Farm Design Part One: Designing Your Own Farm Can Be A Daunting Task

Jan 8, 2010 - 4:31 AM
Photo courtesy of Long Branch Lakes & Hayward Designs.

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At some point, most horse lovers dream of designing and building their own farm. That dream can be possible with smart planning, proper research and a lot of patience. However, the process in its entirety can be pretty overwhelming.

A logical first step for anyone who wishes to build a farm is to find knowledgeable, professional help.

“A professional can give you advice on how to plan your facility,” said Lachlan Oldaker of GH2 Gralla Equestrian Architects, Norman, Okla. “So many people I know tend to build on the fly, and things don’t work out.”

Picking Your Property

If you haven’t already purchased land for your eventual home and barn, Debra Corr from Exclusively Equine Properties, LLC, Goshen, N.Y., encourages her clients to consider all types of properties. If starting from scratch is your goal, there are several factors to consider.

“All properties have a low and high area, but ideally you want something rolling and kind of flat,” said Corr. “You need to be aware of wetlands and low spots, and sometimes 50 acres is really only 20 acres of usable land.”
Corr also stressed the importance of making sure that your farm is in a horse friendly community.

“For resale value and peace of mind, don’t buy a horse farm in a non-horsey neighborhood,” she said. “If you’re looking at communities, check the statistics for the area. If the location is horse friendly, there are going to be more opportunities. It’s also important to be involved with the local horse community to ensure you keep your right to own horses.”

Once you have your property selected, Corr and Oldaker agreed that selecting the right location on the property to put your facility is just as important as the property itself.

“You want some place high where the water drains away from everything,” said Oldaker. “We really try to work with the natural topography of the site, but sometimes it’s difficult to find or create the spot. You have to take that into consideration as well as the overall function of the facility.”

Oldaker said that her company requires a geotechnical report and soil analysis of the site in order to design the foundation of any building. A geotechnical report provides specific information on subsurface soil, rock, and water conditions and is necessary to construct a safe, cost-effective project.

While many farm owners will consider wind direction and the sun as indicators of where a barn should be built, Lorri Hayward, who runs her own barn design company, Hayward Designs, said that oftentimes the lay of the land doesn’t allow you to work with the elements.

“I can turn a barn in about any direction and make it work nicely,” said Hayward, Lafayette, Ga. “It comes down to eye appeal and physical placement. You don’t want the ‘back of the house’ activities of your barn to be seen when you first drive in.”

Making A Master Plan

“The key to having a successful project is a good master plan,” said Oldaker. “We like to do planning of the whole facility so 10 years down the line they have a road map of where to go and so the property really functions properly.”

Hayward agreed wholeheartedly. “It can really be an eyesore if things aren’t strategically placed,” she said. “Aesthetics do play into things. I encourage people to think about short- and long-term goals with what they have and consider all possibilities, then pull back and consider what goes first, second and third.”

Hayward said it’s important to remember that you don’t have to build everything at once if you stick to a solid plan.

“You can’t eat an elephant in one sitting, you can only eat one bite at a time,” she said with a laugh. “When you pay to have excavation and other key things [like running water and power lines], it’s a whole lot less expensive to have them come in and do all the major grading even if you aren’t going to build right away. It’ll be there in the future if you want to add on. The beauty of a construction like this is that you can build and develop in stages, and it looks like it’s been planned all along.”

Designing your own facility can be a highly rewarding process, but it also comes with a price tag.

“Barns take up a lot of square footage,” said Oldaker. “The expense of what it takes to build a barn is a common misconception that we run into.”

Expense is just one reason why Corr believes that buying an established property is more beneficial to many first-time property owners.

“People always think they can build a place cheaper,” said Corr. “You cannot build a place cheaper than something that’s already built. My advice is always to look for an established facility. If you don’t like it, change it. It’s a lot less expensive than starting at the ground up.”

All three women expressed the need to be realistic, to stick to a budget, and to skimp on the decorations rather than the safety and functionality of the barn. You also need to be aware of local regulations.

“We’ve had people look at the barns we’ve done and say, ‘I want that,’ but they may come to us with a $50 per square foot budget,” said Oldaker. “Knowing what you want to pay helps guide us in how we approach the project.”

What Kind Of Barn Do I Want?

Choosing the overall design of your barn has a lot to do with the discipline you prefer and how many horses you plan to have on your property, but Corr strongly suggested thinking about resale value and keeping the facility versatile with a barn that adheres to established standards.

“Sooner or later you’re going to sell it,” she said. “You want to think about that. If you build a dressage size arena, you’re marketing it to dressage people only. If you make it bigger, you open it up to other disciplines. Even if you have ponies, build 12’ x 12’ stalls and nothing less.”

Hayward added that architectural styling shouldn’t be your first priority. You have to consider the role and function of the barn along with aesthetics.

“You can have a barn that’s absolutely stunning and be exceptionally functional and healthy for the horses,” she said.

There are several different base designs that an owner can choose from, and barn designers such as Oldaker and Hayward can modify or change them to suit the owner’s preference.

“I’ve never built two barns that look alike yet,” said Hayward. “Everyone has some new little twist, but they all have something that is their starting point.”

Basic Barn Designs

    •    Run-In Shed – The simplest shelter to build, three sides with an open side to allow the horse to come and go at will.

    •    Shed Row – A run-in shed with stalls instead of an open space. Usually has an overhang to provide shelter from the elements.

