Monday, April 24, 2006

Purlins/plank sawn and loaded

The top two images (and the bottom image) show employees of Maine Antique Structures sawing planks from old hewn timbers. Planks are boards used for the floors in a barn. Typically it was was cut rough and thick so that it would provide decades of service. The planking in our barn was too far gone to be recycled, so we decided to go to Scot for help. He was able to cut "new" planking for us from old timbers he had in stock. As you can see in these images, the timbers are placed on a sliding carriage and drawn through the saw. The result is thick, sturdy planking with a nice, aged color.

This planking can be seen in the third image down loaded on Scot's truck (at the bottom of the pile). On top of the planking is stacked the replacement purlins for our barn. (See the previous post about the purlins.)

Barn Bones Explained

(Image courtesy of

In a previous post I made reference to replacement purlins provided to us by Scot Hanning at Maine Antique Structures. Since that post and others to come will in all likelihood make reference to the different timbers in our barn frame, I thought a quick primer might make sense. Since the image attached (from The Barn People) has good definitions for most of the pieces, I will simply refer you to this excellent diagram.

So, why did we need replacement purlins? Although you can't make it out in the top photo, the purlins in our barn were in rough shape. This is not uncommon since they support the roof and over the years rain can sneak through and rot them out. At some point in the not-too-distant past someone had set about to strengthen these rotting timbers by attaching sawn timbers to either side of each purlin, not unlike splinting a broken bone. As soon as we began to show an interest in the barn Scot made it clear that he would provide replacements for these pieces cut from old wood so as to match. When our barn is re-erected what will be visible from below will look just like they had been there all along.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Resources: Maine Antique Structures

This project would not have been possible without Scot Hanning of Maine Antique Structures. Based on a recommendation that I knew I could trust, I got in touch with Scot earlier this year to begin the process of locating a barn suitable to our needs. Scot is one of the most hard-working, knowledgeable, and trustworthy men I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. His plain-dealing Maine sensibility made working with him straightforward and predictable, and his vast experience with old barns gave me the peace of mind I needed take the leap into this project. Scot delivers on what he promises, and he is fair. I cannot recommend him highly enough. If you are reading this and are in the market for a barn frame or any antique building materials (such as timbers, board, planking, glass, even granite) Scot is well worth contacting. Post a comment here and I will contact you with his information. Thanks Scot!

Barn on the move: farewell to Maine

Top image: This is the site, muddied days of rain, roiled by tractor-trailer tires - and sans barn. It is humbling to think that this site has not been clear like this for over a century. Our barn has stood witness to the cycles of rain and sun, snow and wind, sowing and reaping for generations. Packed in its trailer it awaits the next chapter in its long life of service, this time to house a family in place of cows.

Bottom image: Disassembled and packed in a box trailer our barn seems miniscule. To be added on top of this pile: replacement purlins and sawn planking supplied by Maine Antique Structures.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Keepin' it real...or at least trying

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step..." So far we have made a few steps on this journey and all we have to show for it is a few pictures of a barn that ONCE WAS but is now sitting in a box trailer somewhere in Maine, a set of drawings, and a MAJOR DENT in the bank account. OK, so there is a financial dimension of the whole "vision-to-reality" thing and it feels like a HUGE leap of faith at the moment. I will feel a lot better when there is something concrete I can lay my hands on. Any encouragement out there, folks?

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Resources: Architects hired

We debated whether or not to hire architects for this job. We knew that there would be a considerable expense associated with hiring an architect, and we had other options. However, after much debate, we decided that it would be in the best interests of the project to make this investment. After all, architects are artists - not just technicians - and artists are gifted with unique vision. We wanted our house to be the product of a unique vision and so we decided to take the plunge. Now artists may be visionary, but that doesn't mean that we would necessarily LIKE their vision, so we had to be sure that their vision sounded compatible with ours. We found a great match in a small, two man firm called Jasonoah Design. I had met Jason about a decade ago while touring Frank Lloyd Wright's Zimmerman House in Manchester, NH. He was just starting out as an architect at that point, and we quickly hit it off. In conversation with Jason and his architect-partner Noah, it became clear that we shared a very similar vision of architecture. I will elaborate more on this "vision" in a later post, but you can read about them at their website, which I recommend highly. After reading this site and looking at the images of some of their work, you may be left scratching your head as to how or why we have chosen architects with such a contemporary style. For now I am going to leave you in that state of confusion (it's good to have to wrestle with an idea or thought for a while...stretches the brain cells.) I would be interested in hearing what anyone out there sees as the LINK between the old barn and the modern home. Thoughts?

