People-pleasin’ horse barns

In 2007 when the National Frame Building Association announced the year’s best horse barns, it honored a facility with “French Quarter” styling, living quarters that boast a slate floor and cultured stone walls, a loft apartment accessed by a custom-built spiral staircase, a full wet bar and a pool table that converts into a dining table, three heated bathrooms, tongue-and-groove ceilings and walls, columns wrapped in hand-hewn lumber, French doors and a steep roof designed to hold a large chandelier.

The horses have taken little notice of the luxury. But according to builder Pancho Windler, president of Windler Development in Pacific, Mo., “The new building is not only a place for horses, but for the family to relax and entertain as well.”

That illustrates the difference between horse barns then and now.

A generation ago, rural contractors were erecting livestock buildings. Barns were places for farmers to keep their horses at the end of the day. But since the gentrification of many rural areas, horse barns are now tied to lifestyles rather than livelihoods. And the evolution of equine construction introduces a host of challenges. Simply put, how do you engineer a building that serves both horses and people?

“It’s a real paradigm shift,” agrees president Curtis Miller of Darby Rural Corporation in Vancouver, Wash. “Building horse barns today isn’t just utilitarian, about producing a certain end product. It’s about the experience that the client wants.”

Both Miller and Windler are building increasing numbers of combination facilities that put horse stalls and, say, a hobby shop, RV storage, or living quarters under the same roof. “I remember one couple who moved temporarily into the living quarters beside their horse barn, while waiting to build their dream home,” Windler relates. “But eventually they decided that living side-by-side with their horses was their dream home.”

Convenience and comfort

Because barns “are not just for horses, but are now a gathering place for people,” continues Windler, “then barn design and construction today must account for the convenience of the owner.” And convenience means comfortable appointments, easy accessibility, better organized spaces and low maintenance.

Owners want to spend their time riding or relaxing — not making long walks between the house and barn, or dodging obstacles between the tack room and stalls, or making trips back and forth to the house when “nature” calls, or doing labor-intensive cleaning chores.

“Even when clients want a supposedly ‘simple’ barn,” says Windler, “when I started asking about the features they want, then even ‘simple’ barns aren’t so simple.” For example, the siting of the barn may be a compromise between aesthetic and practical considerations. “I always ask the customer beforehand,” he notes, “because the direction that the barn faces may be very important to the experience the owner wants.”

If living quarters—or even a bathroom—are added, construction challenges multiply. “Once you’ve got people in the facility, as well as horses,” he explains, “then you’ve got to install a septic tank, frost-protect the plumbing and put in frost walls, and figure in the electrical, mechanical, and HVAC requirements.”

Considerations like these “can easily double the price compared to what the barn would cost if it were just for horses,” adds Windler, whose company derives about 40 percent of its annual sales from the equine construction market. In turn, the extra cost is a significant factor behind the increasing size of today’s horse barns.

“If owners are going to spend money meeting their own needs, in addition to the needs of their horses,” Windler notes, “then they might as well upsize. It costs a certain amount of money to build a tack room, no matter what the size. So if you go from a 12×12 room to 12×20 then, compared to the total price of the project, it doesn’t cost that much more.”

Given the multiplied expense of building a barn for horses and people, Windler observes, “Owners don’t see these facilities just for utilitarian purposes, but as an investment. They expect barns to appreciate in value, like a house, so they can build equity.”

When clients see their barns not as livestock housing but as investments, then that brings a whole new perspective. Owners are more willing to add those bells and whistles that take their facilities to a higher level.

“We’ve done barns that have summer and winter tack rooms,” reports Windler, “and tack rooms with kitchenettes and bars. We’re seeing not just half-baths with a toilet and sink, but full baths with showers. And now barns are being designed with utility rooms, including hookups for a stackable washer-and-dryer.”

Looking to the future, Windler predicts that the trend of building living quarters into horse barns will accelerate.

“There’s a market of empty-nesters who decide to downsize. So they buy a piece of rural property and then build living quarters connected to their barn,” he points out. “But for all horse barn owners, the issue today is convenience.”

Living the life

With today’s emphasis on lifestyle rather than livelihood, Curtis Miller believes his customers in southwest Washington and northwest Oregon want their experience “to begin during construction and not just after the barn is built.”

Darby Rural Corporation averages between 40 and 60 equine projects per year, which accounts for about half its volume. “It’s important for rural builders to remember that their horse barn customers want to participate in their own lives,” Miller explains, “and that means they wish that they could build the barns themselves, if they knew how. So even though they need help, they want to be hands-on.”

For Miller, the “people” aspect of equine construction is not just in the building — but in the building process. On the morning his team breaks ground on a new project, he even invites the owner’s family, friends, neighbors and any trade contractors to a “first nail ceremony.” An old-time blacksmith forges a ceremonial nail on the jobsite, a pronouncement is read, all the contractors recite an oath and everyone takes a ceremonial first swing.

The jobsite itself — where material is stored, where access is provided — is set up in consultation with the client to minimize disruptions to family life. Then the end of the project — and the start of the customer’s new lifestyle — are marked by a final nail ceremony.

Miller agrees that decisions about siting a barn are not always made according to which way the sun shines or the wind blows. “Many times,” he reports, “we’ll site the barn so that the owners can look out the kitchen windows of their main house and see equine members of the family poking their heads out of the Dutch doors.”

Today’s horse barn owners want easy access from the house to the barn, a heated and insulated bathroom in the barn, and a low-maintenance design. Automatic waterers are popular for maintaining the animals, while maintaining the barn is facilitated by using easy-to-clean building materials such as FRP wallboard and concrete aisleways.

A desire for convenience leads many Darby customers to choose combination buildings, designs that bring two uses — perhaps horse stalls and adjoining storage for cars, RVs, or boats — under one roof.

Sometimes, however, clients put their two favorite hobbies side-by-side. “And if you put horse stalls in the same building with a hotrod shop,” he states, “then you’ve got a structure where one side is made for animals, while the other side of the building needs air compressors and lots of electrical outlets.”

One recent project performed by Darby Rural Corporation illustrates how horse owners are combining dual uses to create the lifestyles they crave. “We had a client who wanted to spend more time with kids, while paying less money to board her horses,” he recalls. “The solution was to build her barn to keep her horses, and combining that with a loft area for the children.”

In addition to differences in mechanical/electrical requirements, combination buildings present challenges in calculating HVAC loads. “We’ve done barns where the garage or shop was insulated, and the section where the horses are kept is not insulated,” Miller recounts, “and other barns where the whole building is insulated and the horses’ need for fresh air is handled through mechanical ventilation.”

Miller describes his typical horse barn customer as “capable and practical, a person who is building a homestead but is financially conservative.”

Therefore he predicts that over the next few years, as people adjust to current economic uncertainties, “Barn owners will still want to create a lifestyle. But they’ll be less likely to throw money at a project to get what they want.

“As rural builders, we’ve got to respond by giving our clients more control. And that means giving them more creative options to save money while getting what they want.”

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