Barns and Outbuildings: Plan With the Future in Mind

Plan your barns and outbuildings with the future in mind, says this long-time farmer, whose "small" operation has outgrown several barns and sheds — and isn’t done yet.

refurbished pole barn

A refurbished pole barn looks nice enough to call home.

PHOTO: OSCAR H. WILL III

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Learn how to plan your barns and outbuildings with future growth in mind. 

"It's not big enough!" was the first thing my dad said when I told him I was building a new equipment shed.

"But you don't even know what size it is," I protested.

"Doesn't matter. It's not big enough!"

Dad was right. No matter what we've bought or built for storage on our little farm in southeastern Pennsylvania over the past 22 years, it's never quite big enough. That happens sooner, rather than later, since there is an endless and ever-growing list of stuff to get under cover and protect from the elements. Storage is an age-old problem down on the farm.

"It will not always be summer: Build barns," Hesiod, the ancient Greek poet, admonished in his Works and Days nearly 3,000 years ago.

Not just any old barn buildings will do, though. To the ancient Romans about 160 B.C., Marcus Cato the Censor said: "Build in such a way that the farm buildings will not find fault with the farm nor the farm with the buildings."

More recently, Gene "The Contrary Farmer" Logsdon offered this sage advice while out standing in our empty fields just after we bought our acreage: "Before you build anything, consider considerably."

In other words:

  • STOP. 
  • LOOK. 
  • And THINK about it. 

Then think again, long and hard. Figure out exactly what you want to do — and keep in mind anything else you might want to do — long before you sink that first shovel in the ground.

Do you want a place for tractors and other farm equipment, firewood, straw and hay, canoes, maybe a sailboat or an airplane? Are you going to keep livestock? Whether it's chickens, sheep, horses, pigs or beef cattle, each breed requires something a little different (learn more about providing shelter for your animals in this month's Country Vet department). How about antiques, both cars and furniture? Do you dream of having a root cellar or walk-in cooler? What about an "in-law apartment," an art studio or office, a craft or sewing center, recording studio, a woodworking shop or a state-of-the-art machine shop for restoring old tractors and cars?

What you plan to store will help determine the design and location of your building, its size, the type and number of doors and windows, ventilation, need for water and electric, heating or cooling, and the building materials themselves.

"Whatever your particular situation and goals, plan the whole farm situation as objectively and as far into the future as possible. When designing facilities, allow as much versatility as possible for future changes," advises the Northeast Regional Agricultural Engineering Service (NRAES). NRAES is a consortium of agricultural engineers from land grant universities in the Northeast. Midwest Plan Service (MWPS) is its counterpart in the Midwest. The two groups offer plans for all sorts of do-it-yourself projects, from simple hay feeders for sheep to modern swine nursery facilities. Titles include Wiring Handbook for Rural Facilities (MWPS No. 28, $20), and Pole and Post-Frame Building Handbook (NRAES No. 1, $14).

Why the big fuss? All you want to do is store stuff, right? Yes, but building a proper shed or barn is not the same as casually flipping a $20 blue tarp over a big pile of junk and turning your back on it. While tarps come and go, poor planning for a storage building may haunt you for the rest of your life.

Be a Smart Shopper

The first place a failure to plan will hit you is in your bank account.

"It's easy for people to make a lot of costly mistakes. They don't get three bids on everything and don't get background information on subcontractors that they are working with for the foundation, framing or roofing," says Craig Wallin, author of Small Barn Plans for Owner-Builders.

Such shopping around typically saves about 20 percent, according to Wallin. Over the past 25 years, his company, Homestead Design Inc., in Port Townsend, Washington, has sold about 100,000 building plans for small barns and outbuildings.

"(Bidding) is not an indication of the quality of their building or their reputation, but simply a reflection of how busy they are. The busiest tend to bid on the high side, and other people with a little gap in their schedule might bid a little more competitively. That is the biggest money-saver I have seen in all of my years of working with owner-builders," says Wallin.

