Saving a Giant of a Barn: the Benson Timber Frame

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We are now two weeks into the careful dismantling of a beautiful timber barn – for sale –  that dates from around 1880. This timber frame is not as old as many of the structures that we take down and restore here at Green Mountain Timber Frames, but the high quality of the frame more than justifies our efforts to save it. At 34 x 48 feet, this wonderful vintage frame is a big one!

evening light on old barn for sale in benson | green mountain timber framesThe barn’s foundation, roof and sills are deteriorated, and would be very difficult and costly to repair in place. We have purchased the barn and now it is in our court to take down the frame, restore it, and find a new home for this majestic and historic building.

(Let us know if you are interested in seeing the barn!)

Taking Down the Timber Frame Barn: Step by Step

Our first step was to remove an enormous amount of hay from the inside of the building. Thankfully, we had some pitchforks handy. removing hay from the benson frame | green mountain timber framesThe hay piled inside the barn had been hiding a very interesting feature of this barn. The smallest bay, which is where the animals were kept, had built in wooden gutters for removing manure.

Discoveries in an Old Barn

The clever system had two trap doors that could be opened, allowing the waste to be dropped into wagons or carts below for spreading on the nearby fields. There was also a trough in front of the animals where they could be fed. It is really amazing to see the wear marks on the floor from hooves. We can tell where the antsy cow lived many years ago! cleaning out cow stalls in old barn for sale green mountain timber framesWe made another discovery while opening up the walls of this barn. Between layers of siding, honey bees had built a hive at some point in the past.discovering an old bee hive in the benson old barn for sale green mountain timber framesWe collected the brittle wax comb, and I am excited to make candles out of it. Once we find a new home for this barn and re-erect it, I can imagine a celebratory meal in the restored frame- lit by the wax of this bee hive. honey comb in the wall of benson barn for sale green mountain timber framesAs we removed the wide hemlock wall boards, we labeled each one so they can be installed back in the same location. Many of the timber boards are over 15 inches wide, and the patina on them is spectacular.

We can’t wait to wash them, but the temperature will have to get up above freezing for that process to take place and winter really seems eager this year in Vermont. wide vintage boards for sale | green mountain timber frames

Removing the Slate Roof

Once we had the barn cleaned out and many of the siding boards removed, we went on to remove the roof system. This barn still had its original roof- large purple slate from the nearby quarries.

Here we are removing the slate piece by piece.

It was unusual for us to be removing the original roof from a building, as most of our older frames went through at least two, and often four, generations of roofing material before they come under our care. Much of the slate is still good and we will set it aside with the frame for future use. removing slate and roof boards benson barn for sale In order to be as safe as possible, we built a temporary second floor in the barn. This allows us to do most of the board and rafter removal from this deck rather than from the top of the roof or from long ladders. This barn is so large that it took fifty sheets of plywood to create this safe work platform! how to take down an old barn safelyThe effort building the deck paid off, as we removed and labeled each roof board.removing roof boards from benson barn for saleLet me share a couple more interesting features of this barn:

All farmers know how hard it is to keep large barn doors on a building. Inevitably, it seems, they get caught by a gust of wind and torn off the building. Well, it must have been someone with life experience who designed this structure. They built a giant pocket door system and hung the 13-foot-tall doors on tracks on the inside of the barn.

In order to create this space for the doors, secondary posts were added in the doorway bents. In this way, gusts of wind could not get at the doors when they were opened. giant pocket door old barn for sale A good luck horseshoe was nailed to one side of the door opening. horseshoe for good luck benson timber frame barn for saleIt was exciting to get lots of light on the upper queen system. These timbers support the rafters at mid-span, making the roof strong enough to carry the weight of all that slate as well as Vermont’s winter snow. There is a unique and beautiful scarf joint that was used to get the queen plates to span the whole 48 feet.queen system in benson old barn for sale green mountain timber frames

Here is a close-up of the scarf joint:scarf joint  | green mountain timber framesWhile the queen plate is made out of two timbers, the main top plate that creates the eve of the building is not. Incredibly, these hand-hewn timbers are the full length of the barn at 48 feet and 2 inches! Imagine the size of the old-growth tree that was required, as well as the difficulty of getting these beams in place without the use of modern equipment.

