Rusted oil field pipe transformed into award winning horse complex

cutting horse ranch

Photo by Frank Ooms

Easing into the landscape of northern Texas, along a tree-lined creek, is an award winning horse complex built from a marriage of Texas frugality and genteel craftsmanship.

Recently awarded the prestigious National Architecture and Engineering Award from the American Institute of Steel Construction is creator of this magnificent horse heaven, Lake|Flato Architects of San Antonio, Texas.

The owners of this über-complex are the trainers of cutting horses and they also compete nationally. “The whole project was based on the client’s desire to have very high quality cutting horses and having a wonderful place to train them,” explains Ted Flato.

The Lake|Flato approach was “to do something that was very simple and straight forward.” To do that, the firm looked locally for materials. In Texas, Flato notes, “high quality wood is not easy to find so the material of choice for most farm and ranch buildings is steel, and in particular oil field pipe; that’s the material readily available because of the oil industry.”
Lake|Flato made use of talented, Texas steel craftsmen. “Because of the oil industry you get a lot of local talent who can do a lot of great things with steel at an affordable price,” Flato explains.

cutting horse ranch

Photo by Frank Ooms

The project itself is a mini-village of new buildings, approximately 100,000 square feet in all, set on a 175-acre ranch just west of Fort Worth. “There’s mare barns, training barns, an aqua therapy barn, hay barns, a big arena, exercise barns … all of those, even the loafing sheds, are made out of different sizes of pipe – rusted pipe,” Flato describes. 

“So much of our project, or the beauty of the project, is in how the steel connections come together,” Flato proceeds to explain, giving much credit to the structural engineer, Datum Engineers of Dallas, Tex. 

“The arena had large spans, so for that we made trusses with the pipe,” he says. “And the detailing of the trusses was very important. It’s one thing to think of simple and elegant buildings but what makes them really simple and elegant is how the connections come together.”

Lincoln Builders of Texas was their chosen contractor. They’re a commercial builder out of Fort Worth and this was their first equine project. Lake|Flato had worked with them before and knew they were up to the special challenges of a project that was on a fast track to completion. Lake|Flato provided comprehensive drawings: “we never leave anything to the imagination,” he explains.

In another bow to simplicity, all the buildings are naturally ventilated. “Often on barns you sometimes find glass in the cupolas to keep the rain out but in our case we used perforated metal so that you can keep the rain out but still get the natural ventilation without the maintenance of glass,” Flato says.

Location and orientation were important considerations. “There were no buildings on the ranch to begin with, so the location of the village of barns relative to the paddocks and housing was very important. And the spaces between the barns were just as important as the barns themselves: how to travel in between the spaces with horses,” Flato points out.

The positioning of paddocks and pastures were parts of the equation. The barns and arena sit along the tree-lined creek, with the trees serving as a block from the north wind, while taking advantage of southern breezes on hot summer days. The arena sits into the sloping grade to minimize its height, and loafing sheds are located in a selective clearing, where stands of mature trees provide shade for the horses.

To train cutting horses you need cattle, so location and orientation were also important for that aspect. “We had to look at different barns with different uses and their relationships to each other,” Flato explains. “It was like building a small college campus or school campus but thinking in terms of horses.”

cutting horse ranch

Photo by Frank Ooms

Tying some of the spaces together was a repeating gable roof supported by steel pipe trusses, providing a covered ramp and horse walk.

While the larger components were handled by Lincoln, some of the finer details were left to the special craftsmen. A case in point is the stalls built by professional stall builders, Lucas Equine of Lexington, Ky. Another example is the five-rail pipe fences surrounding the pastures. “That was Willie Ruiz who does a lot of fencing in the area, and he’s an artist, extremely talented,” Flato says. Because of his talent, the fence builder incorporated special elements into his work, down to the cattle chutes. “The contractor for the fencing paid attention to what we were doing,” Flato explains.

As he was building the cattle chutes, he simply incorporated some of what he saw into his own design.

“When I went to the project later I was so pleasantly surprised by the level of detail taken,” Flato says. “He could have built that chute in any number of ways, but he knew the client in this case really valued the quality and interesting details we were incorporating into the barns, so even a cattle chute was worth building in a nice way. It didn’t cost any more.”

And if the cutting horse ranch project is a statement to anything, it’s a statement to the importance of paying attention to the smallest of details on any project. “Design doesn’t always cost more,” Flato points out, “but it does take attention to details. Often things are built simply the way they’ve always been built, not always beautifully finessed.”

He concludes, “Farmers and ranchers have always incorporated an economy of means because of the value of the materials and the fact that farmers and ranchers are pretty frugal. So our job is to be equally smart and frugal but adding some extra dimension and design.”  – By Sharon Thatcher, Rural Builder magazine

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