Site seeing

A horse barn contractor is in the business of building dreams. Yet a client’s dream can quickly turn into a nightmare when water starts to puddle around the barn, even flow into the aisles, as walkways become dangerously slick and the ground surrounding the structure is quickly churned into mud.
And if the barn faces into the chill winter winds and storms, or if the site plan shuts out the cooling summer breezes — well, the result can be dissatisfied clients and, for the builder, fewer referrals and repeat business.
“Hey, in siting a horse barn it’s even a common mistake to put the barn too close to the house,” says Zachary Henderson, an architect based in Roswell, Ga., who has designed equine facilities for more than 40 years. “Many people don’t keep their barns as clean as they should. So if they built the barn too close to the house, and built it without thinking which way the wind blows, the results can be less than ideal.”
Henderson agrees that another common mistake in siting a horse barn is failure to consider draining. “If the barn is sited so that water comes in the door or the stalls don’t drain,” he points out, “then mud will be a real problem.” As for which direction the barn should face, he adds, “Southern exposure is nice in the winter because you get more sun and warmth. On the other hand, you want the north side to have the fewest windows and openings. Winter storms come from the north and northwest, and you want to be able to close up that side of the barn.”
Access is yet another issue in siting a horse barn. “Keep in mind that you don’t want tractors, feed trucks, and trucks with hay and wood shavings coming through the same driveway as the main residence,” Henderson advises. “That means you need to site the barn where it can have separate access.”
Among the most basic considerations is whether or not the ground can support the weight of a barn. “Clients might not want to spend the money for a soil test by a soils engineer, but it’s a great investment,” believes Henderson. “Is the ground full of fill dirt? Or are you going to be digging piers down into bedrock? You want to make sure the ground can support the barn so that you avoid settling and cracking, which isn’t good for your horses.”
Siting the barn in an aesthetically pleasing manner is another to satisfying clients. “My wife loves being able to see her horses from her bedroom window,” Henderson says. “But you should also consider future uses of your barn. Someday your kids will grow up and you might sell your property. Is the barn laid out so that a new owner can reuse it for other purposes?”
In the end, local building and zoning authorities also will have their say in how a horse barn is sited. “Every jurisdiction can be different,” Henderson notes. “Around here, bureaucrats deal with odor concerns through specifying certain setbacks. For our clients we always do a pre-purchase analysis which looks at zoning requirements and homeowners association covenants. Today you need that kind of analysis before you build anything.”

Good sites by design
Architect Todd Gralla agrees that issues such as zoning, building codes, setbacks, easements, access, and all the rest must be considered when siting an equine facility. As special projects director for gh2 Gralla Architects LLC in Tulsa, Okla., he is part of a firm that has designed such facilities for more than 35 years. Among its nearly 500 completed projects is the Oklahoma State Fair Park, where 3,200 stalls make it the world’s largest equine facility by number of stalls.
“We do about 40 equine projects per year,” Gralla reports, “and we’ve found that it’s impossible and dangerous to separate preliminary design from site planning. Actually, they’re both the same task, because the site plan relates to how the whole facility functions.” For his firm, Gralla adds, function is always the highest priority. “Even if it’s just a hobby barn,” he points out, “it has to function well and be easy to operate and maintain, in order to provide the client an enjoyable experience.”
Of course, aesthetics are not unimportant. “Even a working farm wants to project a good image,” Gralla relates. But a good site plan must begin “by getting detailed site information to identify existing or potential problems, from landscape buffers to soil conditions,” he advises. Other factors might include local regulations for storm water management, manure handling, and even limits on the number of horses per acre.
With a combined 40 years of design and construction experience, partners Linda Royer and Matthew Johnson of Equine Facility Design in Oregon City, Ore., believe their service starts from the ground up. In working with a client, Royer says, they visit a site together even before land is purchased. Next a feasibility study surveys the proposed site for its access, topography, soils, drainage, microclimate, vegetation, availability of utilities, surrounding uses, zoning and development issues, and the local permitting process.
After listening to the client’s “dreams, goals, and experiences with horses,” continues Johnson, the firm drafts a site development program that spells out basic dimensions for buildings and outdoor areas. Site research is then conducted to 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.
Finally, 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.”
The finished layout specifies 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 — all in such a way, continues Royer, “to best fit with the natural contours of the land and minimize the need for excavation and fill.”
Shallow bedrock or hardpan may influence placement of features and limit grading. Rainwater should ideally be intercepted and rerouted from developed areas. A civil engineer may be retained to assist in the design and coordination of grading, storm water management, erosion control, and underground utilities.
Because Royer has a professional background as a landscape architect, she emphasizes site planning that complements the natural contours of the land. To create the outdoors areas that are 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 can frame views, screen undesirable views, and modify the microclimate with shade and wind buffers. In fact, a site plan can go beyond the immediate area around the barn and extend to water features, trails, viewing areas, shade structures and picnic areas, lighting and irrigation, pasture establishment and landscape restoration. “The goal is to create a healthy, long-term environment for people and horses to enjoy,” Royer concludes.
In the overall picture, Equine Facility Design views site planning as a part of four project 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.

