Few buildings in the American landscape are more treasured than historic barns. All farm buildings—from the main house to the pump shed—were important, but the farmers of yesteryear put much of their love, money, and effort into their barns.
Even the iconic red color of old barns is indicative of the value barns had; the color was derived from a mixture of chemicals that were painted on the barn to keep the wood from rotting. Other buildings didn’t get the same treatment; houses and sheds were whitewashed with less expensive coating or were simply left unpainted.
If you are fortunate enough to have one of these historic barns on your property, the need for preservation is greater than ever. The buildings age with every passing year, and if they molder beyond repair it is not possible to replace them and their unique craftsmanship. Not only has there been a loss of skilled trades, but materials used decades ago—such as old-growth timber—are no longer available. However, if you launch into rehabbing your older farm buildings without a plan, you might find them to be confounding and prohibitively expensive to repair and maintain.
This article will cover the considerations and decision-making process for rehabilitating older barns—while protecting your wallet—so they can be safely enjoyed by horses and people for generations to come.
Let’s start with red flags. These issues could indicate that there may not be any hope of building restoration without huge expense.
The building’s roof is failing.
Historic preservationists agree that the loss of a roof means the loss of a structure. Without a way to keep the water out, the building fails within a matter of years—and even faster in damp climates. If the building has a badly leaking roof, you must act immediately if you are to save it at all.
The building is rotted at the bottom or has obvious major foundation issues.
Just as a roof is essential, so is a good foundation. If the building foundation has fallen apart or the rotting of wood is seen at the bottom, hire a structural engineer to evaluate the building before going further with your renovation. A building cannot stand if it has nothing to stand on.
The building is full of moisture.
If the building is full of moisture, it is going to be difficult to work with. Drainage will need to be improved, which means major dollars, and the building will need to be dried out or it will be unhealthy. Wet buildings become money pits quickly.
The building is or was full of hazardous materials.
If the building was used to house fuels or fertilizers and those have leaked into the soil, this is a major issue for you, as it may prevent you from having a healthy structure or one that can be rehabilitated without major dollars spent.
The structure has tipped to one side or sags in the middle.
If the building is noticeably out of alignment, this is indicative of a serious structural issue. Once a building is not level, square, and/or plumb, forces of nature such as wind and snow will pull it more out of alignment until it collapses. You must have a structural engineer review the building with you to see if it is salvageable. Minor misalignments such as the one in the photo above, where the top of the barn is tilting outward but the foundation tips inward, are probably OK, but they should be monitored regularly to ensure the problem does not worsen with time.
Assuming the building you want to renovate has not succumbed to any major red flags, below are the planning recommended before moving forward with renovation work. Planning is ALWAYS worth the time and effort to prevent throwing away money and to get accurate estimates for the work.
Learn your local codes and ordinances.
Older buildings may fall under a preservation ordinance or “overlay district.” This is a governmental district that may guide or even restrict what you can do with the building. A historic overlay district may exist even outside of town, so never assume you can simply demolish or alter your older structure until you check with your local land planning officials. You may be surprised to learn that 50 years old is the preservation industry standard. This means post-WWII and even “modern” buildings may fall under preservation ordinances. If you have a local code or ordinance that is in effect, do not despair! This may mean that you could apply for funding (more on this later).
Invest in an environmental survey.
This is a survey to test for mold, asbestos, and lead paint. It is not usually expensive, and it is essential to protect yourself and any crew that may work on the building. Any farm building built before 1978 may have lead paint. The oldest ones (built prior to 1940) are very likely to have lead paint. If you have lead paint, or even asbestos, it is not the end of the world. It just means you need to hire insured and qualified professionals to remediate the materials while performing the renovation work. Lead, if dropped into the soil, can harm your health, as well as the health of your horses.
Review the electrical work.
Another major risk with older structures is out-of-code electrical wiring or receptacles. Rodents can damage the wiring in old farm buildings, adding to the risk. Have an electrician review all your wiring to let you know if anything needs to be brought up to code or protected from rodents, then replace anything that does to reduce the risk of fire—which can be catastrophic in older buildings.
As described in the red flag section, roofing is a top priority. Check roofers’ references very carefully and get quotes from the most qualified and well-regarded companies. You will want an honest professional who can tell you whether your roof is fine, needs minor maintenance, or a full replacement. If you find that your roof needs work and that the cost blows the budget for other renovations, it is still important to prioritize the roofing repairs and postpone your other repairs and rehab work for next year, to protect the building
Tips for a Successful Renovation
Fortunately, once you have done your preplanning, there are plenty of wonderful resources to proceed with a successful rehabilitation project.
Apply for grant funding.
If you preserve or landmark the structure locally or at the state level, you may be able to qualify for funding for your project. This is one of the best incentives for preserving a structure! Find your local preservation office to tell you more about these opportunities. Other grants are often available from local electrical utilities to upgrade older buildings, so they use less energy. It just makes sense to tap into resources that will help defray the costs you will incur—and some grants are very generous!
Use the National Park Service Preservation Briefs.
The NPS has dozens of meticulously researched “how-to” articles online, on a wide variety of topics from repointing masonry to preserving old wooden structures. Why reinvent the wheel when preservationists around the country have already outlined the techniques for you? Find these documents at Preservation Briefs – Technical Preservation Services, National Park Service.
Prep painting jobs and use the best paints.
Like anything related to rehabilitation, preparation is often more important than the actual work. So, before you repaint, remove old and flaking paint (be sure to do the environmental tests first and hire the right professionals if needed) and remove and replace any rotting wood. Then prime and paint with the best paint you can afford. You will need the best advice for your particular project, so consult paint experts. Don’t forget to consider using historic color schemes to tie your buildings to the past.
Embrace customized work.
Yes, artisans are difficult to find. But rehabilitation projects are the perfect projects for custom work because you can’t simply buy off-the-shelf components and hope they fit into historic buildings. If possible, use grant funding to afford the carpenters, masons, and craftspeople you need to do the right work. As an example, in the photo above, the old building is to the left and the new materials are to the right. The wood on the right was custom milled to match the look of the original siding, and all were then painted with the best paints. The new materials blend seamlessly into the old.
Rehabilitating an old building follows the principle of “measure twice, cut once.” It is about planning, planning, and more planning. It is about using the resources available to you from historic preservationists who have laid the groundwork. The result of a well-planned project is the satisfaction of achievement.
Because you choose to care for the older buildings on your farm, you will create a healthy and beautiful place for yourself and your horses. You will preserve American history. You will reduce the use of resources and restore old materials that will never again be produced. Most important, you will save the building for the next generation of horses and people