Build a Pole Barn the Easy Way
By Oscar H. Will Iii | Oct 12, 2009
Pole barn construction is about as easy as it gets for creating economical outbuildings of all kinds, but it still takes a major commitment and involves sufficient heavy lifting to be intimidating to the average person. Luckily, many national, regional and local pole building makers can supply everything you need, including the construction crew, to help you build a pole barn. And they can put a turnkey package together that will suit your style and your budget – but it pays to shop around.
If you are like many folks, you love to do things yourself and have developed many skills, but you don’t have time to get big projects done quickly. When it comes to building a pole-style chicken coop, you probably can get it accomplished in a weekend and a few evenings. But when it comes to a structure the size of an equipment shed or hay barn, you’ll need at least a week of weekends and a crew of helpers to complete the project any time soon. That’s why more folks are choosing to build their new barns with the help of a reputable company and crew behind them. Even with a turnkey manufacturer, don’t expect your new barn to appear overnight. You should expect to wait at least six weeks between signing the order and using your barn. In many cases, a 10-week wait is more realistic.
Free your imagination
Before you go to the work of drawing the barn’s floor plan, be sure to pace off the location to get a good measure of how large a footprint your building site can handle. Pay particular attention to overhead power lines, overhanging tree branches and other aerial or subterranean hazards specific to the location. Once you know how much building the site can handle, you can begin to plan.
Designing the layout for your new pole barn is pretty easy, once you decide what the building’s functions need to be. The beauty of modern pole-building construction is that you can enclose substantial spaces with virtually no supporting poles or other structural components cluttering up the interior. With modern roof truss technology, your barn can have more than 50 feet of clear span width – in any length you desire.
Although some manufacturers have online design tools, it’s really a simple proposition to draw your own floor plan to scale using graph paper. Paper with a quarter-inch grid pattern is useful for planning buildings up to about 40 feet long by 30 feet wide – if you allow each square in the grid to represent 1 square foot, you can mark the location of stalls, doors, windows, machinery bays and the like. You can even make cutout models of the critters or machines you want to keep in the barn and move them around your plan to see how they fit. Work in pencil, and you can easily make changes to the plan as it evolves.
Once you have the floor plan roughed out, you’ll need to decide how much clearance you want between the floor and the bottom chord (horizontal component that ties truss ends together) of the roof trusses. For many folks, 8 feet of clearance might be sufficient, but, if you intend to park your antique Peterbilt road tractor in the barn and its shiny chrome stacks are a few inches more than 10 feet in the air, you will want to build with at least 12 feet of vertical clearance. You also should decide whether you want the roof to overhang the end walls and side walls and whether you want the overhang to be enclosed with soffits – do you prefer overhead or sliding doors?
Once you have this basic plan put together, it’s time to shop it around to see just how much building you can get for the money.
The final price of your building will be determined by a combination of building size, snow- and wind-load calculations for your area, local building code, actual materials and how they are sourced. Pole barns constructed of laminated posts and dimensional lumber frames with a steel roof and wall can be constructed for around $15 a square foot, if you settle for a gravel or clay floor. Adding wood siding, overhangs, heavy-gauge steel siding and roofing, windows, skylights, concrete floors and doors easily can increase the per-square-foot cost to well over $25. If you will finish the interior, insulate, heat, cool and electrify the building, your costs will go up even more (even if you do much of the work yourself). The nice thing about pole barns is that you can have the enclosure built, use it, then finish the interior as need and finances allow.
Figuring the cost of the building can be as easy as meeting with a local representative for a turnkey pole building company like Morton, Wick or Cleary and negotiating the entire package. The operative word here is “negotiate.” As with virtually any purchase, some wiggle factor is built into the pricing, and you may as well have the wiggle aimed in your favor. Once the manufacturer’s representative specs out the barn and hands you a completed cost, you virtually always can negotiate a few hundred dollars to a percentage point or more off the price – and if you can’t get your price, you can most certainly negotiate downspouts and gutters, an extra door or some other feature for the same price.
