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Home, Very Literally, on the Range

Across the country, barns are giving inventive property owners the inspiration for renovation

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For anyone whose mother ever lifted a muddy sneaker from the living-room floor and muted the TV to say, “I hadn’t realized we lived in a barn,” just imagine the juvenile glee of countering, “Actually, Mom, we do.” Now, one home trend is giving reality to those cheeky childhood fantasies—though given the sheer beauty of these barn renovations, even the mouthiest kid might think twice before tracking mud on the carpet.

“They’re soaring spaces,” says Karen Williams, principal designer of the firm St. Charles, who recently completed an 18-month renovation project on a 150-year-old barn in Southampton. The 8,000-square-foot structure was deemed unsafe for use when the project began, but is now fully modernized, with a “main hall” living room and four bathrooms, as well as a spa, gym, media room, game room and library (the hay loft, once upon a time). 

The ambience gained by building into a rustic edifice like a barn is incomparable, but it’s also true that the undertaking is not without a number of complications. “When renovating a barn,” Williams says, “you want to use what you can of the original structure, but often you can’t use a lot because it’s too old. So you have to take the pieces down, repair or rebuild them and then put them back up.”

Likewise, the transformation of an antiquated space into a contemporary residence isn’t exactly cost-effective. “It is more economical to build a new structure,” says renowned interior designer John Barman, who recently renovated a 10,000-square-foot barn in Roxbury, Connecticut, that dates to the 19th century. “But with a historic barn there’s an excitement that comes from the sense of history. There’s a texture and scale you won’t find in new structures. Because of its great height, the Connecticut space could handle a huge stone fireplace.”

The breathtaking latitude of a barn’s interior is often much of its draw, and it also, as Williams points out, allows for designers to create comfortable living areas in unconventional ways. “It’s great to walk into these big, open spaces with soaring ceilings,” she says, “but they can feel cavernous at times. The key is to create small, intimate areas within the bigger space, so you’ll still get an informal, homey feeling.”

Barman had his own tactics for lending the Connecticut barn an essence of home, and was excited from the outset that a primary part of the project would be incorporating his client’s extensive art collection. “It was very dark because of all the wood,” Barman says, “so we counterbalanced by adding windows and using bright colors with interesting furniture. The living room is vast so we used very comfortable large-scale furniture and lots of lamps for low lighting. The white background, colorful rug and prominent artwork also helped make the rooms inviting.”

Of course, while the stunning results of traditional barn renovations speak for themselves, there is always also the slightly more practical option to consider: taking inspiration from a barn’s design to build a new home. On a 17,000-acre ranch in Montana, the firm Fernau + Hartman Architects spent nearly 20 years overhauling the property’s existing buildings, but when the family expressed interest in a bigger home, the firm wanted to create a more modern space that still took cues from the historic architecture around it. The so-called “Cookhouse” was modeled after the hay barns that populate the region. “The local hay barns are both elegant and practical,” says Richard Fernau, one of the firm’s partners. “They are well suited to the extreme and fickle climate. And the unique truss configuration allows the structure to sit low and lightly on the land. As with a traditional Japanese house, this overhang creates a continuous series of outdoor spaces that shelter utilitarian and leisure pursuits year round.”