sustainable barn

Are considering building a new barn? Check out these design techniques for an sustainable equine facility.

I’ve been known to say “I was ‘green’ when ‘green’ was just a color!” That’s because I’ve always made it a point to utilize passive renewable design elements and sustainable materials in my equestrian projects. My motivation has always been to design for the health and safety of the horse, and it’s not surprising that what’s recommended for creating eco-friendly structures is also recommended for horses.

Nowadays, I rarely encounter a client who isn’t enthusiastic about including sustainable design principles in their farm program. With green technologies emerging and evolving every day, there are more systems and product choices available to suit the unique demands of equine properties. The projects represented in my book, Healthy Stables by Design, all feature passive renewable elements. The most prevalent elements include natural light and ventilation, recycled materials and regionally sensitive natural woods and products.

Sustainable building materials

I incorporate a variety of recycled and sustainable materials into my designs. I’ve used recycled rubber bricks and pavers for aisle flooring, and recycled rubber mats for stall floors, and occasionally, stall walls. Not only is it more comfortable for the horses’ legs and knees, but it also provides a slip-resistant surface. As for building materials, I use everything from FSC (Forest Steward Council) certified lumber and recycled steel to fly ash concrete blocks and recycled wood.

Be mindful of what some recycled material mixtures contain. Some products include substances (plastics, resins, binders, etc.) that could be toxic to horses through off-gassing or if they chew on the material. Be sure your builder is familiar with the materials ahead of time and is comfortable working with them. Occasionally, I’ll run into a situation where the builder is unfamiliar with a product recommendation and accidentally convinces an unaware owner to use a product that may exhibit these harmful qualities.

Building for climate

It’s important that building materials make sense for both the design and the climate. In more northern locations, I try to design with timber that will provide more insulation for the structure. In the south, a masonry-style building helps keep the structure cool and is more resistant to humidity and insect infestation. While bamboo is an excellent renewable resource option, it’s not often locally sourced and can be costly to ship. Douglas fir and southern yellow pine are the typical go-to lumber products for me. They are quality assured, sustainably harvested, and regionally sensitive. When combined with low VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) finishes and paints, these materials make for sturdy, sustainable buildings that do not sacrifice quality or aesthetics.

Water management

Water management is imperative to any agricultural property, and there are many top-to-bottom green approaches to consider. It’s crucial to intercept and collect storm water before it becomes ruinous run-off that can affect ground water and nearby ponds and streams. I frequently use porous or “popcorn” asphalt for interior and sometimes exterior floor covering. It’s “self healing” and aids in water drainage.

Since many horse farms around the country face changing weather extremes (torrential rain and drought come to mind), rainwater collection systems are vital for alleviating the resultant water issues. Roofs can be designed to route storm water into cisterns. The harvested water can then be channeled into irrigation systems for fields, paddocks, arenas and pastures, or collected for controlled distribution to prevent muddy conditions.

Active renewable systems

In addition to passive systems, I would highly recommend including active renewable systems in the design of your farm. The beauty of equine and agricultural properties is that they more often than not feature characteristics that compliment these systems. Large swaths of land can facilitate geothermal power systems or wind-powered generators and other equipment. Roofs with large surface areas are common features of many agricultural buildings and make perfect platforms for solar panel systems.

Green technologies have come a long way in the past 15 years and today’s solar panel systems offer more choices around how you collect and store energy. If designed properly and in the right location, it may be possible to fully rely on the solar panels for all your energy needs; in some cases, you can sell excess energy back to your local energy company while remaining on the grid. Including these systems in conjunction with natural light and ventilation could conceivably eliminate outside energy dependency for your equine buildings. Over time, the solar panel would pay for itself in savings.

Check with your local and state government about tax incentives for incorporating green energy saving systems into your property.

Fresh air and natural light

Accomplished with steep sun-heated roofs and vented skylights, the combined effects of the Bernoulli Principle (an equation of vertical lift championed by Dutch-Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli) and the chimney effect (air pulled in low and vented up high) circulate fresh air throughout the structure while flooding the space with natural light. This method provides the optimal environment for horses because it turns the typically static barn into a machine while imitating the equine’s natural environment. The process significantly cuts down on the cost and operation of electric lighting and fans and the health and safety risks they can create.

One of the challenges I encounter with my clients is convincing them to include active systems in their design programs. This is usually due to upfront costs. The price impact can be minimized by smart design decisions. Knowing ahead of time what green options are available and which ones you’d like to incorporate will inform your budget early on and, if need be, help you plan the property with future installations in mind.

The benefits of composting

Composting is another great passive renewable option. I strongly encourage all my clients to include a composting system in their design program. Composting helps manage muck and removes harmful bacteria and other organisms to create natural fertilizer for paddocks. It also helps keep organic material that could produce harmful uncontrolled run-off out of landfills.

Sustainable barn design isn’t just about the green movement. It’s also about what’s healthiest and safest for your horses. Remember, horses were never meant to be inside. But if they’re going to be, then it’s important to create an environment as close as possible to what they would encounter in nature, using materials and techniques that at the same time don’t harm the very environment they come from.


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Award-winning architect John Blackburn is a world-renowned industry thought leader when it comes to creating safe and healthy spaces for equines. With over 40 years of experience in the practice of architecture and 30 years as an equestrian designer, John’s designs rely on natural light and ventilation to encourage equine health and safety as well as environmental conscientiousness. His equestrian projects range from polo barns and Thoroughbred-training facilities to therapeutic riding centers and private ranches. John authored the highly lauded book, Healthy Stables by Design. He is a passionate advocate for equine welfare and a member of many equine-focused organizations, including State Horse Councils in Maryland, New York and Virginia, and the Equine Land Conservation Resource, where he is a board member.