These 48-foot timbers are a testament to the skill of the timber framers who crafted this barn, as well as to the strength of a community that would come together to hoist such a barn into place. We are honored to now be the caretakers of this structure.48 foot hand hewn timber | green mountain timber frames

You can see drawings of the barn here on our site.

This old barn is for sale!

If you are interested in this barn, or another timber frame structure, let us know!

 

 

Worth Saving? Assessing the Value of a Barn

Here at Green Mountain Timber Frames, we receive phone calls about old barns all the time. Owners want me to come look at barns on their property to assess their value and decide whether or not they are good candidates for restoration.

One of the first questions I am invariably asked is: “How do you decide if an old barn is worth restoring?” And the natural follow-up. “If so…how do you price it? There are many factors that go into deciding whether a barn can be restored, if its roof or wooden beams can be salvaged, or if it has no value at all.

To explain some of the key factors that go into making these decisions, I want to present you with a little side by side comparison. Below are eight sets of pictures. The barn on the left in each picture is a rare, valuable gunstock timber frame from about 1750, very early by Vermont standards. The owner is interested in selling the barn because he doesn’t currently use it. On the right are photos of an 1890s barn that Green Mountain Timber Frames will not be restoring. The owner is concerned it will collapse and would like to salvage parts of the barn before this happens. He asked me to put a value on the barn “as is”.

Evaluating Two Barns: A Side by Side Comparison

1. THE ROOF

When I evaluate a vintage barn, I start off by taking a look at the roof. Having a straight, flat roof with no sagging says the upper timber structure has held together over the centuries. In our area, slate can create sagging roofs in earlier barns not designed for the heavy weight of slate. They were designed for wooden roofs, which, in the northeast, were mostly constructed from white cedar. 1_Roof Comparison on Old Barn HomesNEW 2. SIDING

Next, I look at whether the barn has vertical or horizontal siding. Vertical siding, as in the 1750s barn, may mean the barn dates from before 1850. Builders began to use horizontal siding around the Civil War era. 2_Vertical or Horizontal Siding on Timber Frames3. IS IT OVERBUILT?

Notice the large numerous beams on the wall section of the 1750s barn. Contrast this with the 1890 barn, which has smaller timbers and even smaller 2″ x 4″ nailers. This represents very light construction when compared to the 1750s wall section. The large beams we see on the left are more valuable. 3_Over Built or Crooked Old Barn FrameNEW 4. GUNSTOCK POSTS?

Gunstock timber frames are always more valuable as they are very rare these days. Gunstock frames can be identified by their tapered posts. The posts start off 9″x 9″ square at their base and then taper to 15″ x 9 ” at the top, where they meet intersecting timbers. You can see this in the photo below of the 1750s barn. In the 1890s barn, the posts are very light, measure 6″ x  6″ and don’t taper.  4_Gunstock Posts on Timber Frame 5. ROOF RAFTERS

If a frame’s roof rafters are hand hewn square rather than “half round”, it indicates an earlier era. The 1750s frame has hewn rafters. In the picture the larger beams are the original rafters. The builder added in the smaller 4″ x 4″ rafters when they added the slate roof. Also, the 1750s barn has white oak roof boards, another indication of a very early frame. The 1890s barn has small, modern 2″ x 6″ roof rafters which are not valuable. However, because the pine roof boards are in good condition, they can be reused for other building projects. Most barns have softwood roof boards like pine, spruce or hemlock. It seems only the 1750 era frames have hardwood roof boards. I’ve come across only three hardwood roof board frames in the 30 years I’ve been doing this, yet another reason this 1750 barn is such a gem! 5_Roof Rafters on Timber Frame 6. TIMBER FATIGUE

The dark area in the 1750s picture indicates water damage.The broken timbers in the 1890 picture is a bad sign. These are examples of timber fatigue. In pre-1800 frames, we can repair or replace damaged timbers. This 1890 frame has so much timber fatigue and the roof rafters are so “new” looking, that the building has value for parts only.

