Barn Makeover: Gathering Storm or the End of the Rainbow?

Are you torn between undertaking a completely new structure or an extreme renovation of a building already on your property to use for housing horses? You might have what you need right there in front of you. With careful evaluation and planning, you might be able to remake your existing structure into the barn of your dreams. You might find just what you need without the storm and stress of a long, painful--and expensive--new construction project.

Remember, barns are as individual as the people who keep horses and should reflect your management system, time, and budget, as well as look good and be safe. Horse people tend to be, politely put, eccentric and individual. The landscape is littered with impractical structures thought up by well-meaning horse lovers with no grasp of how to go about building anything, or by otherwise competent construction professionals who know little or nothing about large animal care and have no comprehension of the self-destructive nature of our equine friends.

The Perfect Example

Our particular barn project began with reluctant consideration of using an old tobacco barn on the farm we had purchased. Keep in mind throughout this story that I am a construction professional, and you will have to hire one for your project.

We bought the farm for its beautiful land, not for its buildings. The barn had a dirt floor, no water, and no electricity. Since it had been used for hanging and curing burley tobacco and as a cattle run-in, it was full of manure and broken sticks used for hanging the tobacco. The old metal roof was unsightly, but sound, and the timber framing was not irretrievably damaged by termites. Siding was rough sawn board with no batten strips (boards that cover the joints of the underlying siding), and it was in bad shape on the sides exposed to the sun and prevailing winds.

Despite the questionable condition, the old barn was well positioned at the crest of a ridge and oriented so that when the aisle doors were open, even the faintest breeze ventilated the entire space. The old farmers knew a thing or two about using the weather. We also loved the sense of history it added to the farm, especially with the adjacent Revolutionary War-era cemetery. At sunset, the view out the back doors was breathtaking and well worth preserving.

In any case, we needed a barn quickly since we were moving our horses to the farm just as soon as we could fence a few paddocks. So our decision was made to attempt to weather the storm of a major renovation, instead of a new project.

How to Begin

The first step in renovating any barn is to ensure the stability of the structure. In our case that meant removing the portions of the barn not useful in its new life to house horses. The old tobacco-stripping shed attached to the side of the barn was deep in litter and had leaked for years, resulting in irreparable damage. The unsightly shed attachment and its contents were perpetually soggy, allowing the existence of termites and the rampant breeding of mosquitoes. Since the remaining barn was already larger than we needed, and we still had room for a tack room, feed storage room, and wash stall within the main structure, the shed had to go.

The only way to remove the addition was piece by piece. We burned the old, rotten lumber as we took it down. That worked well until we were visited by the local fire department. Note here for future reference: Just because you live in a rural area, burning is not always legal and permits might be required for various aspects of a building or removing. We learned to check with our county building and fire department to save future transgressions.

We replaced the opening left by the shed with wood siding. We also realized the old shed location had a drainage problem and had caused wet floors in that part of the barn for years. With the shed gone, we were able to re-grade the area to end the problem. Moisture is a daunting enemy of most structures, particularly older ones, so any opportunity to dry them should be done. This is even more true in areas where populations of livestock carry in mud, in which mold and bacteria can flourish.

With the shed gone and water flowing away from the barn instead of into it, it was time to address the remainder of the structure. The original barn was built like most tobacco barns of the era. The foundation consisted of large locust and cedar tree posts buried about three feet and cut off about a foot above ground. The oak posts that rose vertically to support the walls and roof sat on top of these "footings." Locust is resistant to rot and termite damage for many years; however, this barn had reached the ripe old age of "many" years and the original foundation posts were becoming one with the surrounding earth.

We temporarily shored and straightened the structure where it had sagged, dug out the old posts, installed new posts from pressure-treated yellow pine, and placed hand-mixed concrete around them in the hole. This process was slow and labor-intensive, but was relatively inexpensive and could be done one post at a time in between other tasks.

A few of the oak posts above the foundation posts had severe termite damage in the lower eight feet or so. We replaced the damaged portions with pressure-treated timbers. We made sure all the existing diagonal wood bracing was reattached to the new posts. In a few areas we added extra braces to be safe. The winds gusts regularly on our ridge tops.

