A generation ago when horse barns were considered agricultural buildings, their design was functional and straightforward. To hire an architect that specialized in horse barns, even if you could find one, would have seemed outlandish for the ordinary farmer or horse owner.
Today, however, horse barns have stepped away from the agricultural construction market and have become a market all their own. Even backyard barns feature architectural appointments that express the dreams and personalities of their owners. So it’s not surprising that partners Linda Royer and Matthew Johnson of Equine Facility Design have found a booming niche market in equine architecture.
“We’ve performed projects from two-stall barns to large riding arenas, from $60,000 in contract value to $18 million, and from small post-frame barns to large equine facilities using frame construction,” says Johnson, whose firm is based in Oregon City, Ore. “And I can tell you that horse barns today are different than agricultural buildings, different than commercial buildings, and different than residential buildings. They’re a unique category of their own.”
Servicing that category started as the dream of Royer, who earned a bachelor of architecture degree from the University of Oregon and entered professional practice as a licensed landscape architect with design firms in the Pacific Northwest. But as a rider, owner, and breeder of horses, “I had a passion for combining my lifelong interest in horses with my professional training in design,” she explains.
So a dozen years ago, in 1994, Royer hung out her own shingle and launched Equine Facility Design. With 18 years of experience in managing commercial, recreational, institutional, public, and residential projects, her professional skills in design were readily transferable to the equine market. Then in 2001, Johnson joined the firm as a partner, bringing a bachelor of architecture degree from Syracuse University and experience as a licensed architect for commercial, institutional, health care, and residential projects across the United States.
Together, Royer and Johnson today combine for more than 40 total years of design and construction experience. With Johnson’s expertise in architecture and Royer’s in landscapes, their firm offers horse barn clients a service that starts from the ground up.
“Before a piece of land is purchased or developed for equine use,” says Royer, “we can visit the site with the client to assess the suitability of the site.” Through a feasibility study Equine Facility Design can examine a proposed site for its access, topography, soils, drainage, microclimate, vegetation, availability of utilities, and surrounding uses. The study also can encompass research into zoning and development issues, and the local permitting process.
If a site is feasible, adds Johnson, “Our first job is to listen to our clients, to hear about their dreams, goals, and experiences with horses.” Clients may have a vision for their property, while Johnson and Royer bring the design expertise “to refine and clarify the vision, and translate ideas into specific, definable spaces and use requirements.” As the dream takes tangible shape, Equine Facility Design drafts a site development program that spells out basic dimensions for buildings and outdoor areas.
Site research comes next, as Royer and Johnson obtain all known information about the property, from its physical condition to local planning requirements. Research may encompass aerial photos, soils maps and soils testing for fertility and drainage, assessment of existing vegetation including tree health and grass types, investigation of subsurface conditions, and assessment of water quality, existing and surrounding wells, flood planes, average precipitation, and climate. The historic uses of the site are documented, existing structures are examined, utilities are located, property boundaries are fixed, code issues such as setbacks and land use or environmental designations are researched.
Royer and Johnson analyze the information and devise a site plan based on the best buildable area for structures and the areas best suited for outdoor arenas, pastures, riding trails, parking, access, and roads. To ensure safety and good flow, says Royer, “We look at the circulation paths for vehicles, pedestrians, and horses. Then we translate the development program into specific footprint areas. The task is to develop the best arrangement of uses on the site with the least impact, but greatest aesthetic and functional layout.”
An actual site layout is drafted that specifies in greater detail the areas to be constructed: exact road placements and widths; locations and dimensions of parking, entry points, buildings, arenas, and paddocks; the layout of fences and gates; and land features, landscaping, and major drainage ways. As everything is laid out, Royer says, “Consideration is given to placing the development in such a way as to best fit with the natural contours of the land, to minimize the need for excavation and fill.”
For example, underlying soil conditions of shallow bedrock or hardpan may influence placement of features and limit grading. Moreover, Royer strives for site layouts that intercept and reroute rainwater from developed areas. “On many projects,” she relates, “we work with a civil engineer in the design and coordination of grading, stormwater management, erosion control, and underground utilities.”
