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So You Want A Barn? | Fall 2007 Out Here Magazine

There's lots to take into consideration before building

By Noble Sprayberry

Architect Donald Berg dreams of building his own barn but, like the proverbial shoemaker whose children have no shoes, Berg is still waiting.

Instead, he built a business designing the iconic farm structures, helping people raise barns that fit their needs and dimensions while often maintaining historic style.

His Vermont vacation home, overstuffed with his family's weekend gear and supplies, provided the inspiration. He put his own barn plans on paper, and researched every detail.

He found it difficult to find suitable components such as sliding door hardware, posts, and pulleys, and with friends he collaborated on a book, Barns and Backbuildings. People wanted the information, so he decided to specialize.

And his barn? "I never built my barn. It was designed and the design sat there for awhile," says Berg, 58. "The kids started going off to college and all of our barn savings went off to college tuition, and over the last 10 or 12 years I've redesigned it maybe a dozen times, and each design has become a standard plan I've sold to other people."

Most of Berg's clients are first-time barn builders. They want a place to store everything from ATVs and Christmas decorations, or to shelter animals, such as horses or llamas.

Finding the perfect location for the barn offers the first challenge. Look for a flat piece of land, and consider the size required.

"Far too often, people build too small and find there's still too much stuff sitting out in the yard after they've built," Berg says.

A simple, visual test can solve the problem.

"It sounds silly, but I tell people to take whatever vehicles they want to store in a barn and pull them onto the spot on the property," he says. "Stake out a box around them that will fit. Most people don't plan for the space you need around your vehicles, so you need to make sure there's room for door swings, work benches, and extra storage."

The structure should be convenient to the house and, particularly if used to store vehicles, accessible to the driveway or roadway. Yet, the barn should not obstruct the views of a home from the road. Also, guard against allowing the barn to block scenic views from the home.

Anyone planning on using a barn to shelter animals should take special care. The health codes of most states require a minimum distance between an animal barn and a home, usually about 100 feet, Berg says. Similarly, plans for an animal barn should also consider the location of a well or other water source, with the barn going downhill from the source.

Also, most people should avoid a popular barn addition: a loft apartment. Living quarters attached to an animal shelter often expose the residential area to problems such as moisture from decaying hay and vermin such as mice.

Finding What's Affordable

When it comes to construction, most people can find a barn to meet their price point. And, some methods even favor a do-it-yourself approach. Construction costs differ across various regions of the country, and Berg suggests using the following estimates only as a guideline.

An all-steel barn offers the least expensive approach, costing about $10 per square foot. A work crew installs the beams and steel panels, creating large barns for good prices that will last as long as 50 years.

Steel, though, offers few of the aesthetic options found in methods such as a pole barn construction, a wood-frame structure built on pressure-treated posts. For example, a gravel or tamped earth floor can suffice. Some can include lofts for storage, and a wealth of designs allow options such as L-shaped barns.

Pole barns can cost as little as $15 per square foot. The simplicity of some designs can make this a do-it-yourself project.

Many other construction methods exist. Barn kits come complete with designs and pre-cut lumber. Others build barns with the same methods as used in home construction. A few companies even specialize in dismantling and relocating historic barns.

Craftsmen can also still build a barn the old-fashioned way, with mortise joints and round oak pegs. Expect to spend at least $75 a square foot. "It costs a fortune, but it looks it and it will last 200 or 300 years," Berg says.

If the price seems too expensive, build to meet a budget and add an addition later, Berg suggests. Barns often take on a rambling appearance and a shed or stable attached later and painted to match always suits the look.

And, eventually, Berg still intends to build his own. "Any day now, we're going to start building it," he says, "and it's been that way for the last 12 years."

Noble Sprayberry is a writer in Phoenix.