Power to the People

There was an existing power pole about 75 feet from the barn with a transformer in service for a tenant farmer's mobile home that had been removed. This meant all we had to do to get power to the barn was hire an electrician to put in service for an overhead wire from the pole to the barn. The electrician installed a box in the barn containing a main breaker and six branch breakers for future use. By local code we had to install one ground fault outlet and the meter base on the outside wall and a wire going up the wall to the point where the overhead wires would be attached.

The local electric utility company then ran the overhead line from the transformer to the connection point and mounted the meter on the meter base and turned on the transformer.

Electricity is a wondrous thing when you haven't had it for a while.

Water Where You Want It

The next step was bringing in the water. There was a yard hydrant near the power pole, so we were able to run water into the barn by hooking on to the existing pipe and trenching in new pipe below frost depth. We placed a frost-proof hydrant in the barn near the center just off the aisle so a hose could easily reach in any direction to the perimeter of the barn for water tanks, stall water, and/or washing. We added an L-shaped, short cement block wall to define and protect the hydrant from escaped and marauding horses.

We knew from our previous barn that a hydrant without a drain would become a mud hole, so we put in a floor drain that consisted of a drain with a trap (for catching debris) tied into four-inch PVC pipe that ran below the floor at a slight downward slope to a "French drain" about 50 feet from the barn. The French drain is made up of a hole about six feet deep and eight feet in diameter dug with a backhoe and filled with coarse stone. The voids between the rock provide a place for the water until it seeps into the surrounding soil. The area is capped with eight inches of topsoil and seeded like the surrounding area.

We put a shut-off valve outside the barn so we could isolate the barn for repairs or maintenance.

Inside and Outside

The existing structural posts in the barn were on 12-foot centers, so we made temporary stalls from 12-foot tube steel gates left in the old barn by the previous owner. This allowed us the luxury of some use of the barn before we constructed the permanent stalls. As time went on, we downsized the original number of stalls we thought we needed.

Periodic and practical reviews of needs are critical in your planning. Remember the natural law of vacuum--more stalls than horses means more horses. Reality taught us that however many stalls we had, horses would appear in them.

While we were pondering stall layout, we screwed down the old tin roof. It was sound, but not anchored to withstand strong wind. We had been impressed with the stories of flying metal roof panels killing several horses in the area in a storm a few months before we bought the farm. Once we were satisfied the panels were secure, we coated the roof with a fibrous aluminized roof coating, available in five-gallon pails at most building supply stores. This product, which preserves metal roofing material, can be sprayed, rolled, or brushed on.

The wood siding on the front side of the barn was in the worst shape. Rather than remove it, we covered it with another layer of one-by-six-inch board siding, creating a board and batten effect that was more attractive and kept out rain and wind. We did not continue that effect on the other three sides because the small spaces (less than an inch) between the existing boards allowed for excellent ventilation without major drafts. It seemed foolish to completely close up the barn, then go back and cut in grills and vents. We replaced split or rotten siding and fascia boards (vertical boards nailed at the bottom of the rafters).

We built a small roof overhang at the front of the barn so the doors could be open during rain or snow without filling the barn aisle. We installed a "recycled" picture window above for natural light. Finally, we sprayed the entire exterior with animal friendly nontoxic barn paint. There are several paints available for this purpose. We chose a paint designed for coating wood livestock fencing.

A Superior Interior

By now we had determined a layout. We decided to keep the center aisle layout that already existed. The first bays at the entrance would be a tack room on one side and feed room on the other. The rest of one side would be stalls. The other side would provide space for a future wash stall, hay storage, and access to a run-in area. There remained space for one stall on that side to give us a place for a fractious horse away from the other stalls if necessary.

Aha! You might say, these idiots are putting the hay storage in the same structure as their beloved equines. In a wood barn on top of that! Don't they know the fire hazard they are creating?

You are right. Fire destroys hundreds of barns and many animals every year. Besides the potential for spontaneous combustion inherent in fresh hay, the dust and debris from handling it settles everywhere in the barn, where the faintest spark can destroy everything.

But, we had some mitigating factors that influenced our decision.

  1. The barn was so large that it seemed extravagant to build another structure just for hay storage.
  2. We don't smoke, and we ban smoking in our barn. This is not a public facility, therefore we control who uses it.
  3. We have a large amount of productive pasture, and our horses are turned out an average of 20 hours per day, so we only supplement winter forage with a small amount of hay.
  4. The hay is stacked on skids on the floor with open ventilation on three sides.

