Building A Barn On A Budget

What’s Your Outbuilding-to-House Ratio?

As with any country property, your outbuildings are virtually as important as your house.  On our modest “homestead”, the outbuilding-to-house ratio is approximately 2:1, meaning there’s almost twice as much outbuilding square footage as in the home itself.  And, that ratio is likely to continue growing over time as we get more serious about home food production. 

The largest contributor to that growing ratio, by far, is the barn which measures in at 28′ by 46′ or 1,288 square feet total.  The recently added woodshed ups the ante to 1,508 square feet.  This project has taken, thus far, somewhat longer than 6 years of part-time labor, but it is in the process of becoming one of the most useful buildings we have here (even if it isn’t quite finished yet). 

Deferred Gratification:  Working vs. Spending

Why has it taken so long to complete?  (Hey, you can get in line behind my wife with that question.)  But, seriously, aside from the unavoidable fact that I may be the world’s slowest carpenter, one big reason is the fact that this structure has been built almost entirely of salvaged materials.  In fact, for that reason, I like to think that this is just about the “greenest” building projects in our area. 

And, no, it’s not exactly “pretty”, but more on that in a bit.  Some would simply call it “cheap”, and they’d not be entirely incorrect.  By rough estimation, we’ve spent less than $4,000 so far (perhaps $3.00 per square foot) on a building that would typically cost 10 times that amount. 

And, while record keeping has been a bit lax over all those years, I suspect that nearly 1/3 of that expense went into the purchase of gravel that comprises the floor/foundation/base and areas around the structure.  Some small amount, certainly less than $800 or so, was used to buy some locally milled lumber, when supplies ran short, for nails and hardware, and to install some wiring. 

The remainder – a rather significant share, actually – went to buying gasoline for the many, many salvage outings.  We were fortunate to have access to one important source of materials.  My wife’s family farm had a number of old cattle feed pen structures that needed to be torn down, which provided a substantial share of the both the required lumber and all of the corrugated metal roofing/siding. 

And, while these materials were “free” (sort of ), any salvage operation is going to be very, very labor intensive.  We’re talking about demolition, transportation, endless nail-pulling, culling the good from the bad, arranging both long and short-term storage, and (it seems) constant re-sorting and re-stacking….this all takes lots and lots of time.  More, obviously, than if you simply bought the materials and had them delivered. 

Then, of course, are the design challenges associated with a salvage operation.  Every step of the project is constrained by the materials at hand.  That involves lots of head-scratching, drawing and re-drawing, and sometimes just waiting to find the right materials, sometimes simply “giving in” and buying what we needed to get it done.

The Process

Because of this extended salvage process, the whole project has, necessarily, been completed in stages.  There was always a need to “stage” and process materials, so utilizing some pre-existing (leaning and rotting) structures helped meet these needs.  The demolition of an existing woodshed and the repurposing of an existing RV cover were the first steps. 

Eventually, with the replacement of each supporting post, the RV cover structure was retained as the central aisle of the barn, with shed-roof extensions being added to both sides, one at a time. 

One great “find” was a cache of 40+ year old creosoted, 6×6 old-growth fir posts.  While the new central-aisle posts were placed on poured concrete piers, those for the shed-roof extensions were all sunk in the ground, as is traditional for pole-buildings.  The vast majority of the lumber acquired for the project came in dribs and drabs, where ever it was found.  Some was provided simply in exchange for the demolition labor, some for barter, some purchased at relatively low cost from local sawyers.  

Wiring and water-supply pipes to both the barn and the garden were installed in trenches and a temporary power outlet was installed right away. Only recently has the barn wiring been completed and, we hope, the new freeze-proof water hydrants and an outdoor fish cleaning station will be completed this spring.  These are to be located in the new woodshed addition, which (we hope) will soon be finished, along with the final siding.

The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

All of the siding and roofing is comprised of recycled corrugated metal roofing, all of which have multiple nail holes that needed patching, mostly with a rubberized rain gutter sealant.  I’ve spoken with others that have also had pretty good success with regular silicone sealant, but each to his own.  We may have to do a little testing to see which is more easily painted, as we might yet get to that level of “beautification” at some point.

And, as noted above, the barn isn’t exactly “pretty”, and that might actually be a good thing.  While there are no permitting requirements in our area for agricultural buildings, even the assessor hasn’t seen fit to take notice of the project as yet, a result, I’m sure, of it’s “pre-aged” look and, of course, the sloooooow rate of completion.  I suspect, the day will come when we’re asked, “how long has that been here?”.  We might truthfully answer, “well, that’s hard to say…some of it has been here longer than we have”.

Interior improvements have included overly generous 12×14 horse stalls, a workbench, lumber racks, storage loft, and raised wooden flooring in the “hay bay” and tack room.  Future improvements will be a full set of doors, further partitioning and  insulation in the tack room, and possibly a rain sheltering overhang for our farrier’s comfort.

Lessons Learned

What would or should we have done differently?  That’s hard to say, really.  Obviously, we might have saved ourselves quite a bit of labor by hiring out some of gravel moving….80+ yards in a wheel barrow takes time and sweat.  But, to do that we’d have had to spend more in one big chunk as opposed to doing it “out of petty cash”, so to speak. 

And, that principle has applied to the whole project, really.  If you can put off the immediate need (or desire) to have it done now, your patience will be rewarded, if at a slower pace.  Fortunately, my wife actually likes hauling stuff around in a wheel barrow.  I know! 

That said, it has been a bit frustrating having to move and move again and again, all of the various piles of lumber and other materials over the years.  But, again, that’s simply part of the process.  You do what you can with what you have when you can.

Other lessons:  I might have paid more attention to insulating the roof.  While I wanted this building to “breathe” well, we do get a bit of condensation drippage on occasion.  Some day I might go back and rectify that over the tack room and “hay bay”, but it’s not really much of a concern elsewhere.  In our climate, ventilation is still a really good idea.

Final Thoughts

I suspect that there may be no greater satisfaction than making something useful (if not beautiful) with your own hands.  That feeling is amplified when you are able to take other people’s cast-offs and “turn garbage into gold”. 

The environmental upside isn’t really that big of a deal to me personally….I do, however, object to our “throw-away” society on a more basic level.  I simply find waste to be an affront to my sense of enduring value.  Something worth making, is worth making well, keeping well, and using well.  In the end, it’s simply easier to get in touch with those feelings when you expend your own time and sweat in the project.  The best way to counter (and exploit) our “throw away” society is to use it’s cast offs.  “Nuff said”




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