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How to Build a Barndominium: Process, Steps, Options

If you are searching for a mixture of cost effectiveness and unique design, you have likely stumbled upon terms like barndominium, barndo, and steel barn. These are terms used to describe a structure that combines the simple design of a barn with the comfortability of a condominium. Barndominiums are a unique take on a farm house, metal building, and luxury living in one structure. 

Barndos have evolved from very simple structures to elaborately designed homes in just a few years. Originally popular in southern US states, barndos are a style of home construction designed to be simple, cost effective, and for the most part, low maintenance.

How Long Does it Take to Build a Barndominium?

Barndominiums often begin as a metal building or a kit, and can often be erected more quickly than a normal brick and mortar home. Barndo designs often incorporate building techniques found in commercial construction, where low maintenance and space are prioritized over luxury.

Source: DC Builders

The frame of a barndo can often be constructed quickly due to the use of machinery and steel components. In contrast to normal construction, barndominiums often employ steel posts and girders to erect the walls and roof, which are typically set with a crane. This process makes the framework of a barndo strong, and depending on the design, allows for more flexibility. 

A typical 2,000-square-foot barndo can often be constructed in about 80%-85% of the time required for a similar wood frame home. This is due, in part, to the time saved in the initial phase of construction. As mentioned earlier, cranes and other machinery are common on a barndo construction site. By constructing the outer shell of the structure quickly, a barndo will often look near completion before the interior structure has barely begun.

A typical barndo project can be move-in ready within a few months, however, this will depend on the interior design elements of each plan. Barndominiums are known for their unique designs, so finding two alike is not as easy as it may seem.

How to Build a Barndominium Step by Step

Building a barndo uses both unique and traditional building techniques to create a structure that is often both beautiful and low maintenance. Here we will describe the steps needed to build a typical barndominium and offer a few tips to make your experience building a barndo a pleasant one.

Step 1. Foundation

Barndominiums can be secured to the ground in a number of ways, but here we will describe the most common approaches. Probably the most common method is via posts that are secured to the ground with concrete. Holes are dug using a post hole digger to the appropriate depth, which is determined by the frost line in the region where it is located. Cardboard forms are then placed in the hole and the posts are then concreted into the form. Steel is much stronger than wood, so this design often lends itself to open floor plans by reducing the need for bearing walls.

Monolithic concrete slabs are also very common if the ground is fairly flat. This type of pad is usually poured in two thicknesses. The perimeter of the structure will bear the majority of the total weight, so this area, known as the footing, can be up to three times as thick as the rest of the pad.

Step 2. Framing

After the posts are set, the rest of the skeleton can be erected. This can be any combination of wood and metal framework, but a barndominium project will often employ steel beams, called girders. These are far too heavy to be set with manpower alone, so a crane is usually employed. The roof, walls, and foundation are tied together to form a very stable and durable structure.

The interior will usually be formed with wood lumber as this makes the installation of other components, such as insulation and drywall easier. Metal studs and tracks can be used as well, however this requires specialized knowledge and materials. Lumber is readily available, and craftsmen often have the most experience working with wood. 

Often the nature of the framework will reduce or eliminate bearing walls. This often allows for more design flexibility within the structure. For example, walls that are only holding up themselves are known as partition walls. These walls essentially separate the rooms more than hold up the roof. Wooden beams, known as laminated veneer lumber or LVL, are often used to span distances between partition walls to allow foot traffic to move more freely.

Source: DC Builders

Barndominium roofs are also usually installed as part of the framing process. This helps keep the interior relatively dry during construction. As barndo roofs are often a barn style metal roof, they require the same tools and skillset as needed for the framing. Installing the metal panels at this stage is also usually less expensive since the labor and tools are already on site.

The same applies to weather shielding, such as aluminum gutters and fascia caps. Vinyl windows and vinyl clad wooden windows are also commonly used to enhance the low maintenance exterior.

Step 3. Wiring, Plumbing, and HVAC

This stage of a barndominium build will essentially mirror that of a traditionally built home. All of the interior systems will be installed at this stage. If you are contracting the project yourself, you will usually want to call your contractors in order. For example, many builders will install the plumbing next, as for drain pipes to work they must be installed following set rules. 