    •    Back-To-Back or Racetrack – Two shed row barns back to back. The stalls share a common back wall and economically house many horses.

    •    Center Aisle – Two rows of facing stalls with an aisle in between. Most common enclosed barn design.

    •    Trainer – Two center aisle barns side by side. Double row of stalls down the center (like a racetrack barn), an aisle on each side, and another row of stalls on the outer walls.

Once you’ve made a plan, it’s time to break ground, but consider the seasons before jumping in with a backhoe.

“Winter is a good time to plan,” said Oldaker. “It’s not good to start in the fall, because then you’re doing stuff in the middle of winter that may need to be protected. Spring is always the time people want to get going on a project. That way you have a really good season to get things buttoned up by winter. Once you get to that point, you’re working inside.”

It’s A Little Breezy In Here!

Oldaker, Hayward and Corr agreed that proper ventilation is one of the most important things to consider when designing your barn.

“The horse is a source of an enormous amount of heat and moisture,” said Hayward. “You have to remember that horses need ventilation, but people need insulation.”

Ventilation designs for animals like cows or chickens often aren’t suitable for horses because horses may spend more hours in a barn and need a good supply of clean air to maintain their health and fitness. Poor ventilation prevents stalls from drying out completely and contributes to condensation, which eventually breeds mold.
While there are several different options for keeping air circulating in a barn, Oldaker and Hayward utilize the natural law of physics: heat rises.

“It starts with the basic idea of the chimney effect,” said Oldaker. “To get the draw and air change, you want to bring in air down low and ventilate it up high. You have to calculate the balance just right, and it’s kind of tricky.”
Air can be brought into the barn through stall windows or doors or vents in the stall walls and is carried upward by ridge vents or cupolas. Keeping the area directly above the stalls open and airy, instead of having an overhead hayloft or storage area, also helps keep air moving.

“Ventilating cupolas are an old-fashioned architectural element, but it’s a functional element,” said Hayward. “It makes the barn have an interesting appeal as well.”

Fans can always be installed for more airflow, but they should direct the air up to the ceiling, not down over the horses. Both Hayward and Oldaker have been using adjustable vents to allow owners to regulate the temperature of the barn as necessary.

“A lot of people don’t realize that just because you have wonderful airflow that zooms down your aisle doesn’t mean it’s getting into your stalls,” said Hayward. “I’ve actually had barns [in which] you close the end doors so the air comes in to the animals. You need to plan for an exterior airflow point on the stalls.”

For the most part, air and heating systems aren’t necessary in the barn itself if you have properly functioning vents, but these are helpful to have in the tack room and areas where people generally work the most.

Temperature control is also useful in keeping tack from molding and feed from going bad.

“We use in-floor radiant [heat] a lot in our aisles and barns,” said Oldaker. “We don’t design it to bring it to room temperature but to keep it just above freezing. Heating the barn to where we would be comfortable for us isn’t good for the horses.”

In-floor radiant heat is a system of running tubing containing hot water through the floor. It heats the floor material, which in turn heats the air. Owners can also install heat lamps in stalls, grooming areas and wash stalls. Overhead solarium units are also becoming popular.

Seeing The Light

After ventilation, lighting is the next most important item on barn designers’ lists. Plentiful access to light can be a great way to cut down energy costs during the day and may keep the horses happier in the long run.

Installing windows in each stall, if your barn design allows, functions as a source of light and air, a double bonus for horse owners who may be on a tighter budget and don’t want to invest in Dutch doors. There are now windows available that not only swing open, but also angle open at the top. This feature allows the air to flow upward and not directly across the horse’s back.

Aisle lighting is generally a given for most barns, but Oldaker always puts individual lights and switches in each stall.

“You do have to be careful about the type of light you bring into the barn,” said Hayward. “I don’t encourage skylights. I prefer vertical windows over windows on the slope of the roof because they can cause a lot of solar heat gain. It also jeopardizes your roof system, which could be a problem down the road.”

The shape of the roof should be carefully considered depending on the area of the country in which you live.
“Roof lines make a difference on how you direct snow and water, especially over points of entry,” said Hayward. “Having protected entries that you can get horses in and out of is very important, especially in areas where you get a lot of snow.”

Hayward often builds porches, which are a common feature on barns in the south. They help to cool the air that you bring in from the lower section of the barn, keep the direct sun off the barn, help take the snow away from the base of the building and provide some protection to the building itself.

Making An Entrance

Well-designed driveways are vital when it comes to running a barn. Not only do they provide access for you and your clients, but also for emergency vehicles as well.

“The main entrance to your facility should have good acceleration and deceleration lanes, and if you have gates they should be far enough off the road so that a big truck and trailer can pull completely off the road,” said Oldaker. “There should be good sight lines of approaching traffic and no blind spots.”

While asphalt is often the first choice in road surfaces, gravel is drainable and cost efficient. Oldaker always recommends that no matter the road surface, it should be contained with some kind of border.

Make sure that your plan includes parking lots and ample space for truck and trailers to turn around, especially if you will be having boarders or trailer-in lessons.

Building and designing your own facility is no small chore, and there are many things to think about when planning your project.

“This is their home,” said Oldaker. “Health, safety and welfare are the most important things.”

Like This Article?

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing to The Chronicle Of The Horse. “Designing Your Own Farm Can Be A Daunting Task” ran in the Jan. 8 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.


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