From the Ground Up

Planning to build a barn? Save yourself a lot of grief by following these five tips.
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I have a new mantra: “It’s only a steel barn….” I find myself repeating it over and over as my wife, Dana, and I navigate the joy and stress of creating a brand-new training facility on our Temecula, California, acreage. We’re doing it from (literally) the ground up.

Building a training facility from scratch can be fun—and stressful. Extra insight (inset): Dana and I planted our landscape before we started building the barn. That way, it’ll be mature when construction is complete.

Building a training facility from scratch can be fun—and stressful. Extra insight (inset): Dana and I planted our landscape before we started building the barn. That way, it’ll be mature when construction is complete.

On the joy side, it’s been great to watch the barn, pens, and arenas go from idea to fruition. On the stress side, I find myself wondering if this huge project is ever going to get done!

Dana and I have been working on it for well over a year, while leasing a nearby barn out of which we currently train. Here are five key things I’ve learned while working on our barn project; these tips will help you if you ever tackle one of your own.

1. Learn the Laws
California may be tougher than most states when it comes to permits and building codes. But I’d imagine most areas require some kind of permit before you build. By far the biggest surprise I’ve had has been the difficulty in working with the county, city, and fire department to get the proper permits for our project.

The permits themselves aren’t all that tricky or expensive. Rather, it’s the hoops you must jump through to obtain them.

For instance, the fire department recently told us we’d have to install a sprinkler system in the barn. That’s a great safety measure, and we’re all for it. But, it adds tens of thousands of (unexpected) dollars to the project. (Extra insight: There’s now a national law mandating sprinkler systems in any building that’s 3,500 square feet or more.)

Plus, we were told the system would require an additional water line to be installed. Naturally, that would require a permit. Off we went to our local water district to get it. The clerk there told us we’d need a letter from the fire department to issue the permit. Here’s the catch: The fire department told us, “We don’t do letters.”

That’s a scenario that’s happened over, and over, and over again. It’s so frustrating (and time consuming). Some days I feel like a ping-pong ball being hit between bureaucratic entities.
Even more frustrating is that since it’s taken over a year to complete our project, some of the building codes have changed “mid-barn.” Believe me, if you don’t keep up with the codes yourself, an inspector will come out and tell you what you’ve done wrong and/or are missing.
So take the time to familiarize yourself with what you’ll need to build your barn to code. Chances are, it could add more time and money than you’d originally budgeted. (Or, see No. 4.)

2. Research Before You Build and Buy

Dana and I have been in hundreds of barns around the world, so we had a good idea of what we wanted, design-wise. We also had a good idea of which barn-building companies could provide it. Still, we did our research before making our final choice.

We talked to friends and fellow trainers, and looked at designs, ultimately opting for a company that specializes in steel barns that can be customized with our own touches. But the barn is only one element. There are stall fronts to consider. Latches. Windows. Aisle floors. Waterers. The list goes on and on. We took our time to research every item before we purchased it.

A work in progress: We chose a a steel barn we could customize. We opted for Trex composite decking on the stall fronts (it needs no maintenance and is horse-proof), and a concrete aisle stamped to resemble a vintage wood floor (the stamping adds traction, too).

A work in progress: We chose a a steel barn we could customize. We opted for Trex composite decking on the stall fronts (it needs no maintenance and is horse-proof), and a concrete aisle stamped to resemble a vintage wood floor (the stamping adds traction, too).

For example, we opted to use Trex composite decking for our stall fronts, rather than wood. It’s about three times as expensive as wood, but is fireproof, never needs painting, and horses won’t chew on it. What we spent up front, we’ll make up for in the long haul because Trex is maintenance-free.

We also were able to find a unique flooring alternative for our barn aisle, tack room, and trophy room. It’s concrete stamped to resemble old-style wood floors. It not only will wear well and look good, but the stamping also gives the flooring a bit more grip for the horses.

3. Build in Extra Time, Money

I touched on this in No. 1, but I can’t emphasize it enough: Budget your hard costs and approximate timing, then add (a lot) of extra time and money for the unexpected. (I think the rule of thumb is to add an additional 15 percent, moneywise, but some projects can easily exceed that.) For us, a lot of the overages have been the result of the unexpected or ever-changing building-code requirements.

Weather also can throw a kink in your building plans. And materials increases, or issues uncovered in the building process, can add to the cost of any project. I know ours has taken twice the amount of time to complete than I expected. It’s exceeded our cost projections as well.

4. Consider a Contractor

I’ll take part of the blame for the time and money overruns. I opted out of hiring a general contractor to oversee our project. Doing so saved us money, and also enabled me to be hands-on. But I haven’t overseen a building project of this scale in a long time.

So, looking back, I think we’d have saved time and money in the long run if I’d hired a good general contractor to run the project. For instance, we installed a brand-new concrete driveway from the street to our house and the barn. Our original one was dirt, and mostly uphill. It was fine for cars, but not so fine for hauling heavy horse trailers in and out in all kinds of weather.

After it was complete, we got the news that we had to add the additional water line for the barn sprinkler system. Guess what? That line has to go under the new driveway. So we’ll have to bust up and rebuild part of it. I have to wonder if a contractor familiar with state, regional, and national building codes would’ve foreseen that.

5. Keep It in Perspective

Remember my new mantra? “It’s only a steel barn.” Try not to get too stressed over your project. (And try not to take your stress out on your family!) While building our new barn and facility has caused plenty of headaches, I try to focus on the positive: All of our individual contractors have been great, thanks to our extensive research before hiring each of them.

The finished project will not only be functional, but it’ll also be beautiful, and built precisely to our specifications. Plus, our commute to the barn will be reduced to just a short walk from the house. (I just have to keep telling myself that.)

Until then, you can find me overseeing the barn project (and muttering my new mantra!).

A multiple AQHA world champion, Avila has also won three NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurities, the NRHA Futurity, and two World’s Greatest Horseman titles. He received the AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year honor. His Avila Training Stables, Inc., is in Temecula, California. Learn more at bobavila.net.

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