Building a new barn is a once-in-a-lifetime project for many small-scale farmers. If you’re involved in a barn-construction project, it can be just as exciting as planning your birthday party when you were a kid—except way more stressful.
A barn could house your livestock and your machinery, it can act as a storage area for hay and tack, it can be a workshop and a studio, and it might even do all of these things at once. Each use needs to be considered during your barn construction to be sure you get the right light, ventilation, ease of access and distance from neighbors, and these concepts are all affected by the siting of your new barn.
If you’ve never built a barn before, you might not realize the forethought that goes into the placement and orientation of the structure on a property, but one that’s poorly sited will cost you money and worry for the life of the structure.
1. Siting For Ventilation
“Ventilation is one of most critical considerations of barn design,” says Laurel Bishop, national sales assistant for barn and farm-building custom designer at MD Barnmaster. “Many people believe closing a barn up tight against foul weather is a good idea. In reality, the building up of ammonia in the air from urine and feces is detrimental [to animals’ respiratory systems].”
Ventilation comes down to more than just opening a window.
“Natural ventilation can be accomplished by a number of techniques,” says Seth Anderson, principal architect at Ascent Architecture and Interiors and small-farm owner in Bend, Ore. “In barns, the most common [technique] is to create large openings in the side of the barn to allow breezes to flow through the building. In this case, you want to orient one side of the barn with openings toward the prevailing wind direction and make sure that other buildings or natural features don’t create a wind block.”
“In cold winter climates, you want to orient openings (aisleway doors, stall doors, etc.) away from the prevailing wind to create a wind block,” Anderson says. “In warm climates, the opposite is true, where directing the natural breeze through the building will have a natural cooling effect.”
Good ventilation goes beyond the orientation of the barn, including fans and vented roof ridges and eaves. These features will be less efficient if your barn is poorly oriented, however. Depending on the type of ventilation you go with, you want to keep a few things in mind:
Mechanical Ventilation (e.g., exhaust fans, motorized shutters or inlets)
Always provide enough inlet space when using exhaust fans.
“It may seem to be OK to match a fan size to an inlet size—for example, a 12-inch exhaust fan to a 12-inch inlet shutter—but in fact, it puts too much stress on your fan motor, which may cause it to fail sooner than expected,” says Kathy Benoit, FarmTek’s livestock specialist. “Always talk to the company providing your fan as to what the recommended inlet space is for your application.”
Put fans as far away from the air inlet as possible; this way, air is drawn across your building.
“Air travels from the easiest place, so for example, putting a fan above an open door will never give you full barn ventilation, as the fan will pull from the open door below,” Benoit says.
Natural ventilation (e.g., curtains)
Placement is important when utilizing curtains, so protect the critters inside. “If you have small animals, such as chickens, lambs or calves, try to use a drop-down system (a curtain that opens at the top first),” Benoit says. “This way, you can get good quality air in your structure, without chilling anything inside. For larger livestock, such as full-grown cattle or horses, roll-up curtains are a great option. These curtains allow for maximum ventilation with minimal material in the way.”
Another tip for curtains from Benoit is to always make sure they are secured properly. When deciding on a curtain system, determine if you would like bird netting or fencing on the inside of the opening. This will protect the curtain from blowing into the building and prevent unwanted pests from coming into the structure.
“For the outside securing, use ropes or strapping,” she says. “Occasionally, manufacturers will offer vertical pipe for retaining curtains; these work but can be loud and might startle animals inside.”
2. Siting For Lighting
Natural light is a blessing in a barn, as well as in a home.
“The best natural light comes from the north,” Anderson says.
This is a bright light that doesn’t cause a structure to overheat, and he suggests building your barn so it’s not shaded from the north by other buildings or natural features, such as trees or slopes.
Also, design it to let in this precious light: “It’s more effective to use clerestory windows, cupolas or roof skylights to help light the interior of the barn,” he says.
