Barns, reborn as stylish places to live

Though happily settled with her family in their Edgewater house, when Jennifer Bieberich gazed across the yard, she knew something was missing.

"It was just calling for a barn," she says.


The couple, including her husband Karl Bieberich, are no farmers, but that empty corner of their property is now home to a 1,050-square-foot "carriage house" barn constructed by Yankee Barn Homes, a New Hampshire-based company that designs and builds timber-frame homes around the country.

The structure looks like a red barn from the outside; inside, it includes a utility space on the first floor and a great room on the second floor. Constructed using "old school barn-raising techniques," the structure took only five days to build.


The Bieberichs' main house is comfortable, but "small and chopped up," says Jennifer Bieberich. ""We needed a place for sit-down dinners, Christmas Eve and Thanksgiving. The timber frame allows for that open floor plan."

Though the Bieberichs had to start from scratch, many Marylanders are lucky enough to have access to existing barns ripe for renovation. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, there are more than 5,000 barns in Maryland that were built before 1960.

Michael Owings of Owings Brothers Contractors in Eldersburg renovated one such barn, a 150-year-old structure in the Greenspring Valley. His clients, who lived in the original house not far from the barn, wanted to save the old building, but modernize the space, creating a "man cave" for entertaining.

Renovating an older barn can be a significant undertaking. Owings Brothers and partner Ratcliffe Architects started by stabilizing the building, redoing the structure to "keep it from falling over," says Owings. They then added conventional heating and air conditioning and new plumbing and updated the water and sewer.

"The barn has an older appearance but an updated interior," explains Owings. "The interior is done in a rustic fashion. The walls are reclaimed barn wood from Pennsylvania, and there's a bar done in reclaimed oak. A big stone fireplace anchors the whole thing."

But the space also has modern touches, including a half-court basketball court and golf simulator.

Renovated barns are naturally eco-friendly in that they reuse existing structures, but many homeowners take green building a step further.

Alexander Dzurec, president and managing partner of the Baltimore- and Santa Fe-based architecture firm Autotroph, has created "Re-Barn," a proposal that would convert old tobacco barns into modern, energy-efficient homes. Dzurec's design incorporates solar panels as well as design elements, like overhangs and shading control to manage interior temperature naturally. "We can learn a lot from how people built before air conditioning and heating," he says.

Eco-friendliness provides bragging rights, but Dzurec points out that because barn renovations require many updates to make the old structures livable and to bring them up to code, they can be complicated and expensive.

"They won't cost less than a typical custom home," he says. "If you're dealing with an old structure, you have to spend money to make sure it's stable and in good condition." Those expenses will likely drive the cost higher than the average new construction spec home.

New barn construction varies in cost. Jake Trim, sales manager with BarnPros, a pre-fab barn company based in Washington state, says that a simple 36-by-36-foot pre-engineered barn costs about $70,000 for the structure itself. Shipping, land and construction costs are additional and elaborate designs may increase the base price.

While Dzurec imagines Re-Barns occupied by families interested in working or leasing the land, people with a variety of lifestyles are attracted to barn-like buildings.


"I think there's a certain amount of nostalgia and romance for people looking to live in rural areas," says Dzurec, noting that barn living allows a close connection with nature.

Jennifer Bieberich likes that her barn feels "warm and cozy" but its open space allows for easy, casual entertaining.

"Today's families are getting away from the formal lifestyle," she says. "I grew up with a living room and formal dining room I used about three times a year. This way, I'm using all of the house."

Trim says his clients build barns for a number of uses, from the traditional — boarding horses and living above the stalls — to vacation homes and commercial venues like wineries and bed and breakfasts. For many, the rusticity of barn living is an "escape from city life," he says.

A barn's rough exterior may hide an equally traditional interior or it may give way to something unexpectedly modern.

Baltimore interior designer Kimberly A. Eastburn took the former approach with a Greenspring Valley barn used as a family and entertaining space.

"I kept the barn influence with boards running horizontally two-thirds of the way up the walls, mimicking the boards that are used in horse stalls," she says. For the floor, which needed to withstand the wear and tear of small children, Eastburn "used these fantastic tiles that look like old barn wood floors."

But Eastburn has also admired another northern Baltimore County barn that looks "ramshackle" from the outside but has been outfitted with steel and glass on the interior, creating a modern space to complement the owners' art collection. "There are so many different ways to work it," she says.

Designer Jeanine Turner agrees. "You can go with the barn idea or with an industrial chic or shabby chic idea," she says. However, Turner warns, "you want to make it new and fresh. You don't want it to look like the client has moved into a barn because they have no place else to go!"

Building barn-style

The design and construction of American barns is rooted in history, and key design elements turn up in barns from coast to coast. Whether you're renovating an older barn, building a new barn from scratch or simply incorporating some barn-like touches into your decor, consider these elements for an authentic barn look:

Post and beam: Post and beam architecture, in which timber posts and beams are used to frame a building, are hallmarks of barn construction. "Post and beam frames are typically how barns were built, especially when colonists first arrived," explains Andrew Button, president of Yankee Barn Homes. Exposed interior beams are attractive, authentic architectural details.

Board and batten: On a renovation of a 150-year-old Greenspring Valley barn, Michael Owings of Owings Brothers Contracting used board and batten construction for the exterior to keep the barn's look consistent with the period in which it was originally built. "We resheaved the building so it would be in keeping with the period and the main house," he explains.

Doors on tracks: Oversized sliding doors hung on tracks are practical on working barns and charming in renovated spaces. Yankee Barn Homes customer Jennifer Bieberich used the sliding door from a horse stall kit to outfit a guest room in her Edgewater barn. "We have double-sets of bunk beds in a room made to look like a horse stall," she explains, laughing.

Reclaimed materials: Both inside and out, reclaimed materials, especially wood, are a popular way to get the barn feel. Contractors and designers use materials from old barns that have been torn down or new materials that have been distressed to look old, but are structurally more sound than actual ancient boards. "The time-worn finish and natural markings hint to a previous life," says Gary Babcock, chief creative officer of the furniture company Arhaus, which draws inspiration from older barns for pieces like its Baumann media center.


Wood, stone & iron: Older barns relied on a handful of basic materials, including wood, stone and iron. From wood walls and stone fireplaces to small details like iron cabinet hardware, these materials are now go-to substances for designers hoping to create the feel of an authentic barn. "Elements of stone, wood and steel are three components that resonate with our clients," says Jake Trim of BarnPros. "And I like the rustic feel."

Recommended on Baltimore Sun