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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Converted Barns Make Distinctive Homes

WASHINGTON -- Strangers frequently knock on Kathryne Thorpe's front door, asking for a tour of the house. "People drive by constantly and stop and take pictures, which I'm not used to," said the Great Falls, Virginia, resident.


"The silo is so distinctive -- I think that's what catches people's eyes," she said.


Thorpe and her husband, Richard, live in a barn, originally built about 50 years ago for dairy cows. It's one of a number of such converted structures that dot Washington's affluent suburbs, remnants of the area's rural past.


People who live in these converted barns say they like the big open spaces and the opportunity to live in a place that shows their tastes are a bit different from those of everyone else in the neighborhood.


"It's kind of funky, because we're kind of funky," Thorpe said of her home.


"We always wanted one," Bernice Michael said of the converted barn where she and her husband, Jerry, live in Great Falls. "We love character homes."


The character of her barn, Michael said, "evolved based on the functional history of the space." The ramp that leads from the sun room to the library, she said, "is a ramp because cows went down it."


She said, "People who buy these houses don't buy them just because they're houses."


But making buildings meant for cows into places for people can be challenging. "It takes money, sometimes lots of it," said Fairfax County, Virginia, architect Robert Wilson Mobley, who designed the Thorpe home and other local barn conversions. "It takes an attitude about living in a barn -- you cannot make a barn like a home without spending."


Mobley said the amount varies from client to client, but that remodeling a barn costs about as much as building a new custom home, perhaps $120 to $150 per square foot. "The savings of having an existing structure are offset by the costs of having to retrofit the existing barn," he said.


He said, for example, that barns aren't designed with windows, so any conversion requires adding them, and probably skylights, too. But the structural systems of many barn walls and roofs are such that openings can't be cut in just anywhere, instead requiring sometimes-complex engineering.


Silos, the most distinctive features of many barns, present their own challenges. Many Washington area silos were built with four-inch-thick concrete blocks, reinforced with steel tension rods. "There's no place to put holes for windows or doors without cutting the rods," Mobley said.


Moreover, most silos aren't wide enough for interior stairs. At the Michaels' house, the original owner connected the exercise room on the second floor of the silo to the second floor of the main house with a hall. There's no stairway in the 10-foot-wide silo itself.


Barns appeal to people's emotions, Mobley said, not to their economic good sense. "You quickly get to a point where you say, 'I could tear this down and build another that looks like a barn for less,'" he said.


In some ways, Jan Cammermeyer agrees. Yet he and his family are glad they took on the challenge of converting their Vienna, Virginia, barn. "We love it, in the sense it's very airy and very open. ... I think we've all enjoyed it."


When Cammermeyer and his wife, Kit, went house shopping in 1978, they thought they were looking for a standard-issue, center-hall colonial. Then they drove by the old barn. "I bought it within a week," he recalled.


Unlike Michael or Thorpe, who bought homes converted by previous owners, Cammermeyer bought a raw barn.


"The hayloft had been swept off," he said. "There were pigeons roosting all over."


Since Cammermeyer is a general contractor who had already renovated a number of District of Columbia town houses, he felt up to the task of doing the barn himself. But he said it's not a job someone should take on unless they have the necessary skills or money.


"I think you have to be imaginative, and at least have some resources so you're not selling everything you own to do something and only be able to do part," he said. "But a lot of things are the same in any renovation."


Some things are different, too. For example, Cammermeyer had planned on keeping the barn's original roof, which seemed in good shape. But he found out that barn roofs aren't designed to keep warm air in -- central heating isn't very important to cows in a climate like Virginia's.