Following the journey to remodel a horse barn into a commercial wellness center on a Midwestern property zoned for agriculture. This multi-part series recounts the considerations, pitfalls and ultimate successes of a green-building project with an ambitious scope to bring a defunct farm building new life as a natural health destination.
“They want to turn a horse barn into a Wellness Center,” I read aloud to my wife from an email message that I received. After my outburst, I read the rest of the message to myself and reviewed the attached documents, and a few things on the drawings caught my eye. “There is something special about this place.”
The owners wanted to move their practice from their existing office in town out to their property in the country. My wife asked if they wanted me to build the wellness center and I replied that no, their question was about geothermal. As any better half would ask, “Well, don’t you think you should ask them if they need a builder?”
I took a deep breath and thought for a moment about turning a horse barn into a wellness center. I have helped a few people throughout the years with wellness center types of projects, so I knew a few things about what this center might entail. I breathed deeply, because I’m getting tired of building. Every time I start to get tired of not making a difference (at least, that is what I think), I get an email message that gets my interests flowing again.
Finding Inspiration by Scoping a Green Building Project
I had to answer a few questions about geothermal, and instead of just giving the owners my answer, I started with the questions: Why do you want geothermal? What type of insulation will the place have? I was invited to come down to the project site and look at the barn and see exactly what the structure was like.
While I was at the site, I asked the owners about the special things that I noticed on their building prints and if they had a builder for the project. They said that they did have a builder and the more we talked, the more we discovered that my team may be a better fit for the project. We agreed that I would first be hired as a consultant to see if turning the barn into a wellness center was even possible.
I was very interested in this project not only because it was the farthest thing from building another house, but also, because the wellness center would be a place of healing and helping people. I started to really hope that this project was legit, especially with the local building department. I had so much to know to get caught up to speed on the project, so I asked the owners to start from the beginning and send me everything they had discussed so far. I immediately started to receive emails from the owners with the first emails being all of the paperwork that they had filed with the township and the approvals from the township for their business.
Codes and Conditions for a Home-based Business
Fire department access. Several months before the owners contacted me, they had submitted paperwork to their township for the approval of a business run from their home and property, specifically in a repurposed existing barn. The township approved the project, but with very specific conditions, one of those conditions was that the very long gravel driveway coming in to the project had to be approved by the local fire department chief. The fire chief’s approval was to assure that the driveway would be able to accommodate fire trucks and support vehicles in the event of a fire.
Septic and well. Another condition of approval was that the health department approves and issues a permit for a septic system and a well. As I read the list of conditions, nothing caught my eye that would suggest that we couldn’t turn the barn into a wellness center.
Remodel or rebuild? The next question was whether we keep the existing barn or tear it down and build the wellness center brand new. I decided that I would determine what it would cost to fortify the existing barn to see how much the owners would save if we kept the structure. I took this approach, because the barn looked to me to be very well constructed and we knew that the barn was built in the early 1990s.
I used the barn at our farm as a comparison. Our barn was large and built in the 1880’s of post and beam and is still very structurally sound. I determined that the project would be less costly if we kept the existing barn and added on to it. I needed to confirm that decision with the building inspector whom I called and asked to meet me at the barn.
Residential versus Commercial Use
“You want to do what with this barn?” The building inspector questioned, then he asked if the project was intended to be a doctor’s office. I replied, "It's not a doctor's office, it's more like natural health-related stuff." I assured the building inspector that the township had in fact approved the wellness center to operate on the property as a home business. The building inspector then asked a question that would turn the tide of the entire project: Does the township consider this a residential project or a commercial project?
The building inspector asking me if the township considered the project residential or commercial tripped me up, because I didn’t know the answer and my quickest thought was that we needed the project to be residential.
Before I could ask the obvious follow up question, he started to tell me why it mattered. “If this project is considered commercial, you need to determine if the existing structure will meet commercial code, which would include such considerations as whether the second-floor hay loft floor system met the pounds-per-square-foot requirement (floor load), soil capacity under the existing barn footings, barn wall stability, and foundation wall depths, among other things.
“I am going to have to see a report from a structural engineer before I could ever think of doing a building plan review,” the building inspector stated. “Oh, and the engineer has to be licensed in this state and preferably someone who has knowledge of barns like this.” I said OK and thanked him for coming out as we both walked towards our trucks.
I had to get in touch with the owners and let them know what I had just found out with the building inspector. I mentioned the comment by the building inspector about the project being considered residential or commercial, and they both stated that the project should be considered residential based on the paperwork from the township. After the conference call with them, I looked over the building plans to see if the plans had any information about the existing structure. I searched for the architect online and was hoping that I could go to his office to discuss what the building inspector had said. I could not find the architect’s contact information, so I contacted the owners, who then told me that the architect was from the East Coast and not from our state. I asked them to contact the architect and get specific information for me, because I needed to learn more about what the architect was thinking with his design.
We discovered that the architect had only drawn a few pages of the project, which included elevation drawings and basic interior layouts — no wall sections or foundation plans and very few dimensions to review. Someone was going to have to draw the entire project and get the building prints ready for the building inspector to review.
Adam D. Bearup is a designer, green builder and farmer, who learned about biodynamic and regenerative farming for a project he built in Northern Michigan, The Earth Shelter Project Michigan. Adam has degrees in marketing and management and a Masters of Science in Green Building. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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