6_Signs of Timber Fatigue

7. HEWN DIAGONAL BRACES

As I continue my assessment of a timber frame, I next look to see if the frame’s diagonal braces are housed into the timbers. The diagonal braces on the 1890s barn are simply 2″ x 4″s nailed in. This was common practice for that time. In comparison, the 1750s barn bracing is housed or “joined” into the timbers. This is called mortise and tenon joinery. A wooden peg then holds the brace in place. This is the usual standard. The 1890 frame using 2″ x 4″s and nails was the start of the transition out of mortise and tenon joinery. The very early frames used hand hewn braces. I’ve only seen this twice in my career, both times in timber frames from the 1750s era. The braces are almost always sawn. The picture on the left below shows the fine craftsmanship of hewn braces.

7_Diagonal Braces of TimbersNEW

8. LARGE GIRTS

In timber frame construction, girts are used to tie the walls together. Larger girts often mean an earlier era frame. The 1890s barn has very modest girts which may be the reason the timbers broke in the middle. The 1750 picture shows larger timbers being used as “girts,” while the middle girts have no center posts. No center posts are often a nice feature when reusing a frame for a home or shop area.

8_Girt TimbersFINAL

And What About Pricing?

When determining how to price a barn, I first think about how rare the frame is. A rare frame in good condition will always be worth more. I also consider the current market and how much folks might want to pay for something very rare. I will also calculate whether the barn is worth more as a whole or in parts.

Finally, I will discuss the options with the current barn owner. Some barn owners want to sell their barn for whatever value they can get. Others are tired of dealing with the maintenance costs or are fearful the structure will collapse. The price an owner is looking for will also have an impact on our pricing. It’s part of my job to assess how valuable a frame is, what condition it is in and how rare the construction is. With those things in mind, I can help the owner to determine a reasonable price.

In Summary…

The 1890s barn is not worth restoring, but the frame does have value as a parts barn. I can salvage the timbers for use on other restoration projects and reuse the roof boards, sawn beams, siding and slate. There are large labor costs to acquire the materials. This is where you have to balance the value of the material against the cost to dismantle. The 1890 barn may have an “as is” value of two thousand dollars. After all the materials are reclaimed, the barn site has to be cleaned. That often costs another two thousand dollars.

Labor costs can also quickly rise out of control. And the 1890 barn is a “liability” to the homeowner right now. With the costs of labor and cleanup, we really shouldn’t pay anything for this structure as long as we leave a clean site. But folks want to get something. I always work hard to be as fair as I can be to frame owners, without the salvaged materials ending up costing more than they are worth. The 1750s barn is a valuable find, a real diamond in the rough. To find a 1750s gunstock frame with post-medieval construction is rare in our area. This is the earliest kind of construction that took place in Vermont and to have such a frame is not only a blessing but an honor. It is definitely worthy of restoration and will make an incredible new home for a buyer who appreciates historic value. The current owner of the barn is asking 25 dollars a square foot for the frame. This may be what these very early barns are worth nowadays. The cost to dismantle, restore and

The 1750s barn is a valuable find, a real diamond in the rough. To find a 1750s gunstock frame with post-medieval construction is rare in our area. This is the earliest kind of construction that took place in Vermont and to have such a frame is not only a blessing but an honor. It is definitely worthy of restoration and will make an incredible new home for a buyer who appreciates historic value. The current owner of the barn is asking 25 dollars a square foot for the frame. This may be what these very early barns are worth nowadays. The cost to dismantle, restore and re-erect this 30 foot by 40-foot frame may be 85 dollars a square foot. But in the end, someone would have one of Vermont’s earliest structures to call their own! And, with a bit of restoration, it would last another 250 years!

 

Have more questions about old barns and timber frames? Want to know if you have a post and beam gem on your own property? I’d love to hear from you!  Contact Green Mountain Timber Frames at Luke@GreenMountainTimberFrames.com or 802.774.8972.