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Hey, let’s renovate a barn!

What could we have been thinking?

By Steve Mitchell

Cindy and I purchased a 30 acre working farm in August of 2007. When I say working, I mean that some 22 of the 30 acres are farmed by a neighbor. The farm is located near Sawyer, in Southwestern Michigan about 80 miles from Chicago. The farm had two houses, an original farm house, and a fairly recent house that had been converted from a 1950’s pole barn into a three bedroom, two bath “Ranch Style” house. Unfortunately for us, that house was contaminated with “black mold” and had to be torn down, including the removal of the entire foundation. This left us with a fairly large bare spot in an otherwise very nice landscape. The site left by the removal of the house was roughly 40 feet wide (East to West) and 60 feet long (North to South). It was bounded on the West by a circular driveway; the North by a line of mature White Pines; the East by a lawn with four mature cottonwoods and an old Oak; and the South by a beautiful pond. One of the reasons we liked this property was the fact that there were two houses. One for Cindy and me and one for Graham, Dai, our grandchildren and guests. We needed to replace the house that was torn down. This led us to the decision, however flawed it might have been, that we should replace the ranch house with a barn. But not just any barn, but a renovated old barn.


Thus started a 36 month odyssey, with many very interesting interactions with architects, contractors, suppliers, craftsmen and others.

Read the full story.

Where does one begin the search for an old barn to renovate? One good place to start in today’s technology driven world (and a real dichotomy) is the Internet. We found “Heritage Restorations” which specializes in the salvage and restoration of 18th and 19th Century farm, mill, cabin and housing structures. We found Frame No. 1099, the Settles Mountain Road Barn, which met our foot print requirements: 36’x50’ and our “volume” wishes with a 38’ height at the center. This Gambrel roofed structure was originally built in Upstate New York in 1870. It was salvaged and moved to Waco, Texas in 2006. Cindy, Anthony Moss, the Architect (left) and I spent a Friday and Saturday in August of 2008, in Waco, TX at Heritage Restorations, discussing restoration ideas, visiting restored barns and inspecting Barn Frame No. 1099.

The Restoration specialist had many excellent suggestions on layouts, procedures and processes to get us to a completed project. Cindy and Anthony developed the concept of constructing a Silo as stairway space, thus not using valuable interior space for stairs–this gave a whole different feel to the space when it was completed. The Settles Mountain Road Barn was built in 1870 by David H. Shafer (b. 1833 and d. 1911) and then owned by his son Ezra H. Shafer (b. 1852 d. ?). Ownership passed to Mr. Ray Sperbeck who had five children, two boys and three girls. One of the boys stayed on the farm. The barn housed horses and some 20 cows which were raised for milk production. The Sperbeck family sold the barn to Heritage Restorations in 2006.

A complete set of isometric and scaled drawings of the four bents of the barn were prepared by Heritage Restorations (left, top). These drawings were used to build a scale (1” = 1’) model of the barn (left, bottom) that helped us envision the interior space of the barn. It also helped us to think through how we could use the space and how the barn frame members could be incorporated into a modern structure without losing their uniqueness. The four bents were identified “A” through “D” from the “Back” of the barn to the “Front” of the barn. These four bents are joined by horizontal beams that create the Three “Bays” of the barn. Every timber in the Bents and the horizontal beams are original, hand-hewn, Hemlock barn frame members. In addition, all of the 45 degree angle braces are original to the barn as are the rafters (shown in the isometric and partially in the model). The largest beam in the barn is a 15” x 15”, 36 foot beam in Bent “B”. It is a truly magnificent piece of nature that has been converted to good use. Experts tell us that it probably took a full week to hand hew this beam. The only “new” items in the barn frame are the new Oak pins used to fix the mortise and tenon connections where posts (vertical members) and beams (horizontal) are joined.

First step in the construction of the new, old barn, following the design of the structure, was the engagement of a general contractor. This was done in September, 2009. This was some 13 months after the barn frame purchase. We had pulled back from construction initiation because of the economy. The first step in the actual construction was the excavation of the site for the foundation walls for the barn. We had decided to go with a “slab on grade” approach, underpinned by foundation walls to carry the vertical loads from the barn frame posts. We excavated trenches for the placement of foundation walls and linear “strip “ footings. By going with a slab on grade we also got away from any problems with a “wet” basement or crawl space due to our high ground water table.