These three design elements all let the light in: Clerestory windows are essentially a wall of windows, while cupulas are structures that extend from the barn roof to benefit both light and airflow, and roof skylights are exactly that—just like the skylights you have in your home.
Another lighting trick that Chuck Bartok, a barn specialist with MD Barnmaster and farm owner in Genola, Utah, shares—regardless of your barn’s orientation—is to paint the interior walls of the barn a light color to brighten up the place.
3. Siting For Comfort
You know the way a cat will lay in a south-facing window in the wintertime to soak up the sun’s warm rays? You can place your barn so it can do the same.
“In warm climates, it makes sense to position the barn in area that is shaded from the southern sun to reduce heat buildup in the structure,” Anderson says. “In cold climates, orienting the longest side of the barn to the south will provide some potential for passive solar heating.”
“Siting a barn is always location specific, but generally we see structures facing in the east/west direction,” Benoit says. “Positioning your structure this way will allow the sun to travel over the top of the structure evenly. This is great for winter time, as it allows you to utilize the southern sun exposure to your full advantage.”
4. Siting For Land Layout
The lay of the land has a lot to do with where you can place a barn.
“Check slope, drainage and prevailing weather, and optimize the location for these considerations: Water should drain away from the barn rather than down to the barn,” Bishop says. “Facing stall runs [for animal access to an open barn] away from a prevailing wind provides better shelter. Sun exposure during wet months will allow for better drying of footing.”
5. Siting For Access
You won’t enjoy your new barn one bit if you dread getting to and from the barn.
“On a hobby farm, we typically position the barn so there’s convenient access from the home so the owner isn’t walking across the property to feed and check on the animals, but far away enough to limit odors and noise,” Anderson says. He recommends 75 feet between the house and the barn, but on smaller properties, even closer would be OK.
Apart from regular, daily chores, consider how veterinarians can access the barn with their vehicles and where you can back a trailer to the barn door.
Bartok, who has been designing barns for more than 20 years, points out the convenience of hay and feed delivery as a major siting consideration: “Nothing is more frustrating than having to unload a full truck of hay away from the barn and then having to take it down to the barn bale by bale.” If you’ve ever been in this position, you know it’s true.
“It’s also important to think about how the barn is sited in relation to pastures and other buildings on the property,” Anderson says. If you can tap into existing water, sewer/septic and electrical lines, you’ll save time, money and headache in your construction project.
6. Siting For Your Enjoyment
Building in a location that makes you happy is also essential. Consider what having another farm structure can do for your overall enjoyment of farm life.
“Think about if you want to be able to see your barn from your living-room window or if, by locating the barn at a 90-degree angle to the house, you can create an attractive courtyard,” Anderson suggests.
Allow it to create a microclimate for gardening or livestock keeping. Perhaps you can even use it to block the view of something unsightly taking place on a neighboring property.
7. Siting For Zoning
Before you even discuss building a new structure on your farm, you need to understand your area’s zoning requirements. Even a small overstepping of zoning boundaries can cause a construction project to come to a halt.
“Local restrictions on land use, called development codes, can also influence barn siting with requirements on setbacks from property lines, distance from the main residence and access by fire-department vehicles,” Anderson says. “On more rare occasions, the community or neighborhood association may have additional design requirements that may require the barn to be placed to the rear of the home or a certain distance from the front of the property.”
Even more immediate than city or county zoning is the lay of your own land. “Make sure you know the true boundaries of your property,” Anderson says. “And make sure you know where existing utilities and your septic drain field are before you start digging.”
Property easements, shared driveways and public and private utilities will also dictate the location of your barn.
Throughout your building project, as you’re determining the number of square feet you can afford, the color you’d like to paint your new building, and the layout of the stalls and storage areas inside, take a walk around your property to really examine your barn siting. Take the advice of your architect or construction company for the best orientation and placement. Well-planned barn siting can make the difference between a barn you’ll celebrate and one you’ll simply live with.
This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of Hobby Farms.