PHOTO: Jimmy Emerson, DVM/Flickr
Jodi Helmer
December 12, 2014

If your barn is showing its age and repairs are inevitable, updating it—especially if it’s an historic barn—involves more than slapping on a coat of paint, putting a patch on the roof or attempting other DIY fixes. According to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, more than 664,000 farmers and ranchers (about one-third of agricultural producers) owned farms with barns that were built prior to 1960.

As historic barns disappear from the landscape, it’s important to be a good steward of your barn. Before you tackle repairs or renovations, follow these five tips to maintain your barn’s historic charm and protect its structure.

1. Talk to Experts

The state barn preservation association or local historical society can offer helpful tips for preserving the barn’s history while adding modern conveniences.

“Working with old timbers is a craft,” explains Chuck Bultman, an architect in Ann Arbor, Mich., who specializes in barn restoration. “Most people don’t have an understanding of how to make repairs using timber-frame techniques.”

Local barn preservation organizations or the National Barn Alliance, a national nonprofit dedicated to preserving historic barns, can recommend architects and contractors who specialize in historic-barn repair and restoration.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has a free publication, Historic Barns: Working Assets for Sustainable Farms, which highlights the importance of historic barns on small farms.

2. Keep Up with Maintenance

Barn repairs can be expensive. While it’s tempting to ignore a few missing shingles or a small hole in the siding, postponing maintenance projects can have a devastating effect on the barn (and your bank account).

“The roof is one of the first things to go,” says Michael Woodford, treasurer for the National Barn Alliance and vice president of Woodford Bros., a family-owned business specializing in structural renovations. “It doesn’t take long for a small leak to turn into a big hole that affects the structural integrity of the whole barn.”

Tackling any issues as they arise can keep an historic barn functioning well for many years.

3. Emphasize the 3 R’s

When it comes to historic preservation, think retain, repair and reuse: Retain the original architecture; repair and repaint the siding, windows and other historic details; and reuse hardware and other materials to maintain the period charm.

“A lot of the materials that were used 100 years ago are still available now,” Woodford says.

Flea markets, antiques stores and architectural salvage shops are good places to look for supplies. Even when materials are available, price may be a barrier to using them. If that’s the case, Woodford suggests finding new materials that have period charm.

“I’d rather see a barn fixed, even if it’s not historically correct, than bulldozed because it falls into disrepair,” he says.

4. Incorporate New Materials

When it comes to barn preservation, sometimes new is best. For example, modern conveniences like electricity might not be true to the period of the barn, but they’ll improve its functionality.

During the restoration of a barn built in the 1800s, Bultman opted to replace rotted beams with new timbers instead of scouring the country for 150-year-old rafters. His reasoning: In the time it would take to find rafters with the right geometry—if he could find them at all—the project could be completed. He worked with craftsmen to build new rafters in the same mortise and tenon joints as the originals.

For new hardware with period appeal, Bultman recommends contacting a blacksmith. “You can get a 21stcentury product in the spirit and history of the barn,” he says.

5. Research Financial Incentives

There might be grants available to cover the cost of repair or restoration work. Before applying, Woodford offers this caution: “These programs are generally not well funded and grants are often awarded annually on a lottery system; sometimes the folks who need work done and wait for grants to do it don’t get the funds they hoped for and, in the process, their [maintenance] issues get worse.”

Searching for tax incentives might be a better bet.

Some states offer tax credits to help with the restoration or rehabilitation of historic barns. In New York, for example, farmers can deduct up to 25 percent of the cost of repairs done to barns built before 1936.

Barns listed on the National Register of Historic Places are also eligible for federal tax credits. Check with your state historic preservation office for more information about available tax credits.

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