This article is about converting a century old timber-frame hay barn into a warm and inviting home for my family to live in and friends to visit. This project had limitations tested the limits of our endurance and ingenuity. Several custom tools and processes had to be designed from the materials available to us on our very limited budget and experience. I hope you enjoy reading about our little adventure and what it took to get it as far as we have. Finally after 26 years of work we decided to move on and let someone else share in the barn experience. The new owners are loving it as much as we did.
I think I have always loved old timber frame barns. I grew up on a farm in upstate New York and my favorite thing to do was play in the hay and swing from the rope tied to one of the beams. My cousins and I would spend countless hours running through the huge old barns and all their rooms having all sorts of great adventures. So I guess you could say I was brought up in a barn. Although I doubt I ever imagined actually living in one.
The June 1993 issue of Architectural Digest had a piece about a beautiful barn to house conversion. I loved the idea of living in such an expansive and beautiful space. The beauty of the exposed timbers, hand hewn from the ancient old growth forests really appealed to me. I liked the quality and the solid "feel" of the timbers; it brought back those memories of my grandfather’s farm and his huge old barn.
I had started reading and doing as much research on timber-framing and new timber-frame construction. I started looking at lots with old barns on them to see if I could find a salvageable frame to rebuild on a lot close to where I wanted to live. I would have to do most of the work myself. I couldn’t afford to hire a contractor to do it. I had 3 small children and was not making a lot of money at the time.
As luck would have it, there was a group of barns available, the elderly lady wanted to get rid of them before the town made her tear them down. So for $5000 I was able to buy the barns you see above and the one-acre lot they were located on. Everyone thought I was nuts, they drove by and said “they don’t need work, they need a match”. I saw something different; two of the four barns had solid structures. Most of the ugly was cosmetic. Some rather minor structural repairs and we would have a solid, intact timber-frame with which to start with.
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Step 1: Jacking the Building
On to the Plan
The lead photo shows what the barns looked like the day before my family and friends started cleaning up the place. It had been used for junk storage for a trailer park for years along with a local farmer storing bailed hay(which would cause problems later). Four 40-yard dumpsters later, we had the place pretty well cleaned out. One benefit was a two-story pile of old hay the kids had a great time jumping in.
After repairing the minor structural issues I needed to jack the building up to replace the crumbling stone foundation. Which comes to the first custom tool used to jack up the structure. I had several criteria, it had to be as stable as if the building were sitting on the ground, it had to allow for very small adjustments, it had to allow clear access to allow for forming in the new foundation and it had to be inexpensive.
The previous owners had been kind enough to leave several solid railroad ties behind. I found that if I used a lot of short lengths of chain and some blocking and brackets I could meet those requirements. As the picture shows the railroad tie is securely chained to the post, the form is in place and ready for rebar and concrete to be pumped in. The cinder block is in there as a safety measure until the concrete was poured.
Step 2: Designing and Pouring the New Foundation
The New Foundation
The original idea was to pull all of the stone and old concrete out after the barn was in the air, then form 4 foot deep walls and footers and have a nice solid poured foundation. It didn't work out that way. Once we had the building in the air and used a small Terremite backhoe to start removing all of the small stones and old mortar, we ran into a problem. Under about 2 feet of small stones(one foot or smaller in diameter) we found VERY big boulders, one was 6 feet in diameter. How the original builders got them there with horse drawn equipment really amazes me. We couldn't move them, I almost flipped a full-size backhoe in the attempt. The only way to take them out would have been to move the frame, meaning the whole building, just to put new footers in. I spoke to my town building inspector and the town engineer, we agreed that since the boulders went far below the frost line, they could act as a replacement foundation. As long as I could tie in the new pour. So a new foundation design had to be done and pretty quickly. I had a very small window of opportunity to pour the foundation before it would become too cold again(we did this in January, in upstate NY).
You can see in my original hand sketch how we did this, the insulation acted as the outside of the form(supported of course with rough cut 2x10's). The re-bar was then inserted into holes drilled into the boulders and all tied together. Then the inside was formed using the recycled wood flooring we had removed(it wasn't salvageable for use as interior flooring). This formed what I call a “Floating Ladder” foundation. Similar in concept to a floating slab but with the spaces between the “rungs” being concrete. We did have some leftover concrete and poured a floor down the center of the building so crawling around would be easier.
Step 3: Removing the Old Roof and Repairing the Frame.
Removing the old roof.
Once the concrete had set and we cleaned out all of the hay we put back in the barn to insulate the concrete from freezing. I started on repairing the frame and straightening the building, I cut through the old nails that held the braces in and using heavy duty come-alongs pulled the building until it was nearly straight, it would be impossible to get it perfectly straight because some of the posts had a pretty good twist to them. With that done and the new sill plates all bolted down. I started on the several layers of roofing on the one side and the really heavy gage steel roof that had been installed on the west side of the building(the only reason it was in such good condition). To do this I had to take an old forty foot wooden ladder and bolt arms on to it too hang over the peak of the roof. The 12x12 pitch was way too steep to walk on and the old shingles would have slid off anyway, me with them.
