Building Your Dream Horse Barn
The right contractor makes all the difference.
By Margaret Evans
If building a barn is on your horizon, the first step is to make your wish list. Whether it’s a perfect four-stall barn with walk-out paddocks, or a large training and boarding facility, your dream barn will be a major construction project that should create a safe and comfortable home for your horses and their people, both at work and at play.
If a wash stall is on your must-have list, design it to be easy to use and maintain, in a convenient location yet not so close that the spray or run- ff interferes with other activities. Photo: Clix Photography
Start by defining your short and long-term goals for your barn and property, and setting your priorities. Make a list of everything you want, then prioritize for essentials and most important features. Do some research on whether your must-haves are realistic, which items would be nice to have if your budget allows, and get rid of the things you don’t really need. This process should not be rushed, as time spent exploring all aspects of the project will save money and disappointment later on.
Refine Your Vision
One of the most important first steps is establishing where the barn can be situated. Check your local zoning and bylaws to determine location, including setbacks from property lines and roadways, and from other buildings and services including wells and riparian areas. Your local government office will be able to give advice on permits required, how to apply, how long the process takes, associated costs, and inspections.
There may be environmental factors that could impact the barn’s location, and drainage issues such as a low area that is subject to seasonal flooding. Consider climate and the prevailing winds year-round – the barn’s orientation to wind and sun should avoid winter wind and capture summer breezes for cooling.
Plan the barn’s placement to allow sufficient access around its perimeter. With the barn sited, determine where vehicles and horse trailers will park, where delivery vehicles and truck-and-trailer rigs will turn around, and proximity to the manure pile, shavings shed, and hay storage. Also consider your long-term plans – you may want to expand the barn in years to come, take in boarders, or add an arena or storage building to the property.
Your barn will need services. How and where will electrical, plumbing, and water lines be installed? Determine if the water supply will be sufficient to serve existing needs plus those of the barn. Will your budget expand to cover the cost of a second drilled well if necessary?
When locating your barn, plan for convenient access to the areas used regularly, such as your hay supply, manure pile and shavings storage. Photo: Clix Photography
Now it’s time to think about the barn’s design inside and out, all of the functions it will provide, your preferences of architectural style and building materials, and other choices you’ll need to make. Having a professional designer involved from the beginning will help you avoid problems in the future, and allow you to navigate through the myriad considerations in the context of the overall project. It’s most efficient and cost-effective to explore design options and incorporate your must-have list of features on paper with an experienced professional, and detailed planning now will help prevent cost-overruns and delays later on.
The planning stage is the optimum time to seek the advice of other experts to integrate features that will reduce risk and provide a safe and healthy setting for horses and people. This can also help to safeguard against future losses and even lawsuits, as cutting corners only increases costs and your risk of liability in the future. Your local fire department can provide information and advice to reduce the risk and spread of fire, and how to design your barn with fire prevention in mind. The barn will need a good air distribution system to replace warm, moist, smelly and dusty air with fresh air, and minimize drafts. All features of the barn’s interior environment including light, ventilation, and convenience should be carefully explored.
And one of the most important decisions you will make when planning your barn project is your choice of contractor.
A new barn is a major investment on many levels, and the right contractor is key to a successful project. A general contractor is responsible for providing all the necessary materials, labour, equipment, and services. He hires specialized subcontractors, or subtrades, to perform all or portions of the work.
According to the Canadian Farm Builders Association, quality comes with the knowledge of today’s codes, construction practices, and environmental requirements. To find a contractor who is competent in all those requirements and one you feel comfortable with, interview a minimum of three and get written quotes. Here are some questions you could consider asking prospective builders.
Consider your long-term plans. Will you need one or more stalls with removeable walls so that two stalls can be converted if necessary into a single large foaling stall, or a draft horse stall. Photo: iStock/Purple Queue
Q: How experienced is your construction crew?
The crew, and especially the foreman, must have sufficient training and experience to build according to the architectural plan and the applicable building code and standards, and be able to troubleshoot any design flaws or at least make recommendations for changes. Are the prospective contractors members of professional organizations? Do they have experience building horse barns? Do they have all the required skills and abilities to effectively manage a crew?
The Canadian Construction Association developed the Gold Seal Certification program which is considered the industry’s most trusted and reliable certification for those in construction management. It recognizes an exemplary level of skill and competence. That qualification standard is similar to the Red Seal program for journeymen tradespeople who will form part of the crew on your project whether they are carpenters, electricians, welders, heavy equipment operators, plumbers, roofers, or other skilled workers needed for the work. Ask about the certification of the contractor’s crew.
A contractor hiring workers for a project will be looking for qualities beyond technical competence.
“They must be extremely approachable,” says Darla Horst with WeCover Structures in Thamesville, Ontario. “[We look for] promptness, neatness and professionalism.”
