Wednesday, March 29, 2006

To convert or Not to convert?

Should barns be converted into homes?

There are barn purists out there who would argue that converting a barn into a house necessitates such significant alterations to the original barn that in effect is cease to be a barn at all. The sad truth is that MANY if not MOST barn house conversions DO result in a barn that looks a lot more like a house than a barn. The old structure has effectively ceased to exist. Instead, the owners end up with a big house with a very old (and expensive) frame...some of which they may catch a glimpse of here and there behind plaster walls, curtains, and those God-awful country-kitsch knick-knacks they hang on the walls! Sorry, apologies to those of you who have knick-knacks; I am showing my hand.

On the other side of the spectrum there are those who feel that the act of restoring an old building, regardless of the final result, is an act of preservation and therefore justified. It matters not if drywall and curtains would never have been found in any functioning barn, the barn has been saved and is serving a NEW function: instead of housing animals and storing up hay it now houses a family (actually, the similarities are kind of striking...)

I tend to lie somewhere in the center of these two poles, but tend to lean toward the conservative side, i.e. I am more of a purist when it comes to barns. Folks like Endersby and Greenwood of the New Jersey Barn Company, whose books I refer to in the "Barn House Bibliography" post, are even further to the right than I, although they DO convert barns into homes, so they are not ULTRA purists. I have spoken with both (and liked them very much!) and this is my impression of their position. Barns may be converted into homes, but extra special care should be taken not to alter the basic structure of the original building. Nor should the essential space be altered significantly. Chopping up interior spaces into rooms destroys the soaring volume of the original space and lessens the integrity of the building. Barn houses to be built in, for example, New Jersey should be constructed from New Jersey barns preferably. Ideally the conversion would take place without taking the building down and moving it, in other words the best case scenario is finding an old barn and restoring it in its original location. If a barn is to be moved, it should be erected in a rural setting, if possible in farm country. This, too, preserves the integrity of the structure. Care must also be taken to select materials that can be found on working barns. In this case, drywall just doesn't cut it. This is just my impression of their point of view. I want to state that I have great respect for it and in an ideal world I would love to build a barn house that is as pure as that. The realities (driven by budget) have made some compromises necessary. More for later...

Thursday, March 23, 2006

What is "Bare Hill"?

As an historian, I already am itching to research the history of the area in which we are going to build our house. During a preliminary visit to the town hall I located a map dating from 1872 and saw that the name of hill on which our property is located was called "Bare Hill." Evidently the hill, which may be the highest point in town (I'll need to check on that), was at one time "bare" of trees. I can only imagine that it would have served as a look-out hill for generations of native Americans who traveled on the very ancient thoroughfare which is now the major route through the region. This route lies at the foot of Bare Hill today. More on the history in later posts. We have wanted to name our barn for some time, and this one seemed fitting, although I am not wed to the idea. Anyway, it works for now.

This land is our land...

This picture was taken on a foggy day, so you can't see the view, but there is one through the trees. The lot faces west and south, which will make for good sun during the day and good sunsets in the evening. Towards the top of the lot it is realtively level, but just after the bushes it drops off steeply and then levels out at the bottom. There are a lot of nice old trees on the property.

For those considering building a barn house: there are a number of considerations unique to the project to keep in mind. First, remember you are building a barn. Ideally, you would be able to afford a piece of land that is rural in character so as to create harmony between the building and its setting. Sadly, we were unable to afford such a piece of land in the town we needed to be in, so we did settle a bit. However, we like this property for its location on a hill and the exposure to sun and views. Also, it is on a very small, quiet street.

Another consideration when building a barn house is the character of the neighborhood and the other houses around yours. Our barn house just wouldn't belong in certain areas, such as one of the many 50s-era developments of ranch houses that dominates in parts of our town. The area we ended up in is an old neighborhood with a diverse array of houses dating from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as some newer constructions. Our building will actually be a contemporary with many of the houses in our neighborhood...although the barn is from "out of town"!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

We made the news!

This is just in from a local paper in Maine, near where our barn is (or was) standing. The reporter got the date wrong, though. The barn dates from the middle of the nineteenth century.

Resources: Barn house bibliography

The following books are ones that deal specifically with barns converted into homes or other uses. There aren't a great deal of them. This list is by no means exhaustive, although I have yet to find others as good as the best of these. After each entry I have included some annotations. This bibliography will be updated as needed. If anyone out there has additional books to recommend, please add a comment and I will see to it!

Barn House Bibliography

Bradbury, Dominic and Mark Luscombe-Whyte. Barns. New York: Harper Design International, 2004.
The barns featured in this book are of a distinctly modern character. Many of them have ceased to even resemble the barns that lie at their cores. Interiors are predominantly white, fixtures are all contemporary, and there is little wood, save the frame, that is employed. I think there IS a way to merge antique and modern. More on this in another post. There are some very good ideas (and some terrible ones) in this book.