Foundation walls were poured in-place concrete using metal forms that rested on the strip footings. In addition, interior foundations were poured for a large fireplace and interior barn frame posts. After the foundation walls were in place the slab area was back-filled with sand and compacted. A set of wooden forms were then placed and a carpet of plastic and insulated panels was laid down. On top of this a reinforcing steel mat was placed and then an infloor radiant heat tubing system was installed. In addition, a major HVAC duct was installed running from what would be the mechanical room of the barn to the South face of the barn where a large window would be located and supplemental heat and air conditioning would be needed. When this was completed the concrete crews showed up and the barn floor was poured. We chose to use an in-mix dyed concrete to obtain a very dark grey color. This would allow us to use the concrete floor as the final surface treatment with no need for further finishing other than a wax.

After the form work was removed we had in place a “slab on grade” foundation that was slightly larger (7 inches, around the full perimeter, specifically) than the foot print of the barn frame and where the surface was some 15 inches above the elevation of the surrounding ground. The next step in the construction process was the erection of the barn frame, or an old fashioned barn raising. Or was it? It used to be that a barn raising was a real social occasion where it took teams of men and women a number of days to piece togehter the posts and beams to yield bents, bays and complete a barn structure. With the purchase of the barn frame from Heritage Restorations came the actual erection of the frame on the prepared barn floor/foundation. A team drove the frame up from Waco, TX to our site, arriviung on a Wednesday evening in late November. On the next day, Thursday, the 6 person team from Texas assembled the lower portion of the four bents and laid them in sequence on the barn floor slab. Next to the slab the crew fully constructed the upper portion of each bent as well as the horizontal beams joining these upper bent “halves”. The question in my mind was how would the lower bent frames and the upper bent structure be put in place? On Friday morning the answer came with the arrival of mobile, 100 foot crane. It was not to be your old-fashioned barn raising!

Beetle: a heavy wooden hammering or ramming instrument. Well, there was at least one aspect of the old-fashioned barn raising approach. The crew from Texas used a “beetle” to drive home the Oak pins and to drive the tenon into mortise where required. Quite the sight watching the erectors walking the beams and swinging the beetle! The sequencing of the bent/beam assemblies and their placement in the correct locations was a real pleasure to watch. The team arrived at around 7:30am on that Friday morning and by 4:30pm that afternoon the entire frame, braces, rafters and initial bracing were all in place and the erection team was on its way back to Waco. We learned during their stay that this was the 130th barn that they had erected since Heritage Restorations had started this business. It toook some wrangling but with lots of talk and a couple of hundred dollars I was able to obtain the beetle, signed by the crew, and it now has a place of honor in the barn. The next pages show sequenced shots that follow the erection process from start through completion of the rafter installation. A wonderful process to watch.

With the barn frame erection complete, it was now time to begin to “close-in” the barn. We had determined to make the barn as “tight” as possible by building a 2”x6” frame around the entire perimeter of the barn, up to the roof line. This new structure would be erected around the outside of the antique barn frame, allowing us to fully expose that frame within the interior of the barn, when completed. Further, by erecting an independent “new” frame and anchoring the two together we would significantly increase the structural integrity of the barn. Once the 2”x6” frame was completed we placed 3/4” structural plywood on the exterior of this new frame adding further integrity to the structure. Next step in closing the barn was to place the roof structure. We started by laying 1”x6” finish-grade lumber horizontally on the rafters. The pieces had all been prepainted to the selected interior white finish. These were then backed by a 1/4” Luan plywood which had been painted black to highlight the detail. The plywood was then backed with a single sheet of “tar paper” followed by the placement of Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs). The SIPs were 4’x8’ and 4’x12’ panels composed of a 1/2” plywood sheet, 9” of insulating foam and a second 1/2” plywood sheet. The entire roof of the barn was covered with SIPs and then this was in turn covered by an “Ice & Water” Shield rubber material to assure water tightness. The next step in completing the roof was the installation of “Galvalume” panels. Galvalume is a 55% Aluminum-Zinc alloy coated sheet steel material which is rolled to provide a vertical standing seam roof. These roofing panels were installed over the “Ice & Water” shield in continuous sheets which were “broken” at the gambrel roof line. Breaks were covered with custom cut and fitted panels to assure a weather tight joining. The overall roofing system, from the interior “ceiling” treatment, to the exterior raised, rolled seam panels gives a highly efficient, energy conserving, structurally sound roof for the barn.

