Making the Barn a Home
A twist on aging in place
As the owner of a treasured antique house, I often dream about keeping it in the family for generations. I’d love to pass it on to one of my children and see my grandchildren run around the same rooms our boys did. If that doesn’t happen, then as much as we might like to downsize in 30 years or so, my husband and I hope live here indefinitely, preferably until they bury us in the little cemetery across the street.
It’s the dilemma so many baby boomers face right now: Give up the family home for something more convenient, or stay on amidst the challenges of keeping up a large place. However, one New Hampshire couple has hit upon what I consider to be a most ingenious solution to aging in place.
The owners of this 1805 Cape Cod-style home raised seven children under its roof, but by 2013, all of their kids had moved on and started families of their own. They were ready for a change. They wanted to travel, and, let’s admit it, worrying about your pipes freezing in January while you’re away on the beach in the Keys really puts a damper on your retirement years. They’d searched around for a smaller home, but couldn’t find anything to compare with charm of their current house.
Like many old New England homes, their house is attached to a large barn — a very old one. Built in 1709, over the years they’d often used this historic structure to host dozens of parties — even winter ones where guests were in ski jackets — under its enormous old rafters strung with Christmas lights. And though they didn’t want to convert the entire structure into living quarters for themselves (that, after all, would not be downsizing), they had an idea of some way converting part of it, thereby freeing the main house for one of their children and his family to move in.
To make sure that their plan was sound and executed properly, the homeowners enlisted TMS Architects in Portsmouth. Principal architect Shannon Alther jumped at the opportunity to participate. “Much as I like designing new homes, I also really love the challenge of working with interesting, quirky old homes,” he says. “I try to take a number of those projects a year. This one really spoke to me. I grew up on a farm, and one of my very first projects was a barn.”
The barn consists of three bays — left, central (where the main barn door entrance is) and right. The left bay was slightly larger thanks to a small addition constructed at some point in the structure’s long history. The idea was to transform only the left bay/addition, which would be accessed from the central bay through French doors. These new doors would then lead into their living space. The central bay would serve a sort of front porch for entertaining, and the right bay would stay barn space. The exterior would remain virtually unchanged, in keeping with their wish to preserve the barn’s historical character as much as possible.
Left: Found objects from the barn were used for function and décor.. Right: The homeowners used barn doors for many of the rooms.
“A good portion of the industry wants to tear old things down,” says Alther. “These homeowners wanted to salvage it.”
TMS left the original post-and-beam system intact and sistered on additional framing as needed. “Sistering,” or adding reinforcement to existing beams and joints, is something that comes up often when renovating old homes. The flooring in the central bay remained untouched. Radiant floor heating was installed in the new living quarters and covered with flooring from a salvaged barn in Maryland. Marcus Gould Contracting in Manchester milled the salvaged flooring in random widths, skip planed and then face-nailed the planks to ensure their well-worn character remained. Skip planing is a process where the boards are put through a planer set to only remove the high points, “skipping” over the low points to create contrast, and face-nailing simply means that you can see the nails used to secure the floor.
“One of the biggest challenges of this project was that the bay of the barn was not very wide — only 11 or 12 feet, pretty tight for a bedroom, for instance,” says Alther.
“Our goal was to make it feel like one big space. We used pocket doors and barn doors that can open the whole space up when you feel like having more room around you. It makes it feel bigger than it is on paper.”
The homeowners masterfully oversaw all the interior decoration themselves, making it a mission to incorporate as many finds as possible from the old barn into the décor. In its recesses they found treasures galore. Planks found in the loft became the couple’s bedframe with drawers found elsewhere incorporated for storage. A copper pipe became a curtain rod for drapes covering the French doors to the main barn. An old wooden shoe form became a closet door handle. More found planks became doors to a closet and the main house. The large sliding door to the bathroom was created from an old horse stall door.
However, perhaps their most treasured piece of salvage is the kitchen table, made from an old door and a sewing machine base. The sewing machine had been in the barn for years, but when it was taken apart, they discovered a letter from a wartime husband to his wife saying how sad he was to miss Christmas at home. Now grandchildren play with the sewing machine pedal during mealtime while their grandparents pretend not to know where all the noise is coming from.
“The homeowners were really fun to work with. They had the vision and the ability to save this structure,” says Alther. “And they were very flexible. That flexibility made this project that much more exciting and that much more successful. You work around the quirkiness. The magic happens when you don’t take the easy way out.”
A quote by Marilyn Monroe written on the blackboard near the kitchen perhaps says it better: “Sometimes good things fall apart so that better things can fall together.”