Some personal history

(Image courtesy of Early New England Restorations.)

When people ask me where this idea of living in a converted barn came from, I have to say that my parents - and my father in particular - are at least partly to blame...

Dad has always been an "old house nut." From an early age I have memories of books filled with pictures and drawings of early New England homes. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, my father filled our ears with stories of barns and adventures growing up. When I was about ten or eleven, mom and dad bought a very early colonial home that had been abandoned and announced that we were going to restore it as a new-old family home. (Click here for some images of what the house looked like.)

For the next year or so, the entire family spent a good part of weekends and vacations driving out to the old house, un-boarding a few windows to let some light in, and setting to work at dismantling this old house. First it had to be cleaned out. It was literally abandoned: dirty dishes still filled the sink in the kitchen; raccoons were the only residents. Boxes of trash and unsalvagable items had to be discarded. In the process we discovered what seemed to my brother and me to be treasures: coins, toys, ancient newspapers and books, nails and glass, old tools and graffiti on walls. These were exciting times for us: an adventure of discoveries and a wealth of new learning experiences (I'm not sure I was this optimistic about the project all the time!)

There were a couple of young, long-haired guys who had just begun a company called Early New England Restorations who were friends with Dad. They came up from Connecticut from time to time to help out, advise, and inspire us as we worked. Quickly, my brother and I grew to revere them: big, strong, hammer-wielding, cool. When it came time to really pull the house down - the walls, floors, and the frame - they came in and led the process. Eventually the frame was exposed, the timbers tagged (as in our barn), the pegs driven out and the frame disassembled. Loaded onto a truck, it went off to the shop to be cleaned, repaired, and readied for re-erection.

The frame raising day was one of the most memorable of all. Family and friends gathered on the site (an old apple orchard), Mom made a big pot of her famous beef stew which hung from a tripod over a fire, and we all cheered and clapped as piece by piece the frame was reassembled and hoisted into place. It was a memorable day, and I think it was then that (whether I knew it or not) the seed was planted in me. (Click here to see images of the house after restoration.)

Living in this house further imprinted this dream in my heart. Low ceilings that created a nestled, sheltering feel; exposed beams of warm, honeyed wood; five working fireplaces - many of which were often roaring in winter months; wide old floor boards made of planks centuries old; the sense of history and permanence and warmth...home and hearth, security, family gatherings...all of these are associated with this house. All of this are part of why I must attempt to create something similar for my family. Yes, it may seem crazy - I'm sure there were many who thought as much of my parents - but it also seems good and right, and that's a fitting enough reason for me.

Resources: Barn House Links

Below are links that anyone interested in researching and/or building a barn house should have. I have annotated the list to give some explanation based on my own experience, if any, with the site.

The Barn People
Ken Epworth at the Barn People has been converting beautiful old New England barns into homes for at least 25 years. Along with Endersby and Greenwood at the New Jersey Barn Co. (see Barn House Bibliography) The Barn People have been doing this for a living longer than anyone else I have encountered. The website is BEAUTIFUL and loaded with resources. A definite "must visit" for those interested in this kind of project.

East Coast Barn Builders
ECBB is another company that specializes in converting barns into homes. Many of the barns featured on their site reveal that their typical clientelle are rather well-off. Taking huge old barns and converting them into lavish ski houses out west seems to be pretty popular among those who have...Still, some great photos on this site and a good resource.

Shelter Kit Incorporated
To some the notion of a "kit" and "new construction" may seem anathema, however this is a more affordable option that will result in a living space that is at least inspired by the open spaces of a barn. A new barn is an option that should not be ruled out until one is certain that one can afford the antique barn frame (not sure I'm there yet...)

