The cost to repair traditional timber-frame barns depends on the condition of the structure, changes sought, and the qualifications and integrity of the person doing the work. The longer repairs are delayed, the more expensive they become. Neglect routine maintenance, and a structure that might have been given a new life is lost.
Second to the question, “Is this barn worth saving?” is a barn owner’s quest for cash: “Where can I find grant money?”
Michigan has no programs for repairing privately owned barns. A handful of programs exist in other states — among them Ohio, Iowa and New York — with most operated by that state’s barn or historic preservation organization.
Barn Believers Community Project Fund, held by the Battle Creek Community Foundation, makes grants to nonprofit groups to assist with evaluating a barn for nonprofit use, to support educational events, and to preserve historical data and photos.
The Michigan Historic Preservation Network includes barns in survey work, while the Michigan Barn Preservation Network for more than two decades has made annual grants to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for its farmsteads.
“The unfortunate reality is Michigan just does not have the tools in place for widespread historic barn recognition and preservation that some other states such as Washington or Connecticut offer,” says Nathan Nietering with the State Historic Preservation Office. The tax credit option was dissolved in 2010. However, the Michigan Legislature is considering reinstating it.
Keeping a barn in ongoing, good repair is crucial to saving money and preserving future value. “One of the biggest problems,” says Roger Bateson of RJ’s Complete Barn Restoration, Prescott, “is when gutters have not been maintained. Water that freezes and thaws causes problems for footings, foundations, and rots the siding up from the ground. Add a bad roof, tree roots, branches and vines that tear and eat up siding, and it is bad, bad news.”
Chad Stitt of American Heritage Barn Preservation, Onondaga, adds that foundations of old barns were made with what was available at the time. Repairing them today means using better mortar, re-rod, and the installation of footers where there may never have been any.
Make timely roof repairs
“The first manifestation of a barn going downhill is in the roof," points out Joe Miller of Fire Tower Engineered Timber, Calumet. “A little leak near the ridge or cupola rots a few boards, or a leak near an eave causes a plate to rot. You have to keep a good roof on a barn.”
Every barn is different. Each must be examined for layers of old roofing, and beneath that, the condition of the decking or framing. Both affect replacement cost, as does owners’ preferences in new materials.
“Every layer of roofing adds tremendous weight,” Bateson says. “One of the first things I do is cable the barn — top plate to top plate.” He has repaired barns where new roofing had been laid over old and became the straw that broke the camel’s back as sidewalls bowed.
Robert Sherriff, retired president of Sherriff-Goslin Roofing, Battle Creek, emphasizes, “No more than two layers of roofing should be left on a barn. Regular shingles should never be placed over wood shingles.” And, he cautions, “There are many types and qualities of shingles and metal roofing. When people put good money into saving a barn only to learn the product is inferior or done with inadequate preparation, the consequences can be heartbreaking. Understand the alternatives, and work with trained installers.”
Miller and Stitt say the advent of hay tracks mounted at the ridge of barns spelled problems as important supportive structural bracing was cut to accommodate the track. This, as well as alterations made to store larger farm equipment, causes sidewall spread if framing is not reengineered to regain solid support. Work only with people who understand timber-frame barns, they caution.
Tom Irrer, president of the Michigan Barn Preservation Network, who did substantial work to a barn on his St. Johns mint farm, agrees. “A good source of information is a small-town lumber yard," he says. "They know who does good work. Some work does not require a barn contractor, but when it comes to timber-framing, you want someone who knows old barns.”
The network offers a list of people working in barn repair, hosts barn tours and gives annual awards to recognize cared-for barns. Irrer adds, “Look at a person’s work. You get what you pay for.” Many contractors have websites.
Some barn owners choose to sheath an old barn in metal. In that case, a new set of challenges emerges. Moisture issues first must be addressed. Old sills are prone to rot from water exposure or insects. Stitt emphasizes that damaged sills must be replaced, and new sills must have a moisture barrier placed between them and the foundation.
Bateson points out that additional support in the barn’s framing is needed to help stabilize and support the weight of steel siding and improve wind resistance because air is no longer dispersed between boards and through knotholes. He also installs ventilation at the soffit of the gable ends to release heat.
“Every barn must be evaluated on its own. One approach does not work for all,” Bateson says. "It isn’t just differences in the condition of a structure. It is also where it was built, the quality of the original work, materials used, and how the barn was used over the decades. Stop the damage, save the barn.”
There are multiple opinions about prepping for and painting barns. Power-wash? Scrape? Paint? Apply linseed oil before painting? Spray, roll or brush? The type and condition of the wood and the knowledge of the professional are vital. Be wary of traveling companies.
Communicate with contractor
The cost of barn repair is a challenge to estimate because major issues often cannot be fully identified until the professional gets past clutter, hay and siding, so that rot, critter and insect damage become fully visible.
This is where honest communication is the linchpin. Reputable contractors will be open about the problems they anticipate, the materials they will use and how the work will be done. They will price their work in stages — stabilization first, critical repairs second and cosmetic changes last. If some work can be done by the barn owner, a good contractor will offer guidance.
Once a contractor has been chosen, the parties should draw up a contract that within reason, specifies the time frame for the work, the terms and payment schedule, and who is responsible for what — such as renting gondolas, paying hazardous waste fees, determining access route and what is to be done with salvageable or unused materials. The contractor should be on-site with his crew or regularly overseeing the work.
Keeping a barn in good repair delivers a return on investment. According to findings of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the average cost for barn rehabilitation is a third of comparable new construction.
Plus, repairs to existing structures are not taxed as new construction, and the owner has gained a structure with versatility, longevity and increasing historic significance.
When a barn cannot be kept, plenty of time should be allowed to locate a taker, and whether it is being moved or dismantled, at least two weeks should be allowed for process and cleanup.
Factors such as size, location, route, distance and season affect whether a barn can be moved whole or in sections and alter the cost. Some contractors prefer to dismantle to ensure the frame is inspected before the barn is rebuilt. The potential for saving a barn through relocation is greater when a barn is in good shape.
The last recourse should be salvage for repurposing components. And even then, barn owners need to understand that not all barns can be sold, because costs are incurred in taking them down, removing nails, transporting, storing and remarketing materials.
Barn owners who have undertaken repairs often are glad they saved the barn, while others who have destroyed a barn readily admit they regret the decision, particularly when a barn was in good condition.
Repairing a timber-frame barn is worth the effort, say Marcia D’Alcorn, proud owner of a restored barn in Ravenna. "My advice is to hire the best, have it done right and enjoy it. Do it right the first time. It's worth it!”
Jan Corey Arnett writes Michigan Farmer’s monthly Barn Spotlight, showcasing barns throughout Michigan. She is a co-founder of the Barn Believers Community Project Fund, held by the Battle Creek Community Foundation, and author of "American Barns." She was raised on a dairy farm in the Upper Peninsula.