Many farmers build new barns, but some are lucky enough to buy or inherit property with old barns in place. Their challenge becomes how to keep these old barns from falling down. Fortunately for this group, John Porter knows his way around old barns. Growing up, Porter spent more time in his family’s 170-year-old barns than he did inside the house.
The Porter family owned a 400-cow dairy in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and Porter spent his share of time tending the cows and maintaining the buildings. He recalls one summer, home from college, when he worked with his father and a local carpenter renovating one of the barns, piloting wheelbarrows full of wet concrete to pour a floor. The concrete truck couldn’t get close enough to pour the floor directly, so he had to carry the full weight of that floor one load at a time.
In 2006, Porter used his knowledge to start a consulting business called Farm Planning Services, and today, he is the extension professor/dairy specialist emeritus at the University of New Hampshire. His specific task? Helping New England farmers keep their old barns standing.
Of course, one specialist can’t help every barn owner, so Porter and his colleague, Francis Gilman, an extension agriculture engineer emeritus, produced a book called Preserving Old Barns: Preventing the loss of a valuable resource (2001). But he doesn’t take credit for the idea:
“In 1999, my boss was on a committee that wanted a handbook on barn maintenance,” Porter says. “He raised his hand and said: ‘John Porter will write it.’” The book has definitely met a need, selling thousands of copies since its debut with a new edition planned for later this year. In addition to barn preservation, the book also covers the history of barns in New England and has a lengthy list of resources for barn owners.
Porter points out that barn owners can get additional help in states such as New Hampshire, where private nonprofits such as the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance offer matching grants so owners of old barns can hire local contractors to generate plans for their next steps. Each contractor researches the barn’s history, assesses renovation options and develops a priority list of needed work. The NHPA grant is for $400, and the owner has to match with $100. Together, that’s enough for the initial assessment. The NHPA’s most recent campaign is to raise enough money to help 52 barns in 52 weeks.
What to Look For
In his public presentations on saving old barns, John Porter, the extension professor/dairy specialist emeritus at the University of New Hampshire, offers some helpful observations.
- Black stains reveal old water leaks; white stains indicate more recent ones.
- Attached sheds are often a detriment to the barn; they allow water to get between the two structures, while snow can pile up on the attached roof and damage the adjoining wall.
- The tiny holes of powderpost beetles are nothing to worry about unless there is fresh white powder indicating recent activity. There is no need for expensive chemicals, as spraying turpentine can stop these beetles.
New or Used?
The oldest barn Porter has seen lost to neglect was from the late 1700s. Some owners get overwhelmed and tear down a barn to avoid the taxes and liability. Frequently, widows are left to struggle with the demands of an old barn. Most barns Porter sees are more than a century old, having been built during a construction boom in the 1850s.
Some owners build new, more easily maintained pole barns for their animals and fix up their old barns to use for storage or farm stands. Without a moneymaking (or money-saving) purpose, it can be difficult to justify the expense of renovating an old barn. Porter says owners who take on the hard work, though, get a great sense of accomplishment and are glad they renovated rather than tearing down to build a new barn.
Authors Curtis B. Johnson and Thomas D. Visser agree. In Taking Care Of Your Old Barn (1995), produced by the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation and Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, they state that many owners simply enjoy using and taking care of their old farm buildings.
“They appreciate the historic character of the barns, stables, corncribs, sugarhouses and the surrounding landscape,” they write, pointing out that it often makes good economic sense to keep old barns. “They [barns] provide valuable storage and workspace. They usually can be adapted to new uses at a much lower cost than building a replacement. … Preserving a barn’s historic character can go hand in hand with the economic and efficient use of a farm building.”
When considering repairing a barn, it’s most important for an owner to look after the top and bottom of the structure and what’s growing around it.
“A barn will survive indefinitely with a sound roof and a decent foundation,” Porter says. “The biggest culprit in the downfall of neglected barns is the overgrown vegetation that’s allowed to grow up next to a barn.”
The swaying branches of trees can bang up a roof and create leaks. Shrubbery, meanwhile, can hold moisture and organic debris against the wooden sills—the beams that rest on the stone foundation—and cause them to rot. A rotten sill causes settling, which causes the roof to lose integrity and creates damaging leaks.
Barn Preservation Steps
Before you start preserving your barn, you need to determine your objective in the project.
“Do you want to keep an old barn from falling down, to create a functional use for an abandoned building or to restore the structure authentically?” writes Porter in his book. “It is well to remember that preservation entails retaining the structural integrity of a building, while restoration implies the use of authentic materials and techniques to return the building to its condition at the point in the past, often the day it was built.”
Here’s a summary of steps an owner of an old barn should consider, according to Porter.
- Landscape by Subtraction: Remove overgrown shrubs, trees and vines that obscure the building. This will make it easier to see what you’re dealing with and curtail any damage to the roof, siding or foundation these plantings might have contributed.