Building a horse barn demands not only construction skills, but some specialized finishes.
“When constructing a horse barn, we typically look for professional carpentry skills along with the steel building erection experience,” says Deanna Hope, marketing manager with Calhoun Super Structure in Tara, Ontario. “Many horse barns require special finishes that are typically done with conventional wood construction, i.e., kickboards, horse doors, interior stalls, viewing areas, etc.”
The main barn at Coastal Equestrian, a full-service hunter/jumper stable in North Saanich on Vancouver Island, holds eight 12 x 14-foot stalls, crossties, fed rooms, and the tack room, which is furnished with wood cabinets, benches, and a marble countertop vanity with sink. Photo: Coastal Equestrian
That approach is reflected in many construction companies.
“Our crew is very friendly and gets along with customers very well,” says Derek Worley with Affordable Barns in Melford, Saskatchewan. “They are clean and tidy and work whatever hours are required to make sure the barn is completed as fast and efficiently as possible.”
“We look for professionalism, great communicators, and problem solvers,” says Del Paquette with Integrity Post Structures in Okotoks, Alberta. “Our crews and safety go hand in hand. Integrity is a COR (Certificate of Recognition) certified company. That means that all of our employees follow a strict set of safety procedures that not only ensure their protection, but also the safety of our customers.”
It helps when a contractor is also a horse person.
“Look for someone who understands horses and [perhaps] has horses themselves,” says Dennis Martin of Denco Storage Sheds in Moorefield, Ontario. “I enjoy my horses and it helps me understand what is important to a horse owner.”
With any building project no matter the size, things don’t always go as planned, so it’s important to keep everyone up to speed at each stage of the project.
This barn by WeCover Structures features stalls with run-out paddocks, opening stall windows, and a cupola for ventilation and aesthetic appeal. WeCover Structures offers engineered steel truss freespan buildings with fabric roof and steel roof options. Photos: WeCover Structures
“Whenever we have our contracting crews onsite for a building erection, we definitely want them to have open dialogue and communication with the client to ensure that everyone is on the same page during their scope of work,” says Clayton Mickey, general manager with Easy Build Structures in Surrey, BC.
Q: How much will my barn cost?
While some construction companies may have a guideline cost per square foot, the final cost will depend on all the specific details including site preparation, ventilation, plumbing needs, finish, and interior/exterior design in your plan. You should also expect a contractor’s answers to include questions of their own.
“[A contractor will ask] if you have financing in place, a budget amount, and the necessary permits,” says Horst.
When talking budgets, be as specific as you can about your needs and expectations.
“Set a budget and decide what your limitations are before you start the project,” says Hope. “Typically, the first question [a customer] asks is a price per square foot, then they focus on what size of barn fits in their budget, how quickly can the building be installed, how much natural light the building allows, exterior finishes available, and what special ventilation options can be offered,” she says.
Contractors generally welcome questions on cost, as it opens up opportunities to suggest options that may save the client money.
This versatile barn by GEM Quality Homes features walk-out stalls with half doors for fresh air, and to allow containment of the horse if needed. The extended roofline provides shelter from hot or inclement weather. Photo: GEM Quality Homes
“For most clients, cost is usually at the forefront,” says Amanda Watson with Gem Quality Homes in Armstrong, BC. “We provide our clients with an overall cost assessment based on their building needs. Timeline for construction would be the next most commonly asked question.”
Martin says that their own detailed questions and knowledge of many horse owners’ needs can help clarify costs for the client. The more in-depth information a contractor has, the easier it is for him to provide an accurate cost.
“I want to know what is important to them,” says Martin. “Is a wash stall needed? Do they want a loft for hay storage or is that not practical for them? What budget are they wanting to keep within?”
A few additions or changes in the planning stage can make a big difference to the final budget, so the more detailed the barn’s plans are, the greater likelihood of staying within costs.
As much as possible, all contractor quotes should be based on the same information.
The all-steel frame barns by Affordable Barns can be built to any length. Upgrades are available such as insulation, tack rooms, skylights, windows, window grills, door upgrades. These barns are assembled on site and ready to use in as little as two or three days. Photos: Affordable Barns
“Clients need to know what’s included in each quote when comparing side by side,” says Worley. They might ask, “Are the stalls included?” Including stalls in construction costs can save money. “If I order today, how long do I have to wait?” Does the quote include the ground work required prior to building, without which “any barn can have structural issues, or sitting water issues,” he adds.
However, setbacks happen, and it would be wise in the budgeting stage to allow at least a 20 percent contingency to cover unexpected costs.
Knowing how to cost out a project means knowing the materials or design systems that will be used. Mickey says that a number of their prospective clients have questions regarding how their pre-engineering frame system works, and where their limitations may be when it comes to the project design.