Wallin also advises serious shopping around for materials. Savings typically run up to 15 percent. "With the average cost of a modest barn running $20,000 to $30,000, that is a substantial amount of money," he adds.

Check Twice, Build Once

That variation on the old carpenter's rule for cutting lumber — measure twice, cut once — also applies to selecting your building site and to making absolutely sure your proposed building is legal.

"What really throws a monkey wrench into the works is not getting your building sited accurately and having to move the building," Wallin warns. He has seen that happen more than a few times over the years when owner-builders only thought they knew where their properties end and where the neighbors' land begins. "They had to jackhammer out the whole foundation, because it was actually encroaching on the neighbor's property. Just because a fence has always been there doesn't mean that is exactly where the property line is," he says.

Short of hiring a surveyor, how do you know where your property lines are? Look for boundary markers, Wallin advises. Check your deed. It contains the exact dimensions of your property, tells you what kind of markers were used and often where they are located. Markers could be anything from a "PK nail" driven into the asphalt of the state highway to a rusty metal pipe stuck in the ground, a pile of stones or an old tree in the corner of a fencerow.

Besides being on your own property, the ideal building site should be:

  • Reasonably flat.
  • Well-drained. Don't put your building in holes or dips where water collects, or in natural drainage-ways.
  • Easy to get to in all kinds of weather, which usually means having at least a gravel driveway.
  • Far enough from other structures to allow free movement of tractors, trailers, farm equipment and other vehicles. To minimize the danger of fire spreading from one building to another, most building experts advise leaving 50 to 75 feet between buildings.
  • Positioned to make the best use of both sun and shade, while minimizing exposure to prevailing winds.

"Siting is very important. It's not something you can change very easily," says New York architect Donald J. Berg, author of How To Build In The Country and American Country Building Design.

"People assume that if they have agricultural property, they don't have to prepare drawings for a building department the way suburban folk do. They assume you can build just about anything," says Berg.

Although the laws of each state differ, you still have to build to code, if for no other reason than your own safety. Berg's pet peeve is the notion that any loft can hold a mountain of hay. "Hay is incredibly heavy. It can put enormous stress on your building. That's why many old buildings eventually fall down," he says.

Also, insurance companies take a dim view of sub-standard construction in the event of a fire or other loss. "It is always better to err on the side of building a better building," Berg adds.

To give customers the most realistic idea of what a new building will hold and how it will work, Tommy Warhurst, a sales consultant with Morton Buildings in Garden City, Alabama, goes so far as to stake out the exact footprint of the proposed building. "If I can get them to pull their equipment in . . . they can visualize what works and what doesn't," he says.

Make it Legal

Unhappy neighbors aren't the only ones who can cause a seemingly perfect building to be moved or removed. Local building or zoning officers literally hold in their hands the power of life or death for your building plans. It is called a building permit. To obtain one, your proposed building has to be in compliance with local building codes, which can regulate and dictate everything from the height of your building to its drainage, distance from boundary lines, water wells, septic leech fields and wetlands. While many municipalities follow the national Uniform Building Code, local regulations can be stricter due to area conditions that include high winds, soil structure, snow loads, and sinkhole and earthquake dangers. In our Pennsylvania township, proposed building plans are also subject to sometimes intense scrutiny by an eight-member Planning Commission, plus the township engineer and attorney. That's why building experts say it is always a good idea to have your plans reviewed by a structural engineer who is familiar with local laws — including the various exemptions that are often granted to agricultural buildings.

Most states also have laws requiring that builders – amateur or professional — notify area utility companies and municipalities a few days before they plan to break ground. This is usually done through a statewide service set up and administered by the utilities in an effort to reduce the number of times backhoes chop through buried electric or telephone lines, water mains and gas pipes. If you don't call before you dig and you cut through something more than a field tile, you could be fined tens of thousands of dollars – plus have to pay the full cost of repairing whatever you cut.

