Restoring Old Barns

Deciding what to do with an old barn? Determine if it’s worth restoring or salvaging for lumber.

| November/December 2016

Should you restore it? Bulldoze it, sell it, or save it? Pray that the next big wind will just take it away? Barns are as unique as their owners, and the solution to a rundown barn will largely depend on what you’d like to get out of it. Livestock shelter? Storage? Keep it on display as a relic?

My own opinions on the subject stem from the fact that I grew up in the presence of a picturesque early 20th century New England dairy barn, which had entered a state of suspended animation around 1940 when the farmer who built it retired.

The farmer who sold to my parents had built it himself with just the help of one hired hand. It was a three-story dairy barn with a gambrel roof and an exposed basement foundation made from massive granite slabs quarried on the farm. Aboveground, the structure was of mortise and peg beam construction using chestnut, with plenty of white oak, maple, cedar, and Northern white pine throughout. The preservation of such a sturdy piece of history can easily be justified.

At the other end of the barn spectrum sits the old Ozarks barn on the farm where I live now. Not so old, or needing to be as sturdy, this little Southern-style barn was built around 1950. The roof is metal and the siding had gaps to allow airflow, and the thin–poured concrete foundation is sufficient to hold the building’s modest weight.

This barn has the convenience of electricity — where the packrats have allowed the wiring to survive — but inferior materials, inadequate construction, and inattentive maintenance have resulted in leakage, wind damage, and rot. For years I’ve wondered if this barn is worth saving.

Barn Goals

When owners are considering barn restoration, they should begin with a frank assessment of the barn they own, the resources available, and the goals they hope to achieve. Stability should always be the first concern, because no amount of work is worthwhile if tomorrow the barn collapses because of rotten beams or a faulty foundation. A building inspection by professional can answer that question, for a nominal fee or even in certain cases for free, and point to a range of solutions, either temporary or more lasting as circumstances and checkbooks allow.

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