All Around Farm

County Lines

Matt Freeman

01 February 2013

Striking the right balance between profession and pastime can be a challenge, and a few years ago, Johanna Walters realized that she and her husband Brian Sweeney had come down too far on the practical side. Walters and Sweeney had lived on a farm in Chester County— perfect for avid equestrians like themselves, but not so perfect for Sweeney’s commute back and forth from Jefferson Hospital. They sold the farm and bought a house nearer the city, but that created another problem. “I became miserable,” Walters says with a laugh, “because I wasn’t on a farm.” 

Search For a New Home 

So they began looking around for their next home, but nothing seemed quite right. At the time, Walters was boarding her horse at a Gwynedd Valley facility called All Around Farm, a large, rambling barn built around 1870 for one of the houses in the area. The building was neglected and in miserable shape cosmetically, but Walters saw something in it and said to herself, “This could make a really cool house.” 

“My husband thought I was insane,” Walters says, but she started making sketches and invited Richard Buchanan, a foxhunting acquaintance who happened to be an architect, to see the barn. Walters wanted to create a home that would have stables for their horses as part of the structure, and she says Buchanan, a partner in the West Chester firm Archer & Buchanan, “was able to see the vision and what it could be.” 

From Barn to Home 

That was early in 2009. Walters, Sweeney, and Buchanan worked on the design for a year, and on the Labor Day weekend of 2011, Walters and Sweeney moved into their new home in the converted and transformed old barn. Today, a gravel driveway leads up to the double-doors of the entrance gate flanked by walls enclosing a courtyard. The building itself is roughly horseshoe-shaped; on the right and left are stables extending from either end of the taller building where the humans live. The 9,750 sf building has four bedrooms. A central entry gives access to the great room, with a living room area on one side, kitchen and dining on the other, a recreation room on the right and office on the left. Walters says the vision she had in 2009 is now a reality—she can walk from the kitchen into the mudroom and then through the tack room to the east stables. 

Buchanan says it’s not that unusual for people and large animals to share a roof—many barns include apartments to house employees. What’s unusual about All Around Farm is that it was converted from largely stables to largely residential space for humans. Because the people and the horses are living in the same building, some extra building regulations came into play governing fire safety and other issues, but Buchanan says these were uniformly sensible regulations that posed no special problem. 

Recycling the Details 

The barn had been neglected over the decades, but there was much in it to value and reuse. It offered both raw material and well-made artifacts to keep and reintroduce—from hardwood planks to window and door latches and ring pulls. The large interior beams, fortunately still sound, became an important design element. Because they had reduced the number of stalls “we had a handful of interesting old hardware left over,” Buchanan says, including newels from the stalls that were reinstalled atop the stairs in the great room. The builders found a mantel stashed in a hayloft, perhaps a castoff from a long-ago renovation to the main farmhouse, and they incorporated it into the design of the great room, adjusting the scale of the surrounding elements accordingly. 

The architect also worked to recreate an aesthetic sense that made the old barns beautiful. The ironwork in the gate, for example, was inspired by the design of attractive period ironwork found in the stall windows. Historic barns have a timeless appeal created decades and centuries ago that still charms our eyes today, Buchanan says. In more recent decades, say from 1950 to 1980, horse architecture generally went downhill, Buchanan says—it became slick, cheap, and generally unappealing. So designers today are reaching back to the past. “The ideas that worked then continue to work now, and they can teach us a lot about how to do things very well,” Buchanan says. “Old buildings like this have a lot to teach us.” 

Big Spaces, Warm Spaces

But the old days and the new can have a profitable two-way conversation as well, especially in the realm of technology. The word “barn” is often used disapprovingly for a large interior that’s expensive to heat. This gave people pause about adapting actual barns to live in. “Big spaces historically can be cold and drafty,” Buchanan says. But today, architects can create a concrete floor with radiant heat built in, as Buchanan did for All Around Farm. The concrete is polished, creating a “lovely, leather-like surface,” Buchanan says, and with the radiant heat, “suddenly all your heating is rising from beneath your feet.” You can live your life in the warm layer near the floor and admire the cathedral-like ceiling high above, confident that you’re not paying to heat that area. “The things that made traditional design a problem in the past,” Buchanan says, “we have overcome.” 

All Around Save 

The interior décor is appropriate for a historic Pennsylvania home—there’s an ironwork chandelier hanging in the great room, for example, and dark wood paneling. But there’s also a clean, modern sense of design free of frillery and composed of strong, simple shapes. Walters says she and Sweeney are “both minimalists.” And they found a like-minded architect in Buchanan. The most successful projects are “edited down to the greatest simplicity,” he says, “down to their most poetic expression.” 

Walters says she was glad to have been in the right place at the right time to save and update a historic structure that might otherwise have been torn down. For Buchanan, it was an opportunity to make a modern, sophisticated residence that still reaches back into history and reuses what he calls “wonderful” resources from historic buildings. “We brought that back to life,” Buchanan says.

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