Chat Transcript – John Blackburn

EquiSearchStaffWelcome to our live chat with John Blackburn of Blackburn Architects, PC in Washington, DC. Mr. Blackburn has special expertise in the planning and design of equestrian facilities, from private farms with breeding and training facilities to colleges and universities with show jumping and research facilities. Having planned and/or designed over sixty equestrian facilities in 26 states, he has helped the firm develop a national reputation for its unique use of natural light and ventilation in the design of equestrian structures and in the sensitive placement of their buildings in harmony with the land.

John Blackburn

gatsbysmom I am finishing barn plans for a barn in Alabama. The site is on a knoll of a hill which catches a breeze ( when there is one) but is not shaded by trees. I want a COOL barn! What are your thoughts on metal ( insulated) or shingled roofs? Any suggestions on vents besides a ridge vent and Dutch doors?

Blackburn – Gatsbysmom…I tend to prefer a shingle roof, metal roofs do have a lot of expansion and movement and heat and they tend to be more expensive…

Blackburn -Place the barn near the top of the hill and try to bring the air in low … use Dutch doors so they air can come in and place vents near the top of the barn so the air can escape… create a steep roof so the heat can rise and escape … from a 7:12 slope to a 12:12 slope, which is a 45 degree slope, the steeper the roof the better

RuffianWhen you first look at a site for a barn, how do you evaluate it and decide on the right sort of structure?

Blackburn – Ruffian…it depends on what location of the country you are in…the environment plays a big part in how you design the building

RuffianSorry. Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley. Moderate weather.

LittleOxYou’ve built some classic barns like Lanes End and Morven Park. Can you tell us one or two of your favorite designs and why?

Blackburn – Little Ox…I have a lot of favorites…I think Morven was very successful barn because of the combinations of materials, it fits into the local context, yet it incorporates modern technology that’s important for broodmare and breeding farms, features such as the slate roof insulates well. Also, little ox, what’s unique about our barns…the basic layout is similar, but the look can vary dramatically…if you look at the breadth of our work, there is a wide variety of styles while the basic function remains the same

BettyHi John – we are converting an old cow barn – from the 1750’s! how do you recommend we approach it?

Blackburn – Hi Betty…if it’s a dairy barn, it’s hard to convert for horses…many times there is very low headroom so that can make it difficult…without knowing more about the particular barn, it’s hard to say…tobacco barns with a 12 foot module tend to convert well…many cattle barns used to be bank..

Blackburn – barns with low ceilings…we want 10 to 12 feet head room for horses

Betty It’s an old cow barn and we recently removed the loft so the ceilings are tremendously high.

BettyWhich presents other problems — such as birds!

Blackburn – Ok, Betty…you’ve got a great opportunity…do the column spacings work for stall spacings? if they are 12 foot or more, you have the beginnings for a horse barn… there are other things to be considered, but that’s a good start…if you did take out the loft floor, be sure the structure is sound

BettyAlso a friend has a question: In an area where they are only allowed one building on 2.5 acres, (the size of their entire property) how do they make room for their horse, hay and lawn/tractor equipment? They want the barn to be safe most of all. Thanks

Blackburn – Betty…if it’s a pretty small property, you can do it…you can attach the hay and vehicle storage next to the barn with firewalls in between the various areas so you can isolate those…concrete brick walls and even a fire-shut door work well for separation

BettyOk and thanks!

BettyJohn this is huge problem although it might seem minor — the horses sometimes knock their water buckets or they are overfilled, so the overflow goes onto the floor. Over the years this has created a weakness in the boards. Any thoughts on how to eliminate this problem?

BettyThe structure is OK and we sorted out the stalls — some are a bit uneven in shape which is OK as we need broodmare stalls. To say the barn is airy is an understatement!

LenaHi John — We have just completed our barn and now the biggest question is stall flooring..what do you recommend? What are the options? Thanks.

Blackburn – Lena…depending on the cost and maintenance…clay, or stone dust with or without rubber mats; asphalt – popcorn asphalt that drains well with or without mats; concrete with rubber mats; my favorite is interlocking rubber paper, which tends to be costly – the lowest cost tends to be the clay floor

Blackburn – Lena, asphalt with rubber mats tends to be the most common flooring

Blackburn – Betty…what we typically recommend is three bucket hooks in the corner that are recessed..if you use a single bucket hook, it’s easier for the water to spill…another way to avoid the problem is to avoid having wood stall…a concrete block stall with rubber mats works better

DebraHi John, I’m planning to build a new barn/stable with an apartment above it. Can you give me any advice or suggestion?