By installing the plumbing at this stage, plenty of room is available for the required bends and angles. These days, most plumbers prefer to work with PEX, which is a plastic tubing designed to withstand extreme cold. PEX also comes in long spools, which greatly reduces the number of joints required. The reduced number of joints and flexibility of the tubing often mean water can flow from the water heater to a fixture in a single section, eliminating many potential leaks. Good builders will also install nail guards anywhere a nail or screw is long enough to penetrate a wire or pipe.

Electrical systems are usually next, because although wiring also follows a set of rules, the routing is more flexible. For example, it is much easier to route a wire around a pipe than it is to route a pipe around a wire. Good planning is crucial here, because certain wire gauges are required for the individual systems. For example, most homes use 15 amp circuits for the majority of the home. This is usually adequate for most rooms, however, it is important to plan the location of any component that may need a dedicated circuit, such as a jetted tub.

Step 4. Insulation

Some of the first barndominiums were built in the southern US where insulation is often optional. As barndos have become more popular, many have been built in colder regions, facilitating the need for insulation. Some local jurisdictions will have insulation building codes while others may not. 

Professionals will usually recommend using the International Residential Code as a guide. Barndominium wall thickness, for example, will vary from design to design, but finished walls will generally be about 4 ½” thick, especially on upper floors. These are built with 2” x 4” studs, which allow for R-13 fiberglass batting or spray foam insulation. Lower floors may use 2” x 6” studs, because they are stronger and can be placed further apart. In these walls, the typical thickness will be about 6 ½”, allowing for R-19 fiberglass batting insulation.

Step 5. Drywall, Paint, and Flooring

After all of the systems have been tested and passed inspection, wall covering is usually next. This is often drywall, but barndos tend to have a country feel. It is not uncommon for a barndo owner to incorporate tongue and groove paneling, stone work, or even rough sawn logs into the design. After the wall coverings are installed, professionals will usually paint next, using a sprayer. Sprayers make the job very fast, especially if multiple coats are needed. In most situations, flooring is installed last, followed by any trim.

How to Build a Barndominium on a Budget

Barndominiums tend to be unique structures, so nailing down an average cost can be tough. However, most barndos cost around $100.00 per square foot, which is often 10%-15% less than a comparable traditionally built home. This is due in part to the basic design and the use of cranes and other machinery. Here are a few tips to consider if you want to build your barndo on a budget:

  • Plan for future expansion. Some first time barndo builders take advantage of the basic nature of the design and build a modest structure first. Since barndominiums tend to be simple, adding space later tends to be easier, especially if planned in advance. This allows the homeowner to build additional space when funding may be easier to obtain.
  • Buy your materials from the same vendor. This rule applies to most purchases, but especially when building a barndo. Having the components you need when you need them is vitally important. By scheduling your material deliveries with a vendor that understands barndo construction, you can often get a deal on the entire materials package. 
  • Do some or all of the work yourself. If you have the experience, designing and building your own barndo can be a rewarding experience. However, great care should be taken to know your limitations. Hire professionals if your experience is lacking. A common first timer mistake is to try to save money by doing a job he or she is ill prepared to do. This often results in wasted materials and having to do the job twice. A better method is to shadow the professionals and learn from them.

How to Build a Barndominium to Be More Energy-Efficient

If you have done much research on barndominiums, you have probably discovered the concerns past builders have had with energy efficiency. More often than not, the issues lie with the design more than the construction. For example, in normal residential construction, a “thermal envelope” is created. A thermal envelope is just a fancy term for the space meant to be heated and cooled. Materials such as fiberglass batting, expanding spray foam, house wrap and thermal tape all combine to seal drafts and retard thermal transfer from one space to another. Barndominiums will utilize the same insulation methods to form a thermal envelope, and may employ multiple heating methods.

Source: DC Builders

As with most residential construction projects, a heat pump or furnace will usually be the primary heating and cooling source in a barndo. However, since barndos tend to rest on a concrete slab, some builders take advantage and install radiant floor heating as well. Heating and cooling a barndo really comes down to the efficiency of the HVAC system, and how well the thermal envelope is contained.

Alternative Bardominium Building Options

Barndominiums can be built by a licensed contractor, a remodeler, or even a do-it-yourselfer. Since barndos are often erected by machinery, the process tends to be quick and efficient. Here we will briefly discuss the typical options available and offer a few tips to use when working with a professional builder.

