees, but some facilities have found it practical as well as economical to include a "barn apartment" of sorts in the building plans. The installation of living quarters might at first seem an extravagance, but there are many advantages to having an on-site caretaker--guaranteed access to the horses (a plus in bad weather), the ability to respond immediately to suspicious goings-on (a ruckus in one of the stalls, headlights in the dead of night), and comfort and convenience while awaiting the birth of a foal, to name a few.

In the eyes of your local zoning officials, a barn with living quarters might be quite different from one that houses only four-footed critters. More red tape is involved in securing permits and meeting building codes when a human residence is part of the plans. On the plus side, though, a barn with living quarters actually might be a sounder, safer structure than one without. To get some tips on planning and building safe living quarters in a horse barn, The Horse talked with a top barn manager, a builder, and an architect. Here's what they had to say.

Safety And Comfort

The main barn at Hilltop Farm, a top sport-horse breeding, training, and sales facility in Colora, Md., is a showplace with very practical underpinnings. Its main barn features "wings" of stalls that branch out from a spacious airy rotunda, a large attached indoor arena, a business office, a lavishly appointed enclosed viewing area and lounge above the office and entryway, and an apartment off the lounge.

Scott Hassler, Hilltop's head trainer, has spent a great deal of time in Germany and was instrumental in designing and planning the structure. What considerations went into the planning of the apartment?

"The apartment is well away from the horses," Hassler says. "Since one of the major concerns in terms of barn safety is fire prevention, a firewall separates the office and apartment area from the main barn. It's approximately fifty feet from the firewall to the closest stall, and there is also a firewall at the end of each wing."

Because Hilltop's barn apartment is not situated directly over or next to the stalls, and because one enters the dwelling from a horse-traffic-free area, the effects of dust and noise on the occupant are minimal--despite the fact that the apartment is just paces away from the horses.

For additional fire-safety protection, Hassler advises situating living quarters well away from hay or straw storage areas. "Hay and straw are often stored in a loft above the stalls, so maybe you'd want to consider putting the living quarters on the ground floor," he suggests.

Wise planning and the services of a reputable architect and builder are invaluable in erecting any barn, says Hassler, but another consideration is equally important as far as living quarters are concerned--the tenant. "We would never have a tenant who smokes," he says. "We choose our tenants very carefully. It has to be someone who's been with us for a while; someone we know well and trust completely, and who's very neat and clean."

Living Quarters And The Law

Risk Construction, Inc., of Quarryville, Penn., built the facility at Hilltop in 1990. According to the company's owner Dick Risk, zoning laws and building codes vary from state to state, and even with the county or town. The zoning laws, he says, largely determine what types of buildings may be erected on a site. If you're building on land zoned agricultural (for farm use), you probably will encounter little difficulty in obtaining permits to build various types of structures, including barns, arenas, living quarters, or combinations thereof. Land zoned residential/commercial carries stricter regulations, and land zoned strictly residential is the most tightly controlled.

Although Risk Construction doesn't specialize in building barns--the Hilltop facility was the company's first--it is an experienced builder of commercial facilities, such as shopping centers and mini-marts, as well as "a few single-family homes," according to Risk. Having built a convenience store with living quarters situated overhead, Risk knew that the inclusion of a dwelling can boost a structure's overall safety. In the case of the convenience store/living quarters, Risk was required to install two-hour fire-rated drywall--enough fire-resistant material to keep flames at bay for two hours--between the store and the apartment above, as well as a sophisticated fire alarm system, both for the safety of the tenants. The resulting structure, he says, is more fire-safe than such a store would be otherwise; and the same principle held true in the case of a barn/living-quarters combination.

Because zoning and building policies and procedures vary widely, and because they can be complex, Risk advises the farm owner to hire a knowledgeable architect who's familiar with the laws and codes in their area, and who's experienced in designing and creating equestrian facilities.

