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.
“I don’t want you to just draw a picture of my sketch, I want you to understand what you will be building and why,” the structural engineer said on the phone. He knew that I was going to be the leader of the team that was building and repurposing the barn. I decided that I could learn a lot about how and why a structural engineer thinks the way he does if I remained level-headed and did everything he said to do with the drawings.
Memories of college popped into my head during the design phase as the structural engineer marked up my drawings with red ink multiple times and sent them back to me. We went over each of the 26 details many times in order for me to get the drawings perfect and for me to understand each detail without a single doubt. The engineer would sign off on each detail only after he was confident that I had grasped the “what’s and why’s” of each. After any individual detail was signed off on as “OK” by the engineer, I would then add that approved detail to the finished set of building plans.
Adapting Design Sketches to Accommodate Building Additions
The original architect had drawn additions on the side and front of the existing barn, and the structural engineer now spent considerable time trying to create a way to make those possible to include in the remodel. For the addition on the side of the barn, we would have to remove a portion of the existing barn roof trusses so that the addition’s roof framing could tie into the upper barn roof. This would create a longer, shed-style roof coming off of the upper pitch of the existing barn roof.
The first sketch that the structural engineer emailed to me didn’t make much sense. The drawing was legible but removing the bottom of the existing barn trusses had me very concerned. We discussed how his sketched design would hold everything up.
The engineer asked me what process I would follow during working on that area of the barn. I told him that we would take everything in steps, one thing at a time, and work our way up to that roof so that we had a floor to work off of on the addition side of the existing barn. This meant that after the concrete slab was poured for the addition, we would build the main floor walls, then set the floor joists and subfloor.
We determined that we needed a detail for how the floor joists would be supported on the existing barn wall. We made sure to call out that the addition second floor had to be the same height as the existing barn second floor. I continued to explain how I wanted to build step-by-step and after we had the second floor walls up and sheathed, then we could safely work on removing the existing roof area piece by piece.
During the building process, this is exactly what we did and we safely achieved our objective, more on the building process later.
Moving from Structural Designs to Hand-Drawn Building Plans
As the engineer and I finished the details for meeting the commercial building code using the existing barn, we both felt very confident that the existing barn would be structurally sound after the additions were attached. The engineer told me that if I had any questions to let him know and he wished me good luck — it was time for me to start drawing the finished building plans.
Early on, I decided to hand draw the drawings, so that I could draw details that my CAD programs did not have. I also have discovered throughout the years, that I become very close with the drawings by hand drawing and being that close to the drawing allows me to see possible issues before we begin building the project. I draw the projects and lead the team on site, and that gives me multiple opportunities to find better ways to do things before we even start building anything.
At the beginning of the design process, I used CAD to conceptualize the owner’s ideas and mine in a medium that I could share by email. We took what the original architect had drawn and adjusted the drawings from there with his blessing. The drawings were really coming together! Soon they’d be done and I could submit for the building permit.
‘All Conditions Must be Met for Approval’
One early morning, as I was working on the final building plans for the Wellness Center, I got a thought in my head and it was about something that I saw on the township paperwork under the conditions section. I searched my email for the file that contained the township paperwork. I opened the file, and started to read the documents again. There was one line in that entire document that I was searching for because, for some reason, I could not get it off of my mind.
Then, I found it: Building permit may be issued only after satisfying all the conditions of approval, this form shall be signed upon completion.
I hadn’t paid as much attention to that line before while reading the township documents originally. I decided that I needed to review the list of conditions again and make sure that each line item was met before I finished the building plans so that I could immediately submit for the building permit.
I began to read the list of conditions of approval (each of which must be met):
- The parking lot setback shall be no less than 150 feet from the west property line.
- One parking space shall be accessible and barrier-free.
- The walkway between the parking area and the facility shall be concrete and meet ADA (American with Disabilities Act of 1990) requirements.
- Provide additional information on the site plan:
- The gradient of the driveway serving the development.
- Parking area drainage flow.
- Location and design of on-site wells and on-site septic tank and tile field systems.
- Provide landscaping buffer details on the site plan:
- Trees shall be planted within six months of site plan approval.
- Evergreens shall be installed at no less than 5 feet in height.
- Species types shall be indicated on the site plan.
- County Health Department approval for well and septic
- County Drain Commission approval.
- Fire Department approval. Driveways and drive aisles shall comply with Fire Department requirements for site access.
Seeking Fire Department Approval for a Commercial Remodel
After reviewing the document, I determined that the conditions listed at the top of the list were items that were either to be handled later in the process or for things that I needed to remember to add to the site plan before I sent it in for approval by the township. The bottom three items on the list were things that I felt needed to be addressed immediately. With a little effort, I was able to get the County drain commission approval and the permits for the well and the septic system from the County Health Department.
With both of the easier line items handled, I then tried to contact the local Fire Department. After a few phone calls, I found out that they were a volunteer fire department and the fire chief, whom I needed to sign off on the driveway design, was part-time and was hard to get a hold of. I started to call other fire departments in the area to try to track the Fire Chief down.
Finally, I got a good lead and was able to track down the Fire Chief. He was very helpful, and he told me exactly how the driveway was supposed to be built to meet the Fire Departments needs. I drew the plans for the driveway and emailed the plans to the Fire Chief. He signed the plans and emailed the plans back to me that day. We were getting closer to being able to get our building permit.
Follow the full series as the saga of the horse barn to wellness center transformation unfolds.
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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