Starting a Homestead From Scratch

When we bought our 20 acres back in 1984, it was just vacant land, with no buildings or even an access lane. So our first equipment, a 1947 Ford 2N tractor and a 5-foot Bush Hog rotary mower, sat in the field, out of sight behind the neighbor's woodpile — covered with a blue tarp. That worked well enough for a few months. Then we started buying more of the necessities of rural life, a large GardenWay cart, an 8-horsepower Troy-Bilt tiller and a growing assortment of hand tools.

Ever since we read Helen and Scott Nearing's books 30 years ago, my wife, Melanie, and I had dreamed of building with stone. Our property was lined with more than half a mile of rough, stone fencerows chock full of huge rocks. It was perfect building material for a classic Pennsylvania-Dutch bank barn, like the one that was built right across the road in 1854. But since both Mel and I were working full-time jobs, paying off the land and raising two young children, we didn't have the time or the money to build for the ages with stone.

Winter was coming on. We needed someplace to store our new country stuff — and quickly. But we also wanted whatever we built to blend in with the historic character of the community, since we were in the shadow of the neighbor's stone barn with its massive stone walls and hand-pegged timber frame cut from native chestnut on the mountain behind it. After all, we reasoned, our land was once a part of that historic farmstead. So, we did the next best thing. We bought a prefabricated storage shed — a nice one — with high sides and a gambrel roof. It was our modern-day version of a pioneer's sod house, I guess. The little barn was painted a respectable barn red, same as the wood on the neighbor's barn. Just for nice, as the Pennsylvania Dutch say, we added white X trim on the double doors on each end. We ordered the doors oversized, so we could drive our antique tractor in or out from either end of the 12-by-24-foot "Tractor Haus," as it became known.

The Tractor Haus cost $1,764, which is about what we paid for our tractor. The foundation was simple, two loads of gravel and some large, square stones pulled from a nearby fencerow. We "saved" $80 by finishing the roof ourselves with tar paper and black asphalt shingles. It was my first roofing job and, 22 years later, it still doesn't leak. Wish I could say the same thing about the rest of building. While its base of pressure-treated 4-by-4-inch runners is still rock solid, the non-treated lumber here and there along the bottom of the frame walls and the T-111 plywood siding is rotting away. The plywood is so punky I can poke a screwdriver right through it in spots.

The Tractor Haus has served us well though. At an initial cost of just $6 per square foot ($80 a year, so far), we got our money's worth out of it and then some, especially considering that agricultural Extension engineers figure most of today's farm buildings have a useful life of only 20 years.

I have some serious repair work ahead of me — if we decide to keep the Tractor Haus. Lately, we've been talking more and more about replacing it with a much larger pole barn, or a "post-frame" building, as they're being called these days. Pole buildings have come a long way since the mid-1950s when Dad built one of the first pole barns in Delaware County, Ohio. Creosoted posts — telephone poles, actually — were set deep in the ground, then tied together with heavy framing. The walls were topped with prefab trusses and sheets of corrugated aluminum. Except for four box stalls, the cavernous barn was completely open inside, providing ample storage space for hay, straw, an old Ferguson tractor, an assortment of farm implements and even a sailboat. The barn stood for more than half a century until it was torn down a few years ago to make way for a housing development.

Pole buildings are simple. They seem easy to build. But, cautions architect Berg, "They are not at all for first-timers. A do-it-yourselfer would do much better buying standard stick frame building plans. That type of construction is much more forgiving because you are using smaller, lighter boards. You can miss a nail here and there. They can go up little by little."

A pole barn is quite different, says Berg. Poles that are up to 16 feet long and weigh maybe 300 pounds each must be sunk deep in the ground — and aligned perfectly for a straight, square structure. "Professional builders have the augers to drill the holes and the right equipment to set the poles," he says. That's why many people hire professionals to build the frame, then finish the building themselves.

According to Business Week, using a pre-engineered structure, such as a Morton Building, can save as much as 50 percent on the price of your building, depending on whether you hire a professional builder or build it yourself. Either way you go, post-frame can save you money.