Benedict Antique Lumber and Stone
These folks inventory old barns and sell them to customers who want to turn them into homes or...barns! Some beautiful barn frames here. An eastern PA company.

Heritage Restorations
This is a Texas company. The costs associated with shipping and erecting a barn from the other side of the country may be prohibitive for some, and if you are a purist, you will want to choose a barn that is from the region where you will be re-erecting it, but this is a site loaded with some beautiful images. A good place to educate yourself on what restored and converted barns look like.

Yankee Barn
Another company specializing in new barn home construction. An excellent site from a well-known and respected New England company.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Some of our barn's history revealed, Part II

Top image: floorplan of our barn in its most recent configuration.
Bottom image: a possible original configuration of the barn.

(You will need to scroll down to the post titled "Some of our barn's history revealed" to get the entire train of thought.)

While the presence of empty mortises gave us a clue that there was more history to this structure, the arrival of the drawings of the frame confirmed this hunch. The man who made the measurements and oversaw the drawings has vast experience with old structures and he was able to pick up on these clues right away. In the bottom drawing (sorry for the poor quality of the image) you can see his hypothesis for a possible original configuration of the structure. If you study the two images, one of the barn in its most recent form and the other the possible original form, you can see that it is quite likely that at some point in the past someone chose to change the entire orientation of the structure. If the hypothetical plan is correct then originally the barn was a side entry structure (entry along the long side) with a central bay flanked by two side bays and lofts. This is a very common layout for a barn. It allowed wagons to be driven right into the center of the building where hay could be unloaded into the lofts and then the wagons could be driven right out the other side. At some point however, the side entries were boarded over and new openings were made on the gable ends of the barn. This necessitated removal of a number of timbers (as evidenced by the empty mortises) and the addition of others. The result is a more complex arrangement of timbers and the mysterious empty spaces. The BIG question nagging me now is: Should we rebuild the barn according to the possible original configuration or leave it the way it was in its most recent incarnation?

I am leaning toward the former for two reasons. First, I think the former plan is more simple and would make the entire frame make more sense. As it existed most recently, with the curious off-center doors and the lack of any central bay - which just isn't like any barn I've ever seen...) the barn feels somewhat awkward. Returing it to the original configuration would return a sense of order and simplicity to the structure. Second, since I am drawn to history the idea of "restoring" the barn to its original state appeals to me. This question will take time to figure out. I will be seeking the advise of the person who made the drawings and the hypothesis as well as our architects and others. What do YOU think?

Details showing empty mortises

If you look closely you can see the empty spaces which once held the tenons of now-missing beams. See the two posts below for the beginnings of this strand.

Mortise and Tenon joints

(Courtesy of

Mortise and tenon joints were used by framers prior to the availability of metal fasteners (nails, bolts, etc.) One of the marks of an old barn is the presence of mortise and tenon joints to secure the timbers together. This is vastly preferable (for those of us who love old timber frame structures) due to the elegance, simplicity and craftsmanship they demonstrate. No nails or screws were used to construct these buildings: mortise and tenon joints are held together with a hand-carved hardwood peg. For more information on mortise and tenon joints, visit Wikipedia HERE.

Some of our barn's history revealed

This is exciting news: we just received in the mail a set of complete architectural drawings of the frame of our barn. Some background-

Prior to the dismantling of the barn we hired someone to take detailed measurements of the frame so that a set of tags marking every single member of the frame could be produced and placed on the frame. These tags would make it possible to reassemble the frame later on. Without the tags reassembly would have been a nightmare! (Talk about a difficult jigsaw puzzle!) If you scroll down to the post titled "We made the news!" you can see the tags in place while the frame comes down. The other purpose for having the measurements taken was to enable a set of architectural drawings to be made of the frame. These drawings will next go to our architects and will used by them to create the construction plans for our barn house.

Upon receiving the plans and pouring over them for a while it became clear that there were some interesting historical layers to our barn's past. This was initially hinted at when Dad and I visited the barn prior to purchase. We noticed two interesting things: first, some of the timbers in the frame appeared to have been "recycled" from older structures. These timbers bore the tell-tale signs of past use, most notably the empty mortise holes which had once held the tenons of beams now missing.