Hiring a Builder

  • Have your licensed contractor apply for the permit, if one is required. In most jurisdictions, the individual applying for the permit will be responsible for passing any inspections. Usually, this is only allowed by a licensed contractor with all the appropriate insurance coverage, or the homeowner. Unless you have vast construction experience and a full understanding of construction techniques, you may not catch an expensive mistake. By requiring the builder to take responsibility for the quality of the construction, you create a solid footing for yourself should a problem arise.
  • Communicate often. If you plan to hire a professional to do some or all of the construction, it is useful to understand how they work. Professionals like to be efficient, so if a contractor has a question and can’t reach you in a timely manner it can be frustrating for everyone. A great way to avoid communication problems is to establish a window of time each day to communicate with your contractor. That way you are discussing the events of the next workday on a regular basis instead of playing phone tag all day.
  • Minimize Changes. The best way to work with a builder is to set reasonable expectations on both sides and ensure that mistakes and changes do not derail the project. For example, as a homeowner, you want to minimize any drastic changes from the plan. Small change orders are common, because sometimes it is easier to envision a design after the walls are up. Good professionals will expect these and advise accordingly if the changes will greatly affect the price and/or deadline. The last thing you want to do is run out of money before the project is finished.
  • Keep Your Finances Stable. As mentioned, one of the most problematic issues homeowners face is running out of money before the project is completed. Your builder will usually ask for a draw, which is a lump sum of money meant to finance the next stage of construction. Your builder will discuss this in detail before the project begins to give you a sense of what you will need and when. In most cases, a builder will cease activity unless a funding arrangement is made, so to keep the process rolling, have adequate resources available.

How Do I Find a Good Barndominium Builder?

Finding a good builder can be a challenge, but there are a few ways to increase your chances. There are organizations devoted to barndominiums and many have a list of contractors with barndo building experience. As a homeowner, finding a builder with experience can make all the difference, especially if the design is complex.

Another way is through referral. It is always a good idea to gather as much info as possible, and that includes speaking to past owners. Many are thrilled to recommend their builder, while others may suggest someone else. The rule of thumb is to make a list (3-5) of potential builders and interview them. If they seem apprehensive, or strongly suggest a different design, you’ll probably want to keep looking.

Source: DC Builders

Taking the highest bid in an attempt to find the highest quality is often a poor decision as well. This is because some over extended builders will place a high bid in the off chance their proposal gets accepted. Generally speaking, you’ll want to select a builder whose bid is somewhere near the middle. A low bid usually means a bad time, so it’s a good idea to avoid a builder who promises a great deal more for less money.

Finding a builder with barndo projects in various levels of completion is also a good idea. Since barndos vary widely in design, an experienced builder will be able to offer suggestions based on your particular lot. You will benefit from using a builder who has previously encountered and solved a variety of common problems, such as lot drainage. Many of these builders will have been in the construction business for many years and can often suggest changes that will prevent future problems. If your builder has projects in various stages of completion, you can visit these sites and gain insight to the process and witness how the builder solves problems before they happen.

Building Your Barndominium From a Kit

For the typical do-it-yourselfer, a barndo kit can make building your own barndo much simpler. There are as many kits as there are designs, but most kits will address one or more stages of construction. 

For example, an inexpensive kit will usually include the larger components all cut to size, but may not include items such as windows and doors. Other, more elaborate kits will provide essentially everything you need based on a particular plan. These plans can be modified, but you’ll generally want a kit as close as possible to the design you have selected. Since barndos tend to be self-supporting, kits can sometimes be used to establish a floor plan, while allowing for some amount of customization. 

For those building their first home, a kit can make everything from ordering the right materials to making cuts much easier. Obviously, a pre-formed kit will add some expense, but the time and materials saved by avoiding mistakes in the initial phases of construction will usually offset the extra cost.

Building your own home can be an amazing experience. The very nature of a barndominium allows for design creativity while providing a simple, durable home. Barndos tend to hold their value, which makes building your own not only satisfying, but often a smart investment. If you are interested in a comfortable, customizable home building project, you may find no better solution than a barndominium.

Title image: mortonbuildings.com

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