With the roof completed, it was time to close in the exterior walls of the barn. The 3/4” structural plywood walls were already in place, as discussed earlier. At this time the pre-engineered and pre-fabricated windows and doors were installed in the walls by “punching out” holes in the plywood and placing the windows and doors into the openings. The windows selected were fabricated by the supplier (Marvin Windows) to be highly energy efficient. Care was taken to assure that the window and door installation was water and vapor proof. Once the windows and doors were in place the entire exterior was covered with Tyvek, a vapor barrier material. There was however, one very large window that had to be installed. One of the distinctive design features of the barn is the large, south facing window. This window is 12 feet wide and 28 feet tall (and consists of 12 individual “Lights” in a 2 wide, 4 high pattern). There was concern about the impact of such a large window on the interior environment of the barn. We looked for a window system which would perform at a high level while opening up the “outside” of the farm to the “inside” of the barn. We designed a very sophisticated solution which would give us superior visibility with a high level of energy effiiciency. This “curtain wall” window was constructed with a commercial extruded aluminum frame with a Thermal Break which significantly reduces thermal transmittance resulting in a lower possibility for interior condensation at very low temperatures. It is made from 100% recycled aluminum. The Aluminum curtainwall was made by Tubelite. The Insulated Glass Units (IGU’s) in the window wall are an extremely energy efficient, Low “E” glass. These LoE 366 IGU’s (manufactured by Cardinal Glass) deliver the ideal balance of solar control and high visibility while providing the highest levels of year-round comfort and energy savings. The “Triple Silver” coating results in a 95% blockage of UV light (think fading) and in the summer significantly reduces heat gain to the interior of the barn. In the winter when the outside temperature is -20, the interior window temp is 52. When it is 20 it is 61. This is extremely efficient when it comes to interior temperature and humidity control. It looks and works great!

The final stage after the Tyvek and all of the windows were in was to install the barn siding. The barn siding was a “rough-sawn”, tongue and groove cedar which was preprimed off site and then placed, glued and nailed. The siding was placed at a vertical orientation (as opposed to horizontal). The original barn siding when the barn stood in Upstate New York was horizontal, but we felt that the vertical orientation was the best solution for our barn. The siding was given a final “ivory” white paint coat which toned down the barn as opposed to a more traditional barn red. Backing up the timeline, another of the unique features of the barn is the Silo which was placed on the East side of the barn to house the stairs for the barn. In viewing other renovations, we noticed that a good deal of the available internal “footprint” of the barn space was often taken up with stairs. We did not want to lose this space in the main two-bay room of the barn. It would not have only taken up space but it would have detracted from the visual impact of this large, open space. As referenced earlier, Cindy and Anthony came up with the idea of placing a traditional metal farm silo on the outside of the barn to provide the space needed for the stairs. Adding a silo was not, however, an easy step. The silo had to have its own foundation; HVAC; electrical power and lighting; and of course the actual stairs themselves had to be designed and built into the silo. During construction, as with many items in this barn, we decided to “enhance” the design by not just having the stairs carry traffic from the ground level to the 2nd and 3rd floors, but to have it continue on to an observation area on the top of the silo. Nothing simple about this silo.

Configuration of the interior of the barn was made easy by the four-bent, three-bay layout discussed at the beginning of this book. The interior layout consisted of two principal areas: 1) A North Bay, created by Bents A & B, which was a space of approximately 19 feet by 36 feet. This area was programmed to be on three levels with garage, utility/laundry and bathroom on the ground level; two bedroom/bathroom suites on the second level; and a “dormitory style” bunk bed space with a bathroom on the third level for grandchildren and friends. 2) Two South Bays, created by Bents B, C & D, was a space of approximately 33 feet by 36 feet. This large area was programmed to be open to the full interior height of the barn frame, some 38 feet. This space was to have areas designated for entrance, library, living room dining room, TV area and kitchen. This is the area which has the major 12’x28’ foot window and a large fireplace. The photos on these two pages show the interior construction from the frame/exterior wall start through to the completed interior walls and floors. In keeping with the overall “green” approach used in designing and building the barn, the wall systems were very well insulated using a blown-in, recycled newsprint insulation material. Interior walls in the “big room” used a finish-grade 1/2” plywood with decorative batten strips on 4 foot centers. The interior walls were anchored to the 2” x 6” exterior frame so that the original barn frame post and beam structure “floated” on the interior and its full beauty could be appreciated. Interior walls in the North Bay were closed using Gypsum wall board. Book shelves, kitchen cabinets and other features were built off-site and installed after the interior finishes were completed.

