Eastern Massachusetts is home to the country’s largest stock of colonial structures. First Period buildings were built between 1625 and 1725; Second Period buildings date from 1725 to 1775. This barn, located in Topsfield, Mass., was erected slightly later, but its style and construction methods are similar to those from earlier periods. All 3,200 sq. ft. is timber-framed using mortise-and-tenon joints.

The barn stood solo for 80 years until, in 1870, a large Victorian-style home was added. It served as a school before its conversion to a private residence. The present owners, a family with young children, interviewed a series of architects seeking ways to restore the barn and add living space. To their dismay, four consecutive architects said the barn could not be restored sufficiently to accommodate living spaces, that the barn was a teardown. Then came Mathew Cummings of Cummings Architects in Ipswich, Mass., with a long résumé in restoring First and Second Period homes. He had the opposite view. Yes, repairs were needed to its sill plate, but otherwise it was in good shape — “as strong as the day it was built,” Cummings says.

The clients quickly hired Cummings, setting in motion a step-by-step process of how to restore and improve a truly historic barn, in this case, a landmark in central Topsfield for over 200 years.


Establishing Credentials

Too many remodeling projects assume the label historic when in fact the subject property is merely old. Establishing historic credentials is a critical first step, explains Cummings, because the International Residential Code (IRC) allows full exemptions for all historical listings.

“The most important thing, and people don’t do this enough, is to find out if a given structure is historically listed,” Cummings says. “Then, they should open up the local building code book and ascertain any exemptions. In this case, we had a timber-frame barn that was not structurally up to modern code, but it did not matter. People assume if they change something, they need to make it meet code but if it’s historically listed, that is not true.”

In fact, a broad array of historical designations trigger IRC exemptions — from important national historic registers to state and even local historical recognitions. “A building could simply be in process of being listed,” Cummings notes. “So what someone could do is go down to their local historic commission and just ask for the building to be listed locally. And there is nothing in the future that would prevent them making changes to it; rather it is documented and on file that this is an important structure. This allows them to be exempt from the building code.”

The barn was listed as a historical landmark at the state and municipal levels. With those credentials in hand, Cummings moved forward to planning the program with the clients, which led to the next step: estimating and calculating loads for future users.


Estimating Loads for Future Uses

When the main house was built, it was connected to the barn. There were two access points to the barn from the house — one on the first floor and a second connecting the upper levels. A very small portion of the upper level of the barn near the house had been adapted to living space. It was either a dormitory or a living space for servants, but none of it was usable. The clients allotted half the barn for upper- and lower-level living space: a family room, a mud room, a master suite, an exercise room and a small play area. Other portions of the barn were allocated for vehicles.

This barn was purposely built on an embankment. In fact, this style of barn is called an embankment barn for that reason. This allowed carts stacked high with hay to pull around back, slightly below the main level, where the hay could be easily dragged into the barn with minimal lifting. But the elevation changes presented a challenge. The main floor of the barn is about half a floor lower than the first level of the house. This problem was solved with the help of an experienced joiner by the name of Matt Diana Housewright. More about that to come.

On the main level of the barn, two very different loads were calculated. In the portion to be devoted to the family room, people and furniture were certainly less weighty than the barn’s prior inhabitants of horses and livestock. The portion designated for vehicles required additional support to handle the extra loads, says Cummings, hewing to a pragmatic Yankee approach.

“Now comes the question of what is it that we actually did vs. code,” Cummings explains. “What was its structural capacity to truthfully hold the weights within it and the differences between being a barn and a habitable space? So, for the first floor, that people would walk upon as a family space, it had horses in it, so we look at that structure and, obviously, it was fine. The part where we planned to park cars was different. Cars are heavier than horses, so we needed to shore up that structure more firmly underneath.”

Using the same logic for the second floor spaces, it was determined that the previous loads for hay were sufficient to hold people and furniture but not without some deflection. Afterall, there would be insulation, sheetrock and other weights, and any deflection would be unacceptable. So Cummings added support to the second floor. For the same reason — added materials — he chose to add support to the roof where all secondary timbers were to be insulated and covered.


Build the New Program

Mat Cummings gives much of the credit for the success of the project to the contractor, Alan and Kyle Smallman of Smallman Builders, and the joiner, Matt Diana.

“I think you have to start with an architect with experience restoring old buildings and is, therefore, appropriate for the project,” Cummings says. “Then you need a builder who enjoys what they do and really follows the concept, even if they lack experience with old structures. They need to be willing to invest the time and effort personally to do a great job, and that is exactly what happened here with Smallman Builders.”

The joiner, Matt Diana, played a hugely important role in getting the structure ready for the new spaces. It fell to Diana to move some of the horizontal timbers to create the correct clearances stepping down from the main house into the mud room and family room half a story below. Specifically, a timber at belly-button level in the kitchen of the main house needed to be raised several feet within the same posts and reconnected. This kind of reconfiguring of timbers and bays within a timber-frame barn does not diminish the structural integrity of the building if done correctly. In fact, the shifting of bays within barns was common. It was inherent to the life of an 18th century barn, says Cummings. Several timbers and bays had to be moved to create the upper levels of the new living spaces. Other timbers were moved to accommodate French doors and new windows.


Proper Dates and Exterior Decisions

The barn was built in Georgian times and its overall massing is therefore Georgian. But as the decades rolled by, windows were replaced and a cupola was added. This makes restoration tricky. You could not go all the way back to 1790 for the exterior. Instead, it looks as it would have in 1860, says Cummings.

The windows are a good example: openings are Georgian in size and scale, including the exterior and interior window casements. The sashes, which wear out frequently, are Federal. This relates to the size of the individual panes of glass and the 7/8-in.-thick mutins separating them. The cupola was built in Victorian times, the mid-19th century, which is likely when the much older 1740 weathervane that had once adorned a church in Topsfield, was placed on top.

Cummings ordered Jeld-Wen Windows for the barn because the mutins and panes of their windows are built to Federal Style specs — with the exception of the stiles and rails, which are slightly thicker than Federal. For the main house, Cummings selected Marvin Windows because their stiles and rails match the Victorian specs of the main house.

Very little of the original clapboard remained, so cedar planks were ordered and placed at historically accurate spacing. An old strap-hinge door was restored, but the garage barn doors were replaced with custom wood doors designed to be period specific. So too were the v-shaped gutters and boxed downspouts — made of wood but lined with metal, their form is very appropriate for the 18th century.

Trim and molding details were painstakingly carried out by Smallman Builders, whose trimwork around the two added Victorian windows on the main house is in- distinguishable from the originals.

There were, in fact, many more steps and sub-steps to improving and restoring this barn. However, these steps form the essential groundwork. The key is the flexibility of the IRC in allowing major exemptions in truly historic structures. The same initial assessment by four architects, to demolish and start over, presumably stems from perceived code restrictions. In the end, the barn was saved, much to the satisfaction of the clients, as well as those in Topsfield who had long ago added it to their historical register. This restoration is the outcome all stakeholders sought, even those past and present in the wider community.

“Everything about the exterior of the barn is completely authentic,” Cummings notes. “When people in Topsfield who grew up with this barn see it, not only is it the same as it was in their childhoods, but they know it is the same as it was for their parents and their grandparents, on back 200 years. They are seeing the same thing. What the clients wanted to do was retain that. It is a major part of how people feel about downtown Topsfield.” | QR

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