Consequently, we made the decision to store our hay in the barn with the knowledge of the absolute necessity of vigilant management of housekeeping and storage.

We graded the dirt floors in the area of the tack and feed rooms and poured four-inch-thick concrete floors troweled to a smooth finish. Then we built plywood-covered stud walls with an eight-foot plywood ceiling for the tack room and an exterior style lockable metal door opening onto the aisle. That gave us a secure location for the volume of tack and equipment accumulated over the years. Tack rooms are like refrigerators--we fill whatever space is available. Therefore, we purposely limited it to a 12-foot by 12-foot room.

The feed storage system we preferred consisted of rodent proof 30-gallon galvanized metal garbage cans with tight-fitting lids instead of a cement bunker. The concrete floor allowed us to sweep spilled feed and reduce dust. Bungee cords on the lids deterred even the raccoons.

Stalled Arrangements

The pipe gate temporary stall arrangement began to make us nervous. A horse could get a leg through the pipes and injure itself or its neighbor. While we had originally hoped to someday build concrete block stall walls for durability and low maintenance, we needed safer stalls than we were using, and needed them quickly. Additionally, the thought of hand-digging the necessary concrete footings for six or eight stalls was daunting.

We decided to take advantage of the existing wood structural posts and attach green, rough-sawn oak, two-by-10-inch plank for stall walls. We used hardened ring shank pole barn nails that could be driven through the green hardwood and resist pulling out later as the lumber dried and shrank. The oak dried out so hard that even a cribber could do little damage. Nevertheless, if a horse kicked the stall wall, the wood was less likely to cause serious injury to bones and tendons than concrete block.

We added one six-foot by six-foot treated post four feet from the corner post that would define the door opening into the stall. We then installed sliding wood doors at the openings that were used from another horse barn. The latches on the doors fold flat to prevent obstructions in the aisles. Rubber hooks were placed on the aisle side next to each door for hanging bridles, lead ropes, etc.

For maximum ventilation the stall walls were kept at four-feet high. Above that elevation we placed mesh between stalls to discourage excessive fraternization. The front of the stalls remained open. We like to socialize with our horses when they are in the barn. Of course, the down side is a little more housekeeping since they tend to hang their heads out while eating, dribbling food in the aisles.

The dirt floor in the center aisle was a maintenance problem. Traffic of any kind created a swirling dust that coated everything, including our lungs. It was hard to maintain a smooth, flat grade when hoofed feet created divots and ditches in high-traffic areas. We had seen some beautiful aisles covered with paving brick, but this was extravagant for us. We had also seen asphalt that could be slippery if a horse got loose and broke into a run. We decided on concrete with an exposed aggregate finish for the traction and cost-savings over other materials.

Exposed aggregate concrete finish in a barn is fairly simple to create. The concrete is poured normally and troweled to a smooth finish. Once it has begun to set up or harden, water is hosed over the surface while a stiff broom loosens the surface layer of sand and cement, exposing the stone aggregate. The result is a durable, non-slip surface. Care must be taken to create joints in the concrete every eight to 12 feet to prevent uncontrolled cracking. As with all concrete slabs, the substrate should be flat and well-compacted and wire mesh or fiber reinforcing should be incorporated into the wet concrete.

We decided to leave the stall floors dirt with a thin layer of Class I sand for leveling. Since our horses are in stalls only a few hours a day, this was manageable. We put mats in a couple of the stalls for the characters that like to paw, then bedded all stalls with pine shavings.

Some barns use "popcorn" asphalt in the stall floors. This is specially mixed asphalt with larger aggregate not compacted like pavement. The result is a floor that allows urine to soak through instead of puddle on the surface. Unfortunately, horses who lie down in their stalls often "burn" their hocks getting up due to the friction of the rough asphalt, necessitating deeper bedding and/or mats.

We placed flexible plastic corner grain feeders and water bucket hooks with protective rings in every stall. Horse owners know that horses have an inherent tendency to injure themselves and their handlers. We wanted to be able to feed without actually entering the stall. Horses are naturally most competitive and aggressive at feeding time, so no two stalls have feed dishes on common walls.

Working Out Details

Our horses all stand in cross ties for grooming, tacking up, and maintenance. For this reason we did not feel the need for a light in every stall. Instead, we lit the aisles thoroughly and the light spills into the stalls.

