Build New or Remodel?

A structurally sound barn in a good location is a good candidate for remodeling and repurposing.

Are you wondering if it is worthwhile to remodel an existing building you have on your farm to make it more useful? The answer depends on many factors including the existing building location, condition, size, and proposed purpose of the remodeled building. When building a new barn you start with a clean slate. When remodeling you start with an existing building at a specific location and given characteristics, which may limit your options or require expensive changes.

The key to successful remodeling is making sure that the remodeled building provides useful space that fits your management plan and is easy to use.

Consider the cost

An old rule of thumb recommends building new if the remodeling costs exceed two-thirds of the cost of a new building. I recommend being very wary when remodeling costs begin to approach 50 percent of the cost of a new building.

The amount to spend on a remodeling project will depend on how useful the final space will be, how long the remodeled space can be used for its new purpose, and how easy the space is to work in. If a remodeled building will be used for many years and the space is very useful, more can be spent on the project. If the remodeled space doesn’t add to your operation and is hard to use, it is difficult to justify investing in it.

Thoughtful planning can ensure you end up with a space that is easy to work in and provides the environment animals and people need to do well. And that represents time and money well spent.

Plan accordingly

Remodeling and repurposing require just as much planning as new construction, if not more. In many cases, the project requires making tough decisions between what would be ideal, what is practical and available finances.

Before remodeling a building, consider its structural soundness and location. Location affects labor requirements, traffic patterns, ventilation, manure management and other activities.             Do not spend time and money on buildings in inconvenient, low or wet areas. Remodeled buildings that will house animals should meet the same expectations as a new barn. The space needs to have clean, dry and comfortable areas for the animals, plenty of fresh air and easy access to clean fresh feed and water. Remodeled buildings should also be easy to work in.

When planning a useful remodel, consider:

  • Animal movement into and out of the building
  • Bedding and manure handling
  • Ventilation in hot and cold weather
  • People access and labor efficiency
  • Feed preparation and handling
  • Water and electric availability
  • Equipment access
  • Animal stall or pen size

An unsolvable problem or expensive solution might make remodeling a bad option. Be careful when compromising on a remodeling project, especially if you plan to use the building for more than a few years.

Structural decisions

Structural soundness is a critical consideration. One time I visited with a producer interested in remodeling a 2-story block dairy barn on a slight slope. Unfortunately the barn had a large crack in the wall above a section of the foundation that had shifted because of erosion. The building was not structurally sound and repair costs were expected to make remodeling very expensive. I could not support remodeling the building.

Ceiling height

Ceiling height can pose challenges when remodeling. Old barns with eight-foot ceilings or less can make skid loader and other equipment access, ventilation and lighting difficult.

Low ceilings:

  • Require more hand labor for adding bedding and manure removal.
  • Make it hard to use a positive pressure tube system because the tubes hang too low.
  • Make it difficult to install lighting without the risk of damage from animals and equipment.

The ceiling in some two-story barns can be removed and replaced with structural members mounted higher to provide more height and maintain structural integrity. Floor removal will require a structural engineer to design the bracing needed to maintain the building’s integrity. Care must be taken to maintain structural integrity if new doorways are installed or load-bearing posts are moved during remodeling.


Proper ventilation is critical to providing an acceptable environment for animals housed in a remodeled building.

  • The ventilating system needs to distribute plenty of fresh air uniformly throughout the animal occupied areas without creating drafts.
  • Mechanically ventilated barns need adjustable inlets, exhaust fans and controllers.

Bottom line

Buildings can be successfully remodeled into useful spaces after careful planning and evaluation. Remodeling can breathe new life into an underutilized building. The key to a successful building remodel is good planning to ensure that the remodeled building will be labor efficient and provide a useful space.