"Post-frame construction eliminates the need for full foundations and can save you as much as 20 percent of the cost of construction by reducing the amount of site work, excavation and concrete needed," says Berg.

For example, a conventional 30-by-40-foot building with 4-foot deep foundation walls uses about 20 yards of concrete. Less than one yard goes into a pole building of the same size. Unlike conventional foundations, pole buildings withstand the heaving and freezing of the soil with minimal damage, especially in wet soils, which is what we have on our place. To help the posts last longer, I coated the buried ends with tar. Plastic sleeves are also available to extend post life. In really wet soils, architect Berg recommends mounting the poles slightly above ground on concrete piers.

The many benefits of post-frame construction are what got me started on the equipment shed that Dad said wasn't big enough. Nearly three times the size of our Tractor Haus, it sure seemed big enough, especially when I was setting the posts and hauling dozens of sheets of plywood and bundles of shingles up a step ladder and out onto the roof all by myself. We used pressure-treated 6-by-6s for the 12 main posts, four each at 12, 14 and 16 feet. They sit on concrete pads at the bottom of 4-foot deep holes. The equipment I used to set the posts — a PTO-powered post-hole digger and a front-end loader on my John Deere 1050 — are part of the reason we needed more storage space. The Deere had replaced the old Ford inside the Tractor Haus. The Ford was sitting outside under blue tarps. Trouble is, the Ford wasn't alone.

Once upon a time, back when we built our house in 1987, we actually had a 2-car garage. It was just right for my short-bed pickup and my wife's station wagon. Then I started stacking firewood in the garage so it would be handier. We bought a chest freezer to store the bounty from our garden, including gallons of blueberries, venison and an occasional quarter of a beef. Next came an 8-by-10-foot walk-in cooler, a double stainless steel sink, an upright freezer and a 10-foot long stainless steel table. Suddenly, our garage became a retail produce stand and packing shed. The attic above the garage filled with berry boxes, banners, pop-up canopies and the other supplies of serious market gardening. Neither my truck nor Mel's car has seen the inside of our garage for about 10 years now.

Hoop Structures

"There are no restrictions on length and very few on how they can be used," claims the sales literature from one manufacturer. Hoop structures are available in widths up to 80 feet.

A 200-hog hoop barn costs only about $14,000 to construct, compared to $42,000 for a conventional finishing facility, according to University of Missouri Extension. Such hoop barns have 4- to 6-foot sidewalls made of wood, metal or concrete. Arched metal rafters are usually covered with opaque, UV-resistant polypropylene tarps.

We now have five hoop-style structures on our place. They are what most people would call greenhouses, simple galvanized pipe frames covered with one or two layers of 6-mil clear plastic. Although meant for growing vegetables, herbs and cut flowers, they get used more often than we'd like for storing farm equipment, firewood, straw and other necessities. Total cost ranged from just $1.50 to about $4 per square foot.

While we ponder what kind of storage facility to build next, the list of items we need to store steadily keeps growing. We recently acquired a horse trailer from our friends Charlie and Marilyn Ackerman. They don't have horses anymore and thought maybe we could use it for transporting our feeder pigs or other livestock.

The trailer is now backed up to the tree line behind the Tractor Haus, along with a 3-point carryall, a landscaping rake, an old tractor under a blue tarp and a few other things I can't fit into my new machine shed. Every time I gaze at the trailer, I can't help but wonder: How much stuff can I fit in there?

Author George DeVault has the friendliest post-frame equipment shed in Pennsylvania: Passersby with a critical eye quickly notice that his poles are a bit out of line, so the siding in spots "waves" hello as they drive by. 


Need More Stuff?

Once your storage facilities are in place, Used Farm Equipment (NRAES No. 25, $7) will help you find even more stuff you'll need to store.


Call before you dig!

If you don't call before you dig and you cut through something more than a field tile, you could be fined tens of thousands of dollars — plus have to pay the full cost of repairing whatever you cut.