On all projects, Johnson says, “We work with a structural engineer, as we often work as a consultant to other architects and planners.” When Johnson and Royer work outside of Oregon and accept a project in another state, he adds, they may involve local professionals licensed in that state. Though based in Oregon, Equine Facility Design performs work all over the U.S. and has undertaken barn projects as far away as Georgia, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.
“Throughout the design process,” Johnson states, “the client is involved in shaping the aesthetic and functional considerations, and reviewing costs and materials.” As a landscape architect, Royer points out that the visual beauty of a site resides not just in the buildings but also in the land. “You want to carefully site the buildings to work with the natural contours of the land,” she explains. To create the outdoors areas needed, land can be gently reshaped. Artful placement of roads and fence lines, and new plantings to soften the visual introduction of structures, can greatly enhance a site.
“Landscape materials are used to frame views, screen undesirable views, and modify the microclimate with shade and wind buffers,” Royer says. To optimize the architecture of the landscape she often designs entry gates, signage, water features, trails, viewing areas, shade structures and picnic areas, as well as landscape plantings, lighting, and irrigation. Pasture establishment, landscape restoration, and native planting projects can also “help create a healthy, long-term environment for people and horses to enjoy,” she says.
Equine Facility Design categorizes its work according to four phases: (1) research and master planning, which produces a master plan and identifies existing conditions and planning issues; (2) design development, which yields a site layout and preliminary floor plans, elevations, sections, and cost estimates; (3) preparation of construction documents required to obtain building permits and bids from contractors; and (4) construction consultation, as Johnson and Royer are available to review the work in progress and assist the owner in making decisions throughout the project.
For all of this work, Equine Facility Design charges fees by the hour. “But for most long-term projects,” Royer points out, “we develop a scope of work for professional services, an estimate of hours and fees, and a written contract for services.”
Clients can employ the firm for any or all of the project phases. “But for most of our customers, it’s their first barn and so they want our full range of services,” Johnson says. On more than half of the firm’s projects, he adds, they provide project management services. The equine market, he says, accounts for about 90 percent of the firm’s business, with the remainder comprised of strictly residential or landscaping contracts.
If the thoroughness and professionalism that Royer and Johnson bring to a horse barn project sound pricey, the two reiterate that they have been engaged on projects both large and small. “Our prices aren’t geared to weed anybody out,” explains Johnson, “and we always work within our clients’ budgets.” By involving Equine Facility Design early in a horse barn project, he contends, “We can help owners understand the process, reduce their frustration, and often save them money” through value-engineering.
Since launching Equine Facility Design in 1994, Royer has observed several trends in equine architecture and construction. “Horses are really hard on barns and runs, so there’s a need for durable materials,” she says. “But the industry has stepped up and is providing some high-quality materials, like HDTE plastic lumber and metal wall panels with concealed fasteners. On exteriors I’m seeing a trend toward higher quality, rather than just a simple post-frame shell with a metal skin.”
Barn design also is paying more attention to the safety and health of horses, Royer believes. “In the past, you often saw solid walls as stall dividers and stall fronts,” she comments, “which was like putting the horses in a prison. Now people are realizing the horses need ventilation and socialization. They need to put their heads out and see what’s going on, while side grills help improve ventilation.” Small design details often make a big difference, she advises, such as “eliminating crevices so that you can pressure-wash the building and avoid giving birds a place to nest.”
Royer has kept horses since childhood and has bred Arabians for the past 25 years. Primarily a dressage rider, in 2000 she started crossing warmbloods with Arabians to breed horses with more bone, size, and gait extension than Arabian purebreds. She works from her home, using an office she designed to overlook the horse pasture on her 7.5-acre property. Asked about her favorites among the barns she has designed, Royer especially enjoys projects that include guest quarters “because in staying there, you get to live with the horses.”
Given her own passion for horses, Royer knows her firm “isn’t just designing a facility, we’re designing a lifestyle. Building a horse barn isn’t just a financial matter; people have an emotional investment because it makes a huge impact on their lifestyle. We understand that, so we want to provide a facility which enhances our clients’ experience.”