As the custodian of a century old Ontario bank barn I can tell you without a doubt that it is both the most awe inspiring and scariest thing on our farm. It’s awe inspiring for the reasons that we all know: the structure, craftsmanship and sense of community that is evident in every timber. At the same time the barn is the scariest structure with the threat of dry rot, roof decay and crumbling foundations lurking around every dark corner. Fundamental to all of this is the issue of use. What to do with the barn was a question that plagued our family for years as our farming practices shifted away from square bales and towards a type of farming that wasn’t compatible with these structures.
Our journey to reclaiming the barn and breathing new life into it began on a frosty Family Day weekend in 2013 when I proposed to my future husband at the top of the Dorset fire tower. Come to think of it, the struggle of us to get to the top of that tower in our snowmobile gear might have been a harbinger of things to come, but once we got to the top, we were glad to have made the climb.
Soon after the “yes I do” we settled on the idea of using the barn as we knew it needed a cash infusion and the concept of spending a large amount of money on a one night party vs. investing in an asset made sense to us.
A key component to the rehabilitation was to lay our goals for the functionality of the space early in the process. We needed space for tables, areas to congregate and a simple bar service area. We also decided against investing in a full service or catering kitchen in lieu of mobile catering due to the risk to the barn. Overall, the objective was to keep the intervention light and costs down.
Next up, we need a date! August 9th. Check! Next it was time to work backwards. At this point we were 10 months from the wedding and felt like we needed every available second.
Our next step was for us to assess the condition of the electrical service and structural integrity of the barn. Luckily I was marrying an engineer so the electrical service upgrade wasn’t out of scope, but we’ll loop back to that later. We were also lucky that the primary panel had been upgraded in the early 2000s. The structure and specifically the floor was something we couldn’t assess until we tore the original pile of loose boards off the two 40’ x 20’ bays that were going to be upgraded.
After bribing some of our friends to assist (and providing them with dust masks) we had the thick layer of hay and pigeon poop on the barn floor gone, grainery disassembled and the floorboards removed (they left the sweeping of the beams to us). Next up, we rented a laser transit and found that the floors varied about 3” from one side of the barn to the other. We now had a topographic map for our new floor to be laid over.
Levelling of the floor was achieved by building a new substructure over the existing rough beams. We cut A LOT of ½” and ¾” squares of plywood to shim the new strapping that would support the ¾” plywood floor above. Minor adjustment was achieved with cedar shims. The final 2” x 4” strapping was then screwed to the shim/beams as we moved from the lowest point of the floor to the highest, guided by our earlier transit exercise. The final flooring consisted of ¾” sheets of tongue and groove plywood fastened with flooring screws and finished with waterproof stain for longevity.
The two 20’ x 40’ threshing floors were to remain untouched with minor repairs to the thick double-layer floor boards. This process was relatively quick and easy. The thick double-layer floor boards were cleaned and relaid with the shortest length now serving as the base measure for the rest. The entire floor was relaid and screwed down with deck screws. These areas kept their double-thick floor to allow continued use of tractors and machinery.
The last and arguably most important aspect to the refurb was the electrical service. We were lucky to have ample space on the panel for new circuits. We laid out the new additional service in line with the four bays of the barn that were being upgraded. Four all-weather outlets were spread across each bay, with one outlet dedicated to lighting and controlled with a dimmer switch. In total, we had four 15 amp circuits with one 40 amp circuit dedicated to mobile food service and prep. The lighting was completed with hanging paper lanterns that were randomly spaced across the bays via netting that could be lowered with rigging ropes. Care and common sense was taken distribute larger electrical loads (refrigerators, coffee makers, audio-visual) evenly across these circuits. LED lighting also went a long way to reducing electrical demand.
It was incredible to see hundreds of people in the barn on our big day and get a real sense of the new feeling the space had. The best part is that we accomplished all of this in ten months of weekend work and for less than $15,000. Not too bad.
Since 2014 we’ve used the barn every summer season for parties, movie nights and family gatherings. In the winter the barn is used for seasonal storage. There is still major work to do to the structure, which I will cover in future postings, but I wanted to show that it IS possible to provide barns with a new lease on life beyond their original purpose (and at a reasonable price point)! All you need is some dedication, a good dose of elbow grease and a desire to breathe new life into your own barn.