There’s something about barns.
Maybe they resonate somewhere in our DNA. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that people lived in barns with their animals; that the barn was more important (and cost more) than the house; and that the last thing a farmer did after putting the animals to bed at night was to carefully close and lock the barn door and then knock on the weathered door frame for good luck.
Perhaps it’s because timber barns are honest: the form simple, the structure completely visible inside.
Maybe it’s the feeling of being in the space: a primal sense of shelter, a sense of awe at the vast size and huge beams, the almost irresistible tendency to gaze upward at the great height of the roof, the rows upon rows of posts disappearing into the dimly lit distance.
It could be the resemblance to the great European medieval cathedrals: the central nave, the aisles, the light flooding in from huge doors.
Or maybe it’s just how a barn smells.
A Short History of Barns
Barns have been used by farmers for at least 4,000 years as all-purpose buildings to store their most valuable assets (livestock and harvest), and frequently the family, under one roof.
Early barns were simple structures made of local materials such as wood, stone, or earth, and the roofs were made of straw or other local organic materials.
Innovations in construction and mechanically driven machines in the 18th and 19th centuries permitted the timber barn construction of larger and more sophisticated structures. These barns were often multiple level (with hay and crops stored in the upper level and animals on the ground floor); the walls frequently made of stone or brick; and they usually had large enough doors to permit a wagon entry as well as openings to let in natural light and provide ventilation.
Barns continue to evolve as the nature of farming and building technology change. Threshing floors and milking parlors on dirt floors may have given way to wide-open barns on concrete slabs, but barns continue to be useful multi-purpose buildings: serving as storage for crops, livestock and equipment; as well as stables, workshops, and barn homes.
Sure, the vast majority of barns built today are utilitarian. But thanks to modern engineering, talented architects, and advanced manufacturing, we are creating some of the best timber framed barns in literally, ages.
(The internet is convenient, but if you really want to learn about the history of barns, books are your friend. Two good books about barns we recommend (and have read) are: Silent Spaces: The Last of the Great Aisled Barns by Malcolm Kirk and Eric Sloane’s An Age of Barns.)
Cathedrals on the Prairie
The phrase “cathedrals on the prairie” is used to describe the grand and majestic barns that dot the rural landscape of the North American prairies, particularly in the Great Plains region of the United States and Canada. This term reflects the awe-inspiring size and grandeur of these structures, which serve as symbols of the region’s rich agricultural heritage and cultural identity.
Types of Barns
Sometimes we’re asked “what’s the best barn?” Just like houses, barns are not a one-size-fits-all solution. The style of barn you choose will depend largely on your intended use, the site, and budget.
Here are some of the most common types of barns you can build. But please note there are many other styles and variations you could consider.
English barns are characterized by a large, open interior space with a high pitched roof and central threshing floor. English barns were commonly used for threshing grain in the tall central bay and storing hay in the flanking lofts above as well as livestock below in the bays on either side of the main threshing floor.
A bank barn is a type that is partially built into a hill or slope, with a lower floor accessible at ground level on the downhill side, and the upper level access on the uphill side. This design made it easier to store hay, grain and farm equipment on the upper level while keeping livestock and storing root crops on the lower level. The floor of the upper level cantilevered out over the lower level keeping those entrances out of the elements.
This type is characterized by a steeply pitched roof and large doors, which allowed for tall wagonloads of hay. Dutch barns were commonly built in areas of the United States settled by Dutch immigrants. The main interior pairs of posts were often joined together with a massive Tie or “Anchor” Beam using through tenons and wedges as well as pegs. Long tapered rafters often ran continuously from the eaves to the roof peak.
As the name suggests, round barns are circular in shape, with a central silo and radial stalls for livestock. Round barns were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and were designed for working efficiency and ease of use. Some of these were built into hillsides like a bank barn, allowing for livestock to be housed below, with a circular wagon and threshing floor above.