“While we work within set frame dimensions with the pre-fabricated package, we do have the ability to customize our product line to work with any design ideas the customer has,” he says.
Everyone who was interviewed for this article agreed that cost is the number one question. The timeframe for construction is the next most important query.
Q: What advice can you give in the planning stage?
Do the research to learn as much as you can about your project and about the reputations of building companies in your surrounding area.
The Highlander horse barn by Easy Build Structures can be customized with options such as a sliding barn door or overhead garage doors, single or double man-door entries, windows, and more. “Once we know where the client wants to be at the end of the project, we can start to design and shape the structure package to suit their needs and finished design,” says Clayton Mickey, General Manager. Photo: Easy Build Structures
“Find a reputable contractor in your area to provide your construction services,” says Hope. “Make sure you contact your local building department and know what you can and cannot build. Keep them informed throughout the project. Make sure you buy a completely engineered structure. Do not buy a package without a stamp from an engineer that is licensed in the province or state that you are building in. Do lots of research and make sure you know what finishes you want before you start. This will help you stay on budget and on time.”
With a budget in hand, a contractor will want to look at the job site to evaluate its practicality given the length and width of the planned building.
“Snow, wind, and rain loads in the area are very important so that the building can be properly designed,” says Hope. “Some types of structures may not work in extreme wind or snow load areas. Then we look at any surrounding impediments that may affect the loads, i.e., other buildings or tree lines nearby. It is also important to know the soil type and how level the jobsite is to estimate the cost for foundation and footings.”
Given the conditions we are now facing with climate change such as extreme weather events, prolonged Arctic cold, severe rain and excessively hot, dry summers, buildings are frequently being put to the endurance test.
“The environment is the number one thing,” says Paquette. He stresses the importance of understanding snow loads, wind, and rain water drainage. “We have a team that keeps ahead of the curve on building codes that are continually changing based on changing weather patterns.”
“In the Okanagan Valley, we experience a fair amount of snow during the winters,” says Watson. “We always like to ensure our buildings are designed to withstand the climates we encounter here, that snow is not obstructing anywhere, and that there is also proper ventilation during the hot summer months for any animals living in the barn, or feed being stored.”
Fabric structures from Calhoun Super Structure dampen sound and afford plenty of natural light. Deanna Hope, Marketing Manager, recommends that clients get personally involved in the building permit process, and familiar with the building code as well as bylaws and zoning applicable to their area. Photo: Calhoun Super Structures
Having an end vision for the project is essential.
“Often people purchase a barn for their current needs and don’t plan for growth in the next couple of years,” says Worley.
“When we speak with our clients, we always start with what their end vision is and ensure that we are able to make it work with our building packages,” says Mickey adding that, with an end vision in mind, they can design and shape the package to suit the client’s specific needs.
Q: What materials will be used?
Expect the very best materials your budget will allow. If you get several bids for the project, look for drastic price swings. They may well be related to the cost of materials. Don’t be shy about asking questions. You don’t want to find that a company is trying to undercut others and bidding low by cutting corners on materials. Or, worse, bidding low to get the job, then increasing the cost because materials have “increased in price.”
Q: Can you suggest improvements on design?
Working with contractors in the horse industry would be beneficial since they know from experience how well certain barn designs work from the horse’s perspective.
“One of the things about Integrity is that many of us are also ranchers and own Integrity buildings,” says Paquette. “Over the years we have had the opportunity to visit many arenas and barns and really see what works and what doesn’t. Our Design Build division specializes in custom stalls and kick walls to keep horses safe. Another advantage of being ranch people is that we can offer unique solutions to our customer’s vision of their new building.”
It’s important to understand horses and the needs of horse owners, says Dennis Martin of Denco Storage Sheds. A horse owner himself, he comes from a farming and barn building background. Before making a commitment, he says clients should understand the construction process, and be comfortable with the plans and all details of the contract. Photo: Denco Storage Sheds
Martin agrees with the value of understanding horses’ needs.
“We own horses ourselves and come from a strong farming background, as well as being in the barn building industry for many years,” says Martin. “My grandfather was a timber frame barn builder. Our barns are very practical in terms of efficiency and cost. They come with stamped engineered plans and are a good option for any area in Canada.”
When thinking of the interior design, discuss with the contractor where the tack room and feed storage is placed. If it’s a big barn, placement of the tack/feed rooms in a central area means less walking back and forth. Both can take advantage of overall barn warmth. Body warmth from multiple horses can make a big difference, especially in winter.
If you are planning a hay loft for feed storage, discuss with the contractor how to have access to the bales without throwing them into the aisle. Dust and hay residues that get thrown up can aggravate allergies, not to mention the wastage from baler twine breaking. Perhaps consider installing a small elevator to move hay from the loft to a hay storage room where hay will be used immediately.