If you are not inclined to purchase the entire package from a name-brand company, you will need to find a couple of local contractors; show them your barn plan and solicit bids for the barn. Be sure to find contractors experienced with pole building construction and be sure that the quality or grade of materials is specified. For instance, you will need posts that are treated for burial, not just ground contact. And you don’t want to end up with 29-gauge steel siding when your insurance company will only insure buildings with 26-gauge or heavier material.
For those of you who enjoy a bit more of a hunt, you can take your plan to the local building materials store and have them put together a bid for the lumber, steel and other components needed to construct the barn. At the same time, you can solicit bids with contractors willing to build the barn using materials you supply. Be aware, however, that using this approach puts you in the role of general contractor, and the construction crew will have little incentive to use material as efficiently as possible. If you do choose this route, be sure to negotiate a contractor’s discount at the material supply house.
Whether you engage a turnkey company or a local contractor, the entire deal will go more smoothly if you take care of the site preparation ahead of time. Site preparation for a pole barn involves removing any trees or shrubs that are in the way and grading the location so that it is almost flat. Depending on the size of your building and the manufacturer, variations in grade can be as large as 12 to 18 inches corner to corner. However, that lack of level might keep the full wind-load warranty from kicking in, and it most certainly is less than ideal anyway. Since you have need for the pole barn, there’s a good chance that you already own a compact tractor with a loader. If you don’t own a box scraper or other rear-blade attachment for your tractor, now’s the time to go buy one and prep the site yourself – it’ll cost you less than hiring an excavator. Alternatively, blow a few bucks to rent a skid-steer loader for the weekend and spend some time playing in the dirt.
Leveling the building site isn’t too complicated. Often all you need to do is move soil from the high spots over to the low. In other cases, you might need to move a few cubic yards of soil from one area on your farm to the building site (or visa versa) – a loader and box scraper can help with this. If you have to move 50 cubic yards of material a half mile, you probably ought to rent or hire a small dump truck or dump trailer to speed the process. If your ground slopes sufficiently that retaining walls will need to be built to create a level pad for the barn, you probably should hire an excavating contractor – the cost of site prep could double your barn’s total cost in extreme cases.
Whether you prepare the site or hire a local handy person to do it, you will want to be sure that the work is completed before the crew shows up to erect the building.
Stick to the schedule
Before you sign on the dotted line and make a down payment on your barn, be sure that the agreement includes an explanation of when the materials will be delivered (turnkey companies), when subsequent payments will be due, and when the construction crew will begin and finish the work. Often these milestones won’t be calendar dates – for example, some manufacturers expect a second payment when the materials are delivered to the site. Independent contractors will resist setting a too-defined schedule, but you can always use that as a price-negotiating strategy. Construction crews are notoriously independent, and it might take a month or more after the materials arrive for your crew to show up (this varies widely by manufacturer). In some cases, the crew will be assigned to complete your barn before moving to the next project. In other cases, the crew assigned to your barn might be juggling two or three projects in the area. Be sure to ask your sales representative or the contractor (if you found a local builder) how long to expect the crew to be on the job. Don’t be surprised if they tell you four or five days – it doesn’t take much time to put up a pole barn.
If you committed to site preparation or other preconstruction work, be sure you have it all completed by the agreed upon date, or you might wind up being the excuse for a long delay. Check local references for both independent contractors and for turnkey manufacturers to get an idea of what working with their organization is like. And if you had a good experience with one particular brand in another region, don’t assume that the local office is as efficient and well managed. Although horror stories aren’t the norm, it is entirely possible that a two-month completion timeframe for a turnkey barn can turn into a six-month waiting period if the local office falls apart or construction crews quit or get fired.
Enjoy your handiwork
Your new pole barn should be around for at least the next 50 years without the need for much renovation. Use it today for what you initially designed it for – but in five years when the children are off to school and all the horses are gone, don’t be afraid to modify the barn’s interior for other uses. The beauty of pole construction is that you can change the layout easily as your life in the country evolves. And who knows, once you’ve gone through the exercise of having a pole barn built, you just might be ready to tackle that 8-foot-by-12-foot farrowing shed for your heirloom sows.
GRIT Editor Hank Will has had good and bad experiences building pole structures the easy way. His latest project is framed with native Osage Orange and Hackberry poles cut on site.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper’s Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.
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