Barn to Loft Conversion
authors Patrick O'Toole
Old barns tend to age well, at least structurally. With large timbers supporting the walls and ceilings, they are sturdy and very adaptable. They are also very charming. To clients, their old barns are familiar, even comforting forms on the landscape.
For all of these reasons and others, barns are often repurposed into a multitude of uses. They become offices, art studios, pool houses and guest quarters. In fact, there is a sense of freedom and fun in designing and remodeling detached structures of any type, says Dan Contelmo of Daniel Contelmo Architects in Poughkeepsie, New York.
“It seems like every year I am designing the remodel of a detached structure, and I really enjoy working on them because clients tend to bring a different attitude for this type of project than they would their everyday residence,” Contelmo explains. “They are spaces that are meant for relaxing and family enjoyment, so the design of a detached structure can be equally enjoyable.
“And because the buildings are usually smaller, clients can make more of a statement,” he adds. “The new space can be be something that has a lot of detail and stands out. Or maybe it is something like this project that can be very simple, and the beauty is its simplicity. You can see from some of the photos where it’s sitting in a snowstorm with the lights on, and it’s a little jewel in the landscape. That’s why I really enjoy doing these.”
The owners of this barn had previously remodeled their main house with Contelmo, and now they were circling back with him to finish the barn. It was a continuation of the original project, three years later.
One drawback of old barns, from a remodeling standpoint, is that they are frequently unpredictable and filled with surprises, both good and bad. In good condition, old barns can be blank slates onto which many very different programs can be designed.
But frequently they’ve seen many uses over their long lives. In very old barns, bays get adjusted to accommodate new uses. [See the March 2016 cover story about a 1790s barn near Boston for reference.] More recent vintages tend to be an accumulation of beams and timbers. Indeed, prepping an old barn and getting it in shape and ready for new uses can be a big project in itself.
For this upstate New York barn, its best working days were long gone. An adjoining structure with a silhouetted gambrel roof still showing had been removed, leaving a chunk of the wall missing. When Contelmo and team first visited the site, the structure was so filled with dilapidated farm equipment and other items that they could not physically get into the building to fully take stock of it. By the time the place was cleared out, a design agreement was in place, and they decided to plough ahead despite misgivings about the condition of the foundation and some uneven walls and surfaces.
As is the case with most barns, they are frequently built into hillsides out of utility. That way, hay and other items were rolled in or loaded without hoists. The same is true of this structure. A stone retaining wall and foundation had been shored up with additional concrete at some point in its past. Contelmo tore out the old concrete and poured a new backup foundation. He also added new footings.
From there, he made sure the timber frame was solid. Rather than depend on old nails and mortise-and-tenon joints, Contelmo and his contractor partner, Darrin Roth of Roth Woodworking of Pleasant Valley, New York, commissioned custom-made steel connectors for every major joint in the structure. The custom sizing was required because each timber was a different size, so off-the-shelf products would not have worked, Contelmo explains.
In the end, every inch of the structure had to be improved before any of the program could be installed. Asked specifically about two rows of horizontal beams in some places near the roof, Contelmo explained it this way:
“When we walked into this building, there was no continuity. There were random beams all over the place—nothing was consistent about it. The upper beams tie the wall together while the next row down the wall was used to strengthen the posts and to keep them from deflecting. When you are looking at it structurally, you have to look at a building like this in small sections,” he continues. “It’s not like putting a 50-foot addition on a home and just running 2- by 10-inch boards across. Every 10-foot section of this structure had to be looked at differently because the beams were all very different sizes. There were a lot of variations in this structure.”
A Multipurpose Guest House and Music Retreat
While the opportunity to be creative with detached structures typically makes them fun to design, sometimes a lack of clear purpose can infuse a project with some uncertainty. This was the case with this project. It was clear that guest beds, a full bath and a kitchen were to be part of the program, but questions crept in about the use of the walk-out bottom level. Was it to be a farmhand’s quarters with a kitchen? That was the first design iteration. Or was it supposed to be another guest room? Eventually it was sorted out as the latter.
Then there were the somewhat contradictory design styles sought by the clients that needed to be reconciled. They wanted a traditional form with a contemporary flair. A pair of two-story, commercial-grade fenestration packages on the south- and east-facing walls went a long way to achieve the sleek contemporary aspect. In addition, sliding barn doors on the upper level were backed by an equally sleek, pocketing, multislide door from Solar Innovations.
Lastly, there was a question of how best to keep and reuse the old exterior boards while maintaining the original look of the bare wood walls on the interior. Contelmo explains that insulation needed to be added to either the interior walls or to the exterior walls, so a choice was required; it could not be both. In the end, the clients chose to fill the interior walls with spray-foam insulation and to cover them with the old wood reclaimed from the barn’s exterior. The new exterior cladding selected was a classic profile from Jame Hardie’s collection of fiber cement boards.
The roof of the structure also required design attention. Its existing tin roof was torn off and boards underneath were replaced. Exterior insulation was added and capped by a standing-seam metal roof.
There was plenty of good, old-fashioned wood working involved as well. Roth built the new lean-to, which houses an exterior shower. In addition, Roth built all of the home’s exterior doors, including the rolling barn doors. The main level of the finished retreat offers many uses. There is a kitchen and dining area, a pool table and a large grand piano. The small loft above the kitchen and bath sections is large enough to house two king-sized beds on either side of the ladder entry. Custom-made shutters close off the sleeping quarters at night. Cast-iron curtain rods offer additional privacy in the sleeping areas.
The piano is purposefully situated near the multislide doors closest to the main residence. In the summer, the family rolls open the barn doors and the multislide to reveal the piano. Chairs and benches are put out on the lawn near the entrance to the barn so musical performances can be staged.
Signature Window Package
The windows designed for the building are Contelmo’s signature design element. They allow 12 feet of views and light on the south and east walls of the main floor. And, significantly, they extend down from the main floor into the ground level spaces.
These windows help give the finished barn two different impressions depending on if you are viewing it during the day or at night. During the day, the large window walls that encompass the ground floor and upper level of the structure give the building a commercial, almost industrial feel. At night, with the interior lights illuminated, two separate floors are revealed giving it a homey, jewel-box feel.
A national commercial window manufacturer, C.R. Laurence Co. Inc., supplied parts while a local glass shop, Standard Glass, fabricated the heavy structural window frames on-site. Some of the fixed-pane windows were also cut and installed locally. Each window wall has one operable awning for air-flow purposes.
The daylight and the vast views over the wide-open landscape transformed the space from an ordinary renovation and repurpose project to something approaching a piece of art that you can live in. QR