- Observe Closely: Use a hammer and chisel—or a flathead screwdriver—to check wood for rot that might be hidden inside a foundation sill or in framing timbers exposed to roof leaks. Check walls and posts for plumb. Check floors for level. Step back enough to see whether the roof sags. Use binoculars to check the condition of roof shingles. Walk around the barn during a good downpour to see where rain gets in and to identify drainage problems.
- Set Goals: Do you simply want to keep the barn standing, develop it for a new use, preserve it or restore it to its original condition? Will you apply for a grant to offset the cost of a consultant? Will you do the work, or will you hire a local contractor or a professional barn restorer? Expect a “time and materials” contract rather than a one-price bid. There are too many unknowns in old barns. You can keep some control on costs, though, by tackling the project in stages.
- Make a Plan: Your plan should address the problems you’ve identified and the goals you’ve listed. How will you finance the work? In which season(s) will the work be done? You might consider spring and fall for exterior work and summer and winter for interior work. Where should you start? Make a list of deadlines to consider and any tools you’ll need to purchase or rent. With these steps in place, the work can begin.
- Fix Roof Leaks: This will keep rot from spreading and might just mean applying a tarp or inexpensively replacing a few bad shingles until any repairs to the foundation have stabilized the structure and returned it to its original shape.
- Foundation & Drainage: Permanently fix the foundation and address any drainage issues. Leveling the foundation will alter any repairs you’ve made, so aside from a temporary roof patch, don’t expend major time or money until the foundation is sound. If the foundation is stone, you might need to engage a stonemason. Jacking up a barn to replace rotten sills or to repair a stone foundation is best left to professionals. It’s slow and tricky work.
- Roof Repair: Repair the roof once the foundation is set and the building will not move. Keeping a watertight roof is essential. “Water from a leaky roof will rot roof boards, rafters, framing and floors and damage what is stored in the barn,” write Johnson and Visser. “Check your roof at least once a year to see that it is watertight. Use binoculars to scan the outside, systematically following the rows where roofing overlaps and all flashing. Pay particular attention to potential problem areas where roofing or flashing might fail, such as the ridges, eaves, valleys, around cupolas, along intersecting walls, and anywhere snow and ice can drop down from a higher roof.”
- Interior Design: Repair framing and floor and other interior elements. Flooring is the interior feature usually requiring the most maintenance in a well-used barn. “Roof leaks and decaying hay might damage flooring and joists underneath, creating a hazard,” write Johnson and Visser. “Clear and sweep clean floors every few years so you can assess their condition.”
- Siding: Repair the siding last, as it is the least critical component protecting the building and for safety. “Original siding contributes greatly to the historic character and appearance of agricultural buildings and is often a good indicator of their age,” say Johnson and Visser. “Any surface decay near the ground or on roof cornices or soffits should be thoroughly assessed to ensure that it does not hide structural or other serious problems that should be repaired first. Rough, vertical board siding, as long as boards remain intact and well-ventilated, might last 200 years unpainted. Most other siding and trim requires painting to preserve it.”
The penultimate step is to, of course, take some photos of your barn-again structure to post on social media. Then you can do the best part: Hire a string band, call your friends, cook a pig, throw a party and celebrate. You’ve just saved an old barn.
Learn more about fixing up at old barn with these resources.
- Eric Sloane’s An Age of Barns: An illustrated review of classic barn styles and construction (2001) by Eric Sloan
- Preserving Old Barns: Preventing the loss of a valuable resource (2001/2017) by John Porter and Francis Gilman. Visit www.musterfieldfarm.com/preserving-old-barns to order.
- Renovating Old Barns, Sheds and Outbuildings (2001) by Nick Engler
- Taking Care Of Your Old Barn: Ten tips for preserving and reusing Vermont’s historic agricultural buildings (1995) by Curtis B. Johnson and Thomas D. Visser, available online here.
- The Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums: This organization serves those involved in living historical farms, agricultural museums and outdoor museums of history and folk life.
- Barn Again in Ohio: This Ohio State University extension program provides educational opportunities, including barn workshops, speakers and fact sheets, for people to learn more about their barns and other historical agricultural structures. This can entail preservation, rehabilitation and repurposing older barns for new uses.
- National Barn Alliance: This national, nonprofit organization coordinates preservation efforts to save America’s historic barns. Members are farmers and city dwellers, students, historical groups and timber framers.
- New Hampshire Preservation Alliance:
. The alliance’s most recent goal is to raise enough money to do assessments on 52 barns in 52 weeks.
- Stone Foundation: Stonemasons in several countries have banded together to create a nationwide directory of stonemasons for hire. They also host a national gathering and produce a magazine that profiles fine stonework. The site also has a directory of state level stonemasonry organizations.
This story originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of Hobby Farms.