Retrofit, remodel or remove: What to do with that old barn

by Tamara Scully

Timothy Terry, farm strategic planning specialist with Cornell Pro-Dairy, is accustomed to helping farmers identify the often-overlooked details that a retrofit of an old barn or other farm building requires. Terry spoke at the 2022 Catskills Regional Agriculture Conference, sharing his knowledge to help farmers discern whether to retrofit, remodel or raze those structures to ensure the most cost-effective and productive use.

Razing an old structure can sometimes be the best option, Terry said. Taking down an old structure can cost a lot less than altering it to meet a new need or renovating it back to a safe and sound structure. Companies which specialize in reclaimed wood are now commonplace and can salvage the parts and pieces which can then be reused in other ways, repurposing them for new uses.

Remodeling involves renovating an existing building to better serve its intended purpose. The purpose can be the same use for which it was originally built or it can be a new endeavor.

Retrofitting a structure is more expansive than a remodel. It involves thoroughly updating and upgrading a building to meet the needs of a new, expanding or existing enterprise.

“Think long and hard before you act,” Terry advised, as the value of an old building is often over-estimated, while the extent of the repairs and changes which will need to be made, as well as the final functionality of the building, are often under-estimated.

Considerations

If the price of a renovation is going to be more than 50% of building new, it might not be worth the time, planning and effort of forcing an old structure to meet your needs, Terry said. Some things to consider when assessing the feasibility of renovating include the foundation; the roof; the plumbing, heating and electricity; and ventilation and structural modifications (such as removing supports to enlarge doors) that will be required.

Foundation cracking, shifting and settling can be minor concerns or major warning signs. Vertical cracks through the foundation’s mortar can mean trouble. Many old buildings don’t have continuous reinforced concrete footers but are instead laid on earth footings. Don’t reach for Portland mortar to fill cracks or repoint, he cautioned, as it may be too hard a substance, and a softer sand mix might be needed when repairing old foundations. Spalling of the foundation can indicate hydraulic pressure, indicating a need to improve drainage.

Retrofit, remodel or remove: What to do with that old barn

The old dairy barn was retrofitted and expanded to encompass a modern dairy’s needs. Photo courtesy of the Stuzman family/Lehi Creek Farm

Old roofs and flashing may need replacing. Architectural shingles only last about 25 years depending on climate. Cedar shakes will need waterproofing. Slate lasts forever but the nails can fail. Steel aluminum roofs can have problems with loose fasteners. Flashing can need repair.

When replacing architectural shingles, “there’s no advantage to not doing a complete tear-off,” Terry said. Multiple layers of shingles will wear out faster than a new single-layer roof.

Inside the structure, examine the ceiling for moldy spots, water stains and rotted sheathing. Rusty metal plates can indicate water damage. Sagging rooflines can indicate problems with the foundation or with sagging walls that need to be pulled back together. Before doing so, cleaning the chaff and dirt out of joints with an air compressor and a shop-vac is warranted.

Gutters and drains in old barns may need to be filled in if they’re not going to be used in the new plan. If they are to be left, upgrades to ensure proper drainage may be needed. Floors may need resurfacing or replacement, depending on their current state and intended use.

Is the structure insulated, and if so, is it in good condition or contaminated with animal feces and dirt? How is the ventilation and does it meet the needs for your intended purpose? Is there a minimum water flow of five gallons per minute if livestock are to be housed? Are the pipes galvanized and potentially rusted, and will they need replacing? Any water lines located near an outside wall, or outside the building, are going to need to be buried to protect them from freezing, Terry said.

Can the electrical system handle the load you’ll need? Does the panel need an upgrade from the old knob-and-tube? Is the electrical system properly grounded? What kind of light fixtures are there and do they need to be upgraded for safety? Cobwebs and chaff can cause a spark to turn rapidly into a blaze. What about pathogen load in the structure? Can you power wash to bare wood and decrease or eliminate any pre-existing pathogenic concerns?

Gas pipelines, if any, need to be found. Are they safe? Are they in the right place for your intended use?

Is the building located in an area that will suit its intended use? Terry cautioned that if a building is in a low-lying area, it may be better to raze it and avoid problems with water and moisture. Buildings that can’t readily be expanded in the future, aren’t easily accessible for deliveries, are located too far from other infrastructure or which are located in a sensitive environmental area might not be good candidates for renovation.

Ceiling heights, door heights, locations of doors and windows, support columns, load-bearing walls and even the condition of the interior walls must be considered. Will there be room for storage? Is there access for equipment?

Designs and plans for the renovation must be as detailed as possible – and must be reality-based. The more accurate you are on paper, the less money you’re going to pay your contractors.

“If you take structure out, you have to replace it with some other structures somewhere in order to carry the load,” Terry said. “Do sweat the details. Change orders are expensive.”

Creature Comforts

It’s important to think about the comfort of the animals if the structure is for livestock use. Drafts at nose-height (for the livestock) are a problem. Ventilation should be planned depending on the life stage of the animals the barn will house. Will natural ventilation suffice and how will the design allow for adequate airflow? Mechanical ventilation can be positive, negative or neutral pressure. Assisted ventilation using natural airflow supplemented with fans might be all your animals need.

Animal comfort also means supplying enough room for the livestock to move comfortably and to be handled safely. The direction of animal movement in the facility is important, as is the control of the animals. If animals need to be sorted, treated or loaded and unloaded, the facility design should include areas for doing so.

Renovated buildings should allow for the safe and efficient movement of animals, people and equipment.

“Labor efficiency is a factor in these things,” Terry said, and getting design input from employees is a smart idea. Using an agricultural professional to help with the planning is a good idea too.

When an old barn has outlived its original design, repurposing it through remodeling or retrofitting can be appealing. But it might not always be the most efficient, effective or functional option, Terry said.

“Remember, you still have an older facility, and there’s a cost to the long-term inefficiencies of those buildings,” he concluded.

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