Cobb, Hubbard and Betsy Cobb. Your Barn House. New York: Holt and Company, 1991.
This is the only book I have come across that approaches being a "how-to" guide to building a barn house. There are few pictures and they are small and not in color. As a visual resource it is lacking. However, it details a number of diverse barn projects and was a useful resource during the early stages of planning. Hard to find; try an online used book seller.

Endersby, Elric, Alex Greenwood and David Larkin. Barn. New York: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1992.
This is a SPECTACULARLY illustrated, large-format book by the partners of The New Jersey Barn Company. Endersby and Greenwood have been saving and restoring barns for as long as anyone (25-30 years, I believe) and they are a vast storehouse of knowledge about this type of building and this type of project. The majority of the book is devoted to an introduction to barns as working structures, but there are a number of excellent examples of successful barn-house converstions at the end of the book. This one and the next are the cornerstones of my collection.

Endersby, Elric, Alex Greenwood and David Larkin. Barn - Preservation and Adaptation. New York: Universe Publishing, 2003.
This is a follow-up to the previous book and it is similarly illustrated and highly valuable. Many excellent barn house projects are detailed making this an indispensible resource for your research into barn-house conversions. Another must-have.

Rooney, E. Ashley. Old Barns - New Homes. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Co., 2004.
If the previous two books are a catalogue of the BEST examples of barn-house conversion, this book is a catalogue of some of the WORST (there are a couple of good examples). Sadly, many people who attempt to convert barns into homes are infected with the "Country-Kitsch" decorating disease (sorry, I am revealing my bias here!) Many of these homes are decorated by hanging antique farm tools and quilts on the you know what I mean? By and large they are marred by over-use of plaster and drywall on the interior and the exteriors are often indistinguishable from any other "country home." Still, it was a useful resource, if only to confirm in my mind what I DIDN'T want my barn to look like.

Details of timber frame

More process pictures.

Process pictures: the barn comes down!

Interior shots of standing barn.

All barns are dramatic structures. The exterior often belies what lies within (as in the case in the Sidney barn). When you enter this or any barn, you are met with a sight which invariably causes you to simultaneously look UP and exclaim WOW! This is why I want to live in a barn!

The barn in Sidney, ME

Our barn is (was, actually) located in Sidney, ME, just outside of Augusta. The date of construction is unknown, but it is assumed to be contemporaneous with the farm house to which it belongs, which was build c.1830. This first picture makes it obvious why I refer to the Sidney barn as a "diamond in the rough"! The two lean-to sheds are later additions and mask the original profile of the earlier, central structure.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Why live in a barn: Some background

As a native of New England, barns have always been a part of the fabric of the land in which I grew up - ubiquitous reminders of a not-too-distant era when fields and pastures dominated the countryside and life was punctuated by the rituals of planting and harvesting, haying and the storing of hay in generous lofts. On family trips to the Catskills in New York each summer we would pass mile after mile of forgotten fields where old barns leaned on their foundations. Our summer destination had a small-ish barn. I mostly recall the sound of the swallows who darted in and out and perched on the power lines arcing over the back lawn. My father practically grew up in barns. From an early age he regaled my brother and I with stories of secret clubs, concealed passageways, rope swings, and uncounted adventures within the protective breadth of soaring timbers and haylofts.

Barns have always filled me with a sense of wonder and adventure. They make me want to climb, explore, lie on my back in a pile of fragrant hay and gaze up to the rafters where the swallows dart and wheel. I like the way the light slants through numerous cracks in the walls and picks up on the dust suspended in the air; I like the solid muscularity of massive timbers aged to a honey-brown; I like the feeling of history in a barn: season after season of steadfast service, untold number of children who played within on rainy days, and the sense of permenance against the rapidly changing backdrop of society. I definitely have a kind of nostalgia about barns. They represent shelter, longevity, durability...even loyalty.

Nostalgia not withstanding, does LIVING in a barn logically follow?

Welcome to the Bare Hill Barn House blog!

Hello all-

As some of you may know, Susi and I have been dreaming about building a home for our growing family out of the old "bones" of an antique barn. (My dad is partly to blame for the inspiration of this dream...some of you know what I mean!) After many months of dreaming and planning we have finally embarked on the project. The details of its preliminary stages will follow in additional postings.

This blog is intended first and foremost for our friends and family as a vehicle for sharing updates about the barn house project. However, if you are interested in the project or are thinking about building your own barn house, feel free to visit the site and/or contact me.

This site is BRAND-NEW and will be under construction over the next week or so. Check back periodically if you want to keep in touch with the progress. Enjoy!