Construction Plans and Materials for New Barns

As you acquire the minimum acreage (per zoning codes) for building a barn, you must also take on checking all of your jurisdiction’s codes are being followed and are inspected. Make sure that your builders, electricians, and other people know YOUR jurisdiction’s codes because they may be different from the county over.

There are a few common rules to keep in mind at the blueprint stage. All barns should have a minimum of two exits, easily accessible, and have no blockage. For horse barns, the common rule for number of exits is: up to 12 horses=2 exits; 12-24 horses=3 exits; and 36-50 horses=5-6 exits. Aisles should be wide enough, no less than 10 feet wide, to accommodate two handlers and two horses side-by-side for emergency evacuation. Doorway openings should be as wide as the aisle to prevent “jamming” at the doorway. Doors must either slide completely open, or open outward, and latches must be easy to operate with one hand.

If the stall layout is planned so there will be a long stretch of stalls on one side of an aisle or stalls on both sides of a center aisle, a solid partition should be constructed between every fourth stall to separate it from its neighbor. This solid floor-to-ceiling partition will keep flames from jumping stall partitions into the next group of stalls. 

A mechanical room should be provided for the electrical panel, hot water heater, washer and dryer, and any other non-portable appliances. The walls and ceiling of this room should be protected with 2-hour-rated fire resistant materials. The mechanical room should not be part of your feed storage or tack rooms, and it should have a rate-of-rise heat detector that is monitored by a security company. Also as you have the electrician working on the wiring in your barn, make sure you have enough outlets so you don’t have to use extension cords for everyday activities.

Depending on your planned use, number and species of animals to be housed, and what climate you live in, different construction methods and materials will have to be considered.

Pole buildings are constructed around square or round wood columns or laminated timbers that are set into the ground at intervals on the building perimeter. Wood or metal siding is the usual exterior finishing material. The roof is normally constructed of wood trusses and covered with metal roofing sheets or roofing grade plywood with standard asphalt shingles.  Because the interior of these clear span buildings have no structural supports to interfere with interior positions, there are infinite ways for the space to be used. For more information about pole buildings, Mathew Logan has some good information at .

Steel modular buildings are stronger than wood and can usually weather the elements better than wood. The advantage to a modular building is that you can add modules as you need to expand your facility. However, in a fire, some metals deform (lose their shape, twisting or bending) at relatively low (in terms of fire exposure) temperatures.  If you want a steel building, inquire about the flame and heat testing results of the product you’re interested in.

Concrete block or brick structures are excellent choices for their insulating ability. They tend to stay cooler in summer and warmer in winter, and the exterior may be less likely to burn, but an interior fire will burn “hotter” due to better heat containment of the concrete block. That is, the fire, heat and smoke will have less chance to escape to the outside by breaching a wall and creating its own opening, so temperatures will rapidly rise inside bringing the interior contents to ignition temperatures much faster than if the fire elements were allowed to vent.

Wood is commonly used for barns and is also most usually the material of choice for stall construction and interior structural components. By using fire retardant treated wood (FRTW) or fire retardant paints and varnishes that can be applied on both new and existing structures, your barn can be made more fire resistant.

Roof Materials for any barn are somewhat dependent upon your climate and how you want your barn’s appearance to fit in with other structures on your property. Older barns may have slate roofs, which are exceedingly heavy, and do hold up well, but they are not practical on new barns. Asphalt shingles are the most widely used materials throughout the country, followed in popularity by metal roofing. The advantage of a metal roof is that it is lighter in weight than a standard asphalt shingle roof, and is more durable. A metal roof does not provide fuel for a fire, as asphalt shingles will. On the other hand, a metal roof locks in heat because it cannot self-ventilate, that is, a fire cannot burn through the metal allowing heated gases to escape, so vents should be provided. However, if you install translucent panels for light purposes, the panels will melt and allow for ventilation. And, as mentioned earlier, in a fire metalwork softens and collapses inward under its own weight, trapping occupants beneath the fallen roof, and fire continues to burn under the collapsed structure. Metal loses 50% of its supporting capacity in 15 minutes. And, lightning protection is critical for metal roofs.