One such architect is Thomas Croce of Lebanon, Ohio, whose firm, Thomas L. Croce Architects Inc., specializes in designing custom equestrian facilities. A rider himself, Croce has served as a master planner and designer of barns, arenas, and farm outbuildings. He has designed barns with living quarters as well as detached living quarters on farm property.

"Code issues apply to residence/stable combinations that don't apply to just stables," says Croce. Echoing Risk, he adds, "Residence fire and building codes might even make a barn with living quarters safer than a barn without them." He points out that, "Almost all places that allow horses are zoned agricultural, and agricultural zoning carries very loose restrictions in terms of building types and construction." In other words, a barn might meet all existing codes, but those codes might not be as stringent in terms of construction and fireproofing as they would be if a residence were involved.

Can humans and horses co-exist happily under one roof? Sure, says Croce, but, "Having humans there impacts the horses more than the horses impact the humans." For one, the presence of living quarters has the potential to impede the structure's ventilation system--and, "Ventilation is the number one concern when you're designing a barn," he says. If the living quarters themselves are poorly ventilated, and particularly if the tenants aren't meticulous about cleanliness and trash removal, unpleasant odors could collect in or around the barn.

For another, the living quarters might take up valuable storage space, forcing the barn owner or manager to clutter the barn aisles or to stack hay or straw bales too tightly in the remaining storage area--both of which are safety hazards.

So as not to hamper ventilation in the stable area, "Living quarters should not be located directly above the stalls," Croce advises. "They're better situated above another part of the barn, such as an office or a tack room." He agrees with Hassler's suggestion that living quarters might be best situated on the ground floor, but he adds that they usually end up on the second floor because doing so "tends to be cheaper."

When he designs a barn/living quarters combination, Croce first ensures that the planned structure adheres to all codes--such as those mandating the installation of firewalls between the barn and the living quarters--and that any needed permits have been secured. As for the living quarters themselves, he says, the additional safety and design considerations are relatively straightforward. His objectives are fairly simple:

Maximize Ventilation

Croce recommends installing a means of mechanically assisted ventilation to move stale air out of the building and to reduce any condensation build-up on ceilings or wires. He points out that a tremendous amount of moisture is generated inside barns as a result of horses' sweat excretion and urination and possibly also from the use of indoor wash stalls. The resulting high humidity levels can adversely affect equine and human respiratory systems, corrode metal, lead to the creation of fire hazards, and damage finishes.

Minimize Dirt And Dust

You love horses, but you probably don't want to live in a space that's as dusty as a stall. If possible, design your living quarters with an entrance separate from the stable area, Croce suggests. If people have to walk through the barn to get to the apartment door, they'll invariably track in dirt and dust--not to mention letting in odors and bugs. To further minimize penetration of dust and odors, living quarters' doors and windows should have good, airtight seals.

Take Extra Fire Precautions

Keep in mind that living quarters in a barn are prone to the same hazards as is the stable. Enclose all wiring in metal conduits to foil hungry rodents and to reduce exposure to moisture.

"This might sound like the opposite of what you'd assume is the safest method, but I'd recommend installing gas or propane heat instead of electric-baseboard, and locating the heating unit in the living quarters," says Croce. "Electric heat draws a lot of current and therefore has the potential to overload the circuits and cause a fire. Plus, the wires are hazards because of rodents."

Any residence will have to pass a building inspection--and safety issues addressed--before the living quarters may be inhabited. Such expert involvement, plus that of your architect and builder, will help ensure that humans and horses will be safe and comfortable. Still, Croce admits, if a client who wants living quarters tells him that money is no object, "The best solution, in terms of comfort and safety, probably is to build a separate house."

About the Author

Jennifer O. Bryant

Jennifer O. Bryant is editor-at-large of the U.S. Dressage Federation's magazine, USDF Connection. An independent writer and editor, Bryant contributes to many equestrian publications, has edited numerous books, and authored Olympic Equestrian. More information about Jennifer can be found on her site, www.jenniferbryant.net.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com. Learn More