The Versatile Barn Idea

Harvesting History

I recently attended a wedding in a restored hay barn. The spare interior consisted of a long, central, nave-like space flanked by side aisles where the feeding troughs would have been. It was a very moving event — see

2013-07-06 21.23.07 HDR

the outline of the barn to the right of the tent in this evening view, after the barn had been converted to a dance hall for the reception. It’s a perfect example of the form’s versatility, not to mention the barn’s use throughout history for both secular and sacred purposes. The barn form is said to derive from the Roman basilica or law court (although it isn’t exactly clear which came first, barn or basilica). There were at least two basilicas on the Roman

basilica at popeii from

Forum. This plan of an early basilica at Pompeii shows the basic longitudinal layout (image courtesy The drawing below shows how the layout evolved into early Christian churches though sometimes with two aisles on

BasilicaPlan2 from

each side of the nave instead of one (needless to say, the wedding barn was a little smaller). But you can quickly see how a building type that originally served Romans as a public, commercial, or governmental meeting place could become a basic church plan, with its strong central axis and simple gable roof (image courtesy

Such forms are perfect starting points for anyone dreaming about a new home. And converting a barn into a living space, as shown here in a beautiful


example by Northworks Architects and Planners, is one way to start. This is a type known as a bank barn, that is, built into a hill so that the two or three


levels can use gravity flow for storing and moving the harvest. The warmth of the restored wood and the new tall window wall accentuating the soaring interior make this a very compelling living space. Another project by


Northworks shows how the architects used the barn idea to create a new house, with a dramatic outdoor living room under the extended gable (photos courtesy Northworks Architects and Planners).

Ranch house designer and popularizer Cliff May once said “You never see a bad barn. But you see all kinds of ugly houses; that’s because they’re built without considering function. A barn is made to spend not a nickel more than you need to house the horse or the cow or the feed.” Cliff appropriated the

house by Cliff May at Alisal Ranch from

basic gabled barn shape often, as he did in this house near Santa Inez, California — only naturally, Cliff added a few twists like the pool, and a roof made of grape stakes. But you can see how he lined up the gable on the view — and maybe the pool is just a very large baptismal font! The point is that a barn’s simple outline and straightforward yet noble spaces provide a remarkable springboard for the imagination. And they always have.

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