Old barns are good business


James Wamser, a foreman with Barn Cats, works on a carriage house in Sparta. Photo by Pete Daly

When a big spring windstorm swept through Sparta in April, it toppled trees all over town, including some large white pines that smashed a huge hole in the roof of Don and Evelyn Champney’s 1890s-era carriage house.

Don Champney spoke to his insurance company about the damage and was told he might have to tear down the carriage house, which had been built to match the historic home he and his wife live in. The original owner was a prominent man in Sparta, and the carriage house housed his family’s horse and carriage.

When he heard the words “tear down,” Champney didn’t like it.

“I said, ‘Oh, no!’” he recalls.

But Evelyn Champney heard about Barn Cats, and the Greenville-based company got the job to repair the carriage house and return it to its original appearance.

Barn Cats is among more than two dozen contractors listed on the Michigan Barn Preservation Network website.

Tim Wiles is the owner of Howell’s Timbers & Pillars Construction, which he started about 10 years ago. He is also the president of the MBPN, a nonprofit based in Mt. Pleasant with about 250 members — people who love old barns and have either a personal or professional interest in saving them.

Some barns are restored where they stand, while others are dismantled and the salvageable parts moved to a location where they are rebuilt, or the beams and boards may be used in construction of new homes.

Like Wiles, Randy Mouw, the owner of Barn Cats, does both reconstruction and salvaging of old barns, and is now working on construction of three homes that will incorporate wood from old barns.

Restoration of a small 36-by-45-foot barn can cost from $25,000 to $50,000, depending on what the owner wants to use it for, according to Mouw. Some people such as artists or musicians like to turn them into studios, while others plan to use them for public events or for a business. Some just want their ailing barns restored for their beauty and for the benefit of future generations.

A couple from California who are nearing retirement hired Timbers & Pillars to dismantle an old barn, salvaging the beams and boards for use in a new home they are planning on Old Mission Peninsula on Grand Traverse Bay. The barn was near Ann Arbor and in need of a new roof, but the owner didn’t want to go to that expense. However, “he didn’t want to see it go to waste,” said Wiles, so the frame and boards are destined for a new life as structural accents in a high-end home.

At least two companies in the Grand Rapids area are making furniture out of salvaged barn wood, including Fence Row Furniture in Marne.

The actual monetary value of salvaged barn wood is usually reduced by the cost of dismantling the barn. It is “hard, dangerous and dirty” work, according to Mouw. Some barn beams are very large and cumbersome and can weigh several hundred pounds, so taking an old barn down safely requires a great deal of experience and skill — and liability insurance.

Wiles said his company tries to find old barns that need to be either repaired or torn down. Once a barn begins to lose parts of the roof or walls, wind and rain can accelerate its demise. Repair or removal can be expensive propositions, but a barn that is in danger of falling down can be a distinct liability, so owners often are willing to allow contractors to remove it at no charge. But first the contractor tries to find someone who is interested in having it dismantled, moved and restored — or at least interested in having the material salvaged for a new project.

Michigan, like many other states, is losing its historic barns at a rate discouraging to those who are interested in them for their historic and aesthetic value. Michigan State University used to maintain a survey of the state’s old barns but that work ended when its grant expired. Now the MBPN is doing the survey and always looking for people or groups interested in volunteering to help.

Randy Mouw started Barn Cats about 10 years ago, but said he has been “doing barns on and off about 40 years.” A Grand Haven native, he later moved with his parents to East Lansing. When he was 17, he bought a piece of property in the Lansing area that had a barn on it and restored it, learning by trial and error. Around that time he also started an excavating business, developing home sites for subdivisions. Although he attended MSU to study landscape architecture and construction engineering, he didn’t complete his degree because “my business was too busy.”

Prior to the Great Recession, Barn Cats employed up to 50 or so, but demand dropped dramatically along with the economy and the Barn Cats workforce was cut almost in half. Today, Mouw’s employee roster numbers in the high 20s, split into 13 two-person teams, each working on a project. Mouw said Barn Cats is usually working on about 15 to 20 barns at any given time.

The oldest barn Barn Cats has restored — in northern Kent County on Ramsdell Road — dates to 1846.

This summer, Timbers & Pillars is repairing two barns on a site north of Pontiac. The barns are connected, which makes the job even trickier. The structures date to 1858.

Another West Michigan barn restoration and salvage firm listed as a contractor on the MBPN website is Barn Baron Lumber Co. in Cascade, which was founded by Jeremy and Rebecca Beadner. The Beadners sell reclaimed barn wood that has been used in many new homes.

The MBPN website, mibarn.net, offers detailed advice on working with a contractor to restore a barn and has information on Michigan tax credits for restoration of certain historic barns. The tax credit can be worth 10 percent of the qualified costs of the project, and in some cases, 20 percent.

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