From Horse Barn to Wellness Center, Part 2: Structural Assessment

Reader Contribution by Adam D. Bearup and Hybrid Homes
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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.

We covered project scoping and initial interactions with the County building inspector in Part 1. The building inspector needed to see drawings of the horse barn in order to make his assessment recommendations, but we had 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.

I talked to the owners about the drawings that we needed and we all agreed that I would take over the drawings and complete a full set of building plans. I normally draw the building plans for all of our residential projects, so taking on a design job like this was very exciting to me. Before I got too far with the drawings, I wanted to make sure that I knew exactly what the building inspector needed to see.

The building inspector worked only one day a week at the township hall, and that meant that I had to wait a week to get into talk to him. In the meantime, the owners contacted a local structural engineer that they knew and put me in touch with him. I set up a meeting at the barn with this engineer and ended up being relieved that our meeting was before the meeting I had set up with the building inspector.

I wanted to be certain that the barn was going to meet all of the requirements for a commercial project in case the building inspector brought up the residential versus commercial conversation again. The structural engineer had told me on the phone that he had vast experience in re-purposing barns and that he would be able to tell me quite quickly if the barn we wanted to re-purpose was going to work or not.

Assessing the Barn With a Structural Engineer

“Wow, this barn is better than I thought it would be” is the first thing that the structural engineer said as we reached out our hands for a formal handshake. I was happy to hear him say that. He hadn’t gone inside of the barn yet. After the engineer went inside the barn, I could tell that he was more confident with what we wanted to do with the existing barn. When the engineer and I talked on the phone to set up the appointment, I told him what we needed him to look at when he was in the barn. The engineer asked me to send him the building plans so he could review the prints so I sent him what I had and told him that I would be completing the drawings once he sent us his report.

After several hours, the engineer determined what work was needed structurally to meet the commercial code items that the building inspector was concerned about. The engineer had enough information to send me his report as soon as he could. We had a conversation about the two of us working together with the drawings for the barn. We agreed that I would draw specific details of the barn based on his report and that he would critique the drawings of each detail at which point, I would make any changes that he wanted and then I would add the detail drawing to the print. As it would work out, there were 26 specific detailed drawings that I drew and added to the final print set.

Meeting the Building Inspector with Barn Structural Drawings

I was excited to go to the township hall and meet with the building inspector. I walked into the main entrance and noticed several people sitting in the waiting area. I signed in with the front desk and the lady told me to have a seat in the waiting area. The other people were waiting to see the building inspector also. I hadn’t thought about having to wait for over an hour to meet with the building inspector. I wasn’t prepared for that.

My game plan was to go into the building inspector’s office and discuss the residential classification for the project and not even say anything about the possibility of the project being considered commercial. I am always amazed at how I feel before meeting with a building inspector or during an inspection by a building inspector. It seems as if the whole world revolves around this one person, but only for a few moments — as though his decision determines the course of my life. That is how I felt, so I decided to focus of the information that I needed to present. I started to think about the project as we built it and what I could do to pass our inspections.

“OK Adam. Let’s talk”, the building inspector said as he broke me from my trance. “Let’s go into my office.” I followed him into his office and was eager to get him on board with our project.

Residential vs. Commercial Designation of a Home-Based Business

The conversation with the building inspector had mostly to do with what the structural engineer had told me. I did not have the engineer’s report so I used the notes I took with the engineer and discussed very specific areas of the barn with the building inspector. After I told the inspector who the structural engineer was, he immediately became more confident about the team that we had assembled to draw and build the project. He smiled and said, “If he says that the existing barn will meet code, then I am definitely more confident with moving forward.” I immediately got excited and was starting to stand up to leave when the inspector said, “I have been reading the paperwork from the township, and I think that the project is a commercial project.”

My victory dance came to an abrupt halt as I responded, “The paperwork clearly says a home business.” “I saw that,” he said, “but the repurposed barn will not be someone’s home. There are no bedrooms, no kitchen.” I immediately interrupted and said, “There is a break room that is basically a kitchen.” The building inspector didn’t seem amused at my comment and continued: “It is not someone’s residence, and it is clearly a place of business with a parking lot, scheduled appointments, and [after a short pause] a break room.”

He looked at me as if he didn’t care for my comment in favor of the project being considered residential and said, “The project is a commercial project and the codes for commercial construction will apply.” We spent the rest of the meeting covering everything that he expected to see on the building plans and said that he will rely on the structural engineer and the details on the prints for areas where we would do very specific structural upgrades to the existing structure.

I immediately contacted the owners to let them know about the commercial designation for the project. They were not happy with that decision and after a detailed conversation, we all agreed that we would not question the building inspector, because he stood between us and the finished project. Without a building permit, we could not proceed with the project.

Second-Floor Structural Adjustments

That same day, my phone made a noise and when I looked at it, I noticed that I had received an email from the structural engineer. I saw that his report was attached to the email, so I opened the file in the email and began to read his report.

I was excited to read that the second floor would meet the commercial code with a few minor upgrades. I became concerned when I saw his sketches for the area where we would cut away the existing barn roof and tie the addition’s roof into that area. “Wow, how can we do that?” I thought after reading his report.

Another area of his report that baffled me was adding large blocks of concrete to the existing barn to prevent uplift in the event a tornado. I decided that before I became too concerned or too confident about any one detail, that I would discuss the report with the structural engineer. After all, the next step was for me to figure out his sketches and make drawings of each of his details.

Follow the full series as the saga of the horse barn to wellness center transformation unfolds.

All photos by Adam Bearup

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 MichiganAdam 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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