Initially we used fluorescent light fixtures that we had been given. They proved to be worth just about what we paid for them. In cool weather they became unreliable. We replaced them with incandescent globe-type fixtures enclosed in heavy wire cages. The dust gaskets on the globes and metal cages over the glass created a safer fixture in a barn environment. The cost of operation is slightly higher than fluorescent fixtures, but we try not to leave the lights on when we are not in the barn so the real cost difference is minimal.

Since the barn had no previous wiring, what we installed was encased in metal conduit. Rodents, birds, and dust are a fact of life in barns, and conduit reduces the inherent risk. We placed electric switches out of reach of horses and away from water sources such as hoses and hydrants. We placed a ground fault outlet at either end of the barn for clipping or other gadgetry.

We decided to use a rear corner of the barn as a run-in area accessible to the rear pasture with a stall door leading into the aisleway. We enclosed this area all the way to the underside of the roof to reduce dust in the barn. Large exterior doors in the corner of the run-in were removed, allowing 24-hour access to the area. We covered the floor of the run-in area with Class I sand.

Taking it Home

Our barn makeover took a couple of years of us working in our spare time. It was economical because we did everything except the electrical service. If we had needed a contractor to do the work, the cost might have been nearly as much as a new barn. Nevertheless, the result has been an attractive and useful barn that has lasted many years with minimal maintenance.

Every five years or so, we go over the roof for loose fasteners and give it another coat of the fibrous aluminized roof coating. Every three to four years, we repaint the exterior walls and the interior stall doors. Since we have yet to add a wash stall, a convenient outside hydrant serves as the horse wash area and probably always will. The concept of a water heater and plumbing that could freeze in the barn is enough to keep us in the planning phase.

TERMS YOU SHOULD KNOW: Construction Definitions

Class I sand This product is available from quarries by the truckload. It is useful around horse facilities because it compacts to a stable base while allowing moisture to drain through it. Unlike other quarried products like DGA (dense grade aggregate, commonly referred to as road gravel), the aggregate size is small enough to not lodge in a horse's foot. It is particularly useful in areas of heavy traffic. In areas where limestone is the dominant quarried material, Class I sand is similar to agricultural lime.

Exposed aggregate concrete All concrete consists of at least four ingredients: Portland cement, sand, aggregate (gravel), and water. The relative proportion of these items determines the strength and workability of the concrete. The higher the amount of Portland cement and the lower the amount of water added, the more strength the concrete will have. Exposed aggregate finish is created when sand and cement in the top one-quarter-inch of the concrete are washed and broomed off during the latter stages of finishing. Care must be exercised to not weaken the underlying concrete by introducing too much water while exposing the aggregate.

Jacking The process of straightening the structure if it has sagged due to structural deficiencies (see Shoring). Remember, the building sagged over time, often years, and might need to be jacked slowly to avoid damage. Use the same rules that you would when jacking a vehicle: Never get under something relying solely on the jack to protect you, and always shore with something that will not collapse.

Pressure-treated lumber This is the green-tinted lumber you see on wood decks. The wood is pressure-treated with a preservative product that resists insects and rot. In 2005, the use of chromated copper arsenate was banned and was replaced with alkaline copper quat or copper azole for environmental reasons. Both of these are more corrosive to steel. Therefore, nails or bolts attached to treated lumber should be heavily galvanized or stainless steel.

Shoring The process by which a structure is temporarily supported while its permanent support is being installed. It should be obvious that this is a potentially dangerous thing to do since if your shoring fails, the building or some portion of it can fall down, possibly on you. If you are unsure of what you are doing, hire a qualified contractor.

Termite damage Many parts of the country have insects that damage wood, including termites, carpenter ants, and several species of beetle. Often the damage is difficult to see, particularly in the case of termites, which will bore through wood structural elements from the center, leaving little visible damage. Like most wood-boring insects, termites need a handy source of water, so the best way to discourage them is to distance the wood from water and soil. All affected wood needs to be replaced, preferably with treated lumber if moisture issues cannot be corrected. Treat your building and surrounding soil with termite treatment on a regular basis.

About the Author

David Preston

David Preston, president of Preston Construction Group, specializes in unique commercial and equine projects. A horse owner and sportsman, he has built and remodeled several barns in Kentucky and Illinois ranging from development of complete Thoroughbred farms to small horse barns.

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