For the last two weeks, I’ve been contemplating the mysteries of a post-and-beam barn, trying to work out how to rescue the long-ignored structure from the fate of many barns of its vintage (probably about 150 years old), which is total collapse.
This particular barn was left unattended for years by its last owner, and I am guilty of continuing that neglect for the 12 years that I have owned it. I knew that the shingles on its roof had long passed their sell-by date. When we first bought the property, the shingles had that telltale roughness that announced that they were eroded and brittle. The chronically wet ground floor was also a pretty convincing sign that the roof wasn’t doing its job of keeping the rain out. But the real evidence of looming disaster were the plants that began to sprout right out of the roof this wet summer. Big plants. Even a few young trees. And the mushrooms growing out of the ends of exposed beams. Not a good sign.
I made my way gingerly up the rickety stairs to the second floor in August, and looked around at the underside of the roof. Someone had obviously once re-roofed the structure perhaps two decades ago or more, using plywood sheathing over the old slats, but the plywood from the front wall on up halfway to the ridge was all rotten. One corner of the roof had actually fallen in, so there was an eight-foot-by-four-foot unimpeded view of the sky. Several rafters were so rotten they had cracked and were sagging downward, held up only by the rusty nails coming down into them from the gimpy plywood and slats above them.
I’ve never attempted anything this big, but I decided I simply had to rescue this sad old building. Someone had once put an enormous effort into its hand-hewn, ten-inch-by-ten-inch beams (probably chestnut), notched and pinned together by wooden pegs. There had probably been a community barn-raising to erect the thing, once upon a time.
There’s no community today to do this kind of work, unless you’re part of one of the Amish communities in central Pennsylvania or Ohio. I have a few friends I could probably get to hold a ladder, or maybe help me hoist some shingles to the roof, once I get to that point, but nobody would likely want to devote a week or two to the hard labor of rebuilding a dangerous old barn, just for the sake of community spirit or camaraderie. Those days are gone. People are just too busy trying to get by.
So I’m doing this project myself.
I started from the ground up, using a hydraulic house jack to lift giant floor joists whose tenons had rotted away, and installing heavy upright posts made of treated lumber, to fend off the inevitable carpenter ants that are attracted to damp wood like bees to clover. Then I moved to the second floor, and began replacing the planking that had rotted away to the point that it could no longer hold a child’s weight. (It didn’t help things that the last owner of the property had let a flock of chickens inhabit the second floor, and that, until I had cleaned it out, it was four or five inches deep in desiccated chicken shit.) Once I had a sound second floor, so I could walk around freely without having to test each board before stepping on it, it was time to tackle the roof.
That’s when I first noticed that the front of the barn was actually tilting forward, as if poised to take a dive.
This was an urgent fix. I raced out to Deck’s, an old family-owned hardware store in the next town—a throwback to an earlier time, with floor-to-ceiling cabinets that had the items inside mounted on the doors, so you could see what you were looking for, instead of having to struggle to explain to the shop personnel the shape of some item, the name of which you could never, in a million years, recall, if indeed you had ever known it. In my case, it was a humongous turnbuckle—a device with welded eyes at either end on threaded bolts, one reverse-threaded. By attaching this turnbuckle to an eye-bolt that was put through the sill beam and clamped down with a nut and a large washer on the outside, and attaching one end of a big cable to the other, with the cable stretching to another eyebolt running through the opposite sill beam, I could crank the thing around and shorten the cable, pulling the barn together, I figured.
When I got back to my barn and assembled this apparatus, drilling the holes through the two sill beams, and began the cranking process, I could see immediately that the tilted upper story was pulling back, but then it dawned on me: How did I know I wasn’t also pulling the other good wall over with the bad one? I checked it out with a level, and the back wall was still nice and vertical, but obviously I couldn’t count on its staying that way. I needed to put in some angle braces against the back sill to keep it from moving.
But there was still something I hadn’t anticipated. I kept cranking in the outer wall, and managed to move its top about four inches back towards true. It was still leaning out about four inches though, and the cable was getting disturbingly taut. Then I noticed that the eyes of the huge eyebolts I had put through the sill beams were starting to pull away from their nice round shape!
Damn! I should have found bolts with welded eyes, or taken these to be welded before putting them in place.
I couldn’t bring myself to re-loosen the cable, so I gave the turnbuckle a couple more careful cranks, checked the eyes, and then decided that was as far as I could go.
Later, I was talking with a contractor who does renovations of old houses about the problem, and, after first pronouncing me “crazy” for attempting a project of this scale on my own, he explained that unbeknownst to me, when I was cranking the wall back, I was also trying to lift the entire roof of the barn with that turnbuckle. It was actually the slumping and spreading of the heavy roof’s angled rafters that was forcing the front wall out. In trying to pull it back, I was actually trying to force the roof back up to its original angle.
Can’t be done. If I wanted to really pull the wall back to true, I’d have to get a few big jacks and jack up the peak of the roof at the same time, to take the pressure off the wall.
Good enough, I decided. Mine would be a crooked barn. At least it wouldn’t fall over now.
Next it was time to tackle the rafters. There was a total of 12 of these. Two had to be completely replaced, or else I had to run a double alongside of them—the option I chose. Again I used treated lumber—two 14-foot lengths of beam that I bolted through the good wood I could still find in the old rafters.
