Style, Substance and Barn Design

In this adaptation from Horse Housing: How to Plan, Build and Remodel Barns and Sheds (Trafalgar Square Books), Richard Klimesh and Cherry Hill describe the basics of better barn building, including layouts and roof shapes.

The style of your barn is an expression of your personality and horsekeeping philosophy. It is defined primarily by the shape of the
building and by the materials you choose for the visible parts, such as siding and roofing. City ordinances or homeowner covenants might dictate materials and style, making your choices considerably quicker. Climate will influence function and shape.

Unfortunately, like other products of human design, some barns look great but do not work. Don’t sacrifice your horses’ comfort, health and safety for making a fashion statement. Take the axiom “form follows function” (by American architect Louis Henri Sullivan) to heart, and consider the purpose of the barn as the starting point in your design.

A raised center aisle (RCA) barn |

Floor Plan
The floor plan of a barn affects style by determining the overall shape of the building. Most barns are rectangular and single story, but L- or U-shaped layouts, some with a second floor, are not uncommon and may suit your purpose better.

Common Barn Layouts
Run-In Shed–Not a barn per se, the ubiquitous run-in shed, or loafing shed, is the simplest shelter to build, having three sides and either a single-slope roof (shed roof) or an offset gable roof. The open side allows a horse to enter and leave the shed at will. It is often one room for a single horse, but it can be made as long as desired and divided into many compartments to separate horses.

Shed Row–Put a front wall on a run-in shed and you have a shed row barn with stalls open on one side. A gable roof often replaces a shed roof in order to gain an overhang for more protection from sun and rain. The shed row is popular in warm climates where it’s not critical to have inside aisles in which to work. It is not practical for areas with snow, where more protection is needed.

Back-to-Back or Racetrack–Attach two shed row barns back to back for a racetrack barn. Since the stalls share a common back wall, a racetrack barn is an economical way to house a large number of horses. Like the shed row, it is not practical for snowy areas.

Center Aisle–Two facing rows of stalls with an aisle between is the most common enclosed barn configuration. It offers complete protection from weather so horses can be fed, groomed, and tacked without having to leave the barn.

Trainer–This is like two center-aisle barns side by side and covered by a gable roof. There is a double row of stalls down the center of the barn (like a racetrack barn), an aisle on each side, and then another row of stalls along each outer wall. Often an indoor arena is attached to the end of the trainer barn.

Breezeway–Any barn with a large door at each end of the aisle, which can be opened to allow a breeze to blow through the barn.

Raised Center Aisle (RCA)–This term refers to the roof style, monitor, rather than the floor plan. It is a center aisle barn that has a raised roof over the aisle. Clerestories, short walls with windows between the roof levels, let light into the center aisle. In hot climates, the clerestories are left open for ventilation.

Mare Motel–A series of pens, usually of steel pipe panels, covered by a roof. Used in hot climates to maximize airflow and provide shade.

Roof Shape and Overhang
Roof shape determines the appearance of a barn, the volume of air inside the barn and how well the roof sheds rain and snow.

Common Roof Shapes
Shed Roof–Also called a pitched flat roof. The shed roof is all one plane and is often used for three-sided shelters or small stables. It is also commonly attached to the eaves of an existing gable roof or to the wall of a barn.

Gable and Offset Gable–Also called saltbox. The gable roof is a roof with two planes. If one side is longer than the other, it is an offset gable. It is perhaps the most popular of all roof styles. It often extends past the barn walls to provide additional shelter for horses or equipment.

Monitor–Also called raised center aisle or RCA. Lets in light to center aisle, and the added height increases airflow. The monitor is essentially two shed roofs with a gable in the middle. This is good for long rows of stalls. The area under the upper gable roof can be windows, vents or clear panels.

Gambrel–A double-pitched roof popular on two-story barns having a second floor because of the increased headroom and useable floor space it allows. Gambrel trusses eliminate the need for interior post and beam supports, which allows you to create any floor plan you wish.

Rafters and Trusses
Rafters extend from the top of the walls to join in pairs at a ridge board along the top of the roof. They exert a downward and outward force on the walls. To contain this force and prevent the walls from spreading, a ceiling joist or collar tie connects two opposing rafters to make a joist in place. In wide barns, rafters often require support from posts and beams on the inside of the building, which can limit floor plan flexibility.

Trusses are engineered to transfer lateral forces directly downward onto perimeter walls with no outward pressure. This clear span (free span) design eliminates the need for support posts and beams within the structure itself, and allows you to place non-load bearing interior walls anywhere you like.