These have a simple rectangular shape with a symmetrical gabled roof. Gable barns are one of the most common types of barns. These are simpler to build and are used for a variety of purposes, such as sheltering farm equipment, housing livestock, storing animal feed, and grain.
This type has a distinctive multi-faceted roof with two different pitched slopes on each side of the ridge line. This design allows for maximum headroom and storage space up in the loft areas. Gambrel barns are commonly used for both livestock housing and hay storage and may also indicate a European influence.
A pole barn is a type that is constructed using round poles or posts, rather than a traditional squared timbers in the wooden frame. Timber frame pole barns are known for their simple construction and affordability. Commonly used for modern farming equipment storage, feed/fertilizer and other agricultural purposes.
This type of barn is known by the particular structure built at the peak of the main roof planes, known as a roof “monitor.” Cupolas help ventilate a barn loft area, allowing hay to give off heat and dry (another benefit is the natural light that a roof monitor admits deep into the building). If a roof cupola was stretched out along the entire ridge of the roof, you get a monitor roof!
Sometime during the 1100s, aisled barns became a common sight in Europe and served as a technological leap forward. The interior is reminiscent of churches with tall interior “arcade” posts forming the central “nave” space and “aisles” on either side. Perhaps the most impressive were the monastic tithe barns, used in medieval times for storing tithes (taxes) in the form of cereal grain. (Harmondsworth Barn, the largest surviving medieval timber framed barn in England, is at the very top of our list of barns to visit.)
The “Bauernhaus” features both dwelling and farming spaces (the first barndominums?). Housed beneath one massive roof was a multi-level dwelling for the farming family at one end with the barn space at the other end. Separated by interior walls, the barn portion would house the livestock & feed, granary and hay loft all together. The gable ends of this building style often have a clipped hip roof creating a deep overhang over porches projecting out on multiple living levels.
This type is similar to a German timber barn where both living quarters and farming activities are contained in a single structure. However, the lower level is often for livestock and feed, with the living levels above. Due to the terrain, these were often built into the hillside, not unlike a bank barn. A straight gabled roof with very large overhangs (6′ or more) provides shelter for the occupants (and building) from sun, snow, wind, and rain.
These can range from small single or double stall versions to huge multi-stall structures (we’re proud to have built the timber framing for the largest horse barn in the United States). Many of the above styles of wooden barn can be built to serve as stables only. Commonly housing the horses, their feed & bedding materials, as well as tack/harness room and some covered space for saddling the animals.
Other Uses for a Timber Frame Barn
In addition to housing livestock and crops, timber frame barns offer ample open space, strength, and beauty—and they’re quite versatile to boot. Here are just a few ways you can use one:
A timber frame barn is a compelling choice for a home if you appreciate the timeless beauty of barns or if you enjoy the feeling of a wide-open space. Keep reading for photos of both traditional and modern barn homes.
Leave off the walls and you’ve reinvented the medieval French market hall complete with stalls for vendors and plenty of room for shoppers to move freely in the center nave.
Equipment Storage / Workshop / Woodworking Shop
Need more space for your projects, side by sides, e-bikes, the horse your spouse keeps bringing up, tools you rarely use but might need, gardening supplies, and that mostly restored 1980 BMW R80 G/S that you’re planning to ride on the ALCAN Highway one of these days?
Or maybe you’re finally ready to build your dream woodworking shop? As you contemplate the space, remember that, unlike kitchens, no-one ever said “My shop is too big”. Woodworkers universally appreciate and value ample working space with dedicated areas for different woodworking processes, natural light, horizontal workspace, and somewhere to safely stash those special boards. We think a timber framed woodworking shop checks all the boxes, and makes spending time in the shop a rewarding experience.
People build party barns for a variety of reasons, but one of the main reasons is to have a dedicated space for hosting large gatherings, celebrations, and events. We wrote a separate piece about party barns, and you can find it here.
