Starting from Scratch

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To build a great barn, you must start with the end product in mind. That is, you need a vision of the perfect facility for your equestrian lifestyle, a vision that includes all the activities your barn will support, and all the features that will make your life easy.

Such a vision takes time to develop. It takes an investment of time to fully imagine your ideal barn, and more time?(and money) to transform your dream to reality. The ideal barn could, in fact, consume years of planning, design, and construction. For every detail to meet your expectations, you must plan each step of the process—a 16-step process, according to architect Linda Royer.

The planning for a sizable equestrian facility can take as long as a year and a half, and construction can take up to two more years. And that’s assuming that you complete your facility all at once; many barn owners build in phases, to make it more affordable and to expand as demand requires. The more complex your dream—especially if you’re building your home along with the barn—the longer the process.

Facility Analysis: Steps 1 through 8

The first step is to imagine that ideal barn. “Every accomplishment starts with a dream,” Royer says. The second step is to form that dream into a vision that includes more details about the barn. In this step, be sure to enlist support from your family or business partner—so all of you commit to the project, and to make sure you don’t overlook a useful feature or two.

Adapting your dream to your program is step 3. When you build your barn, you’re expressing your lifestyle. Your barn should reflect your needs and the type of barn you will run. Now’s the time to start plotting the overall plan and allocating space. “List all the uses you want from your barn, and convert that to the square footage of the structures,” advises Royer. Look at similar barns to help quantify your ideas and estimate costs.

Costs can vary greatly. Building a barn can cost anywhere from $25 to $300 a square foot. (For comparison, the average house runs around $90 a square foot, but that, too, varies across the country.) For an indoor arena, 66 by 198 feet, in Oregon, Royer cites a “base price” of $10 a square foot. You may well have to adjust either your budget or your vision, or create some clever money-saving solutions, to keep your budget and your dream in balance as you move to the serious steps in developing your barn.

Land research comprises step 4. Even if you already own the land, analyze the site’s natural conditions. Elements to consider include geography, soil, noise, water and climate. Royer emphasizes the importance of exploring local regulations. “Are there any zoning or planning restrictions? What about building codes? Do you need to hire consultants before planning?”

Also consider the effects of views and neighbors. Trainer A. Whit Watkins, who built a barn in Texas, bought acreage through the Nature Conservancy. “We worked out with the Nature Conservancy the restrictions and conservation easements,” Watkins says. This included the not-incidental issue of the barn’s location: “It’s tucked behind a hill so it blends in with the landscape.”

Site location is critical. Is the site close to community services, suppliers of feed, and utilities? Will you need to build a long driveway? A reliable water supply is crucial for the horses and fire protection. (Royer recommends adding sprinklers to every barn.) Watkins advises, “Look at your site and plan if you can gravity-feed water. We adapted the pump so we could hook up a generator as a backup system.”

Site investigation is step 5. To ensure your site is buildable, conduct testing, such as soil-bearing and percolation. All the analysis steps may seem like a complex process, but an oversight here could delay or even block construction. Barns have exceptional needs for drainage and may be subject to environmental regulations. You must identify any potential issues before you purchase your property, or you may find yourself selling it very soon.

Financing and land purchase are steps 6 and 7. After completing the first four steps, you have an idea of the barn itself. Now, set your budget, so you can determine the amount you’ll borrow. Once you’ve settled the purchase price (if any) for the land, Royer advises to calculate the “costs to clear a site and to fence it—which can run from $2 to $15 a foot.” She points out the need to consider all the costs for each part of the facility. For example, she adds, “An arena will need the base, footing, and drainage” in addition to fencing.

Now that the process is becoming more complicated, it’s time to round up a professional team—step 8. This includes agents, banker, attorney, contractors, and public agencies. To choose professionals, get references from their previous clients. Watkins notes that the biggest challenge she faced was to find an honest contractor—she ended up finding hers through friends.

Barn Design: Steps 9 through 12

Finally, it’s time for design development, step 9. “What are the buildable areas?” asks Royer. “How will buildings relate to outdoor areas?” Several considerations can affect your final design choices. Examine visual aspects, exposure to sun and wind, utilities, and access for large vehicles, along with drainage, grading, and zoning codes. The decisions you make will determine how efficient the barn is. “We put our barn on the flattest part of 200 acres,” says Watkins. “There’s enough room to drive all the way around, and we did as little cut and fill as possible.”