Geo-Thermal heating and cooling systems were designed, engineered and installed in concert with the other “green” approaches used to assure that the least amount of energy was used in the construction and later operating of the barn. The availability of open acreage adjacent to the barn allowed us to develop a horizontal geo-thermal field for the system (as opposed to the use of vertical “fields”). The system was designed using a “closed loop” installation. It consisted of 8.600 foot, 2 1/2 inch plastic pipe loops placed at a depth of some 9-11 feet below grade. The 8 loops were manifolded into 4 systems, each one connected to an individual pump, which moved the heat exchange liquid through the loop and into the Heat-Pump systems located in the barn. There are two Heat-Pumps, each one serviced by two of the two loop pump systems. A horizontal, guided boring machine was used to install the 8 loops below the farm land to the East and North of the barn. The Heat Pumps were located in the garage/utility area with one air-handler attached directly to its Heat Pump and the second air handler located in attic space above the third floor bedroom. This ‘zoning’ of the system allows us to control temperatures throughout the barn. As mentioned earlier the concrete floors for the main floor of the barn are heated using an in-floor radiant heat system. This sytem uses a high efficiency electric boiler where the heating liquid is then pumped through the floors. A “Big” fan was also installed–10 feet in diameter–in the main room to further move air in the barn and conserve energy.

One of the distinctive features in the barn is the fireplace constructed in the main room facing the window wall on the South Face of the barn. We had to plan for the fireplace from the very initial stages of construction, placing a deep foundation slab well below the elevation of the final floor slab. Following the pouring of the concrete slab and in preparation for the construction of the fireplace proper, a concrete block foundation was constructed. The Mason, who is a true artist, then constructed the fire box and surrounding structural supports for the fireplace. We used 1” x 4” x 8” firebrick laid with the 1” face out so it gave the firebox a unique design. The firebox is a “Rumford” design, named after Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, born in 1753 in Woburn Mass. He perfected a tall, shallow design with widely angled covings so that they radiate heat better and he “streamlined” the throat so that the fireplace draws much better. His design, at the time he introduced it, revolutionized fireplace design. It went out of use in the 1850’s but is now making a significant comeback. It is the best drawing and heating fireplace we have ever used. Once the firebox was completed the mason created a quite beautiful brick chimney that raises from the fireplace up through the peak of the roof and is completed with a concrete cap on the exterior. He drove the chimney on a perfect vertical orientation through the roof, not deviating by as much as a 1/32nd of an inch. The fireplace was then covered in a wonderful gray/blue stone and capped with a sloping iron collar. Remarkable craftsmanship!   There are a number of details on both the interior and exterior of the barn that helped finish and tie together the design. These include:


  • All interior floors, other than the concrete main floor space, are Maple.
  • The concrete floor was saw-cut on an angled pattern, cleaned, finished and then waxed.
  • All interior horizontal surfaces and stairs/railings are Maple.
  • Most interior and exterior light fixtures are of an industrial, pendant design, using a clear, incandescent bulb.
  • Interior balcony and the opening between the 1st Bay, 3rd floor bedroom area and the main room are “screened” with a heavy duty wire mesh.
  • All bathroom fixtures are Kohler, including sinks, faucets and fixtures.
  • A Cupola and weathervane were constructed at mid-point on the roof line.
  • All interior painted surfaces were painted a simple, “decorator white”.
  • All cabinets in the main rom are painted the same “Celedon” green color.
  • Two antique, originally gas, coach lamps from the Knight Building in Chicago, were restored and placed on the South face of the barn, on each side of the main window.
  • Custom gutters and downspouts were fabricated and placed to drain all roof surfaces to the adjacent pond.
  • Custom, stainles steel “snow/ice” breaks were installed on the roof surface.
  • A screened “summer house” was designed and built as an outbuilding to the East and South of the barn. A swi mming pool, deck and pool house were built to the East of the barn.
  • An exterior deck and a walkway to the “summer house” and pool areas were constructed on the East side of the barn.
  • A custom designed TV “Wall” was built using leftover, origtinal Hemlock timbers and used to divide the TV area from the dining area.
Before Restoration
Barn Profile
Originally Built circa 1860
  in Cobleskill, NY
Now Restored In Buchanan, MI
Dimensions 37 x 51
  1880 sq. ft.
Eave Height 18