Addressing the issues
Not every horse barn project, or even most horse barn projects, employs an architect. Yet builders attest to the same site-planning consideration in the design and construction of an equine facility. “Drainage is the main concern,” affirms manager Rob Stoneburner of Virginia Frame Builders and Supply in Fishersville, Va. “You’ve got to end up with a site that sits high enough so that the drainage is sloping away from all four sides, which usually requires grading and shaping the site. If the water doesn’t slope away then it’s going to pond around the barn.”
Yet the highest point on a property may not be the best choice for a barn. For one thing, Stoneburner points, the highest spot with the best views “is often where customers want their homes to be sited,” For another, he points out that the highest spot can also be the most exposed to wind. “That might be good in the summer,” he says, “but tough in the winter. So the customer might want a more protected site for the barn.”
Virginia Frame Builders also examines the underlying soil, since limestone bedrock is a frequent problem in its locale. The company protects itself against unexpected costs by putting a “rock clause” in its contracts, “though today’s backhoes and excavators can use rock drill bits which can break up the holes you need fairly quickly,” reports Stoneburner. When it comes to soils, he adds, “It’s always better to work with a cut site rather than a filled site.”
Since his company subcontracts for its excavation needs, Stoneburner ensures that “our subs understand drainage considerations for post-frame construction.” Since sitework is so important for a successful barn project, he continues, Virginia Frame Builders tends to use subs it has employed before. “The problems,” he says, “can come when we have to use an excavator that the owner has selected.”
For president Ken Meigs of Meigs Inc. in Black Earth, Wis., “The major siting issue is the site itself — namely, how big is it? Since we deal mostly with smaller lot sizes, most of our customers don’t have a lot of options about where to site their barns.”
In Wisconsin, adds vice president Dave Budden, the direction in which a horse barn faces is also an important concern. “You don’t want the barn to face north,” he explains. “If it does face north, then the ground won’t get any sun and might stay frozen until May. The ground won’t dry out, which can be slippery and dangerous for both the horse and the owner. But if the barn faces south, the ground in front can thaw and dry out by February.”
Wisconsin winters also dictate siting the barn for easy access to the owner’s house. “When it’s cold and there’s snow on the ground,” Meigs points out, “you don’t want to walk or drive a long way from your house in order to feed and take care of your horses.”
While Meigs must deal with storm water management regulations in his area, he says the region’s soils are good for equine facilities. “Bedrock hasn’t been much of a problem for us in 20 years of business,” he relates, “though we do have a clause in our contracts to protect ourselves. But mostly we give our customers an excavating allowance as part of our estimate, and then we try to stay within that figure.”

