How to take one old barn and call it home
It’s not hard to see why old barns inspire the imagination. The high-peaked timber frame with its massive exposed posts and rafters is reminiscent of awe-inspiring Gothic churches or medieval castles. At the same time, the rough elegance of hand-shaped beams and the rich patina of centuries-old boards have a quintessentially American feeling, connecting us to our pioneer roots.
That rugged appeal is hard to find in any house, however old. Ken Epworth has dismantled hundreds of these derelict structures and brought them back to his workshop to be meticulously cleaned and readied for reassembly as homes. “You’re not going to live long enough to get that color out of new beams,” says Epworth, whose company, The Barn People, is based in Vermont.
Because barns have usually been nothing but barns throughout their life, they have aged both with use and with the slow-moving effects of time and weather. Tight-grained posts have darkened and dried out, critters have left behind scratches and holes. Most of Epworth’s projects involve early-19th-century barns that were originally shaped and assembled by hand. “People are going for that organic look,” he says.
Of course, one of the biggest draws of old barns is the lofty space they offer, dwarfing even the largest rooms in conventional homes. But incorporating all the elements of a house into what is essentially one big blank slate of a room, minus the stall walls and hayloft, presents particular challenges. Les Fossel, a Maine contractor who has restored at least 100 barns in New England over 30 years, says, “Barns make great barns, but they don’t always make great homes. Often someone falls in love with that wonderful open space – but then they realize they need bathrooms, and they want privacy in their bedrooms, and they start cutting it up and adding walls. Pretty soon, you go from a great barn to a bad house.”
Because there are only so many ways one can cut up a simple gable-end barn, Epworth says that many result in similar layouts: a great room with a fireplace at one end and bedroom loft areas up above. Kitchens and other common areas either open onto that great room or get tucked away under the loft spaces. Some barns become additions to existing houses, serving as a family area or recreation room, and others remain as separate buildings, often as guest houses or pool houses. In those cases, parceling out the space is less of a design dilemma.
At TOH’s Carlisle project, the barn is only a wing of the house, so architect Jeremiah Eck is leaving as much open space as he can, designating a two-story “living hall,” or gathering room, for about a third of the space, and creating private guest quarters on the second level. He also uses glass to maximize the open feeling of the floor plan: One corner of the living hall is glazed floor-to-ceiling, while some loft rooms have interior windows overlooking the great room below.