Fire retardant treated wood is lumber and plywood that has been pressure treated, by one of several methods, with a fire-retardant solution which is absorbed into the wood’s fibers. Pressure treated wood meets model building code requirements because all the surfaces are protected: treatments such as spraying, painting, or application with a fogger may only protect one or two sides of the material. Different formulations are used in exterior (weather-exposed) and interior (weather-protected) products, so you must make certain you purchase the correct type of product for your intended use. Most FRTW is classified as a slow burning material by the Insurance Services Office (ISO) and most insurance coverage; check with your insurer to find out if you can benefit.

FRTW can be used in just the same way as untreated lumber, including millwork and can be stained, varnished, or painted the same as untreated wood either before it is used in construction or once the untreated wood is in place. All FRTW is stamped for identification with its rating and other identification.

Applied fire retardant coatings are excellent for use in already-constructed barns which have not been previously painted. They are relatively inexpensive, easily applied, and come in an attractive range of colors. There are a few things to consider about fire retardant coatings, though. You must be careful to apply an adequate amount of coating to all exposed surfaces (you will not be able to protect unexposed surfaces with coatings). Like regular paint, the coating does not last indefinitely and must be reapplied at intervals. The coatings (also like regular paint) are susceptible to damage, so the surfaces covered will require some maintenance over time.

The type of fire retardant coating of greatest practical use in a barn is intumescent paint, which does not react to heat under approximately 440° F. This coating expands from a paint-type coating to a thick puffy coating that will, to varying extents, insulate the wood from high temperatures, exclude oxygen, and reduce the production of flammable gases. The coating will not maintain its integrity completely; sustained heat or very high temperatures will cause it to break down and of course, any areas not adequately coated in the first place will be open to the effects of fire.

Before leaving the topic of treated or coated lumber, I want to make you aware of the dangers of other treated lumber in a fire because, if you have an already-existing barn, you may have older treated lumber in place. Railroad ties—real ones, not “landscape” ties—are soaked and/or covered in creosote, a preservative obtained by distilling coal tar. In a fire, creosote gives off a very dangerous carcinogen, benzoalphapyrene, and several other chemical compounds which researchers have determined increases the risk of skin and genital cancers. Pressure-treated deck wood releases chromium-copper arsenate gases (CCA); arsenic causes neurological and medical illnesses in people who come into contact with it, even in very small amounts.  Firefighters have become ill from exposure to the burned wood and have been advised to wear self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) while fighting fires where pressure-treated deck wood is involved.

Use a mask if you must saw or otherwise handle pressure-treated lumber.  When disposing of railroad ties, telephone poles, scrap pressure-treated lumber, and similar items, put them in your regular trash pickup.  Do not burn them, especially in a home fireplace. The gases given off in CCA-treated lumber are toxic when they collect in an enclosed area.  Some of the illnesses resulting from the burning of treated wood are pneumonia, bronchitis, blackouts, gastrointestinal problems, nosebleeds and muscle cramps.

If you are considering using any kind of foam insulation—reconsider. Most adult animals need wind protection more than added heat, and in most barns the animals themselves will raise the temperature to above freezing, which is quite comfortable for them. Insulating foams can often burn very fast and produce dense black smoke, sometimes becoming fully involved in little more than a minute. Some types melt and drip when exposed to fire and falling brands will spread the fire even faster. 

If you have insulation in your barn, it would be best to remove it (your insurance company may demand it be removed) or cover it with half-inch gypsum board, half-inch fire retardant plywood, half-inch asbestos cement board, or with a half-inch layer of a cement based mixture applied directly to the foam insulation. The best thing, though, is to remove all foam insulation if it’s already in your barn and don’t install it if you’re building a barn.

And finally, here’s something to remember from the start of construction or remodeling: you will be using tools, paints and varnishes, and other products during construction that will result in scrap lumber and other debris. You may even need to use a propane or kerosene heater so you can work during the winter months. This accumulation is an expected part of the construction process, but bear in mind that before the first new resident enters the barn, every bit of construction-related accumulation must be gone.

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