It is not hard to see why old barns fire the imagination. In Central Virginia there is ample opportunity to find that diamond in the rough and put your unique stamp on it while preserving the rough elegance that connects us to our pioneer roots.
There is something uniquely and enticingly American about repurposing non-residential buildings that have outlived their original purpose – barns, churches, schoolhouses, fire stations – into homes. Those who have done it say it’s not easy—but that it’s a process so rich in its own rewards that it amply pays back the time, money, and effort involved.
Enlist the help of a pro
Read any article or talk to anyone who has undertaken a repurposing renovation and, most likely, the first piece of advice will be ‘get expert advice.’ Choose your architect wisely; they should be intimately familiar with the design and materials of the original building.
When building under strict building codes, or by a preservation board’s regulations, enlist the help of a local builder who knows the area and its history.
Prepare for plenty of work
Moving into a non-residential structure means signing on for all sorts of repair and conversion projects to make the place workable as a house. Plumbing and lighting can be issues that take time, thought, and money to solve; so can drainage and dampness in basement and garage areas. This will all need to be considered in the budget.
The chances are that the barn you have found will have been left unused for some time, and given the non-domestic nature of its former purpose, will not be connected to the main lines — so getting water and electricity will be a top priority, as will sorting out a sewage system.
One of the key considerations when converting barns is the use of natural light. Barns typically have either small openings for ventilation purposes or enormous cart door openings, so lack of light is not an uncommon problem.
In order to introduce natural light, barn converters have adopted numerous creative solutions, including:
- adding sun lights
- using glass pantiles or discreet ridge glazing
- glazing entire gable ends
- applying full-height glazing to cart openings
In most cases, the existing roof covering will need to be removed to allow for any repair work to be carried out, as well as the addition of insulation and a membrane installed to improve airtightness and weatherproofing.
Embrace the imperfections
Living in an old building means learning to accept, and even appreciate, the scars left by time.
Even material you don’t immediately see a purpose for can come in handy. Build a custom fireplace and hearth. Materials that prove unusable in their original functions can be repurposed for an authentic look that’s cost effective.
Panel walls with larch to give an aged, rustic feel. They can be custom-milled with an eased edge to look like barn boards. Boards can also be tinted with pigmented lacquer to pull the timber frame into focus. Insect- and rot-infested wood can be salvaged by using a borate solution to stop the pests, and then patched for reuse.
Keep the past present
Use reclaimed materials from the former structure, and from sites around the country, to help maintain the house’s history. Cut down on costs by saving and reusing old window panes. Consider storing cookware on open shelves once used for oil cans and brake parts. In addition to preserving the authenticity and original flavor of the structure, this saves money for other projects.
Modified Open Floor Plans
Barns are usually long and narrow so a central hallway is often the best solution to providing access and circulation, as well as being the ideal place to show off the volume of the space. With a double-height feature in the central hallway, the barn will maintain its original look and feel while adding a dramatic and pragmatic entrance to your new home.
Using open plan living arrangements will also aid in maximizing the amount of central light which is so important to any home.
Add sound insulation to floors to keep noise from traveling down to other levels of the house. Open plan spaces, for instance, are best-served by under floor heating which works well with heat pumps.
As one architect aptly put it – “People looking for a barn home, they’re not looking to save money,” he says. “It’s character. You’re living in a piece of history.”
Please share your experiences and tips!