Realize that the style of the structure will also greatly affect the cost of your investment. What are the local costs of framing, masonry construction, or erecting a prefabricated barn? Will the exterior and roofing materials match those of your home and any outbuildings?

Obtaining planning approvals and drawing up construction documents make up steps 10 and 11. Your local zoning board can determine how—and even if—barns conform to building codes. Along with appropriate floor plans, local regulations might require you to develop plans for grading, site drainage, landscaping, and even manure management.

Once you understand any limitations and requirements imposed by local regulations, you’ll prepare the detailed interior and exterior plans, so you can solicit bids from prospective contractors. The construction plans will detail the dimensions and specify materials. Wall materials, inside and out, should be chosen for safety, appearance, and durability. These can be hardwood, softwood, steel panels, or fiberglass-reinforced plywood.

In making your choices, think about the nature of the horses you’ll house. For example, “Height of walls in stallion stalls should be taller—10 feet or solid to the ceiling,” Royer cautions. Are there any special considerations your plans should include??Now’s the time to account for them.

In stalls, you’re likely to use rubber mats, setting them on asphalt or concrete floors. If your barn includes adjacent outside pens, Royer says, “The floor should be sloped to the runs, so you can hose out the door.” In aisles, weigh the advantages of your options, ranging from low-cost dirt through asphalt, concrete, rubber, or brick. Other details include doors, windows, and the stall fronts and doors. You’ll probably add a tack room and wash stall.

Ensure adequate lighting throughout the facility. Be sure to include skylights as a source of natural light. “Lexan panels can match metal roofing,” says Royer. “First, use plywood and roofing paper under metal, to prevent leaks at the screws. For a traditional roof, you can use preformed skylights.”

Your lighting plan should also show respect for your neighbors. For example, with an observatory as her closest neighbor, Watkins planned her indoor arena so its lighting wouldn’t affect the darkness scientists need. “We used translucent skylights, but not on the end that faces the observatory,” she notes.

For fencing, plan what Royer calls “a perimeter to hold the horses in—at a height so no horse will jump it.” She advises to consider the aesthetics of fencing as well. “White fence stands out. Do you want that look? Or do you want to blend into the landscape?”

Barn Building: Steps 12 through 16

With your plans in hand, you’re ready to tackle the actual construction.

Obtaining cost estimates and building permits comprise steps 12 and 13. “Package your construction documents for permits and bids,” says Royer. This will help you work out what you’ll actually spend. “Confirm that all your chosen materials are in your budget,” Royer says. Once you obtain a firm idea of your total costs, she adds, “you may consider options, or phasing the construction.”

Building permits are, in comparison, a simpler subject (assuming you’ve done your homework in steps 8 to 11). Your agent, contractor, or attorney can help you secure the proper building permits.

Bidding and contract for construction, along with financing, are steps 14 and 15. First, decide how you’ll set up bids. You might decide to deal with separate contractors, or hire a general contractor to coordinate subcontractors. In either case, you will have to oversee the work closely, to make sure it meets your expectations and is done to specification. Chances are, you’ll have to make your standards known. “Prepare for contractor issues,” says Royer. “And establish a firm schedule.”

Once you’ve settled on a contractor or contractors, work with your bank to arrange payments to them. Expect some additional costs. Royer warns, “No projects come in on time and on budget.” To keep extra items to a minimum, she says, “Define your needs and expectations before you sign a contract.”

Construction is step 16. Here’s where you’ll appreciate an honest, dedicated contractor. “Mobilize the contractor,” advises Royer. “Set up incremental inspections and payments.” Payments should be contingent upon your approval, typically for completion of each quarter or third of the work. Don’t make the final payment until you are completely satisfied that the barn is complete.

A good contractor can provide excellent construction advice, even if it adds slightly to the cost. Watkins described how her contractor made simple suggestions instead of demanding expensive changes during construction. “He has so much integrity. He would say, ‘Did you think about this?’” she says.

Once you move horses in to your dream barn, you start the 17th step, the longest of all: maintenance. This, of course, continues throughout the years you use the barn.

How easy or difficult this chore becomes depends upon the decisions you make in the previous steps. And that’s one more incentive to dream and plan carefully before you build. By devoting time to your analysis, design, and building, maintenance can be minimized, allowing you to spend time doing what you dreamed of in the first place—working with horses. As Royer says, “You are building your lifestyle—not just a facility.”