The other rafters all had varying degrees of rot, but all of it seemed to be near their lower ends, where most of the rainwater had settled over the years of my and others’ neglect. That made reinforcing them a little easier, but it created another problem: the rot had extended out past the wall to the eaves, which were starting to fall off the barn as a result.
I would have to replace the ends of the rafters, right out to the end of the eaves.
What this meant was bolting new sections of rafter to the good wood of the old rafters, and extending each one out past the wall to the length of the desired eave—about 14 inches.
Once I had done this all the way across the length of the barn, it was time to get up on the roof to start replacing the rotten plywood. But with a 15-foot drop to the ground from the edge of that roof, I didn’t want to be up there without protection, so I had to construct a scaffolding that would both give me a platform to work on at the base of the roof, and a fence strong enough to hold me back if I were to accidentally slide off the roof at some point.
My answer to this challenge was to nail several 2X4 beams horizontally along the inside of the wall, just below the sill beam, and to then cut holes through the wall every four feet large enough to run other 2X4 beams out through them projecting out about three feet from the wall. Inside the barn, I let these latter beams extend inward about six feet, and then tied them into upright studs that extended from floor to ceiling. These solid horizontal beams would support a couple of 2X10 planks just below and beyond the eaves. I then hung 18’ lengths of 2X4 from the ground up past the planks and linked them with several runs of 2X4s to make safety railings. Lower down, I ran cross ties in to the barn wall to keep the uprights from moving inward if the fence were hit, and also diagonally from one upright to the next, to stabilize these “legs” of the scaffold.
With the barn structure completely reinforced, I’m now pulling up the rotten plywood roofing and am replacing it with good plywood. I’ll cover that with tarpaper and then a layer of 30-year shingles, which should, since I’m 60, guarantee that it’s the last roof I have to do in this life.
With luck, I’ll have the whole project completed before the first frost.
Saving an old barn is an immensely satisfying activity, even for someone like me with only basic carpentry skills. It also makes one think about other things that need saving and repairing.
Take our political system. The old US political system is, like my barn, shot through with rot and in imminent danger of collapse. We Americans have been busy with our lives for too long, and have allowed the whole structure to decay. Greedy corporations and individuals, like mold and carpenter ants, have infested every post and beam and have been eating them away for years. Now, as we start to become aware of the extent of the rot, many of us are saying that fixing the mess will be just too difficult. Many just turn away and focus on smaller things. Others suggest that just tearing the whole thing down and building something new would make more sense. But I think that given the effort that went into constructing the thing in the first place, we owe it to ourselves and the people who came before us to try and fix it.
That means first of all cutting away all the rot. Corporations deserve absolutely no place in the process of politics and governance. The Constitution refers to We the People, not to We the People and Corporations. Indeed, the whole idea of corporations is profoundly antithetical to democracy. Corporate law was designed to separate ownership from personal liability, and to free owners and managers from personal responsibility for their actions. You cannot have any kind of decent political or governmental system where organizations that are free to act recklessly and without regard to consequences can influence decisions, anymore than you could allow a barn to be built—or repaired—by someone who had no responsibility for the finished project (that’s why contractors have to be, or should be, bonded).
It also means thinking ahead in a long-term way. I doubt that I’ll be living on this property and owning this barn 20 years from now. If we are lucky, my wife and I will be living in some tropical paradise when we’re in our 80s. But I could not live with myself if I just put 10 or 15-year shingles on this barn roof, making it likely that it would start leaking again before long, again putting the long-suffering framing at risk. No, it never occurred to me to do anything less than put the most durable type of 35-year shingle on the roof. In fact, I would have opted for slate if I could afford it.
Yet, in our politics, we Americans keep refusing to think long-term. We refuse to pay for anything, whether it’s schools or wars, preferring to borrow for everything, and passing on a country buried in debt to our children and grandchildren. The fiscal soundness of a nation is no less important than the structural soundness of a barn, and we ignore that truth at our, and especially our children’s peril.
I fixed my barn myself, but no one can fix this country by her or himself. It’s got to be a collective effort.
The first step is recognizing the problem.
That shouldn’t be hard. When you look at the corrupt process underway in Washington today as the White House and the Democratic Congress try to produce what they are euphemistically calling a “health reform” bill, you can see the problem. The whole process is being distorted and controlled by the very corporations that have produced the dysfunctional system that we have today. It’s as if one were expecting the ants that were eating away the beams to rebuild my barn.
When you look at the war in Afghanistan, which is getting bigger and uglier by the day, even as nearly two thirds of the public says they want it to be ended, you can see how little democracy we have left in America. The only ones really benefiting from this war are the war industries—and of course the military, which keeps eating up more and more of our collective wealth.
The way I see it, it’s time to take matters back into our own hands. We need to get out the wrecking bars, the hammers and the saws, and start ripping out the rot and the decay, and rebuilding the structure with solid, durable materials. We don’t have to rebuild it the way it was—installing solar panels would make sense, and maybe we could add more windows to make the whole thing more visible than it used to be.
We should however, vow this time to keep all the manure down in the stalls in the basement.
No more chicken shit on the upper floor.
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