Wondering how to showcase and protect your growing collection of vintage cars and trucks? Just think, you could have the perfect place for that 1953 Ford F-100 pickup you’ve been eyeing…
Winery or Distillery
Timber framing provides a robust and durable structure to support the heavy equipment and loads associated with the production and storage of alcoholic beverages. As an added bonus, the exposed wood beams and joinery create a warm and rustic look that is perfectly-suited to the agricultural and industrial heritage of the winemaking and distilling industries.
We’ve never really liked the word barndominum (or barndo for that matter). To our mind, it conjures up images of a pole barn with metal siding partially converted to living space. It doesn’t seem to do justice to the type of hybrid structure that combines the practicality of a barn with the comfort and functionality of a modern home and the striking beauty of timber framing. How about “rural loft”? Anyway, they typically feature a large open space resembling a traditional barn, often used for storing vehicles and equipment (or occasionally hosting events), while incorporating living quarters within the same structure.
Barns provide a large, open space that can be configured to meet a wide variety of events, from weddings and family reunions to corporate events and birthday parties. They offer a unique backdrop for events and the memories that are created will last a lifetime.
How About Small Timber Frame Barn Designs?
Sure. There are several advantages of building a timber frame barn. For one, they’re manageable in size and possibly a project you could build with your family in your backyard. In the small timber frame barn below, that’s exactly what happened: we put up the timber frame, and the dad and his sons then finished the structure.
Another advantage to building a smaller barn is that they generally cost less because they require fewer materials and less labor. Finally, you don’t need as much land—and you can site your barn in hard to reach places because small barns can often be raised by hand (without a crane or heavy equipment).
What’s the Difference Between Post and Beam Barn and a Timber Frame Barn?
Both post and beam barns and timber frame barns are built using large, heavy timbers that serve as the structural skeleton of the building. The primary difference between a post and beam and a timber frame is the way the posts and beams are connected.
Both post and beam barns and timber framed barns offer a proven and durable building method. However, post and beam barns tend to be more utilitarian, while timber frame barns are, in our opinion, more compelling, durable, and beautiful.
How Much Does a Timber Frame Barn Cost?
Just like houses, cars, and education, the cost of building a timber frame or post and beam barn varies widely. Here are some of the factors that will determine the cost: the size of the barn, the quality and type of materials, the complexity of the design, and the location.
Cost to Build a Timber Frame Barn
On average, the cost of a timber frame barn can range from $75 to $200 per square foot, with an average cost of around $100 to $150 per square foot. That said, the best rule of thumb is to be wary of rules of thumb. Or as the American journalist and noted curmudgeon H.L. Mencken put it, “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
How Long Does it Take to Build a Barn?
The time it takes to build a barn can vary widely depending on a number of factors, including design and drafting, the size and complexity of the barn, permitting, the materials being used, the location and weather conditions, the availability of labor and equipment, and the budget for the project.
In general, a simple timber frame barn can be built in 4 to 6 months, while a more complex or larger barn may take anywhere from 6 months to a year or more. The actual timber frame barn construction time can be shorter or longer, depending on the specific circumstances, location, and constraints on the project.
Should I Hire an Architect?
If it’s a relatively simple timber frame barn and the local building officials are easy to work with, we’re happy to design and engineer the timber frame for your barn.
Over the last 20+ years, we’ve worked on many successful projects without an architect. That said, an architect can bring a wealth of knowledge, expertise, and creativity to your barn project.
Over the years, we’ve been part of projects designed by talented architects from around the county, and acknowledge that we’ve learned a lot from them. We’ve developed a real appreciation for what architects bring to both the process and final product. Sure, their services aren’t inexpensive—but why do you think people hire architects?
Here are some of the benefits of working with an architect:
- Design expertise: Architects are trained (and licensed) professionals who have a deep understanding of building design and construction. They can help you turn your vision for your barn into a reality, taking into account things like function, aesthetic, budget, and building codes.
- Problem-solving: Architects can help you navigate the inevitable challenges that arise during building, whether it’s obtaining apples-to-apples bids from contractors and suppliers, navigating the sometimes byzantine bureaucratic permitting process, or coming up with solutions to unexpected site conditions.
