Rustic yet modern, converted barns are a creative’s dream

Phyllis Prinz was shocked to find herself living in a barn.

“I’m a New York City girl,” says Prinz, a conceptual artist and entrepreneur who grew up in Brooklyn. “When I first saw the barn, I didn’t believe someone could live with that much space. It was instant love.”

Prinz lives in a home called The Hawthorn, a 10,000 square-foot converted horse barn built in 1865 in Woodstock, New York.

While the upper level is used as living space — a four-bedroom home she updated with comforts like a redwood sauna and a Japanese style stone shower room — the immense lower two floors are open to the imagination. They have been used as an art gallery, a yoga studio and flexible office space for creatives.

Currently she rents the space to the concert promoter of the original Woodstock festival, Michael Lang, who’s mounting the 50th anniversary celebration of the festival this summer.

For personal reasons, Prinz has decided to sell the property, which is currently on the market for $1.25 million.

Artistic and entrepreneurial homeowners who are looking for wide open spaces in which to live may find the answer in converted barns.

“There’s a hunger for the old charm and a character you can’t find any more,” says Judith Steinfeld, Prinz’s real estate agent. “People want open spaces. With a barn you use the structure that is there already and your creativity to make a unique living space.”

How to make a barn a home

Les Fossel has converted hundreds of barns into homes since he started his historic home restoration company in Maine in 1975. Each one presents different challenges and opportunities, he says.

“Buildings are a little bit like marriages,” Fossel says. “If they have been well-maintained they are easy to fix. If they haven’t, it can be a mess.”

Assuming the bones of the barn are in good repair, he says, prospective inhabitants are free to imagine the home the way they want.

To keep a perfectly fine barn from becoming a not-so-great house, he urges clients to remember that a building can be much more interesting than your dreams, if you let it.

“Your responsibility isn’t to turn it into what you dreamed about, but to pay attention to what it is and its potential,” he says. “It’s about taking something really beautiful, without interfering with it too much and making it a home.”

He’s seen interest in converted barns rise and fall, primarily in line with concerns about the cost of heating. Now there are more energy efficient ways to heat these large buildings, like geothermal heating and cooling systems, but the cost of comfort is still a central concern.

“You don’t want to live in a place that’s cold and drafty.”

Given the challenges, why do people want to live in what was once used for horses, dairy cows or hay?

“Some people need something new,” he says. “But there is a group of other people who need to be a part of the culture we live in. Buildings are the visual expression of our culture. If the culture is good they are well-preserved.”

Old barn, new construction

Many old barns, now 50 to 100 years old, have not been preserved and are meeting the end of their natural life.

Giving these salvaged barns extended life in a new-construction, barn-inspired home was the project Wei-Han Vivian Lee and James Macgillivray, architects with Toronto-based firm Lamas, completed in rural North Hatley, Quebec.

The homeowners, an artist and a farmer, were very interested in creating a new home that looked like it had been part of the landscape for 100 years.

The artist owner had been documenting existing and dilapidated barns in the area, photographing them and painting them. “She’s spent time being observant about this area and how it is activated by the presence of a barn in the landscape,” says Macgillivray.

The architects designed a home based on a series of barns around a courtyard, the likes of which a farmer would have added piecemeal, built for specific purposes and arranged to provide protection from the wind.

The three distinct buildings in the home are connected by glass-walled corridors. The exterior is clad in salvaged hemlock from various barns in the region, creating a uniform weathered look.

The main house has the proportions of a barn, says Lee. “These beams were from an old nearby barn that were taken down. We structured it very similarly in dimension and cadence to how an actual barn would be.”

The building with bedrooms — affectionately called the “piggery” by the architects since as a low-lying, smaller structure, it’s about the same size as a pig house would be — is meant to feel more intimate, Lee says.

The third building, referred to as the stables, was conceived as a utility building. It houses the garage, a caretaker’s apartment above and the laundry room.

“The result is neither exactly a barn, even though the materials are barnlike, or exactly farmhouse, even though, clearly, people live here as opposed to being used for livestock and hay,” says Lee.