Rebuilding the Barn
Published: March 1, 2009
Story: Maggie Peterman Photos: Scott Anderson
There’s little reason for today’s modern farmer to repair a dilapidated barn.
Most barns lost their usefulness. Many are too small to house modern equipment, and farmers use different venues to shelter herds and store hay.
But a Mazomanie couple still decided to spend $500,000 to refurbish a barn despite its lack of farming utility.
“Our hope is to use it for family gatherings and a place for people to find respite from their crazy lives,” said Christi Schwegel, a mother of three daughters.
With thousands of barns decaying across Wisconsin, a new push is under way to rehabilitate the aging structures. But instead of farmers digging in to make the repairs, suburbanites with an enthusiasm for barns are paying for the work.
Charles Law, former president of the National Barn Alliance and director and community planning specialist for the University of Wisconsin Extension Service, said he answers a steady stream of calls and e-mails from fans of Wisconsin’s rustic hillsides who want to rehab farm relics into family gathering spaces, churches, nature centers, museums, restaurants, produce stands and repair shops. There are even a few, he said, who want to renovate old farm buildings for conventional use.
“I get a call every single day,” said Law, who has a list of more than 60 contractors, consultants and architects connected to the Wisconsin Barn Preservation Program. “I see everything from basic tuck-pointing of barn foundations to complete, museum-quality preservation efforts in places like Baraboo Hills.”
The business of renovating barns is lucrative, said contractors who complete the work. Since many owners choose to do the work for fun, rather than out of necessity, they are more concerned with outcome than budget, those contractors said.
But the lucrative nature of the projects does not reduce the challenges associated with construction.
Rick Bott, owner of R&B Enterprises Design and Construction Ltd., North Freedom, said he marvels at the skills of the original barn builders.
“Many of them were engineers with only an eighth-grade education,” said Bott, a self-educated architect and designer who has completed more than 300 barn conversions in three decades. “The first settlement barns are some of the finest structures ever built.”
But when he first was hired by Rod and Christi Schwegel, their 1910 post-and-beam barn, like so many seen from two-lane roads across Wisconsin, was ready to crumble despite its strong initial construction.
“It was a ramshackled mess,” Bott said.
Bott said barns falter over time because they were designed to hold animals. The animals, he said, kept the buildings warm enough to prevent frost from getting under the shell of the barn’s foundation.
Because of the frost problems, Bott said insulation is the most important aspect of barn renovation.
“These are big buildings,” Bott said. “If you don’t do the insulation right, you have problems.”
To insulate the Schwegel’s barn, panels were manufactured that could stabilize the building. Also, the entire roof was sprayed with foam insulation, a newer technique, Bott said.
“It’s not rocket science, but it has to be done right” he said.
Bott said frost is what causes barns to start leaning in one direction or another. The Schwegel’s barn shifted to the east, and a wall was starting to collapse into the basement.
To cure the Schwegel’s problems, Bott said workers raised and jacked the barn 36 inches off the foundation to pour a concrete cap — forming a grade beam — on top of the original stone foundation.
Crews also installed cables and turnbuckles in the upper timber frame to pull back the building to true and plumb, he said.
“When the barn was set back down on the level foundation, it largely righted itself,” he said. “It speaks volumes about the original framers.”
Bott said some barns need to be moved to a new foundation. Installing cables and turnbuckles is common in barn restoration projects, he said.
In the end, the Schwegel’s converted their barn into a recreational space that includes a locker room in the basement for basketball camps in the summer.
More than 100 carpenters, electricians, plumbers, glass specialists, painters and landscapers worked on the project, Schwegel said.
“This building was completely dysfunctional,” Bott said. “It’s turned into an incredible livable space.”
Contractors say barn restoration, such as the kind Bott completed for the Schwegels, is a profitable market.
Mike Hanson, president of Big Mike’s Home & Barn Improvements, Oconomowoc, said he takes on more barn work now than in his previous 30 years in business.
“It’s lucrative,” Hanson said of the barn work he completes in Jefferson and Waukesha counties. “It’s nice to see people fixing up instead of tearing down.”
But Hanson said the lucrative work requires a great deal of flexibility. His customers want to convert their barns into anything from a storage space for their hobby farms to an indoor basketball court.
Hanson said luxuries such as central air in the summer, heated barns in the winter, specialty rooms and insulated steel walls are frequent requests.
Barn game rooms that house billiard tables and big screen televisions are popular too, he said.
One Ixonia resident fixed up a barn to store 10 Indianapolis 500 pace cars he owns, Hanson said.
“Farmers are willing to spend more money on their barns than on their houses,” he said. “Horse owners spend a ton of money… especially on the facilities.”
Not only do barn owners come up with a variety of uses for the inside of barns, they want an assortment of colors for the outside.
Crews at Roberts Brothers Painting, Beaver Dam, color about 150 wood barns a year, said Tim Omen, sales director.
“Yep, it pays well,” he said. “We have a number of families making a good living off this. We travel the state and work from sunup to sundown.”
White and barn red are the most popular colors, Omen said, and there are many requests for yellow.
“A (Waupaca) hobby farmer requested a light purple,” he said. “You asked for the unusual.”