- Contract administration: Architects can also serve as your advocate during the construction process, making sure that your timber farme barn builders and subcontractors follow the plans and specifications, and ensuring that the work is done to a high standard.
- Cost savings: Years ago, we built a great house on a trout stream from only two 8-1/2″ x 11″ hand drawings. We know from experience that it ends up costing more than a good set of plans. The thousand details, questions, and challenges will eventually get figured out, but you’ll be paying people on site to stop work and come up with (and call you about) solutions to problems that a good architect figures out in advance (on paper or computers) less expensively.
- Increased value: A well-designed (and sited) barn can add value to your property. Perhaps more importantly, it will add value to your life: you’ll enjoy looking at, being in, and using your barn, much more.
What Makes a Good Setting for a Barn?
A good setting for a barn should provide the following:
Accessibility: The barn should be located in an area that is easily accessible for vehicles, people, and animals, with adequate room for maneuvering and parking.
Adequate Space: There should be enough space around the barn to allow for the animals to move and graze, as well as space for additional structures such as paddocks, run-in sheds, or pasture.
Proper Drainage: The site should have proper drainage to prevent water from pooling around the barn, which can lead to moisture problems and attract pests.
Good Soil Conditions: The soil should be suitable for construction and able to support the weight of the barn, any crops, animals, and heavy equipment that will be stored in it.
Climate Considerations: The location of the barn should take into account the local climate, with consideration given to factors such as the wind (orient it so the prevailing wind blows through the main aisle), sun exposure, and temperature.
Proximity to Amenities: The barn should be located near essential amenities such as water, electricity (large barn roofs can be ideal for solar panels, if designed for the extra weight), and waste disposal facilities (don’t forget floor drains).
Safety Considerations: The barn should be located in an area that is free from potential safety hazards, such as areas prone to flooding or falling trees.
These are some general considerations for a good setting for a barn, but the specific requirements may vary based on the intended use of the barn and the type of livestock, crops, and equipment it will house. An experienced builder or architect can help to determine the best location and site conditions for your barn, taking into account the factors unique to your property and needs.
Can a Barn Be Insulated?
Historically, barns were not insulated (although a thick layer of hay piled on the loft must have some insulating properties). That said, insulating a barn can make it more comfortable for animals and people by keeping it warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.
If you plan to live in the barn or undertake a barn conversion, the building code will require the barn to be insulated. But it’s worth thinking about, even if you only plan to house animals and equipment. If you’re looking forward to spending time in the barn, at the very least consider insulating discrete spaces like an office or bathroom.
Another idea: think about insulating only the roof at time of construction. It’s a hybrid approach to insulating a barn, but it’ll make the barn more comfortable, future-proofs the barn, and is less expensive (and better-looking) than trying to do it later.
Here are four ways (fair > good; better > best) to insulate a timber frame barn:
What’s a Barn Conversion?
People can live in a barn if the structure is designed as, or has been converted into, habitable living space. Note that the barn conversion process is not for the faint of heart (or limited budgets). It would likely involve significant renovations and modifications to ensure the building meets modern building codes, any local zoning laws, and standards for safety, comfort, and livability.
How About Buying an Antique Barn and Moving It?
Reclaiming an old barn can be a great way to preserve a piece of history and create a truly unique space.
What About a Brand New Barn Home?
Timber frame barn homes offer homeowners a unique blend of beauty, functionality, and energy efficiency, making them a popular type of residential architecture for those looking for a spacious, comfortable, and sustainable living space.
We should point out that barn home architecture can be traditional or contemporary. Modern timber frame barns blend the natural warmth and character of timber framing with clean lines and modern finishes like metal and glass.
Alternatives to a Barn
“I’ve always heard, Miss Shirley, that when a man’s barns are better than his house it’s a sign that his income exceeds his expenditures.” –Anne of Windy Poplars by L.M. Montgomery