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Farm buildings are complex and costly, but built to last

Old-fashioned barn raisings are pretty much gone – today you need a team of experts when building an equipment shed or barn

Building a barn used to be relatively simple. Often, family members, and maybe a few neighbours, simply went out and did it.

Today, however, construction of a new farm building is an extremely complex — not to mention expensive — process.

Regulations, more sophisticated building techniques, and advanced technology have upped the cost and complexity, but you’re also getting a better building, say experts.

“We used to put roofing steel on with nails — now it’s all done with screws,” said Gary van Bolderen, president of Dutch Masters Design and Construction Services, a build/design firm based in Barrie, Ont. specializing in equine barns.

“That sounds really silly but it makes a huge difference. I know every roofing nail I put in, in the ’70s and ’80s will have popped out about a quarter of an inch because of the expansion of the wood underneath, while a screw gets tighter and tighter over time.”

Continual improvements in fasteners, coatings, and other seemingly minor technology, “all these things add up,” he said.

“I think I’m being honest when I say we’re building better buildings than we were back in the ’70s. But I’m proud to say the buildings I built back then are still standing.”

New challenges

Over the past few decades a host of environmental and safety concerns have driven regulations demanding a more sophisticated approach to farm building. This in turn has forced a need for a greater number of specialized players in the building process.

Steven Adema.
photo: Supplied

“The building code in Ontario used to be 10 pages, maybe — now the National Farm Building Code is several thousand,” said Steven Adema, principal engineer with Tacoma Engineers in Guelph, Ont. “There are all these different parties involved.”

Every project Dutch Masters builds has to be tested by engineers for structural integrity and other factors, said van Bolderen.

“The environmental conservation community is involved — when you build a 20,000-square-foot riding arena, the footprint you make there collects water,” he noted. “They want you to have a system that collects all that roof water and diverts it away from where it might cause erosion. If it goes down a hill you’ve got to put check dams in so you don’t get a gully carrying silt down into a stream.”

Setback distances also have to be considered.

“We need a certain distance between buildings when they’re a certain size so if there’s a fire it doesn’t jump over to the other one. It can take quite a while to get a building permit because you have to get an engineer for storm water management and an engineer for manure storage to sign off. Fire departments want access to the buildings. All that stuff wasn’t there years ago.”

New technology also requires specialization.

Van Bolderen points to the advanced automation in the dairy industry as an example of one that requires very specific knowledge of the latest technology and specific industry requirements.

“I’m considered a farm builder but I wouldn’t touch a dairy barn right now,” he said. “You have to select what you do and your expertise.”

All-in-one services

This complexity has driven a trend towards build/design firms that offer all-in-one, specialized services for farm builders. Van Bolderen counts his firm as one of them, noting it also co-ordinates a host of subtrades and professionals who specialize in equine buildings. They also ensure that all national, provincial and local regulations are met.

Employing a general contractor is worth the cost, he said.

“When it’s a huge investment like a new dairy or poultry barn, you don’t want to put this building up and it’s only 50 per cent efficient or you haven’t got the right-size doors. It sounds really silly but stuff like that does happen if you don’t know your industry.”

In spite of all the specialization going on at the ground level of most modern farm building projects, it’s still important for farmers to exercise critical thinking, especially when it comes to new technology. That mainly comes down to knowing your own operation and its needs and using that knowledge to develop a cost-benefit analysis, said van Bolderen.

“What you’ll find with solar power, for example, is that an engineer will give you an estimate of huge savings but it may not be based on the actual, practical use of your building,” he said. “He may base his estimates on a system running eight hours a day, 365 days a year, and make the number look very attractive. But in actual practice you may only need that light or that heat for half that time and then the equation doesn’t look near as attractive. What applies to one guy may not apply to another.”

Technology always changing

Many modern farm buildings, for lack of a better term, contain a lot of stuff. A lot of this technology is installed with an eye towards automation to drive efficiency, said van Bolderen.

“I think our industry changes more than any other because there are new products coming out, new ways to handle manure, new ways to feed, automatic equipment — all this stuff for controlling the environment within a building,” he said.

“It’s a really competitive market out there for producers. The cost of grain goes up and down and they have to have the right drying systems and storage systems and they’re continually changing.”

From a design and engineering perspective, the relatively small scale of the farm building industry allows design/build firms the ability to adopt and adapt to new technologies swiftly.

“Once somebody finds something that works really well it spreads through the community fairly quickly. The industry is really connected internationally, so when something happens in Holland and it’s a good idea it spreads over here right away,” said van Bolderen.

Again, he points to the dairy industry, which has embraced automation.

“They can put 300 or 400 cows in there and can milk them and they got two guys working there. How do they do that? When I was growing up on a dairy farm we were milking 25 cows and it took three of us. They had to bring them in and lead them into the stall and feed them by hand.

“Now you take a cow and it’s got a reader around its neck that reads how much feed she needs, how much she milks, how much she weighs, when she’s due to be bred again, if there’s any disease or temperature.”

Software for designing buildings and testing new engineering concepts “has been huge,” he added.

“You can change the colour, the shape, the size, the location on the property — all on the computer,” he said. “I saw a gentleman working here doing some drawings of the inside of a building and I said, ‘I’d like a picture of that.’ He said, ‘Would you like the lights on or the lights off?’

“He could actually take that drawing and put the lights on or turn them off. That to me is unbelievable.”

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