Rick Sosebee
February 21, 2015

Every time an old farm structure is torn down, it becomes ever more noticeable that our country’s agricultural heritage seems to be dwindling away slowly. It sometimes feels like we live in a disposable society, even when we farmers do our best to repurpose items whenever possible. Although I prefer to reuse items instead of buying new and encourage the preservation of historical farm structures, there are times when safety concerns force us to retire a beloved barn.

Making the tough decision to tear down an old barn can be a struggle, and unless it actually falls off of its foundation, many old timers will allow it to stand as a symbol of their hard work in the past. In a lot of cases, it’s possible to target structural problems in old barns and renovate them so the barn can be used for many more years. When making this decision for a barn on your property, there are few things to consider.

Safety of the Current Structure

As a general rule of thumb, if the four outermost walls of a building are structurally sound, then it’s possible to rebuild the inside. The base structure is your immediate concern, and replacing rotted wood inside can follow in the near future. Here are a few structural items that may give you some insight into the viability of your barn’s restoration:

1. Foundation

When Is a Barn Too Old to Use? - Photo by Rick Sosebee (HobbyFarms.com) #barn #oldbarn #farmhistory

Be sure the foundation of the barn is solid. Many old buildings were built on piles of strategically placed rocks to hold the load. This worked for years in many cases, but it’s likely not suitable for the future of your barn. A qualified restoration team can replace these old footings with more modern brick and breathe new life into the barn’s foothold. If the foundation is solid and the ground that the barn sits on hasn’t washed away from the supporting pillars, then you’re already on your way to preserving your old barn. However, if the foundation is falling away and the ground isn’t stable, it’s no longer usable without some major work.

2. Outer Walls

When Is a Barn Too Old to Use? - Photo by Rick Sosebee (HobbyFarms.com) #barn #oldbarn #farmhistory

The outer walls of a barn can tell you many things. If the siding or slats are leaning abnormally, you could have structural issues that need attention. Similarly, siding that runs from the ground or foundation up to the top of the wall in a vertical direction can give away secrets inside the walls. If you observe directional lean, it means the barn has shifted on its foundation and will need propping up to make structural repairs. Siding or boards that run lengthwise or parallel to the wall framing or studs in the walls can be a little more tricky to examine, but looking closely for nails popping out or boards that are less than perpendicular to the wall studs will reveal a leaning situation, as well. Also, be sure to look for bulging walls: If the weight of the roof is suddenly weighing heavy on degraded walls, they may tend to bulge outward.

3. Ridge Beam

When Is a Barn Too Old to Use? - Photo by Rick Sosebee (HobbyFarms.com) #barn #oldbarn #farmhistory

Looking at the roof beam or truss system inside a barn can give you insight as to just how far gone it is. If you stand at a point where you can look directly down the roof ridge, you can observe the condition under the tin or roofing material. In deteriorating barns, the backbone or ridge board may tend to sag and even sway from left to right along the ridge. If the ridge has serious dips along the main beam of the barn, then you must consider what is causing this and take notes inside the building. Sometimes old tin will rot and allow the wooden beams under it to get wet, thus rotting that beam. It’s possible that you can replace just one or two of the bad beams and support the roof back to its former glory, but sometimes this can be an indication of other structural concerns.

Cost to Rebuild or Renovate

When Is a Barn Too Old to Use? - Photo by Rick Sosebee (HobbyFarms.com) #barn #oldbarn #farmhistory

Financial limitations often dictate much of what happens around the farm. Think about what would it cost you to make the old barn on your property structurally sound. Remember, some states offer financial incentives to preserve historical structures, so take that into account. Compare that cost to what it would take to build a replacement barn. Even if the barn isn’t something you need at the present moment, there may be time in the future when you need to shelter animals or store hay. Construction costs and lumber prices are steadily rising. If you can’t afford to hire a contractor, do you have the time and skill set to do the work yourself?

Expert Opinions

When Is a Barn Too Old to Use? - Photo by Rick Sosebee (HobbyFarms.com) #barn #oldbarn #farmhistory

Of course, it’s always best to have an expert look over your barn and give you the final verdict. Hopefully with these few tips, you can get an idea for yourself if you want to tackle a renovation project or take down the building. I’ve never been one to give up on anything: A little hard labor combined with spirited friends or neighbors can do wonders to breathe life into old outbuildings and restore a sense of history to the land. Looking in the doors of an old barn might make you queasy when you think of the cost or time required to improve an existing structure, but in my humble opinion, preserving is always better than eliminating. Remember this, when you look into the walls of an old barn you see what our country was founded on. I think you get the point.

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