Sunday, September 14, 2008
Historic Routt County has been preserving the historic character and culture of Routt County for more than 10 years. During that time, it has completed nearly 100 ranch surveys, and it has assisted on ranch building rehabilitations and repairs. As HRC begins its second decade of operations and support of the ranching heritage of Routt County, it is endeavoring to do more education and outreach to the ranches and ranchers that so much define the character of this part of Colorado.
It is certainly understandable that some folks are put off by historic preservation. They have been told and have come to believe that it is too expensive and not practical to fix up an old building and that it is cheaper to build new. Moreover, historic preservation has gotten a reputation as being elitist.
Contrarily, The National Trust for Historic Preservation has partnered with Successful Farming magazine since 1987 to encourage rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of historic barns that once were thought to be doomed to be "preserved only in photographs and memories." Their mutual success (no pun intended) with real farmers and ranchers debunks this myth. Barn Again, now in its third decade, has effected the preservation of hundreds of historic barns, adapting them for "uses ranging from dairy, hog and cattle operations to machinery or grain storage."
In this day of green building, energy efficiency and recycling, preserving old barns is becoming increasingly preferable to demolition and construction of a new building. And preservation techniques have improved dramatically, making rehabilitation more cost-effective than new construction.
In fact, there are two simple but essential elements to the preservation of agricultural buildings, both of which are maintenance items. The first is a good, watertight roof. If water cannot get into a building, wood will stay dry and not rot. How many buildings do we see on the Routt County landscape with collapsed roofs or roofs with shingles or tin missing? Once the roof sheathing is exposed to the weather, the rafters get wet, rot and eventually fail. If one intervenes before the rot has a chance to advance, it is much like patching your blue jeans, but in this case you will get years more life, not just months.
The second element is drainage around the foundation. Building drainage is about directing rain and water to where it can do no harm. So often the ground around old agricultural structures settles, causing rain dripping from the roof and running down the walls to puddle around the foundation, soaking into the sill logs or boards. Or the ground actually builds up with organic matter throughout time and covers the sill logs, trapping moisture against the wood. Those old log buildings we see tilting or sagging to one side are suffering from rotting sills.
Removing dirt to a grade 6 inches to 1 foot below the wood sills and sloping the ground away from the foundation on all sides will preserve wood sills virtually forever. Sometimes it is necessary to install a swale on the uphill side of the building, in which case, the low point of the swale should be as far from the building as site conditions allow.
Water is the nemesis of wood, but it can be contained with proper maintenance and prevention. Ironically, buildings deteriorate from neglect, not overuse. In fact, the more a building is used, the more likely it is to be maintained. So finding new uses for old buildings is a key to their preservation.
Preserving our western and agricultural heritage comes forth again and again as a priority for Routt County residents. These old agricultural buildings help us "read" the agricultural landscape, adding to our understanding of our western heritage. This is one reason we all have a stake in the preservation of these buildings. Sometimes, it is just a matter of keeping a water-tight roof on a building and ensuring good drainage until a new use can be found.
In the coming months, Historic Routt County will be developing ways we all can get involved in preserving the buildings that define our landscape and supporting the ranchers who continue to provide us with the landscapes that distinguish our county. If you would like to get involved, or you have questions about your old agricultural buildings, call Historic Routt County at 875-1305 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Townsend H. Anderson is the executive director of Historic Routt County.