Step 4: New Roofing and Insulation.
I wanted to get the roofing on before I started on the upper interior framing and old siding repair. In order to insulate a structure with such a huge amount of interior volume you really need a high R value insulation and efficient heating. Most timber-frame homes are insulated with pre-built insulating panels made of EPS Foam. EPS foam is the same material used in cups and coolers so it is safe from the off gassing issues other foams have(I don’t like Isocyanurate foam, it breaks down and it give off cyanide gas if it burns). I couldn’t afford to have pre-made panels built but I was lucky that a large foam panel manufacturer was not far from where I live. They agreed to sell me the panels in 4x8 sheets, 4 ¾” for the walls and 8 ¾” for the roof. It took two trailer truck loads to deliver it all. I also needed a way to install and secure the panels to the roof. We have a local sawmill that cut me a large number of 1x6 12 ft long white oak boards. I used white oak because of its superior rot resistance and its density. It would hold sheetmetal screws really well. We live in a high wind area so I had to use steel roofing or else I would be repairing the roof every few months.
The insulation goes on the outside of the frame. This way there is a continuous “bag” of insulation surrounding the building. Once I had the perimeter frame up we laid sheets of luan plywood over the original purlins and then a 6 mil poly vapor barrier then laid up the 4x8 8 ¾” sheets. All 77 of them, up a ladder, by hand. To fill in the gaps we used spray foam cans. Once a row of panels was up we then took the 1x6 oak boards and drove 12” fluted garden spikes through predrilled holes, down through the foam and tried to hit the unevenly spaced original roof rafters. When a neighbor asked how I could hit them, I replied “it’s a Zen thing”. Out of the 770+ spikes I drove, I only missed about a dozen times.
Once all of the panels and strapping boards were up I actually hired someone to help put up the 25’ long sheets of steel roofing, they messed it up. Once I fixed it, I started on replacing the missing and damaged original siding with siding from one of the other barns that would eventually have to be torn down.
Step 5: Interior Levels and Rooms.
Once the roof was on the interior walls and floor levels could be built. They are bolted and tied into the frame so needed to be in place before the walls insulation could be installed. The windows also had to be framed in as well. Again I used rough cut white pine for my interior framing, with some white maple and beech for the long floor joists. A local Amish sawyer was able to supply me with 22’ long 2”x12” floor joists. Unfortunately his lumber gave new definition to “rough cut” we dubbed him the “Thick and Thin Lumber Company” the only plus was the price. I will have to post some interior construction shots later.
Boxes to hold the windows were built from framing lumber ripped down to 4 ¾”. These boxes are screwed to the new interior framing and original girts(smaller beams running horizontally between posts). Once the insulation and strapping boards were attached the windows would then be installed.
What is posted is the finished interior.
Step 6: Wall Insulation and Siding.
Once the interior framing was installed and the boxes built for the windows to be installed into were up the 4x8 4 ¾” EPS foam panels had to be installed. They were attached to the barn much the same way as the roofing was, to the exterior over a layer of 6mil poly vapor barrier. This time though there was no luan, the original siding is the interior of the house. Instead of 12” fluted landscaping spikes I used 8” heat treated pole barn nails. We had to use heat treated because the non-heat treated or soft ones, squashed like rivets when trying to drive them into the old growth wood of the original frame. Again we used white oak 1x6 strapping boards into predrilled holes.
Now if I had known then what I know now I would have done a better job of planning where the lights on the outside walls were going and run conduit to accommodate the wires.
Step 7: Interior Work and Updates.
Once the place was sealed up to the weather we quickly installed the heat and water needed to move in, even though the place wasn’t done. Everything in the place has to be custom built, it is very difficult to use off the shelf cabinetry. Because of the nature of the interior with the exposed beams and all natural wood trying to fit or wrap purchased cabinetry around the horizontal girts and the vertical beams more work than building from scratch. So almost all of the cabinetry is built to fit it’s location. We also tried to recycle as much of the wood we found in the barns as possible, the kitchen island is made from the grain room walls(southern yellow pine).
Upper cabinets are built from old windows found in the barn(after being cleaned up).
I will try and post more as I get time. We have done some really nice upgrades, like a new solid hardwood floor. I am trying hard to get my 1800sqft shop finished up and insulated, it includes a nice ceramics room off the back overlooking the fields.
Like some home projects this one never ends. I end up going back over and redoing things I did poorly or weren’t what I wanted but do to time and money constraints had to “just get done”. This has been a 16 year process so far, my spouse, children and friends helping and making it what it is. A unique tribute to an age old style of construction; one big recycling project; most importantly the home in which we were able to give our children a good foundation of work ethics and important life skills.
I have a joke I tell my friends, I will never be done with this, my wife will come out and find me dead at the bottom of a ladder, tools in hand. She will then kick me and say “I don’t remember your name but get up you have work to do”. People often ask me how you built such a huge undertaking, my response is “how does an ant eat an elephant?”. After a quizzical look, I then add “One bite and a time and he brings friends”.
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