Ask the contractor for ideas on how features on your wish list could be incorporated while staying within budget. An experienced contractor may come up with a suggestion you hadn’t even thought of, or make adjustments in the overall design so that they can be incorporated.
Q: What insurance coverage do you have? What insurance should I have?
Even before asking this question to the prospective contractors, check with your own insurance agent and ask whether you have coverage for workers on site doing building projects. Find out what the risks and liabilities are, any waivers needed, and any additional steps you should take for your own protection.
Ask the contractor about their workers’ insurance coverage, such as Worksafe BC or the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board in Ontario. Ask if the construction company is COR certified. A Certificate of Recognition (COR) is awarded to employers who develop health and safety programs that meet established standards.
“We spent an enormous amount of time and commitment to become COR certified,” says Paquette. “The safety of our crews and clients is paramount. Being COR certified means we follow a strict guideline of safety procedures and practices. We have a full-time Safety Coordinator who travels to our job sites to review policies and integrate new safety standards.”
Q: Can you, as a contractor, help with permit applications?
With respect to barn designs, plans, permits, zoning, bylaws, inspections, contracts, and the builder’s lien holdback, Paquette says that they have a team dedicated to those areas of contractual obligations. “Our in-house engineering and architect team has the answers to these questions,” he says.
“We think building use is the number one question that needs to be answered. That will determine what code the building must be built to,” says Del Paquette, who explains that drainage, sun, snow, wind, and view must all be considered when siting the building. This 36 x 36 x 12-foot barn by Integrity Buildings features a 36 x 12-foot lean-to for shelter. Photo: Integrity Buildings
Many contractors can offer advice and guidance on zoning, bylaws, and inspection needs, but they recommend that the client takes the lead.
“We would offer design services and engineering packages to assist in the building permit process for our clients,” says Mickey. “[However], we do not deal directly with the municipalities when it comes to zoning/bylaws/inspections, as we have found there is no one better to do this than the client based on it being their property and they can get the answers directly from the building department.”
Martin stresses that clients need to be comfortable with the entire construction process from permit application to understanding the contract details and plans before signing. “We help with the permit process,” he says. “However, the client must make the application. We take care of scheduling and inspections.”
Hope agrees. “We have the ability to advise on all of these requirements,” she says. “We definitely suggest that our buyers are personally involved in the permit process in their local areas on each project that we do. We provide a complete engineering package stamped and designed for each client’s location (site specific).”
Watson says that anything regarding design would be addressed before submitting for building permits. “We also handle all of the dealings with any respective regional district regarding permits, zoning, bylaws, etc.”
Q: Can you provide references?
Every contractor should be willing to provide at least three references, and site locations of buildings they have constructed to showcase the quality of their work to potential clients. These projects are often highlighted on their websites and social media sites with photos and videos, and are central to a construction company’s marketing strategy.
Q: Do you offer financing?
While many contractors are not in a position to offer financing, they can often recommend financial institutions that provide this type of financing.
“We have affiliates that offer either leasing programs or traditional financing,” says Horst. “We do not offer in-house financing at this time.”
This barn has wonderful natural light, and sufficiently wide aisles for ease of movement and horses. Photo: Shutterstock/iLiyan
However, some contractors may offer these services and if so, even at a partial level, their assistance may allow you to get the project started. But you will need to be sure that all the financing is in place for completion.
“We do have the ability to finance projects in-house and the terms would be determined uniquely based on the customer and project scope of work,” says Mickey.
It is also very important to be clear on whether the bid is an estimate or a firm price, as the difference between the two could be substantial. Other questions to ask include availability and time scheduling, hours of work, whether the bid includes the cost for removal of construction debris, how the builders lien holdback is handled, and exactly what the warranty covers.
An excellent strategy is to talk to others who have recently had a horse barn built. How impressed were those people with the work that was done, and how smoothly did the project go? What advice can they give to someone embarking on a similar project?
Selecting your contractor will depend on many things including how they answer your questions, but also on your gut reaction. Were you comfortable with the contractor’s communication skills, clarity, thoroughness of answers, time frames, insurance coverage, costs? Or were the answers too vague, incomplete, or inconsistent for your comfort?
From surveys and building codes, to windows and stall sizes, to final landscaping on completion, your barn construction project will be a massive learning experience filled with thousands of details, and there will hundreds of decisions to make. The contractor you choose should be someone with an excellent reputation who is engaged with your needs, has good ideas and enthusiasm for your project, and can build your barn on budget and on time with a reliable, experienced crew.
Finding the right contractor for your barn project will be a major milestone in the journey to making your dream barn a reality.
Main article photo: Shutterstock/Jessica Kirsh
This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.