Two-story barns with hayloft storage were popular when horses were used to power agriculture and hay was put up loose. They are still used for dairy and other livestock operations. It can be tempting to consider adding a loft when considering all that wasted space that could be used for storing hay, bedding, equipment and general overflow. But consider this option carefully.

In the first place, potential fire hazard alone should be enough to clear the loft idea from your head. Facilities experts all agree that the bulk of hay should be stored in a building separate from the stable.

Second, that huge volume of space overhead is not wasted. Quite the contrary, it is serving to keep your horse healthy. A large volume of air helps dissipate stale, humid air that should be allowed to rise and escape through roof vents to be replaced by fresh air drawn in through lower openings. A loft drastically reduces air volume and traps dank air in stalls and aisles, necessitating the use of electric fans for ventilation. Hay stored overhead adds dust, mold and fungal spores, and other pollutants to the air, especially when hay is thrown down for feeding. Make your barn two stories high; then leave out the second floor.

A stable/apartment combination can offer permanent living quarters for a stable owner, worker or broodmare manager, a place for a barn sitter to stay while you’re away or a retreat for visitors wanting a horsey experience. Living in close proximity to your horses enables you to keep close watch on them to nip trouble in the bud.

Framing Type
Framing is the skeleton of the barn to which the inside and outside coverings are attached. The type of framing you choose can affect the shape and appearance of the finished barn.

Pole Barn (Post Frame)
Pole framing utilizes posts and beams to minimize the number of framing elements in walls. It is economical, strong and relatively simple to build, making it the most popular framing method for custom barns. A pole barn frame consists of 6- to 8-inch round or rectangular pressure-treated wood posts set 3 to 6 feet below the ground. Poles are typically set at 8- to 12-foot intervals and rest on a pad of concrete at the bottom of each hole. Poles and trusses or rafters are generally visible inside the barn. Pole barns are easy to build in part because they require no trench work for a foundation, only holes; and these can be dug using a tractor auger or a hand posthole digger.

Timber Frame (Post and Beam)
Timber framing is another type of post and beam construction, but rather than plugging into the ground like a pole barn, a timber frame barn sets on a concrete foundation. A properly constructed timber frame is incredibly sturdy–some have lasted for hundreds of years. It is typically comprised of 8- and 10-inch square timbers for main members and smaller timbers for roof purlins and floor joists. Major joints are traditionally dovetails and mortise and tenon, often hand cut and secured with wooden pins, like fine furniture construction on a larger scale. Craftsmen using traditional timber frame methods don’t use nails or other metal fasteners
unless they are required by local codes. Timber frame barns are sometimes built in or near the builder’s shop and shipped to the site to be erected by the builder, a local contractor or the owner. Timber-frame kits that use metal connectors to secure joints are available.

Wood Frame and Masonry
Wood frame construction is the most popular style for houses but is not widely used for barns. It is generally not as strong as either pole or timber framing and requires more material to build.

Masonry barns are especially popular in desert climates because the thermal mass of the walls tends to keep the inside of the building cool during the day and radiates heat at night. A masonry barn typically consists of concrete block or wood-framed walls faced with brick or stucco. The advantages of concrete block walls are that little or no inside finish treatment is required, and they are generally impervious to damage from chewing or kicking horses.

Like timber framing, wood frame and masonry buildings require footings and foundation walls to transfer the load of the structure to solid soil and to elevate the walls from the ground. Concrete footings are formed and poured in a trench where the outer walls of the building will be. The trench must be dug to below the frost line or according to local building codes. Foundation walls, either poured concrete or concrete block, set on the footings and extend approximately 16 inches above grade. The wood framing or masonry portion of the barn sets on the foundation walls.

Modular barns generally consist of a steel framework with steel-framed panels fitted in between. The panels are typically comprised of a plywood or OSB (oriented strand board) core with sheet steel laminated to the inside surface and steel, wood or other siding material laminated to the outside surface. An advantage of this framing is that damaged panels can be replaced relatively easily. Some modular barns have a “warehouse” appearance, but many manufacturers offer a variety of styles, siding and roofing materials. If you don’t see a plan you like, most manufacturers will modify an existing plan to suit your needs. Modular barns generally go up
quicker and with less expense than custom barns. They are especially fire resistant because of the steel framing and steel-skinned wall panels.

Used with permission from Trafalgar Square Books, 388 Howe Hill Road, North Pomfret, VT. To order Horse Housing: How to Plan, Build and Remodel Barns and Sheds, visit or call 1-800-952-5813.

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