Larger project concerns
In contrast to Meigs, who works mostly on smaller sites, King Construction of New Holland, Pa., serves many customers who require larger barns. “Most barns of any size need some acreage,” relates sales director Dan Nissley. “If you’re going to build a facility with 10 or 20 stalls, you can’t do it on a property that’s only got 2 or 3 acres.” For that reason, he says that traffic flow is a big issue for King’s customers.
“We don’t discount things like which way the barn faces,” Nissley allows, “but with the facilities we build, the owner has got trucks delivering hay and feed. Horse trailers are going in and out. So we’ve got to site the barn in a spot where there’s room for loading and unloading, and where the driveways can be wide enough so that trailers have space to turn around without having to make sharp turns.”
Many of the company’s horse barn customers do not grow their own hay and feed, which means these supplies must be trucked in and then stored onsite. “With all of these tractor-trailer deliveries,” Nissley points out, “you can’t site the driveway too close to the property line, because then it would get too crowded for the trailers to maneuver.”
With the rolling hills of the Pennsylvania horse country, sitework for a barn means preparing a flat space for the concrete pad and the expected vehicle traffic, while grading the land around the barn so it slopes enough for good drainage. King Construction also conducts soil borings prior to its project. And if sitework requires some filling, the company installs the fill 6 inches at a time and then compacts it with vibratory rollers.
“The site needs to be as close to virgin ground as you can make it,” Nissley states. “We also make sure to get the footers down to virgin ground, which may mean an extra-deep foundation.” The company does encounter bedrock in its territory, so that a digging clause is incorporated into contracts “in case we need to use blasting, air hammers, or backhoes,” he says.
Then, too, at the higher end of the horse barn market “the people want to look out of their house and get a nice view of the barn,” Nissley continues. “They’re not going to turn the barn to face south if it means looking at the back of the barn from their house.”
Yet good ventilation is still vital for horses. “So if the barn isn’t sited to face the best direction for natural cross-ventilation, that affects how we design the barn,” he says. “We may put in extra windows and doors so the barn can be opened up in the summertime.”
Nissley typically encounters storm water management regulations in his area — as does Gary van Bolderen, owner of Dutch Masters Construction Services Ltd. in Barrie, Ont. “In Ontario we have many environmental regulations,” he reports, “such as setbacks from ponds, manure management, and proximity to neighbors. So we must figure out how to site a horse barn based on the regulations. After that, we get into aesthetics.”
Like other builders, van Bolderen emphasizes the importance of good drainage. And because most of his customers are in the equine business as profit-making horse breeders, that introduces other concerns into a site plan. Most projects call for 12 to 20 stalls. Paddocks placed too near a road can bother the animals. Energy-saving strategies are desirable to reduce operating costs. Owners and managers who spend their days in a barn may want good views from their offices.
Since these commercial horse farms are located in remote areas that afford plenty of land, Dutch Masters’ site plans must frequently specify where utilities, septic fields, and roads are to be installed. Soil tests can be important, van Bolderen adds, “Because it’s expensive to truck in material for shoring up the soil if it can’t bear the weight. If we suspect ahead of time that there might be a soil concern — maybe tree stumps, or the site of an old building — then we’ll take some core samples.” To comply with local environmental regulations, a topographical map may also be required.
In contrast to van Bolderen’s work in the wide open spaces of Ontario, president Roger Carriker of RC Barns Building of Troy, Mo., is active in the suburbs and exurbs of the greater St. Louis metropolitan area. “Our market is suburban, 3 to 5 acres, for customers who are doing garages and outbuildings,” he explains. “A lot of the time, we build a facility where half the building is a garage for the husband’s toys and the other half is a barn for the wife’s horses.”
That fact introduces a different dynamic into siting the structure. Because the building is a matter of lifestyle, Carriker points out, “Most of our customers already have an idea about where they want the barn to go, based on how the property is set up and the locations of their home and other buildings.”
But if considerations in siting a horse barn can be as different as the projects themselves, builder Stephen Eby of United Enterprises in Greencastle, Pa., sums up the basics that are common to all. “The worst thing is if the site is too low so that water runs into the barn and pools around the building,” he says. “You need to position the structure for good cross-ventilation, and you want the site to be a good balance of function and looks.”

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