Architects Michael and Nea Poole had planned to survey a lot northwest of Richmond, Virginia, in anticipation of building their new home. But once they turned a corner into the neighborhood, they discovered a hay barn whose story intertwines with the history of the county. Although not technically historic, the barn had been built on the cattle farm of Harwood and Louise Cochrane.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god, Mike, that’s our house,” says Nea, principal and COO of Poole & Poole Architecture. “And he was like, ‘No.’ Then we got closer: There was a little ‘for sale’ sign on the barn. But my husband’s still like, ‘No, we’re so busy at work—we don’t have time for a project.’”
As they drove around to the back of the structure, they noticed the basement level with four large 42-foot-by-21-foot bays, which could park 16 cars. “We were living in a house with one of those really tiny…they’d call it a two-car garage but, if you have a lawnmower, it’s more of a one-car garage,” she adds. “My husband saw all the parking space and said, ‘OK, we can look into this.’”
The children of tenant farmers, Harwood and Louise Cochrane married as teens during the Great Depression. In 1935 Harwood established a trucking company, Overnite Transportation, and sold the business to Union Pacific Corporation in 1986 for more than $1 billion. Union Pacific spun it off in 2003, and United Parcel Service bought it in 2005 to operate it as the UPS Freight division.
The Cochranes purchased vast tracts of land outside Richmond and became major philanthropists of their hometown. Louise, an artist, designed the barn herself and chose Dutch Gambrel because she saw the style as quintessential Americana. When the Cochranes decided to retire in their 90s, they donated their estate to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which created a neighborhood of 10 to 60 acre lots. The barn sits on 30 acres that, like most of the lots, are still farmed for alfalfa.
“When we saw the barn, we didn’t look back,” says Nea, who started doing some research. “I never actually went to see the lot we had originally planned on looking at. It was just too cool.”
A developer had been overseeing the lots but, after visiting a few banks, the Pooles did not have any luck in financing the property. Somebody suggested they go to the farm credit bureau, which knew of the barn and the Cochranes despite being more than an hour away. The bureau had been nervous that if someone bought the lot, they might tear down the barn because it was not historic.
The Pooles also needed power to the site, so their electrician went to the county to pull a permit. He ended up calling Nea afterward and told her that the county would not give him a permit for the barn since they were asking for a lot of power. When she paid them a visit, they gave her a hard time about converting a barn into a house, needing so much power and even doing a structural inspection.
“Two of them had been to weddings inside of the barn, and they went from, ‘Why do you think we’re going to let you transform a barn into a house?’ to ‘You have a responsibility to the county to do this well because that’s an important part of our history,” she notes. “And I was like, ‘Yes, sir. My husband and I are both architects—and we’re going to do our best to make it beautiful.’”
At first the Pooles redesigned the 1978 building with additions, including a covered porch for the front entrance. They eventually took a step back, though, and concluded they needed to maintain the existing structure as much as possible. Instead of a porch, they designed the front door 4 feet back from the original opening so they could keep the barn doors and still create a covered entry.
The Pooles used all the other existing openings and vent locations for the first-floor windows and doors. They carried that pattern through to the windows and dormers on the second level in order to highlight the rhythm and scale of the original barn. When lighted, the small windows added to the two rooftop vent shafts produce a welcoming beacon to anyone who enters the neighborhood.
Designing the interior around existing openings presented some design challenges, such as the 4-foot window in the master shower. The addition of an opaque glass panel on barn door hardware that can be closed when somebody uses the shower solved that problem. Retaining the two-story volume in the living area ultimately preserved the impressive scale of the interior of the building.
“I have to give my husband credit for the two-story volume because when it was just a barn and you walked in, it was almost like a cathedral,” Nea explains. “The volume is so big; and when we were designing it, he said, ‘We have to maintain that feel—I want people to be able to walk into the house and have a sense of what this had been before.’ You see all of it with that huge volume.”
The Pooles conserved the existing wood posts, beams and steel joists and also reused the original cedar siding in the wine cellars, powder room and on the kitchen island as a wall covering. They even repurposed the 3×12 floor joists that had to be cut out for the basement stairs as stair treads. The only structural elements they added were the new floor joists for the second-floor bedrooms.
“There’s a 30-inch steel beam in the basement, and the bumps are 24 inches, so when we started to run the HVAC, you wouldn’t have had [enough] head height [to go] under those beams,” Nea says. “We built a 2-foot chase space around the perimeter of the basement, so the duct work runs between the original basement wall and this false wall that we built. That was pretty interesting.”
The column and beam system in the basement did not align with the column and beam system on the next level, which created two different grid layouts. As a result, figuring out verticals became exceedingly difficult, especially when planning a small residential elevator and the stairway. The Pooles would normally specify a stacked stair system but had to proceed with an unstacked stair.
“Two things we aimed at were aging-in-place and sustainability,” Nea says. “I had really wanted to go with the geothermal system but, when we had a group out to look at it and price it, because of the size of the barn, we would have needed two full systems, whether well or buried. The cost of two full systems was so expensive my children would never see the return on the investment.”
Since the barn had been built on a compass, the front of the building faces due east, the back of it faces west, and the sides face north and south. The Pooles opted to install solar panels on the part of the roof facing west, where the closest tree stands almost 20 acres away, Nea adds. In Hanover County the electric co-op buys solar dollar-for-dollar, so their bill runs almost identical as before.
They also used rockwool insulation, which offers better acoustical properties and cannot catch on fire in addition to being more sustainable. “We thought—for a building where the wood has been drying out for nearly 50 years—having a product like that would make a lot of sense,” Nea notes. The Pooles also set up automated lights and blinds to increase comfort and decrease energy bills.
“That took us about two months to get set up after we moved in,” she says. “It’s remarkable how much that helped our electric bill because there are so many windows, especially on the front and back, [which] are identical. At the back with the western sun, we were getting a lot of heat gain.”
Product suppliers such as Kohler and Delta Brizo wanted to utilize the residence as a show home and, therefore, gave them discounts on faucets and sinks. Thermador and Bosch supplied all of the kitchen appliances, and the fan in the main living space came from Big Ass Fans. The Pooles had sought to complete the job for less than $1 million but realized they just could not cut corners on certain parts of the project.
“You can spend twice as much money, or even three times as much money, picking just a slightly different color, a slightly different pattern,” Nea explains. “And so with a lot of things we tried to be very conscious in our decisions, so that we weren’t spending money where we didn’t have to.”
During the project many people, including EMTs, members of the local sheriff’s office, a truck full of firefighters and most of the county permit office came by to see the transformation. The barn had long been a part of county history, but after the renovation the structure has become a true landmark. Even cyclists meet for rides at the front of it or stop in to rest and enjoy the view.
The best feedback, however, came from the Cochranes’ eldest daughter, Judy, who heard about the project through word of mouth. She called Nea and said she would like to come out and see what they had been doing with the barn. Judy even found the original sketch that her mother had done before the barn was built and gave the framed drawing to them because she was so grateful.
“She was so pleased with what we were doing,” says Nea, who has lived in the home for almost two years now. “And she told me her mother would’ve been so proud of what we had done to it.” QR