Working with architects

Though a large market has emerged for horse barns built from standard layouts or even kits, the high end of the equine market continues to escalate in contract values and aesthetic emphasis. Simply put, upscale barns keep getting bigger and fancier.
Not surprisingly, owners of these projects may bring in architects whom they have used before, often the professional who designed their home. In other cases, the designer may be an architect with previous equine experience or even a specialization in equine facilities. Either way, contractors accustomed to doing the whole job can be wary when an architect enters the picture.
“It can be a difficult situation,” affirms Rob Stoneburner, manager of Virginia Frame Builders and Supply in Fishersville, Va. “It’s fine with me if architects want to make changes in the design and appearance of a horse barn. But I want them to give me drawings and say, ‘Here’s how it should look.’ Then they need to let me build it, and not tell me how to build it.”
The difficulty, Stoneburner relates, is that few architects he has encountered are knowledgeable about the post-frame construction process. “And architects can specify design elements, like steeper roof pitches or huge cupolas, that might add 50 or 100 percent to the cost of the project without adding any functionality,” he continues. “There are often ways to achieve the same look without these kinds of add-ons. Yet I’ve seen architects specify things that, if we were doing the whole project, we’d be embarrassed to suggest to the owner.”
Nevertheless, Stoneburner has worked successfully with architects who appreciate the contractor’s input and understand the respective division of responsibilities. The same experience is also reported by president Ken Meigs of Meigs Inc. in Black Earth, Wis. “We’re working on two projects right now that illustrate the difference, like apples and oranges,” he says.
In the first case, Meigs chose the architect. “Maybe he’s not an expert on horses, but he’s been very conscientious to get our input,” he relates. In the second case the project owner chose a home designer who is a personal friend. “The second architect did a design that was people-friendly but not horse-friendly,” Meigs relates. Ventilation was poor and, with undersized stalls topped by low-hanging overhead haylofts, horses had no way to look beyond their stalls.
Happily, the architect was receptive when Meigs acquainted her with the ventilation needs of horses and how the animals’ socialization is aided by stalls with ample dimensions and sight lines. “That’s the way to build good relations with an architect,” he believes, “when each party respects the expertise of the other.”
Mutual respect is important on the projects Meigs performs, especially since “I haven’t met an architect yet who knows equine design.” Company vice president and engineer Dave Budden likewise confirms, “Architects often aren’t familiar with post-frame construction. They may design homes and want to do horse barns the same way.”
Budden remembers one project in which his company took the architect’s design and streamlined it for post-frame construction. He agrees that “architects can add costs that we wouldn’t add, things that just make the project more expensive.” On one job, he recalls, streamlining the architect’s design reduced the project cost by 40 percent.
“With our experience in building horse barns,” believe Meigs, “we can do most of the design services an architect could provide — but we can do it better because we’re experienced and won’t waste our clients’ money.”

Houses and Barns
Sales director Dan Nissley of King Construction in New Holland, Pa., says that “some customers already have an architect and a design when they contact us.” But he admits, “That’s my least favorite way to do a job. Architects often design houses, but housing animals is completely different. So the architect may want a certain ‘look’ but it may not be practical.”
Rather than be presented an already completed design, “we’d rather be involved from the start and listen to what the customer wants, to help make their dream a reality,” states Nissley. When King Construction encounters a finished design, he notes, “It’s often because the owner has already used the architect to build or renovate the home on the property.”
Yet teaming with an architect can also work out well. “It’s important to keep things from being adversarial,” Nissley advises. “As the builder, we sit down with the architect and explain how we normally work. We let architects know what to expect, what our capabilities are and other projects we’ve built. If architects are confident in us, they won’t feel like they need to ride herd on us.” On the other hand, Nissley says if King Construction is uncomfortable with how an architect intends to building a project, the company is willing to decline the job.
Nissley cites two more situations in which the participation of architects on a horse barn project can become dicey. “It can be difficult if the architect is located out-of-town,” he explains. “And we’ve seen situations where architects recommend items that add to costs — even if there are alternatives — because the owner has used the architect before and simply goes along with it. But you can still get a good roof, for example, without using copper at two or three times the cost.”
Owner Gary van Bolderen of Dutch Masters Construction Services Ltd. in Barrie, Ont., admits that “working with an architect is something we try to stay away from, because there aren’t many architects in our area who know equine facilities.” His company is able to provide design services and, when needed, has worked well with engineers. But architects, he reports, tend to want control over a project.
Dutch Masters is primarily involved in higher-end horse barns for working breeders and thus van Bolderen may encounter architects whose experience is in commercial or upscale residential design. “It’s rare that they’ll also know the horse niche,” he reports.
Since the horse community is close-knit, people hear about the quality of Dutch Masters and readily trust the company with design and construction. By contrast, an architect is most likely to be involved “if the owner has no previous horse experience and figures he needs to engage an architect,” van Bolderen relates.
Nevertheless, he cites a recent project where Dutch Masters teamed effectively with an architect. “The owner was building both a home and a barn,” he recalls. “The architect did the house and we did the barn. We both talked to each other and took each other’s ideas into account, but we kept separate spheres.”
Van Bolderen describes another fruitful collaboration for a client who planned to hold frequent fund-raising events in the barn. Dutch Masters constructed the barn while an interior designer handled the public spaces. “Everybody has different talents,” he contends, “and it works best when one party doesn’t try to do another person’s role. If an architect knows horses, that’s fine. But architects who don’t should not pretend.”