Blackburn – Debra…you need to be very careful with apartments and barn…be concerned about fire separation between the two…if you put the apartment above the barn, provide proper egress between the two for human safety reasons

BettyThree bucket hooks? Not sure I understand.

Blackburn – Betty…if you put one hook in the corner and one on each side out form the corner…generally, the “hook” is an eye that attaches to the bucket handle…

RuffianMe again. Empty field in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I want to build an 8-horse barn and hay storage. There is a rise. But what design would make sense for the area. It also needs to be attractive and fit with a traditional old house.

Blackburn – Ruffian…for ventilation, I’d place the barn near the top of the rise for ventilation…the barn can be designed to fit with the house, but if you look historically at old farmhouses and barns, they don’t match…I don’t feel everything needs to match since a barn is designed for a totally different use from a house so the design need not be the same

gatsbysmom – John – do you have suggestions on low maintenance exteriors for wood frame barns. As much as I love natural wood I would like to have as little flammable material as possible. Bear in mind I am on a budget but would like to do this barn right the first time! Thanks.

Blackburn – gatsbysmom…if you do an all wood barn, then the wood near the ground needs to be pressure treated to protect it from rot or use a concrete base up to 4 feet then wood…it gives you the beauty of wood but since it’s up higher there’s less chance of rot

LenaDo you have any recommendation on vinyl siding? Does it work on a barn and still look good?

Blackburn – Lena…we don’t use vinyl siding very often…we’ve used “hardyplank” which is very durable…the thing you need to be careful with vinyl siding is in windy conditions, it’s lightweight and can be blown off the building which can be dangerous

BettyWhat is handyplank made of?

gatsbysmomHow do you like “hardyplank”. That was one of my options. Did you use the sheets or the actual planks? Thanks. It is made of fiber cement, Betty.

Blackburn – Betty…hardyplank is cement-based material

Blackburn – Gatsbysmom…we’ve used both sheets and planks…planks run in horizontal patterns so it looks like actual siding, with the sheets, it’s more obvious that it’s a substitute material…with real wood siding, you’d stagger the joints so in almost all cases I’d use the horizontal siding

Blackburn – also…if you use the vertical board sheets, you have to design it so the joints occur in a logical place on the building so it looks like it fits the building’s design

BettyWhat would the proper egress be?

Blackburn – Betty…for example, you need two escapes…either through the door or windows… there are specific measurements required for the windows to allow for people climbing out

DebraWhat is the recommended aisle width? With cross ties?

Blackburn – Debra…the minimum aisle width is 12-feet, but I recommend 14-feet if you can afford it…14-feet is better

gatsbysmomHow much roof overhang do you recommend for a barn in the South?

Blackburn – Gatsbysmom…roof overhangs are very helpful in the south for shading…if you have Dutch doors where horses can stick their heads out, it allows them to do it…make sure the roof is projected out far enough so runoff doesn’t drop on the horses’ heads…a good dimension is 3.5 feet.

LenaAn earlier question on birds — we have a horrible problem with small birds in the barn – ceiling very very high. Bird dung in water, feed. Any ideas?

DebraI’ve read that good ventilation is very important — any recommendations on how to achieve this?

Blackburn – Debra…good ventilation is extremely important especially in a hotter climate because horses are more susceptible to heat..Dutch doors are good for ventilation, and ridge vents are good to allow the air to get out

DebraDo you plan for fans?

Blackburn – Lena…it’s difficult to say without knowing how your barn in designed…frequently we design barns to reduce the amount of places for birds to perch and an existing barn, we put screens over openings and bird netting over aisle doors to reduce the number of birds that get in the barn.

LenaI guess it’s a matter of getting them out and preventing future visits. It is a real problem though.

Blackburn – Debra, yes we do plan for fans, however in designing the barn you want to minimize the need for fans or mechanical ventilation for safety reasons…we will put the fan high on the wall or above the stall to put a breeze in the stall so the horse can stand in front of it and to minimize flies

LenaWhat’s a good size for a foaling stall?

Blackburn – Lena, generally a foaling stall would be 12 by 16 if your typical stall is 12 by 12, or I would go to a double stall or stall and a half size…draft horses definitely need double stalls…for a standard size horse, you’d typically need a 12 by 16 or a 12 by 18 size stall

LittleOxGotta go. Great information. Thank you.

