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Thinking About Moving a Barn?


Charles Bultman is an architect in Ann Arbor, Michigan who has been saving and adapting old, unwanted, barns into new uses; including homes, offices and retail spaces.

The scene is easily conjured; a barn in a field, quietly marking time. It’s a picture that lingers. Few things are as simple as an old barn. But that simplicity evaporates when we consider their future?

There are about 660,000 historic barns left in the United States. And while that may sound like a lot, at the peak of farming in America, around 1910, there were 6 million farms. If each farm had only one barn we have lost on average 50,000 barns a year. But obviously their demise does not come about ‘on average’. As the years pass more and more barns fall into ruin; making 660,000 seem like a frighteningly small number to me.

So what is to become of relics like barns when the country has been steadily moving to a non-agrarian lifestyle, and shows no real sign of turning back? These icons in the landscape are stranded but they are not without love. That’s why it is not so simple.

Barns in our landscape are sublime. Like a mountain or a river, they have existed there for so long that you can come to believe they will be there forever. But they will not. We have all heard the reasons; too much to maintain, farm equipment is too big, fewer farms and fewer farmers, etc. etc. etc. But didn’t we agree that barns are loved? Why does that not swing in their favor?

With few exceptions old wood barns are destined to one of three possible futures. The first is that the barn is maintained, or restored, to be a barn. This is the most obvious requiring simply that the foundation be kept in good repair, the roof be replaced in a timely manner, and the frame and siding are kept dry and secure. But of course this costs money and most people do not spend this kind of money unless they need to. Without a farm these costs are difficult to justify, which is why the second future is the one we see the most; do little or nothing.

We all know many barns that are neglected and falling down and in most places they far outnumber those that are well-maintained.

Ironically, letting your barn fall down does not stir up the same level of passion as the third option; barns can be adapted to another use. While it may be the best use of a barn to keep it as a barn, the majority of barns will not be afforded that future. Maybe the farm has been developed into a sub-division or an office park and the barn is an anachronism in its location. Or maybe the road has been improved and widened leaving the barn right at the curb. Whatever the reason most barns will not be maintained and used as barns. So why not give them a new future?

Adapting barns gets complicated fast. Unlike other 100 to 200 year old buildings, old barns suffer a different fate, which leaves them in a specifically barn-like state of disrepair. Barns were never heated like occupied buildings were; except by the residual heat of animals and manure. So their foundations have been subjected to the relentless forces of freezing and thawing each year which slowly breaks them apart. Most barns’ stone foundations succumbed to these stresses years ago. But while broken many of these barns did not fall; they just languish with gaping holes in the old stone walls.

Also on many barns the most expensive maintenance item has been left undone; replacing the roof. Holes in a roof is a barn’s death knell. Once water is tracing through a wood barn, boards and timbers alike begin to rot. In a relatively short period of time nails no longer hold boards on, mortise and tenon joints open and rot, and the building begins to sag. Just a few seasons of this kind of exposure can reduce a massive timber-framed barn to the point of no return. But like great shipwrecks, the hulk of the barn can remain for decades.

Barns are tough however because they are timberframed. Unlike ‘modern’ carpentry, timber-framing is an ancient way of framing that uses continuous wooden beams which join together post to post to post to create a singular structural network that knits floors and walls and rafters into one structural organism. In direct contrast to a house of cards, which cascades to the ground when any one card is upset, a timberframe is joined together such that if one element becomes weakened, or is compromised, other elements get loaded differently and the frame continues to do its job despite the failure.

Even the way the timbers are taken from the log contributes to the timberframe’s success; embracing the natural strength of the tree. An onion is a fairly strong spherical form until it is sliced in two and the layers begin to unravel. Wood does much the same when squared. The beams in a timberframed barn are taken from the center of the tree leaving as many rings as possible uncut. And many of the beams in a barn are not even squared at all but are still ’of the tree’; they are rounded, tapered or limb-like. This retains as much of the natural and complete strength of the tree and was less work; removing more material to make the beam square just made it weaker.

When you also factor in that the trees these barns are built of, came from slow-growing, first-growth forests you really can understand why they are still standing after hundreds of years.

What does it take to adapt a barn?

Adapting a barn has an array of considerations that must be dealt with in order to have a successful project. And while those considerations can be itemized it is important to note that opinions will vary, even between seasoned professionals, as to the best way to meet all of a project’s goals. Also for this discussion I should point out that there really is no limit as to what an adapted barn could be used for. Old barns have been used to make new houses as well as offices but there are also stores, restaurants, and convention centers all made with barn frames. Many uses can easily be accommodated in a barn.

The first consideration with respect to adapting a barn is the foundation. As mentioned before, most of the time they are damaged beyond being reasonably repaired. But even if they are not damaged a stone foundation is dramatically inferior to a new reinforced concrete foundation with provisions for both insulation and drainage, such that using the old foundation is always difficult to justify. Also, as mentioned, the barn may be in a location that does not suit its future use, so the consideration goes quickly to moving the barn. A barn frame can be moved either intact or after some kind of systematic dismantling. Selecting which tactic is best is usually a balancing act weighing how many utility wires and bridge overpasses are between the existing and new sites, against the time it would take to dismantle the barn and put it back together again. A short move with few wires may prove economical as barns are fairly light buildings and their form and materials take the stresses of the move well. However given the ubiquity of modern utilities and other improvements there are many obstacles to moving a barn great distances while whole.

When it is decided that there are too many obstacles between where the barn is and where you may want it to be (and this turns out to be the case most of the time) we have the barn dismantled in somewha