The Architect’s Perspective
In fact, there are architects who know horses. One is Zachary Henderson of Roswell, Ga., who has his own standards for working with builders. He is leery of “change order cowboys” who give low-ball prices and then make their money on change orders. Another transgression is attempting an end-run to the owner, to whom Henderson has a contractual and professional responsibility. Relations can sour quickly, he says, “if the builder goes to the owner and says, ‘Let’s do it another way.’”
Henderson seeks contractors who offer integrity and experience, “and I especially look for hands-on builders, maybe small- to medium-sized contractors who are out there at the jobsite every day, looking at the project,” he notes. “A good chemistry is also a consideration. I want a builder whose manner is a good fit, who’ll listen and be friendly and give me advice if I occasionally get crazy!”
To find such builders, Henderson talks to their customers and their bankers. “Whether a contractor does the work with his own forces or subcontracts the work isn’t the main thing,” he adds, “If a builder has a good reputation for doing things right and doing them on time, that’s enough for me.”
Putting horse barn projects out to bid “is fraught with problems,” Henderson believes. Instead, he prefers to compile and review a short list of two or three builders, “then settle in on someone we’re comfortable with and negotiate the contract.” With his longtime experience in equine facilities, Henderson says he knows enough to make sure the costs are in line.
In the end, Henderson wants a tight, well-built, attractive barn. “Barns today,” he explains, “are ‘horse houses’ where people are spending time with their animals.” Since he himself has some 40 years of experience with equine facilities, Henderson does not insist that the builder know horses. “It’s a bonus,” he allows, “but not essential. The project can work well as long as someone — in my case, the architect — is knowledgeable about horses.”
At gh2 Gralla Architects of Tulsa, Okla., special projects director Todd Gralla says his company and clients always meet with prospective contractors for personal interviews. “We may get recommendations from engineers and landscape architects we know, and we ask contractors to fill out the standard AIA [American Institute of Architects] information request form,” he explains. “But assessing the chemistry is very important. The builders for our equine projects need to be responsive and responsible.”
Gralla says it is a plus when builders know horses and barns, as long as they are experienced in the type of barn that Gralla is constructing. “I know contractors who say they’ve built dozens of horse barns, but not necessarily the kind of barn I’m working on for my client,” he notes.
As the architect of record, Gralla is responsible to his client. That means his firm’s projects “are extremely well thought out,” he asserts. “If we’ve done our job with the plans and documents, then any good builder should be able to the do the construction. So barn experience isn’t an absolute requirement for our equine projects.”
On the other hand, Gralla readily agrees that if the roles are reversed — if the builder is knowledgeable about horse barns and the architect is not — then the latter should be willing to get input. “Design teams should be equipped for the projects they’re designing,” he states. “Our firm would hesitate to do something we’re not experienced with. Because of the learning curve, we’d be worried about losing money.”
Since Gralla knows horse barns so well, he sees how other architects might not realize these projects require more than meets the eye. “Many architects might look at a horse barn as being ‘non-technical’ and needing no special experience,” he allows. “But you really do need to be knowledgeable in order to design and build a good equestrian facility — more so than many people might think.”

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