Blackburn – You’re welcome Little Ox..thanks for joining us…are there more questions out there?

gatsbysmomOn the subject of fans – which do find to be more effective – an industrial fan mounted high on a wall or ceiling fans mounted over the stalls. I’ve wondered if ceiling fans are high enough to be safe are they effective?

Blackburn – Gatsbysmom…industrial fans mounted high on the wall are better than ceiling fans because they give you more of a breeze and a choice of speeds…you get a more specific breeze in the stall instead of a general one, but we’ve use both…it depends on the owner’s needs

EQSJohn – when you take on a very large projects such as Lane’s End, what are the instructions or parameters given to you? Can we learn anything from the approach of the big farms?

Blackburn – EQS…there are basic principles to keep in mind…you want to place the barn to minimize the amount of lead time between barn and your smaller paddocks closer to the barn, and the larger ones farther away..also, isolate horses from vehicular traffic so prevent paths from crossing

EQSAny ideas on stallions vs mares vs gelding s and young stock?

Blackburn – EQS…could you elaborate on that last question

EQSSorry my bad spelling — what about separations between mares, stallions geldings, indoors and outdoors?

EQSAnd I guess that is into fencing.

Blackburn – EQS…in a barn, separations between stalls should be solid instead of bars…there can be open spaces for communication, but there also needs to be some privacy…have solid portions between feed areas…also, with open bars there is more chance of disease spread…if you ventilate vertically…

Blackburn – the solid portions between stalls won’t affect the ventilation

Blackburn – also…in the paddocks, I would typically put a lane between paddocks if you’ve got the space to not have a shared fence because horses will tend to fight each other…also, a stallion may try to get over the fence if the mare is next to him

EQSDo cupolas help with ventilation?

EQSFinally – do you have a preference between doors with metal rails to the top or yokes where a horse can put on his head?

Blackburn – EQS…good question…cupolas are a traditional method of ventilating barns, but they’re not a good method..we try to put ventilation all along the ridge of the barn…otherwise, if you have just one area for heat escape it doesn’t promote air flow for ventilation…it’s just a traditional feature

EQSThey are attractive though, thanks

Blackburn – EQS…I think yoke gates in the aisle are nice to have on small private farms…on exterior doors on the outside, it’s nice for a horse to have his head out, but you create a risk of the door slamming shut in the wind so I’m not a big fan for yokes on the exterior…I prefer metal frame doors…

Blackburn – they’re more stable and the horse won’t crib on it


gatsbysmomHave you used any of the mesh stall fronts in your designs? If so, any suggestions of what to avoid?

Blackburn – gatsbysmom…we’ve used a lot of mesh doors…it’s advantage is it’s stronger than bars by themselves…we use 2-inch square grid…the disadvantage is the horizontal bars in the mesh tend to collect dust…we typically put the mesh in the lower portion and bars up higher so if the horse kicks the bottom must be stronger

SylviaWe are building an eleven stall barn in our Riding School down in El Salvador (Central America), besides other issues, at this time my main concern is the flooring, and basically the drainage in each stall so that all that urine will drain instead of forming a puddle in the center of the stall. We use wood shavings as footing, and it seems to work pretty wood, however over time it seems to be impossible not to have a hole right in the center of the stall from everyday removing urine soaked shavings plus some dirt. In the 17 stalls we already have the floor is just dirt, and we use the wood shavings on top of it.

Blackburn – There are a variety of possible solutions. The simplest solution may be to install a perforated type mat such as EQUUSTALL Stable Flooring with a filler on top of stone dust, sand or similar material.

There is a French drain system that can be installed. I have used it more with bluestone stall flooring than dirt. Bluestone flooring will allow the urine/moisture to drain thru to a dirt base (clay typically, though I don’t know what is typical in El Salvador). The base slopes to a low trench where a perforated pipe can be laid to carry the moisture away or a French drain installed to allow the moisture to drain away from the surface and eventually into the soil.

To prevent what is happening in your stalls you need to either prevent the moisture from getting to the soil by using rubber mats and let the bedding soak up the moisture or provide a system that permits the moisture to drain through the surface and away (as described above.)

Blackburn – I’ve enjoyed this evening…the important thing in designing a barn is to remember a horse is intended to live outside in nature so make your barn safe for the horse and design it in a way that it duplicates what a horse can obtain in nature

Blackburn – You’re welcome! Have a good evening everyone!

gatsbysmomThanks. You have been a BIG help!

tsmcd1@msnI have enjoyed this and learned a lot, thank you.

EquiSearchStaffThank you, John. Chatters, check out John’s website at

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